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on 15 June 2017
I struggled with this book but it was good to be challenged. Armstrong's premise is that there are millions of people who don't want anything to do with God. I can't agree. Most of us have an innate sense of spirituality, but that may or may not draw us to the traditional churches or faiths. I don't think most people have rejected God, but many struggle with the false notions of God presented by people in faith institutions who wish to judge or exclude. I'm writing as a Christian who longs to see the Church embrace everyone without judgement and without conditions - to love as Jesus did (cf. Luke 19: 1-10 - the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus).
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on 21 June 2010
A most comprehensive, erudite, penetrating and inspirational account of the essence of religion and its history. A truly remarkable achievement by the most gifted contemporary religious affairs commentator. A real treasure.
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on 27 September 2012
Having read Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and enjoyed it, I knew I would have to read this book at some point to get the other side of the story. I was absolutely blown away. Please excuse the lack of scholarship in my review, but I can only urge you all to read Karen Armstrong's book, and then some more by her. I have now also read "The Bible The Biography" and am currently immersed in "A History of God", which is quite terrific. Reverting to "The Case for God" for a moment, I have to say that the subtitle is quite excellent - "What Religion Really Means". I see now that this is something you won't learn from Richard Dawkins or any of his fellow horsemen of the apocalypse. I speak as an apostate from Protestant Christianity into Dawkinsite atheism. Thanks to Karen A I now realise that neither as a Christian nor as an atheist have I ever understood what it is to be religious. Key among Karen's observations are:

(1) Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians have know for the past 6 centuries that God doesn't exist.
(2) God is hard work. If you examine the root of the word believe (Latin credo), it has nothing to do with an intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but a disciplined struggle to achieve wholeness and wisdom.
(3) Karen A is quite happy to learn from thoughtful atheists such as Julian Baggini, but R Dawkins and others have such a primitive grasp of theology that their contributions are of little merit. Dawkins and his critics are arguing about the same very limited version of religion and so are indistinguishable to a scholar like Karen.

Sorry, I am going on about Richard Dawkins all the time, when the whole point is to wean myself off popular atheism for a bit. Karen starts her book talking about "logos" and "mythos" as two distinct paths to truth. As post 18th Century Enlightenment human beings in the scientific age we are used to "logos" or, loosely speaking, reason. We take it for granted that the scientific method yields truth. The idea that "mythos", which encompasses story telling and an artistic/ritualised re-enactment of important moral experience, should also lead to truth is an initially very strange idea. As is the idea that such truth can only be grasped intuitively. Words and pictures can point the way, but they are not the thing itself. If we want to get something out of religious texts, then we need to approach them as did pre 18th Century Enlightenment Christians, that is we need to discover and create our own meanings. Religion changes and adapts and that's how it manages to keep going. The premise of religion is surely right, that human experience can be unbearable and needs healing.

I'd better stop before I reveal too many shortcomings as a new theologian. Suffice it to say that you should read this book, from whatever persuasion you come, if you want to find out new things about religious experience. You are in safe hands. Karen Armstrong is a wonderful scholar, at once knowledgeable and profound, but also witty and generous hearted. A few years ago at Amman airport I noticed that one English writer had four books in the bookshop. The author was Karen Armstrong. That was an earlier inking that her books might just be worth reading. I understand that, among her other achievements, she is the only theologian coming from a Christian perspective who is well liked and trusted in the scholarly Jewish and Muslim communities.
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on 7 October 2009
In this book Karen Armstrong takes a calm and measured look at religion from the Palaeolithic era to the God debate of the 21st century, continuing some of the themes in her previous work on The Great Transformation (2006) and The Bible, The Biography (2007).
Her key argument is that humankind has always used mythos (religion) and logos (the logical exploration of the world) as allies in dealing with the challenges of life. Since 1500 logos has progressively taken over, delivered modernity, and demanded that religion should be subject to the same "scientific" laws as the rest of human experience.
Obviously the atheist attack by Dawkins, Hitchens and others on "the god delusion" is the latest instalment of a long debate. Armstrong contends that they set up Christian fundamentalism as an easy target, and they dismiss it without addressing mainstream theology, which has long come to terms with scientific thought and evolutionary theory.
She reminds us that God has always been a contested idea, and atheism is as old as religion. Her own preference is for a mystical, non-institutional form of religion - the Sufis in Islam, yogic Hinduism and Denys The Areopagite in medieval Christianity. They represent the "apophatic" (silent. mystical) approach to the supreme being/God/the infinite. Their theology is not easy - religion is hard work.
There is no "killer app" which tells us what religion means, just as there is no answer to the "does God exist?" question. But Armstrong steers us with assurance through the ways that humankind have tried to find meaning and purpose in their lives. She is a truly scholarly, humane and intelligent guide through the religious arguments of three millennia.
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on 5 September 2012
UPDATED, 01 Oct, after finishing the book:

Karen Armstrong's writing is structured and readable throughout. She's illustrated how counter-productive it is to try and treat religion and God as essentially knowable, fixed, literal concepts. She explains how (to her at least) God is what happens when we experience the boundary of what language can express, in the same way that we sometimes experience other wordless arts like music or dance or painting. God to her is not something to be merely believed in, it's something to practise and experience. And, atheist though I am, I find myself sympathetic to her cause. If religion is *for* anything, then I think it should be this kind of meditative practice insofar as it promotes mental wellbeing.

Here is my main problem with this book - it's all based on Karen Armstrong's opinion of what God is and isn't. She's considered the experiences of meditation, pondering philosophical paradoxes, or otherwise achieving altered states of mind and apparently jumped to the conclusion that these things should be called "God". The two obvious problems with making this leap are:

(1) why does this even require a supernatural explanation and a misleading supernatural name such as "God"? You could just as easily point out (as Sam Harris would) that there is no need to invoke the supernatural to explain this. At no point does Armstrong ever explain why a "transcendent" experience is worthy of being called "God" or "divine".

(2) there have undoubtedly been millions upon millions of people throughout history who *didn't* have such a loose concept of God and have explicitly conducted their lives based on a more literal interpretation of scripture. While I can completely sympathise with her campaign against literalist religion, she has failed to convince me that the non-literal apophatic religion she is arguing for has been anywhere near as mainstream as she argues.

This leads onto a related point: Armstrong never tells us what religion should positively be like in her opinion. This book is all about what religion and the idea of God should *not* be like. The furthest we get is that she approves of apophatic religious practice, but this itself apparently involves reaching a state of mysterious unknowing, and then simply saying "That was deeply mysterious, it must be God". One big question this book leaves me with is this: given that the author is so committed to the idea of God and religion, and is rightly appalled by fundamentalist, literalist readings of scripture, exactly how would she advise me to actually practise religion?.

I find it ironic to note that Armstrong's views in practice don't seem very far off those of Sam Harris, whom she very clearly misrepresents at one point. Harris has openly discussed meditation and achieving what we might call "spiritual" experiences or "transcendent" states of mind, and has advocated it.

A final, rather serious flaw of this book is misrepresentation of scientists' work during the later sections of the book, including a gross misunderstanding of the very nature of scientific inquiry, viz:

* She summarises James Clerk Maxwell's contribution to science as discovering that a signal can arrive before it was sent. I am pretty convinced this is not what Maxwell discovered in any meaningful sense, and it is not a consequence of Maxwell's Equations as far as I can see. If anyone can actually explain to me what Armstrong is talking about here, please comment and tell me!
* She essentially says that Einstein took quantum theory and developed it to propose his theories of relativity. I suspect that she has simply confused the fact that Einstein contributed to the early development of quantum mechanics (e.g. explaining the photoelectric effect, proposing wave-particle duality) but also, more or less separately, formulated his theories of relativity. Again, any enlightenment as to what Armstrong really means here would be very welcome.
* Her overall conclusion that any initial scientific hypothesis involves a 'leap of faith' just like a religious leap of faith is just ridiculous. The difference is obvious: in science, sure, the initial hypothesis is just a hunch, but it then gets tested. And if it the results don't fit, you have to either re-work or completely ditch the hypothesis. And then just to top it off, Armstrong seems to be taking science to task for having the impertinence to change as newer, better theories are confirmed. She seems to approve of science's "leaps of faith" but then gets annoyed when science changes too much. Which way does she want it?

So, in summary: this book was fairly interesting as a history of apophatic religion as opposed to literalist religion. But that's where its real interest stops. Not only are we lacking any kind of "Case for God" in this book, as many other reviewers have noted, we're even lacking any substantial positive conclusion or recommendation. So it's difficult to see why you should buy this book instead of say, Armstrong's History Of God, which I haven't read, but which at least is reported to be a better history book.
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on 3 August 2009
When I heard that Karen Armstrong was writing a book called `the Case for God' I thought it might well prove to be one of the most important books on religion published for many years. Unfortunately, having now read it, I doubt that it will prove as ground-breaking as I had hoped. The reason for this, paradoxically, comes back to a point Karen well recognises - that the concept of God is so abstruse that people throughout history have found it incomprehensible and too remote from their everyday lives to have any real meaning. Instead they have latched on to more simplistic ideas of God that might meet some immediate psychological needs but which are so shot full of contradictions as to be almost laughable to serious rational thinkers. Karen charts in lucid detail how this transformation in thinking has taken place and how theologians have struggled to put the genie back in the bottle, but it is doubtful that unsophisticated religious people will read her book, let alone understand it and assent to it. Her scholarship and erudition, impressive though they are, might in this case just be barriers to comprehension for many people. This would be a pity, as her overall message is actually quite simple - that the way for people to find meaning, hope and happiness in their lives is through their deeds and actions, to `live generously, large-heartedly and justly and to inhabit every single part of their humanity'. It would be a shame if this essentially humanist message got lost in the noise.
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I remember watching a young-ish Karen Armstrong on the pulpit (channel 4 filmed it in a church) arguing that because of the holocaust, there was no God. Amongst the panel, a rabbi sat watching Armstrong hitting her fist on the wood!

A decade later, it seems Armstrong read the Koran and found God. You go girl!
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on 24 August 2009
A brilliantly refreshing, readable and clear run-through of the history of religion and mysticism, mostly Christianity, and looking more at the writings of scholars rather than the experience of the laity. Armstrong doesn't really make a case for God (as in the existence of God) but rather a case for the argument that we cannot know anything about God. She clearly explains why any attempt to understand God intellectually, or to define "him", is pointless and tends to lead to idolatry. Her argument is that seeking to define the nature of God is largely a product of the scientific age, but her evidence for a more uncertain approach to God being typical previously comes from the writings of certain Greek and early Christian mystics, which she paints as typical of their times, rather than unusual - something I'm not in a position to verify.

Importantly, she argues that religion is a matter of practice not "belief" (a word that now means an acceptance of something as fact, but which in the past had the connotation more of commitment, like love), and that where it is entered into, it is best done with the understanding that it is not based on any knowledge of God's nature.

This book could be seen as an argument for mysticism, but there is no attempt at conversion here. The book doesn't itself suggest why someone not already on a religious path should follow one. Religious practice might be rewarding, but no one could be expected to know that until they were well on it, after much hard work they could otherwise have avoided. My reading of the book is that those disposed to religious practice (by circumstances, upbringing or genetics) should follow the one that best suits them, but on the understanding that the choice of practice itself is of little consequence, as long as it is entered into without any belief in its factual superiority. Meanwhile, those not so disposed to do so, should not be expected to. In the end, it is an erudite plea for a greater acceptance of the state of Unknowing. Whether such a plea will find many listeners in an age where factual knowledge and certainty are held in such high regard remains to be seen.
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Karen Armstrong argues - with her usual elegance, eloquence and breadth of knowledge - her familiar case: that the true meaning of religion is mythos and not logos, and cannot be understood if analyzed in terms of logos. Mythos, she maintains, was the universally prevailing way in which people approached religion, before the rise of science in early modern history brought about the fatal change that made people look for logos in religious statements.

In the pre-scientific period - which goes all the way back to the Stone Age - she says that worshippers did not, and were not intended to, take their myths literally, but rather as symbolical expressions of human experience. We certainly regard them as such today, and it accounts for the spell they continue to exert down the ages. But it is extremely difficult, I think, to be sure that they were not ALSO taken literally during the times for which we have no written texts (as in the case of the Stone Age). When we come to the time when surviving texts do become relatively plentiful, there are indeed sages in several of the great religious or quasi-religious texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam - who do say that it is impossible to pin down the transcendental nature of spiritual experience; but these are the writings precisely of sages, and I think one cannot assume that their teachings, difficult as they are, really affected the millions of worshippers to the extent that one can confidently say that they did not take the myths literally. She rightly points out that spiritual life requires a lot of training (again, rightly, training of practice rather than of theory), which would again suggest that perhaps only a minority could live, as the Buddha put it, `skilfully' or `helpfully'. And even among the teachers of the élite, there were frequently influential exponents of `unskilful' attitudes. In short, I cannot think that in religious practices of the pre-scientific period there was not a great deal of taking the myths literally, and therefore, then as now, quite a lot of what is more accurately described as superstition rather than as spirituality. And though some superstitions derive their strength from being ALSO symbolic of some fear or hope within us, the literal belief in them does at best invite compassionate understanding and at worst ridicule.

Undoubtedly one way in which ordinary people can have `transcendental' experiences is through rituals which not only free them from logos but also from the considerations of ordinary life, taking them `out of themselves' (or perhaps deeply `into themselves').

Karen Armstrong says that originally Judaism, Christianity and Islam did not impose any faith, belief or creed. They urged orthopraxy (certain ways of behaviour which those who strenuously followed them would find putting them in touch with spiritual experiences) and not orthodoxy (the requirement to assent to doctrinal teaching). Specifically, what early Christianity asked for was `pistis', the original Greek word meaning `commitment', and which was then translated by Jerome into Latin as `fides' which originally meant `loyalty', but later came to be translated as `faith'. He translated the verb `pisteuo' (`I commit myself') into `credo', which originally meant `I give my heart' (`cor do') and was in turn translated into `I believe', when in Middle English `bileven' meant `to hold dear' (cf. `beloved'). Unfortunately Christendom then took a wrong turning at the time of the Council of Nicaea, which did formulate a Creed in the modern sense, requiring Christians to assent to doctrinal teaching. Even then, however, many theologians stressed that you cannot SAY anything about God: you can only have a true religious EXPERIENCE by practising certain difficult mental processes. And even those medieval theologians (like Aquinas) who claimed that the `existence' of God could be demonstrated by Reason stressed that we cannot grasp His nature or His attributes.

The invention of printing (together with the new disciplines of science) to some extent destroyed power of mythos: the printed word was explicated in a way in which the transcendent Word had not been. Catholics and the Protestant sects increasingly relied on catechisms, pinning their followers down to `creeds' in the modern sense. (Armstrong completely ignored this phenomenon and the consequent persecution of `heretics' in the pre-modern period. I feel that in the first half of the book, she places rather selective emphasis on those approaches to religion which she shares, and makes them perhaps more representative of pre-modern times than they really are.)

In the second half of the book, (except for the last two chapters which are less "run of the mill") she traverses ground which many other books, including her own earlier "A History of God", have made very familiar: how early scientists used science to `prove' that there was a God, and how later scientists used science as a weapon against religion; and she considers the role of Biblical Criticism. She looks at the Evangelical reaction against this (paying more attention to the United States than most European books on religion do). Finally the later Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Tillich and others restored the notion that religious language and scientific language are two quite different things: we do not find God by talking about him, but by finding the transcendental and inexpressible, indeed the Unknowable, in our inner being, in what Pascal had described as "that God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person which can never be filled by any created thing" (including a God created in Man's image).

Once again, this is a difficult thing to do; and though today there is still a lot around of what Karen Armstrong considers a false approach to the Divine, for a growing number of people a major alternative is to make no approach at all, with the question mark of her last chapter heading - The Death of God? - omitted.
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on 5 February 2015
Full of facts and I was getting lost in the trees so could not always see the wood i.e. God is totally knowledgeable and all language about the Infinite is 'mythos' and religion goes astray when it tries to become a science as it did in the 18th century onwards. A fascinating read and 'unputdownable', if you are interested in the history of religious ideas. It makes a wonderful fresh air change from watching Chritopher Hitchens's rants.
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