The case for religion

Karen Armstrong’s book takes faith back to basics

Contrary to what her book’s title might suggest, Karen Armstrong does not provide an argument for the necessity of religion or the existence of God. Instead, in The Case for God, she traces a complex history of religion through time to explore its role and the means by which it was practiced. Amstrong begins with the earliest worship of Mother Earth and the Animal Master, moving to the origins of scriptures and later, organized and unified religions. She discusses how the idea of religious skepticism arose in the face of tragedies such as the Holocaust, spawning present-day debates about God’s existence. There is extensive discussion of several religions, and not only the major monotheistic ones; Armstrong also discusses Paganism, Hellenism, and Buddhism, among others. But for all its historical breadth, this book is tied together by one central message, making it easy to follow what would otherwise be a mere historical account of various religious approaches interspersed with esoteric vocabulary.

Armstrong bases her discussion in the human tendency toward religion that led to the development of myths and mythical beings as early as the Stone Age. But she says that our current understanding of religion has deviated from these roots: we are no longer “willing to make the effort” that true religious experience necessitates. We no longer look at scripture as text to be interpreted and reinterpreted, tailoring it to provide guidance in our everyday lives. Instead, we look to religion and religious texts as an easy means of acquiring empirical knowledge. The desire to dissect religious texts in search of concrete answers is a modern phenomenon. So too, therefore, is the rejection of those concrete answers by today’s more militant atheists. Armstrong berates not only those who take religion too literally, but also those atheists who reject all that religion represents based solely on this factual approach to religion. She stresses that if religious texts were viewed today as they are meant to be viewed – as parables, and not as factual account – there would be no divisive conflict regarding God’s existence.

In today’s society, where speaking about religion in public is almost taboo for fear of offending or causing argument, this concept offers a fresh angle on the God debate. Armstrong does a good job of presenting it, as she defines key words like “belief,” “atheism,” and “faith”. She notes that the definitions of these words have evolved over time, and her attempt to question our current perception of these meanings provides a fresh view of the approach to religion as a concept. Armstrong tells us that religion, in its purest form, is not about belief as we define it today – a blind faith in a tradition that we take to be reality – but about the experience. Religion is not meant to be realistic, or to be believed, Armstrong argues. Rather, it is meant for people to experience things that “are not explainable or logical.” Believers must actively involve themselves in their faith, she says.

The Case for God has a misleading title. Fortunately, this is its only negative feature. Throughout the book, Armstrong criticizes humanity’s progressive divergence from the pure concept of religion. She does not attempt, as the title might suggest, to prove or disprove the existence of God, but rather, to prove that there is no real need to know whether God exists. Though Armstrong does not really present a case for God in the expected manner, she does present a compelling case for a return to faith as it was classically defined. Framing religion as a matter of dogma and reason does not do it justice, Armstrong maintains; she proposes a return to the ancient approach to religion – emphasizing trust and connectedness rather than the pursuit of empirical correctness.