by Karen Armstrong; Anchor, 2010; $16.95; 432 pages
Karen Armstrong is known for her excellent, even-handed books on religious matters, and The Case For God is her best work yet, focusing mainly on the Christian religion. Almost everyone reading it will find evidence to bolster their beliefs, and faults revealed with them as well. But if they’re honest and open-minded, they’ll also find a lot of things to think about.
Opening with an exploration of some of the earliest religious beliefs and rites, Armstrong points out immediately that religion from the start was not meant to have the answers to everything. People of all religions, from Buddhism to Greek gods to Judaism and more, always said the ultimate identity and idea of God could not be understood intellectually, only imperfectly and individually. To understand their gods in terms humans can comprehend, humans must make their gods into nothing more or less than a human ideal — the stereotypical bearded chap in the sky. And in doing so, they cheapen the god into an idol, something imperfectly understood yet followed blindly.
From this, it’s a short jump to the fundamentalist ideal, where everything is meant to be taken literally and explicitly. Again, Armstrong points out that most religions always said the Bible was not meant to be literal in most cases, bringing up several cases where intellectuals argued against literalism yet were respected as biblical scholars. While doing this, she also punctures several myths about various historical figures and explores a lot of religious history in an easy-to-read fashion that helps us understand how we’ve come to where we are today.
Atheists aren’t spared either — while Armstrong makes no ultimate claim of religious truth, she does point out that most to all of the strident atheists attack the easy targets, the hard-line fundamentalists, in a fashion that is often as hard-line and exclusionary as the groups they target and condemn for that very attitude. She also shows that there are some new movements to trying to get religion closer to how it started.
Filled with information and revelations, this is a wonderful, revealing book.
Brian Robinson is a member of Organized Anarchists.