Monday, September 29, 2014

war, HUH, good god, y'all, what is it good for

I was anticipating a bit of cathartic shouting at the radio this morning once it was announced that one of the guests on Start The Week would be Karen Armstrong, former nun and author of many books on many religious topics. Neither of those is a source of annoyance per se (though neither are life choices that I would have made), rather, the annoyance comes when trying to tie down what Armstrong's own religious beliefs actually are, a process very much like trying to grasp smoke. Here are a couple of example quotes:
'God' is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.
I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's about what you do. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.
As an alternative approach, try reading the first few pages of The Case For God via the Amazon preview facility; if you can get to the end of page three without bellowing SAY SOMETHING MEANING ANYTHING and plunging pencils into your eyes then your mellowness exceeds my own.

So I was expecting some weapons-grade bullshit of that nature - as it happens, though, Armstrong was on the programme to plug her latest book which, as far as I can tell, seeks to absolve religion from the claim that it's the root cause of most of the world's wars. Just to be clear, there was still a bit of shouting, since while I agree that it's always a bit more complicated than that, I don't think that entirely lets religion off the hook.

You can certainly argue that basic "human nature", inasmuch as there is such a thing, plays a part. So certainly there are aspects of social behaviour that have developed to increase in-group cohesiveness and loyalty (for instance, a repository of shared ritual and myth such as that provided by religion) that have the side effect of making people view "outsiders" as strange and scary, if not actively malevolent. So you can try and get religion off the hook by saying that it's just an aspect of something more general, something you might call "tribalism" or something like that.

The problem with that, even if you buy it, is that religion does a whole bunch of other stuff as well, and one of those things is to make a whole bunch of (patently false) claims about the gloriousness of the life to come after this one. As soon as you view death as not an ending but merely the gateway from this vale of tears to a glorious eternal bliss with all the ambrosia and virgins you can eat, it makes talking yourself into easing the passage of others (and perhaps yourself) through that gateway all the easier.

I didn't hear Tom Sutcliffe making that particular point, but he did do an excellent job of holding Armstrong's feet to the fire over one of her central claims, which is that there is a significant group of people who hold to the thesis that Armstrong is arguing against in the book, i.e. that religion is the sole (or at least principal) cause of all the world's wars. When challenged to name some of these fundamentalist atheist straw men, the best Armstrong could manage was "a taxi driver I once met", which is pretty piss-poor.

Needless to say the question "yes, but is any of it true?" (i.e. in terms of the central claims made by religions) didn't come up during the section of the programme I listened to, and I'd be pretty confident that it didn't come up at all. As far as I can gather Armstrong takes the Terry Eagleton view on such questions, i.e. that they are a hopelessly gauche attempt to apply science-y concepts like "evidence" to things which transcend the use of such blunt instruments. Or, to put it another way, a great lumpy splattery fusillade of bullshit.

Lastly, a note on pronunciation: throughout, Tom Sutcliffe pronounced "Karen" as if it were the name of the ferryman of the dead from Greek mythology, sort of like the word "caring" but without the last letter. Most of the other guests just pronounced "Karen" like normal people do, so now I'm unsure whether Karen Armstrong pronounces her given name in a strange way, which Tom Sutcliffe was just politely adhering to, or if he just generally pronounces "Karen" that way. Bit strange, either way.

No comments: