Just got back from an afternoon discussing Karen Armstrong with a group of religious liberals (Unitarians and Quakers particularly). It was a great meeting, with interesting people and it made me think hard about questions I hadn’t dwelt on in those terms before.
The first part of the session was a talk Karen gave. Now, I’ve never been able to really like Karen’s writing. I know I should. I basically agree with lots of what she says, and with almost all of the consequences of her opinions. But she somehow rubs me up the wrong way.
Today was a great example. We watched this TED talk. And it struck me what she was doing, and what lots of liberal religious folks appreciate about her.
She is saying that large numbers of religious people are wrong. They don’t understand their own religion. They think it is about this or that, but actually it isn’t. Karen knows what their religion is *really* about (The Golden Rule, as it happens), and she can cherry-pick the quotes to prove it (using Augustine to talk about religious inclusiveness particularly is somewhat shameless!). If you happen to be a Christian thinking that the purpose of your religion is to bring people into personal devotion to Christ to share in his redeeming sacrifice to avoid them being condemned to hell by their own sinful nature; well, you’re wrong. The real purpose is to increase your compassion, because in doing so you see that God is really a sense of transcendence that results from the most noble humanistic connections.
And, crucially, because those religionists are wrong (i.e. they don’t merely have a different understanding, they have a wrong understanding – she even claims they are abusing their religion by having those opinions), she can then claim that her understanding is a superset of all religions. To believe as Karen believes is to embrace all religions, to stand above them and be inspired and appreciative of all of them.
What she is really doing is making up just another religion, a combination of religious universalism and humanism. But by claiming those who disagree with her have their religions wrong she can claim to have some higher authority. She can become an important voice in discussion of religion. If she were honest about the nature of what she is doing she’d be a largely irrelevant advocate of another fringe religious viewpoint.
Not everyone can be right – there are directly competing claims out there. Karen’s approach is to pick a subset that is consistent, from as many religions as possible, label that as correct, and condemn the bits she didn’t pick as being abuses of their own religions. It is worse, in fact, than being a fundamentalist Christian. They at least have the balls to say they think Islam is wrong. They don’t try and claim that devoted Muslims are doing Islam wrong.