The Fundamental Arrogance of Karen Armstrong's Religious Liberalism

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.


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27 responses to “The Fundamental Arrogance of Karen Armstrong's Religious Liberalism

  1. Glad it’s not just me… Richard Dawkins called it “apophatuousness”, which was a neologisation of not inconsiderable brilliance.

  2. Ian

    Great word! Hadn’t seen it before.

    I was thinking about you today, Shane. I got into a separate debate about how it is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I was trying to describe how systems thinking solves those issues without need for mysterious extra stuff. It wasn’t working well.

    Systems seem so damn obvious to me. That functional complexity is significant. But reductionism is so terribly ingrained that folks who rightly reject reductionism seem to then reject materialism, and feel the need to posit super-natural forces to explain why a body’s worth of carbon is different to a pit of fire-ash.

  3. Hi Ian, yep, a lot of my thinking in this area goes back to _this post_ over at Shaney’s inestimable answersingenes blog [pluggity plug!]. Reductionism *does* work, but it only works if you think systems & relationships rather than the “raw nature” of components. And systems are, at base, informational structures – they obey mathematical laws, and the *what* that they are actually made of becomes irrelevant.

    Actually, on that last point, this is why I think the Ultimate Question (“why is there anything at all?”) boils down purely to mathematics, in the line of reasoning of Max Tegmark. All mathematically-describable/decidable universes “exist”, but unless you happen to be *inside* one, they only exist as mathematical abstracta. If you’re a subsystem, it will seem “real”. This utterly rips the throat out of cosmological arguments for the Great Space Pixie, But I digress.

    So when folks reduce, they reduce to the *parts*, not the subsystems, and they therefore get all confuddled and start this magical thinking nonsense. Of course they are not being reductionist at all – they are losing the *relationships*, which are critical.

    Example – you can make a chair out of stone, aluminium, many other metals, wood, plastic or cheese. There is a level of subsystem reduction below which the “chairness” of the object is not to be found. Yet, as far as I know, no Christian philosophers gibber on about chair duality, that chairs have some deus ex machina bejoobie that bestows the chairy attribute. But they try to do this for humans on precisely this sort of logic. I cry foul. I suggest that it would be perfectly possible in principle to make a “human” out of any material you want, as long as you were able to identify all the subsystems and relate them together correctly.

    Perhaps this means that Boltzmann’s Brains are out there, but that doesn’t keep me awake at night 😉


  4. Just thinking – I should have called it the “chairy-fairy”…

  5. Ian

    Chairy-fairy, love it.

    I am less optimistic about reductionism. I suspect you’d probably agree with me, but I think system dynamics are often irreducible. In other words, there are behaviors of systems that can not be understood as combinations of behaviors of subsystems. At particular levels of complexity whole new classes of behaviors are possible, which are quantitatively qualitatively different.

    Perhaps this means that Boltzmann’s Brains are out there, but that doesn’t keep me awake at nigh

    Well, I certainly believe that the Christian God can be understood as a very real system with behaviors analogous to many conscious behaviors we normally associate with people. Able to plan, reason, feel and act. I believe that God is a system running across the interaction between the brains of his devotees. That is a very useful way of understanding God, I think.

    I also think that other systems could be said to have minds, certain types computers are the obvious suspect, corporations another, nations yet another. What we lack in understanding them is an understanding of a non-human mind.

  6. Hi Ian,
    The thing about reductionism is that when you break a system into subsystems, then you put the subsystems back together again correctly, the system should still work as it did (otherwise you’re missing something). And this has been the stunning earth-shattering success of science. What you seem to be describing (I think!) are *emergent* behaviours; these behaviours are fully determined by the behaviours of the subsystems, but it is often not really meaningful or helpful to *understand* them in this way; we need a new layer of description if we are to express things sensibly. But that’s all cool – we can still strip down and rebuild as much as we like – there is no extra explanatory “power” that we are missing.
    I’m mourning Benoit Mandelbrot, who has just died – the science of emergent behaviours owes him a lot, and the concept of mathematical “attractors” (though not coined by M as far as I know) is a powerful way of looking at things that are *determined* but not *pre-specified*.
    Again, it’s all in the systems 🙂

  7. John Clavin

    I consider myself an atheist, maybe I should say spiritual atheist, but I don’t have a problem with Karen Armstrong.
    In her book, “The Case for God”, she says that music is a natural theology. I agee with that and understand what she is trying to say.
    You have to say in the “now” when you are improvising jazz.

  8. Ian

    these behaviours are fully determined by the behaviours of the subsystems, but it is often not really meaningful or helpful to *understand* them in this way; we need a new layer of description if we are to express things sensibly.

    Yes, but.

    So anything is determined by the behaviour of atoms, in that case. The central insight of complexity theory (in its earlier subfield of chaos theory) is that you can have a completely deterministic system whose rules are perfectly understandable, which is nonetheless completely unpredictable. There is mathematically no simpler description of the system than its entirety. No way to understand its behavior other than to run it. So to say that a higher level behavior is fully determined by its subsystems is right in a manner, but actually tells you nothing.

    It is a much more serious problem than to say that “it is often not really meaningful or helpful to *understand* them in this way; we need a new layer of description if we are to express things sensibly”. It isn’t a matter of being unhelpful, it is a matter of being impossible. The new layer doesn’t provide a more sensible description, it is the minimum requirement for the behavior to even exist.

    So while it is the case that reductionism is valid for systems, it is actually useless, because there is no way to see the behaviors other than in the full system (or a more complex version of it). You’re no better off looking at the subsystem dynamics than you are of looking at the physical components.

    Maybe that’s what you meant by not being ‘pre-specified’.

    Every behavior is emergent, so that doesn’t help as a distinction.

    Yes, Mandelbrot was a pioneer, and his shadow is long over complexity science.

  9. Ian, I notice this in your bio; “I study the bible, with bits of Christian theology and early Christianity thrown in.” I would submit that you might want to rethink that. If your interested in understanding Christanity, it is more important to study early Christianity than it is to study the bible. Let me explain it this way. Let’s way that you want to study Mark Twain. Which do you think will give you a more accurate view of him? Studying Tom Sawyer or Reaming as many biographys on his life as possible? Will Tom Sawyer tell you where he was born? if he was devoices? where he lived? and many many other things. People get misdirected into reading and rereading the bible. I think this s a great mistake and problem.

    If you are interested in the study of christianity, and need and recommendations, feel free to PM me and I would be happy to talk further.


  10. Ian

    Thanks for the comment Rich. Though your comment is a bit random given that it isn’t related to this topic, is it?

    I do read a reasonable amount on early Christianity and patristics (though my interest wanes after the 4th century) and post on them too. Maybe stick around and see.

    And who said I studied the bible because I wanted to understand Christianity? I study the bible because I am interested in biblical studies. I study early Christianity and Christian theology because I’m interested in them. I don’t think that any of them help me understand Christianity. If you want to understand modern Christianity, with respect, neither the bible nor the early church, nor modern or historical theology will help much. No more than studying ancient Rome will provide understanding of modern Italy.

  11. Ian

    John, it isn’t my atheism that makes me have a problem with her. I can sympathise with her deism, and I share her concern not to unfairly bind religion to its worst excesses. But I do object to this explicit angle she has of wanting to claim what other people’s religion is really about. That isn’t tolerance of any kind, imo.

  12. Indeed, Armstrong is certainly pushing for universalism — boy, that can’t be bad.
    But you are also absolutely right that pretending that non-universalists are just mistaken, is a huge misrepresentation of the varieties of religion. That is why I am somewhat allergic to the word “religion” when used both by atheists and theists –> it implies far too much commonality.

    But I think she understands the varieties of Religions out there –> she speaks a great deal against fundamentalism, for instance. She is just using rhetoric to say what she thinks religion should be.

    BTW, I found her lecture a bit vacuous.
    Here is a video about Bede Griffith – he is a Christian-Hindu monastic mystic who preaches universalism too. He thinks all religions are one, just as Hindus feel. It would be a better world if all thought like this. But I am glad we have voices against the religious folks who have no intention to be one.

  13. Hey Ian, It’s funny you say that your interest wanes at about the 4th century. That is just about when mines wanes too. One thing you may notice is a lot of protestants, especially the fundamentalist type will say their interest is in the Reformation period, and often have little to no interested in the early stuff. I see the reformation as a development, or course, and I think the Calvinism specifically brings about a fundamental change in christianity from the older “Catholic” “blessed are the poor”, to a new Calvinistic “Wealth can be a evidence of the blessing of god”, and hence a change that has allowed Christians to justify a sort of “blame poor people” for their plight” attitude.

    With regard to my comment being random, I am sorry if it is. I tend to see blogs as primarily a way to me new people, that I can stay in touch with via the internet. Often a blog author, once they have set up a comment thread system, forgets, or purposely avoids adding a “email me” link to their site. So in reality, the only way to talk to those authors is to make a comment on one of their essay comment threads.


  14. Ian

    Thanks Rich. The email address you get when you subscribe to these comments comes through to me, so feel free to ping if you want to pick up a topic.

  15. Hey Ian, I’m not sure exactly what that means. I am a retired computer nerd, very interested in the whole blogging mechanism, to meet folks, so if you could explain that, it sounds like it is something I would want to know about. Feel free to email me if discussing that would clutter your thread.


  16. Blah! I start to see now. I am used to blogspot and wordpress comment alerts coming from some “no-reply” email address, that I never even looked at yours. Ok, so what I take you comment to be is… that now that I have made a first comment, and subscribed to the comment thread, and received the email alert, I can use THAT address for further one-on-one (no comment thread comments). I that is what you meant, no need to even replay.


  17. Ian

    When you fill in a comment form, you can opt to get notified of new comments by email. I can see you did that already.

    The email you get to tell you I wrote this comment, you should be able to just hit reply to in your email program, and it will come back to me (i.e. it isn’t just a dead-end email address).

  18. Ian

    Too late 🙂

  19. I benefited a lot from reading Armstrong’s “The Bible.” It lays out very well how the bible came to be written, describing a naturalistic progression of recorded thoughts through the ages. And while she is often criticized for lack of accuracy and footnotes, I didn’t have a problem with it — the book is obviously more a running narrative than a scholarly treatise. I also enjoyed her autobiography a lot, as it is very candid and a unique look into the convent and the experience of escaping a cruel life into an unknown world.

    That said, I agree with your thoughts. I tuned her out as soon as I heard some of her more recent interviews. I am always happy to see the Christian fundamentalist view critiqued and rejected, especially when it is from within the Christian camp. But I don’t care for it when it becomes stridently taught, I think because I don’t like being told what to think, at least when it is in regard to something which is supposed to be ineffable.

  20. Hi Ian,
    Yes, but. 🙂
    That was why I introduced the notion of “attractors”, which are emergent from the subsystematised interactions. They are higher order behaviours which, although not really sensibly discussed in terms of the individual components, nevertheless are wholly dependent upon them. All the birds in a flock behave like birds, yet the flock behaves as a flock. I know you know this; I suspect we are not really in disagreement 🙂

  21. Ian

    Shane: We’re definitely not in disagreement, no. But I tend to learn by debating, so it is worth doing.

    I’m fundamentally as pessimistic about reductionism in interesting systems as I am for interesting aggregates of stuff. But that is pure bias: its because the irreducible systems were the ones I researched. You, on the other hand, work on systems that are structured in ways that cast HUGE attractors out into state-space. So much so that you can basically treat nucleic acid as quaternary strings, and proteins as base 22-ish strings. As opposed to the myriad reactions that actually make that happen. Which is why I suspect you’d be more optimistic about reducing systems into sub-systems.

    That’s a nice property to have. But unusual, I’d say. Certainly isn’t the case for flocks of birds where you can’t even say (even for abstract sets of bird rules) how many individuals will be in the flock or how many flocks there will be for some time in the future.

  22. As for your idea of God being an “emergent property” of groups of minds (like flockiness or chairness etc), I think that’s an interesting way of looking at things. I am heavily into Egyptology, and at one point I thought it would be interesting to write a sci-fi-fantasy from the viewpoint of some Egyptian gods, whose existence depended on the beliefs of their adherents – once you reach a certain level of complexity, you, as a god, become “real”. It was to be in the context of a Whodunnit based in a resurgent Egyptian temple built in modern times on the Nile, and granted autonomy and lands by the government of Egypt as a tourist attraction. Until the old gods become popular…

    I guess this is the *very* best we can grant to theology – Jesus lives in our hearts. But if we stop believing him, like Tinkerbell, he dies a little more…

  23. Posts crossing in the night 😉 I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to predict something to understand it. The Game of Life is a good example – you can’t (generally) predict how it will end up without running the sim (here I am repeating your argument!), yet the rules of the system are absolutely fully understood. It’s things like this that make me think that the universe at its core is mathematical, but the highest resolution available to us at any point is itself a large-scale attractor of deeper mathematical goings-on…

    Damn! This is a fine blog, sir!

  24. Peter

    “Jesus lives in our hearts.”

    Well, he might live in yours, Shane, but he doesn’t live in mine.


  25. I should’ve put that in quotes, eh? 🙂

  26. Ian

    Shane, I like the story idea.

    “I guess this is the *very* best we can grant to theology – Jesus lives in our hearts.” Our minds, but yes. What *is* interesting about this, however, is that is provides God with agency. God can will things, think things, want things, can change his mind. And in the model he *can* do those things in exactly the way in which he *does* do those things in reality.


    Absolutely. My first comments about having a lot in common with her views were meant on that level. I don’t even mind people who think they are right and the rest of the world is wrong. It is worse than that, it is the no-true-Scotsman fallacy in reverse. You are not really a member of the religion you claim to believe in unless I say you are.

  27. Ian

    The Game of Life is a good example – you can’t (generally) predict how it will end up without running the sim (here I am repeating your argument!), yet the rules of the system are absolutely fully understood

    Exactly. The rules are fully understood, but tell you virtually nothing about the behavior of the whole.

    GoL displays a full range of behaviors, simple through complex. It is computationally complete. In other words, I can give you a game of life level which is capable of computing itself, or capable of implementing a universal Turing machine. Which means (by the halting theorem) that we cannot even say whether at any time in the future the GoL will settle down to a steady state or a periodic state. And worse than that, change one cell in the starting configuration and the whole turing machine could implode and go steady-state in a few ticks.

    For GoL, knowing the rules, the dynamics of each cell, tells you nothing at all of interest about the whole system. It only tells you about the dynamics of each cell.

    In fact, it is a horrendous problem, because in general there is no way of knowing in advance whether a minute change to the rules of each cell, even, (there are formalisms for describing cell rules in cellular automata) will produce a CA that can compute, or even one that supports aperiodic dynamics at all. There are heuristics, but they aren’t very reliable.

    GoL happens to be in the computationally complete category, but if I gave you another cell-dynamics rule, you couldn’t possibly tell me if that CA would be. Not without building the whole thing, and running it, and painstakingly building logic gates and semi-stable memory with it (it took decades to get computers fast enough to run large GoL simulations to be able to determine this stuff). Knowing the cell-rule gives you no more information than knowing that a computer chip is made of silicon atoms.

    Cellular Automata are exactly what I mean by irreducibility of systems. Thanks for giving voice to an example.

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