Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins

Over the last 20 years or so religious historian and author Karen Armstrong has written many wonderful and engaging works. Her latest, The Case for God is one of her best. No matter what her subject matter Karen writes beautifully with respect and compassion and somehow always repeats several key messages. She is obviously a patient soul. And optimistic. Some of her themes are (and please, I do not do her justice):

  • Myth and logic are two different modes of viewing the world.
  • Up until the Enlightenment myth was myth and no one interpreted scripture or myth from the viewpoint of logic. Biblical and religious events happened in mythic time and space not physical time and space.
  • Since the enlightenment western religions have lost their way since they have tried to appease the view that scripture and religion has to be rational and subject to proof or falsity.
  • This has led to the rise of fundamentalism where scripture and religion are viewed as hard facts and any science/logic that counters that fact must be wrong. Hence creation ‘science’.
  • The roots of all religions are ultimately the same; an approach to Mystery which cannot be named or fully experienced but by attempting to do so we are fulfilled and enlarged as humans, becoming more content, creative and wise.
  • Religion and scripture make no sense without myth and practice. Ritual, songs, prayers and acts of love are required to understand religion not simply analysis or even faith. We need to practice.
  • Compassion is the universal key to approaching the divine. Compassion takes us to the One, and this truth is found in all traditions, all religions.

Of course these are not innovations; Ms Armstrong is simply a wonderful mouthpiece for traditional views though not within any defined grouping like the Schuon traditionalists. Her books are very accessible and I hope very influential. Her ideas and presence as a religious commentator is large enough for her to be chosen recently by the Wall St Journal as a counterpoint to the head-honcho of the new atheists, Richard Dawkins himself. The two of them each wrote a short article responding to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?” The articles were reproduced last week in the Weekend Australia and can be found online here.

I read both articles very keenly and must say that Richard Dawkins really let the side down on this one. Apart from a couple of insipid paragraphs at the end of his piece, Richard does not address the actual theology most mature religious people accept. Like in his The God Delusion he refuses to bring the level of debate to that of sophisticated theology. Instead he is content to attack the literal mindedness, fundamentalistic and simplistic expressions of religion that Karen and others also decry and are trying to change. I was hoping for more, a sort of tit-for-tat back and forth between the two, but alas no.

Richard Dawkins and Friend

Richard Dawkins and a young atheist friend

Now following the advice of St Bob, I once spent a day online getting into the head-space of the ‘New Atheists’ as much as I could (them being folk I naturally do not understand). I revisited a number of the forums before writing this little piece, and can tell you they put the ‘ism’ in Atheism. While I am (pretty) sure that none of the starry-eyed, Christian-bashing online followers of Mr Dawkins would actually worship him, I do believe a goodly few of them would drop to their knees for something else. Talk about sycophants! It seems many new atheists are sheep-like as the average Wiccan at agape.

Now, I am prejudiced towards Ms Armstrong’s views and whilst not dropping to my knees in front of her, would gladly buy her dinner. Her views tie in a lot to my understanding of western esotericism. In various works she charts the turning away from symbolism, myth, metaphor and ritual practice by western religions from the 17th century onwards and the distortion this has created in the western understanding of God and religion. However, the western esoteric traditions never did abandon the traditional way of viewing the world; we never lost the connection. It is no coincidence that the period Ms Armstrong highlights is the same period when Masonry and other esoteric and ritual traditions sprang up as a resort and refuge for the traditional world view and practice.

A favourite line from article is this:

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.



  1. Suecae · September 24, 2009

    It seems as if I have a new book on my wish-list. Thanks for making this known to me.


  2. Michael Gorsuch · September 24, 2009

    Hi Peregrin,

    Thanks for the great post – I have placed an order for Karen Armstrong’s new book.

    Although I consider myself an esotericist, I am sympathetic to the New Athiest movement. I do not approve of their Christian bashing and condescending remarks, but I do feel tuned to a lot of their concerns.

    Despite what Armstrong may be showing us (again noting that I have not read her latest book) about a workable demarcation of myth and reason, the fact remains that there are an amazing amount of Christians (to choose the group that I am most familiar with) that do not share this point of view. They often treat religion as material fact, using it to justify all sorts of backwards behavior and thought.

    I think that this has been a long-held problem with religion, dating well before the Enlightenment. Think of the horrors committed by the Catholic church during the Inquisition – a holocaust against anyone differing from the traditional line. And what of the blood spilled within the Roman Empire for similar reasons?

    I have long been of the opinion that those that seek to work with both myth and reason, whom I call (perhaps too broadly) esotericists, are a rare find. Is Ms. Armstrong arguing otherwise, or is she simple trying to show the world that there is a better way to work with this topic than in our current binary manner?

    Again – thanks for bringing this to my attention and for all of the previous posts that I’ve read.

  3. Peregrin · September 25, 2009

    Hello Michael,

    thanks for this comment. And I agree with much of what you say; there was nothing I essentially disagreed with in ‘The God Delusion’ for example. It just didn’t address the esoteric/mystical theologies.

    Yes, the vast majority of Christians and others are essentially literalists. Even if they do not ‘believe’ the Bible they have a literal view of God and heaven etc. What Ms Armstrong points out is that this is an essentially immature spiritual viewpoint. In her article and elsewhere she thanks Darwin and others for helping to expose this problem, which I believe is endemic in all exoteric religion (certainly what I see in Perth).

    I do however think that religion’s attrocities are often politically based and use religion (or culture or ethnicity etc) as a way of excersing political power. There are certainly plenty of analyses of the Inquistion from this viewpoint. And the Roman Empire – well the word empire gives this away. Christians and others were free to practice their religion in Rome as long as they also performed the required sacrifices the Emporer as a God. This is was mostly about power not theology.

    That said, it really makes little difference why people are burning you at the stake. And, certainly there have been zealots motivated by religious concerns alone. I just think it is a complex story.

    However, as Ms Armstrong, like the Dalai Lama and many others contend, religion can and should be present in society to teach us compassion and help us let go of the ego based damage we inflict on ourselves and the world.

    I think Ms Armstrong would agree with you; those who work with both mythos and logos are a rare find.

    Thanks 🙂

  4. Michael Gorsuch · September 28, 2009

    Hi Peregrin,

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I have since picked up Karen Armstrong’s book, and am about half-way through. I really appreciate her take on a mature religion, and look forward to see how it all wraps up.

  5. Rivero · October 7, 2012

    How can I be perfectly sure,beyond doubts,that Rosacrucian order is a “safe” organization in which poor people like me,living in an unjust and lesshuman syste like the actual system is right for me?I have read some monographies,but seems that i am not an elite,and the organization is for elites,.

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