The case for God

by Karen Armstrong

Paperback, 2010



Call number

CA Arm



Vintage Books (2010), Paperback

Media reviews

"The Case for God" should be read slowly, and savored, for its moderating and moving exegesis on the human imperative to "find a transcendent meaning amid life's tragedies."
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One comes away from reading Armstrong feeling bruised. The words arise with such force and profusion that the point she is trying to make seems to get lost amongst them. Indeed, it is hard to believe, after the pain of reading one of her books, that she has sold so many of them, for who would willingly submit themselves to such torment? As I said earlier, to some extent Karen Armstrong has but one book, and she has written it many times. This is not unusual. But what is unusual is that she should think the same thing worth saying again and again, when she did not succeed, the first time, to say it convincingly. Armstrong must actually argue for her position. She cannot simply assume that telling the history of it will prove her point. Indeed, what Armstrong needs to do is to develop a theology, not by telling the history of theology, but by doing it. If what she has to say is genuinely worthwhile, this is the next step she will take. If she does not do it, we can be assured that the theology she espouses is as thin as this book is thick. Theology is hard work, as she says, and she has yet to do it.
This is an eloquent and interesting book, although you do not quite get what it says on the tin. Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world's best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can't you fail. This is Armstrong's principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory - in particular the theory of the divine architect. This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice, Armstrong writes, and it is only this perverted view that arouses the scorn of modern "militant" atheists. So Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris have chosen a straw man as a target. Real religion is serenely immune to their discovery that it is silly to talk of a divine architect.

So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the "apophatic" tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic. Words such as "God" have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolises, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression. The right kind of silence, of course, not that of the pothead or inebriate. The religious state is exactly that of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky": "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't exactly know what they are." If Alice puts on a dog collar, she will be at one with the tradition.

Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of practice will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just. Who can be against that?

The odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding - only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth. But why should we accept that? Imagine that I come out of the art gallery or other trance with a beatific smile on my face. I have enjoyed myself, and feel better. Perhaps I give a coin to the beggar I ignored on the way in. Even if I do so, there is no reason to describe the improvement in terms of my having understood anything. If I feel more generous, well and good, but the proof of that pudding is not my beatific smile but how I behave. As Wittgenstein, whose views on religion Armstrong thoroughly endorses, also said, an inner process stands in need of outward criteria. You can feel good without being good, and be good without stretching your understanding beyond words. Her experience of "Jabberwocky" may have improved Alice.

Silence is just that. It is a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind. The machine is idling. Which direction it then goes after a period of idling is a highly unpredictable matter. As David Hume put it, in human nature there is "some particle of the dove, mixed in with the wolf and the serpent". So we can expect that some directions will be better and others worse. And that is what, alas, we always find, with or without the song and dance.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Widsith
Poor Karen Armstrong has been ploughing a lonely furrow in recent years, trying to show that there is a valid Third Way between increasingly defensive religious groups and increasingly forthright ‘new atheists’. Neither side thinks much of her. For those of us a bit more detached from the arguments, she often seems like the only one talking any sense.

Her main problem can best be summarised by saying that she and I share almost identical views on religion, and yet I would call myself an atheist whereas she describes herself as a ‘freelance monotheist’. In other words, she succeeds in finding a definition of ‘God’ which I am happy to accept, but only by defining it pretty much out of existence.

The arguments in here build on her extraordinary back-catalogue of books on theological history, two of which – A History of God and The Battle for God – are absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to enter into the debate. This book, which is designed as a sort of ‘comeback’ against the attacks of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., mostly rehashes work from those two masterpieces, so I can only really give it three stars although much of what is in here is brilliantly done.

Again, the point she is keen to stress is that religion and science represent different types of knowledge – what the Greeks called mythos and logos. The latter deals in rational thought and the former in poetic truths. (Thus she immediately sidesteps any claims that religion has to scientific knowledge about the world: she has as much scorn as any atheist for those religious people who think that holy books are records of facts.) She makes a convincing case that, in the pre-modern world, most religious thinkers and mystics saw religion as having symbolic, not factual, importance – hence the bizarre doctrines which to the modern world seem so impossible.

In the early modern period, when the West was developing a wholly rational way of thinking about God and the world, philosophers and scientists were appalled by the irrationality of the Trinity. But for the Cappadocian fathers – Basil, Gregory and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) – the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians thinking about God in rational terms. If you did that, you could only think about God as a being, because that was all our minds were capable of. The Trinity was not a ‘mystery’ that had to be believed but an image that Christians were supposed to contemplate in a particular way.

Such ideas were thus thought-exercises – like Zen Buddhist koan – designed to free up your mind to think about the impossible. For many of these mystics and religious thinkers, ‘God’ was not some supernatural entity – rather ‘God’ was a sort of codeword for ‘existence’, ‘reality’, or ‘the universe’, a way of contemplating ultimate truths.

The problem came with the Enlightenment, when religions felt under threat from science and tried to argue that they too had scientific knowledge about the world. For Armstrong, this is where it all went wrong: Western Christians became ‘addicted to scientific proof and were convinced that if God was not an empirically demonstrable fact, there was no sense in which religion could be true.’

This doesn't mean that religion is ‘only’ a myth – or rather, it does, except that Armstrong believes that myths, far from being ‘just stories’, are of supreme value to the way human beings experience the world. Here I agree with her, and this is also my problem with the so-called new atheism, which often seems to take a very reductionist and intolerant view of religion. To see a scientist as brilliant as Richard Dawkins reduced to explaining, in book-length form, that the idea of a benevolent omnipotent god is incompatible with such facts as childhood leukaemia or Auschwitz, makes me feel depressed and a bit embarrassed. The point is not that he's wrong, it's that it's so obvious. You'd have thought we'd be beyond this by now.

Armstrong relates a story Elie Wiesel tells about Auschwitz:

one day the Gestapo hanged a child with the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel’, who was silent and almost calm as he climbed the gallows. It took the child nearly an hour to die in front of the thousands of spectators who were forced to watch. Behind Wiesel, one of the prisoners muttered: ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him saying in response, ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’

Two things should be crystal clear reading this. The first is the literal truth that no kindly all-powerful being could watch such scenes take place. But the second is the extraordinary poetic beauty of the response that Wiesel suggests. This, to me, is the power of religion – the same sort of truth as that offered by King Lear or Anna Karenina, something which helps you sympathise with others and which invites you to understand that there is a sense in which all reality is affected by what happens to any one individual.

My only concern is that Armstrong is overplaying the extent to which this premodern view of religion is really representative of the ‘silent majority’ of faithful (I can't remember if she says this outright or just implies it). Certainly there is a huge amount of thought and intelligence behind what's in here, and it succeeds in locating the value in something that many people nowadays find valueless. However, I can't help thinking (not without some satisfaction) that religious believers who pick this book up looking for a quick comeback to a YouTube Hitch-slap might find themselves with more to chew on than they expected.
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LibraryThing member peterwall
Karen Armstrong makes no case for God and only a weak, uneven, and confused case for "God." She clearly (and rightly) dismisses theology that treats God as merely the greatest power in existence, but ultimately fails to explain why the word or label "God" remains useful. In the final pages, where I hoped to see her "case" become clear, she only advocates what amounts to active engagement with life, mindfulness, and recognition of uncertainty. Why we need "to engage with a symbol [like "God"] imaginatively [and] become ritually and ethically involved with it" is not clear, except Armstrong claims that doing so will "allow it [the symbol] to effect a profound change in you." (See page 321.)

Armstrong rightly points out that "God" the symbol too easily becomes God the idol, which is "one of the pitfalls of monotheism" (page 321), so why should we bother putting a label on "religious experience," which she appears to define as "explor[ing] the normal workings of our minds and notic[ing] how frequently these propel us quite naturally into transcendence" (page 327)? And what is "transcendence" anyway? If putting words on these things creates a dangerous "pitfall," then Armstrong has fatally undercut her case. To portray her book and her argument as being a "case for God," she is only irresponsibly perpetuating the problem that she has spilled so much ink to reveal, not just in this book, but in several earlier ones.

It does seem quite "natural" or "normal"—perhaps a better word is "commonplace"—to recognize that we remain ignorant of the true nature of reality, but doing so while actively engaging with life and practicing mindfulness does not require having a label or a symbol like "God." Or Armstrong, at least, has not convincingly argued that it does, which is what I expected her to do, right from the beginning of the book.

Ultimately (and unfortunately), this book follows what now appears to this reader as a clear progression in her work: writing that increasingly looks less like history, or even history of ideas, and more like roughly chronological bibliography with connective glosses here and there. It is not an argument, but a guided tour through Karen Armstrong's reading. Taken on those terms, The Case for God is quite an interesting work. But taken on the terms by which it seems to present itself, it is a failure.
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LibraryThing member Jaylia3
The title of another book out last year excited me--The Evolution of God--but when I heard the author speak I was disappointed. (There was a lot of talk about zero sum game.) Armstrong's book is what I had hoped for from the other. It covers the changing ways people have viewed God and religion, from 30,000 BCE, when humans crawled deep into caves to cover their walls with paintings of animals and maybe shamans, to the present, when both fundamentalists and atheists insist on a strict literal interpretation of scriptures--a legacy of the modern scientific revolution that has left everyone, including the devout, looking for unambiguous, objective truth derived from some kind of logical deliberation. The modern way is simplistic; Armstrong believes religious life involves hard work, pushing finite hearts and minds to the edges of their understanding, toward the infinite.

I took a long time to read this book and as soon as I finished I started reading it again. There is a lot to absorb and a lot that challenged my unexamined beliefs, a mind-blowing experience that's my drug of choice. As an an agnostic leaning toward a non-belligerent atheism, reading is almost my religion, so when Armstrong wrote convincingly about the printing press's drawback of moving learning and religion in a depersonalized and inflexible direction, leading in religion's case to ridiculous disagreements over finer and finer dogmatic distinctions, I was shocked into a speechless, apophatic state. One of many I experienced while reading her book. Which is maybe, or maybe not, ironic because that apophatic experience I got from reading is the right place, Armstrong believes, to begin transcending our everyday world and experiencing God. Religion, Armstrong writes, historically has been and should be more about practice and experience and less about blind belief in particular doctrines. Sounds great to me.
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LibraryThing member Brasidas
Karen Armstrong has written a book that seeks to view the whole of historic monotheism. What I found especially interesting was her discussion of the early Church's focus on "unknowing." That is to say, a religious silence from which one contemplates God. There was no presumption among early Christians that they could in any sense know or grasp God. They were taught that it was beyond conception. Worship consisted solely of practice. There was no requirement that one "believe" in God. Indeed, the concept, as we know it today, was unknown. She discusses the Eleusian Mysteries of ancient Greece. And how the "mystes," or initiative was carefully introduced to the concept of the sacred. She is careful to discuss the nature of mythos, which was "a story that was not meant to be historical or factual but expressed the meaning of an event or narrative and encapusulated it timeless, eternal dimension." And mythos was recognized as such. It would not be mistaken for historical fact. It's function as a teaching tool that imparts a sense of the sacred, that takes the initiate ourside of him or herself… (more)
LibraryThing member steve.clason
Armstrong's books cover a lot of groundl. Here, she surveys the received theology (my words, not here) from 30,000 BCE to our current millenium, narrowing her focus to the Abrahamic faiths as that sort of narrowing starts to make sense, touching on the economic, cultural, scientific and political events as well as the intellectual currents that shaped the unreflective theology of the general run of people. What they more-or-less believed, in other words, if not pressed to far.

It is a well-told, coherent narrative, sometimes drifting into little more than lists of names but not often, remarkabke in it's breadth of scholarship and also in the courtesy she shows the reader in just keeping the story going. There's plenty to disagree with, if that's what you're looking for, but I enjoyed the sweeping review of stuff that I have paid attention to for most of my life but never imagined they could be so well combined into a single story.

I give the book three stars instead of four because it's obviously polemical but doesn't make the argument strongly enough: " is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing" (page 326). Just so.

Her better books are [A History of God] and [The Battle for God] in my opinion. This one is certainly worth reading, but a little redundant if you've read the others.
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LibraryThing member roblong
Excellent stuff - I thought it covered a lot of the same ground as her 'A History of God', albeit with a narrower focus (that book giving an overview of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and more irritation at the way talk about religion is currently conducted by both believers and non-believers. That made it more pointed, and for my money more enjoyable (if less comprehensive). It was also a lot more challenging than her previous books, unless my memory fails me/mind is slowing down - but that's very much a positive. My only caveat is the slight re-hash, otherwise this is fascinating and thought-provoking. If nothing else, it's refreshing to be reminded that there's more to life than scripture-worshippers and Sam Harris.… (more)
LibraryThing member AlanBevan
Superb historical account of the history of religious thought. There is a particular emphasis on Western Christian perspectives but not entirely limited to that. I found the conclusion to be surprising in that Armstrong doesn't argue for a 'God' that exists, rather she explores our need for significance, the need to acknowledge that there are aspects of our lives that go beyond the scientific (science can tell us we have cancer but is silent on how we can best deal with that) and that there are spaces beyond our imagining (why is there something, not nothing).

I felt she shone a light on a murky place.
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LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
This is the first book I've read by Karen Armstrong. I've heard her books referred to as: "A history of God by an athiest." Upon reading this book, I think that is an inaccurate assesment. (Though she says her views on the subject of athiesm have developed since her early days of writing). This book is an historical account of religions (especially Christianity/Judaism/Islam) throughout time. The history is used as a background to describe how fundamentalism and athiesm have developed to the strictly opposing viewpoints that they are.

Although the writing is dense and philosophical, I appreciated the message of the book: strict dogmatic viewpoints can lead to emotionally charged (and irrational) clashes. In forcing these unyielding beliefs upon ourselves and our neighbors, we lose the true message of spirituality.
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LibraryThing member TGPistole
I was first introduced to Karen Armstrong as part of assigned readings for an accrediting program I was completing. "A History of God" was painfully slow reading but thoroughly engaging. I have continued reading books by this remarkable woman and continue to be both impressed and educated. This book is no exception. As a scientist and a religious educator, I particularly appreciate her ability to weave these two, often antagonistic, threads together. Armstrong was the featured speaker at the national gathering of Unitarian Universalists in June and she was both captivating and funny. I am now on to her newest publication, "The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life." One published review said this book should be read slowly and savored. I absolutely agree.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts

From the title this book appears to be an apologetic approach to theism. Close but not quite. Karen Armstrong in fact writes an history of religious belief and practice (and the parallel growth of atheism) from prehistoric cave paintings to postmodern philosophers. While mostly focused on Western thought - and Christianity within that - Armstrong manages to incorporate a lot of world religion which makes a massive topic for a short book. And yet it's chock full of fascinating tidbits and connections I've never made.

Armstrong's main points in this book are that literalism - both that which is insisted upon by religious conservatives and railed against by their anti-theist opponents - is a relatively modern phenomenon. Historically practice trumped belief and our fore-bearers would not comprehend the all-or-nothing approach of today's religious adherents.

I'm not going to admit that I understood it all, but I did enjoy Armstrong's writing and ideas and would like to read more of her work.

Favorite Passages:
A good creation myth did not describe an event in the distant past but told people something essential about the present. It reminded them that things often had to get worse before they got better, that creativity demanded self-sacrifice and heroic struggle, and that everybody had to work hard to preserve the energies of the cosmos and establish society on a sound foundation. A creation story was primarily therapeutic. - p. 16

Fundamentalism — be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — nearly always begins as a defensive movement; it is usually a response to a campaign of coreligionists or fellow countrymen that is experienced as inimical and invasive. - p. 271
Thus the cosmologist Paul Davies speaks of his delight in science with its unanswered, and, perhaps, unanswerable questions .... Davies has confessed "It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion." He is still asking the primordial question: Why is there something rather than nothing? - p. 310
The ideal society should be based on charity rather than truth. In the past, [Gianni] Vattimo recalls, religious truth generally emerged from people interacting with others rather than by papal edict. Vattimo recalls Christ's saying, "When two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them," and the classic hymn, "Where there is love, there is also God." - p. 314
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is another terrific study of religion by Karen Armstrong, the eminently learned (and prolific) British writer. "The Case For God" in some respects covers the same ground as her earlier "A History of God". This work, however, focusses on central issues in the relationship between human beings and God -- or, perhaps, not-God. Ms. Armstrong is clearly not happy with the "modern" view of God, which she argues (convincingly) has evolved in conflict with and relationship to humanity's exploding scientific knowledge. She leans more towards an attitude of "unknowing" and wordless awe, and towards a mystic view of religion, one that lives through metaphore, ritual, and contemplation. But she is also eminently practical in her view of how religion works in the world: through compassion. Ms. Armstrong, for me, is less convincing in her case for some sort of God than in her case against some views of God -- against rigid dogmatism, against fundamentalism of all stripes, and against the "new" atheism of Hitchens et all. But that may simply mean that I need to read this book again, and to follow Ms. Armstrong's lead into further reading. All in all, a fascinating and valuable book.… (more)
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
I enjoy Karen Armstrong's books, I think she presents a balanced view of religion and human kind's search for spirital meaning. She is very well read and knowledge, remainds me of Wil Durant.
LibraryThing member kaulsu
I've given this book 3.5 stars, which I actually think is under-rating it, but I must pay attention to the fact that it took me 3.5 years to read it. By definition it would seem that I must have forgotten more than I retained at that rate.

Armstrong took us from Zhuangzi (c. 370-311 BCE) to the current tension between Protestant fundamentalists and science, with many stops along the way.

The reason it took me so long to read is because I read it on the metro on my way to being picked up for the ride to Frederick on Mondays....15-20 minutes a week....
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LibraryThing member JeannetteK
Who remembers the old Popeye the Sailor's idiom: That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more? Well I can't stands anymore of this book. I am a big fan of books that deal with why people have beliefs and the different religions and looked forward to reading this book. That is until I read the first long, drawn out, and very boring 130 pages. This book is a textbook for Mensa members who want to write a doctrine in religious studies . . . it's not for the general public. Names, dates, countries . . . one after another, after another. My mind was mush and I couldn't remember what the chapter was about. There were 200 more pages, but I said NO, I had had enough.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
Armstrong offers a creative, convincing response to and critique of the "new atheists" such as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. She also offers a quick course in the evolution of Christian thinking and practice about God, which toward the end, in her discussion of modern thinkers and theologians, I found a bit compressed and hurried.… (more)
LibraryThing member erwinkennythomas
The Case for God by Karen Armstrong presents a most unsettling picture of mankind’s quest to define God. Every era from antiquity, Greeks, Romans, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, modern, and the post-modern age based its understanding on the knowledge and culture of that period. These beliefs of Rousseau’s concept of a universal machine, Newton’s God and the universe, Darwin’s evolution, Einstein’s relativity, post-modern atheists of the “God is dead” movement, and the rise of fundamentalism gained some traction. But the search of God continued to be illusive with detractors. It was however determined that the rise of scientific evidence was based on measurement, while religious beliefs centered on virtues. In the epilogue Armstrong did an excellent analysis of what she saw as the foundation of religious beliefs. Nevertheless the contents of this book would be rather disturbing to believers who think they understand their God.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
Which God?
If you believe in the God of creation, the God that intervenes in history, the one and only God, be it Judaic, be it Muslin, be it Christian, Karen Armstrong’s case is weak. If your God lives with you, encompasses all your weaknesses, accepts your moral idiosyncrasies and relates to your history and desires, Karen Armstrong’s case is strong. The book examines the diverse ideas of God through history and gives special attention to the modern and postmodern concepts of a religious life and it opposite, the atheist self. Science and religion are confronted and reconciled, at least the author tries it. Meanwhile, she advances her ideas of a personal God, without dogmas, a God that gives meaning to our life. Her arguments seems compelling. Her book gives the reader a good and well researched overview of the development of the idea of God in the monotheistic religions.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
This one took me a while to read while I digested some of it, this was not an easy read, some of it felt like it was skirting the issue a little. It argues against absolutism and for religion that is built of acceptance and love of other and self.

I had minor issues with some parts of it, the thought that logically religion moves from mono to poly-theism doesn't sit well with me and ignores some religions that are still happily co-existing with monotheistic thought.

Still, for someone interested in religion and thoughts on the change of the concept of god within western tradition it's an interesting read, but impossible to try all in one go.
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LibraryThing member tosan
Karen Armstrong deftly dismantles the wall between science and spirituality, giving reason for both camps to respect and take each other seriously. Staggering bibliography! Authoritative as it gets!

Original publication date




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index ; bibliography

Call number

CA Arm
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