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This Week in God
May 30, 2006 9:47 AM   Subscribe

This Week in God Salon interviews Karen Armstrong, a British ex-nun who has used her religious search to write several books on the subject. Her focus is not merely on Catholicism, but extends to many religions, including Islam.
posted by grapefruitmoon (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
If you have a Salon daypass and want to make the most of it, here are more articles featuring Karen Armstrong on Islam and Buddhism.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:52 AM on May 30, 2006


Utterly fascinating. I'd never heard of this woman before. Thanks for the link.
posted by Zozo at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2006


Good stuff. Thanks, grapefruitmoon. And here's hoping this is but the first of many posts to use the "exnuns" tag.
posted by ibmcginty at 10:06 AM on May 30, 2006


I read her biography of Muhammad and really enjoyed it. Though, I still don't feel like I understand Islam. Then again, I don't really get christianity either. Anyhow, thanks, grapefruitmoon!
posted by shoepal at 10:56 AM on May 30, 2006


The visa daypas takes like 10 seconds, and you can have the metafilter window in focus as it goes by (doesn't require any interaction)


Aaaaanyway. The only thing more annoying the biblical literalists are atheists who insist on only arguing against biblical literalism, they think that because the bible is internally inconsistent, religion is impossible.

I've had arguments with people who simply couldn't understand the concept of a Christian who was not a biblical literalist.

I'm an atheist myself, but I think Christians can be OK. A good example would be Mr. Rogers. There can, of course, be bad Christians like Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell...
posted by delmoi at 11:02 AM on May 30, 2006


She gave an interview with Speaking of Faith a while back as well.
posted by callmejay at 11:02 AM on May 30, 2006


Her "Axial age" stuff seems a bit silly though. All of that stuff happened then because that's when people started to write things down. No doubt there were spirtual leaders before, but the traditions were passed down by word of mouth, rather then then the written word.
posted by delmoi at 11:04 AM on May 30, 2006


salon:Now, there is the question of whether all of these were actually religions. I mean, the philosophies of the ancient Greeks -- Socrates and Plato -- were not religious at all. Buddhism is essentially a philosophy of mind. And I suppose you could see Confucianism as essentially a system of ethics.

Armstrong:That's a very chauvinistic Western view, if I may say so. You're saying this is what we regard as religion, and anything that doesn't measure up to that isn't. I think a Buddhist or a Confucian would be very offended to hear that he or she was not practicing a religion.


That's a strange thing to say, IMO. "Confucianism" in particular never really claimed to be a religion. I know I get offended when people say I am religious. Buddhism on the other hand is more religious then Confucianism.
posted by delmoi at 11:09 AM on May 30, 2006


How odd, I am reading her book Buddha right now, thanks for the heads up grapefruitmoon.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:32 AM on May 30, 2006


Thanks grapefruitmoon for the stimulating lonk.

Her study of sacred texts finally gave her the appreciation of religion she had longed for -- not religion as a system of belief, but as a gateway into a world of mystery and the ineffable.

I found that true in studying the Buddhist Madhyamaka. The Madhyamakaavatara was the gateway text that attracted me. It may be used in philosophical debate or as a foundation for meditation. To me it is not a religious belief system so much but part of what I prefer to think of as a truth path (no capital letters in truth or path, I do see truth as relative, not absolute).

A book by a Christian mystic, The Cloud of Unknowing.

I never heard the term "Axial Age" before.
Since Buddhism is non-theistic I don't see how Siddhartha Gautama taught the same thing as the theists during the "Axial Age". I think of faith based/God oriented religions (as contrasted with philosophical belief systems) created at that time in light of Julian Jaynes ideas about the neurology of belief systems and the bicameral mind.

In the context of history, I don't agree with her statement that "Religion is a search for transcendence." The etymology of the word, religion: "state of life bound by monastic vows,"conduct indicating a belief in a divine power," reverence for the gods, "to bind fast", "bond between humans and gods.", "particular system of faith", "recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power".

I like what Joe Szimhart says: "Truth is not what you find in the end, in the packaged religion, it is a gift you get along the way if the way you practice is moral, elegant and socially sound."
posted by nickyskye at 12:01 PM on May 30, 2006


delmoi writes "Her 'Axial age' stuff seems a bit silly though. All of that stuff happened then because that's when people started to write things down."

Is this accurate? I mean, the Egyptians had a rich written tradition--and a complex religion--long before the Axial Age, but it plays little to no part in modern thought. The Greeks definitely had a pre-Socratic written tradition. And there's the Vedic tradition in India, which dates from something like 1500 B.C., but the Axial Age saw an explosion in religious thought there (Upanishads, Jainism, Buddhism).
posted by mr_roboto at 12:15 PM on May 30, 2006


This woman is no different than any New Ager (common religion themes, finding religion later in life, liberal views but defends conservative religious practices, etc). I suppose this speaks more about salon.com and a part of the american left that identifies it. They're put off by regular church-going, but won't go atheist/agnostic so pick up these new agey pan-theistic books, which to me, are no different than self-help books. How much longer until I can order real Sedona crystals from salon.com?
This interview is pretty funny. I liked the line 'Buddhists talk about Nirvana in very much the same terms as monotheists describe God." Really? She must mean the same english verbiage which isnt much to choose from. These are two very different religions and equating them for a feel-good message may sell books but is hardly convincing.

She plays the same new age game of seeing what she wants to see. Islam wasnt spread by the sword now? All religions are the same with rose colored glasses on?
Confucianism a religion? Non-believers are spiritually empty? Modern understandings are biased and historians can't see the "beauty of religion?" Oh you don't say...
posted by skallas at 12:18 PM on May 30, 2006


The thing is, much of the rest of the world treats Christianity in the same "new age" way. The fact that most Americans *don't* is more of the aberration, in my opinion.
posted by occhiblu at 12:36 PM on May 30, 2006


Oh, the mind-blowing and laughable "Secularism causes fundamentalism" BS is incredible. Who takes this woman seriously?
posted by skallas at 12:38 PM on May 30, 2006


the stimulating lonk lol. Oops. Of course, I meant to write, stimulating link.
posted by nickyskye at 12:52 PM on May 30, 2006


Unless you define religion in a theocentric way, Confucianism certainly is religious. There is a great deal of metaphysical, philsophical and ethical material working out what it meant to follow the "model of Heaven" (not the Christian heaven) to put it simply and succinctly. It was not merely about the Imperial bureaucracy.

Fundamentalism is also related to secularization. While there have always been zealots and literalists, fundamentalism as such is a reactionary movement. The very term comes from statements written against the rise of "Modernism" within Christianity. Not to mention that most fundamentalists list Secularism (or one of its fruits) as being Public Enemy No. 1

The error that Armstrong makes is the same one as the people she writes about. Since she has experienced what she calls "the transcendent" through a general study of religion she reifies her experience of the transcendent and claims that this, her experience, is what all the religions are talking about. This seems most egregious in her shoe-horning of Nirvana as a God-equivalent to fit her model.
posted by MasonDixon at 1:41 PM on May 30, 2006


Nicely said MasonDixon.
posted by nickyskye at 2:18 PM on May 30, 2006


Well, MasonDixon, you said basically everything I wanted to.

Except great post. Thanks grapefruitmoon!
posted by malthas at 3:28 PM on May 30, 2006



Fundamentalism is also related to secularization.


There is a world of difference between "related" and caused as she seems to be suggesting in the article.

Not to mention that most fundamentalists list Secularism (or one of its fruits) as being Public Enemy No. 1

Also on top of this list is women's suffrage, the founding of Israel, and anything any Western nation has done.

The cause of fundamentalism has been debated since who knows when but good old fashioned superstition, hate, bigotry, lack of education, lack of a stable society, etc have a lot more to do than this "lets blame the West" mentality so many Westerners like Armstrong seem to love. Her interview reads like a defense of all things religious and her bias against the secular West is pretty obvious and a bit sickening from someone who should know better.
posted by skallas at 4:25 PM on May 30, 2006


skallas: Don't forget Christian fundamentalism, which is rampant here in the good ol' Western USA. Secularism is most definitely enemy number one, with everything abhorrent being blamed on the influence of Satan on society.

(And oh man, I wish I didn't hear the ridiculous things about the liberal media being controlled by the hand of Lucifer every single day of my life, but yeah.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:43 PM on May 30, 2006


Unless you define religion in a theocentric way, Confucianism certainly is religious. There is a great deal of metaphysical, philsophical and ethical material working out what it meant to follow the "model of Heaven" (not the Christian heaven) to put it simply and succinctly. It was not merely about the Imperial bureaucracy.

Plato was very religious to, but does that make him a religion? Metaphysical philosophy in my mind is not the same thing as 'religion'. Under that definition, all philosophy that is not strict natural philosophy/science would be a religion.

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Daoism is a religion, and that Confucianism is a philosophy rooted in Daoism?
posted by delmoi at 4:45 PM on May 30, 2006


I read this yesterday, and remember thinking that search for transcendence vs anthropomorphication of extant belief was an interesting way of dividing the 'religious' and a shift in perspective that could have some explanatory power. Clearly, as others have shown, she generalises here, but this is an interview, not a thesis, and I'd be keen to see what else she has said in her writings.

If nothing else - it illuminates why I find certain religious traditions profoundly annoying and others less so. The anthropomorphs are justifying the otherwise unjustifiable via an appeal to the supernatural, and the transcendents are looking for something super-ordinary, but not necessarily supernatural.
posted by Sparx at 5:02 PM on May 30, 2006


Also, Delmoi, I'm pretty sure Confucianism predates Daoism (though obviously they sprang from the same historical roots). A quick google supports this (see) , but I'm no expert on the the subject and may be mistaken.
posted by Sparx at 5:26 PM on May 30, 2006


Hmm, well I don't know that much about it, but calling Confucianism a religion seems strange to me, as does the insistence that a Confucianism would get 'offended' if you said they were not religious.
posted by delmoi at 5:45 PM on May 30, 2006


Agreed, Delmoi. But the distinction is definitional. Certainly Confucianism is somewhat agnostic on the supernatural. Confucius was largely silent on the topic, but animal sacrifices were part and parcel of it for centuries. However, as an instititution that existed for millennia there have undoubtedly been offshoots that would have met anybody's definition of religion by focusing on divinities, spirits or ancestors.

And this is part of Armstrong's point - though I think she's wrong when she claims it is a purely western point of view. Confucianism / most Buddhisms / Daoism etc in general do not have the trappings of theism, and some forms eschew even the unnaturalistic, but they are each ways of improving the everyday - of transcending the ordinary and attaining the super-ordinary (to reuse a phrase I now quite like).

The 'this is not a religion' perspective on these 'schools of thought' is equally prevalent in Asia (though probably not universally so - cf Pure Land Buddhism), at least in part because religion is often seen as anti-modern and thus counter to offically identified national ideals. Again, there is no hard and fast rule as to how adherents see it - I'm pretty sure there's some gnostics out there freaked by the concept of your own personal Jesus.

Perhaps 'religion' as a term has outlived its usefulness, having been exposed by globalisation to so many forms the thread that connects them all has broken. Time to get out the neologisms!
posted by Sparx at 6:21 PM on May 30, 2006


Aaaaanyway. The only thing more annoying the biblical literalists are atheists who insist on only arguing against biblical literalism, they think that because the bible is internally inconsistent, religion is impossible.

Well said, we're on opposite sides of the belief gap but I couldn't agree more, the least illuminating arguments seem to occur between literalists on either side.

Perhaps 'religion' as a term has outlived its usefulness

How's this definition of religion (I just made it up now):

Belief in something far better than what the prevailing worldly powers-that-be such as governments, academia, the military, the wealthy, and religious power-brokers manage to embody.

posted by scheptech at 6:40 PM on May 30, 2006


Belief in something far better than what the prevailing worldly powers-that-be such as governments, academia, the military, the wealthy, and religious power-brokers manage to embody.

I foresee religious wars between the Sexualists and the CuteOverload.Com-munists
posted by Sparx at 7:15 PM on May 30, 2006


delmoi writes "Plato was very religious to, but does that make him a religion?"

Platonism was certainly a religion, with creation myths, concepts of the nature of god and of the soul, and a moral structure. It was hugely influential on Gnosticism, Judaism, and early Christianity.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:31 PM on May 30, 2006


Bah. Armstrong wouldn't last 5 minutes in Left Behind: Eternal Forces.
posted by homunculus at 7:59 PM on May 30, 2006


Enemy of the State!
posted by homunculus at 4:08 PM on June 13, 2006


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