The Case for God: What Religion Really Means

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A nuanced exploration of the part that religion plays in human life, drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age.
Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao. Focusing especially on Christianity but including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese spiritualities, Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith. Why has God become unbelievable? Why is it that atheists and theists alike now think and speak about God in a way that veers so profoundly from the thinking of our ancestors?

Answering these questions with the same depth of knowledge and profound insight that have marked all her acclaimed books, Armstrong makes clear how the changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion at both the societal and the individual level.  Yet she cautions us that religion was never supposed to provide answers that lie within the competence of human reason; that, she says, is the role of logos. The task of religion is “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.” She emphasizes, too, that religion will not work automatically. It is, she says, a practical discipline: its insights are derived not from abstract speculation but from “dedicated intellectual endeavor” and a “compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood.”

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
From early Paleolithic cave art to today's satellite-casts of televangelists, religion has been a central force in human lives. But recently, according to author Karen Armstrong, something has been changing. To put it simply: For many of us God has become unbelievable. According to History of God author Karen Armstrong, the waning of faith began when people began believing that religion could trump the findings of human reason. In The Case for God, she maintains that the true task of religion is "to help us live, creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations." As always, Armstrong's arguments are imbued with uncommon restraint and subtlety, making them accessible to believers and nonbelievers alike.
Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating journey through Western civilization's ongoing attempts to understand and explain the concept of God. Celebrated religion scholar Armstrong (The Bible: A Biography, 2007, etc.) creates more than a history of religion; she effectively demonstrates how the West (broadly speaking) has grappled with the existence of deity and captured the concept in words, art and ideas. Beginning in the majestic caves of Lascaux, Armstrong explores how religion became a meaningful part of prehistoric societies, and the ways in which these societies passed down their practices and ideas in the earliest forms of art. The author then moves on to early monotheism and its rivals, offering a brilliant examination of ancient Greek views on religion and reason, which laid the groundwork for so much of Western thought. Looking at the early Christians and Diaspora-era Jews in tandem, Armstrong delves into Talmudic study and midrash, as well as Christian adaptations of theological concepts. Throughout the book, the author argues against religion as an abstraction, noting that it most truly exists in practice. "Faith . . . was a matter of practical insight and active commitment," she writes. "It had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture." Nevertheless, scholars have always attempted to define and "prove" God, and Armstrong admirably outlines the best of them through the centuries, including Origen, Anselm, Pascal and Tillich. Armstrong claims that the "warfare" between science and religion is a myth perpetuated by those with axes to grind. Likewise, the modern atheist movement, "death of God" theology and even fundamentalism arise from extremists who see religion as correct doctrine,not correct praxis. Though mostly focused on the West, Armstrong maintains a global perspective, masterfully weaving in her solid understanding of the world's panoply of faiths. Accessible, intriguing study of how we see God. First printing of 150,000
From the Publisher

"The time is ripe for a book like The Case for God, which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought."  —Ross Douthat, The New York Times Book Review
"Armstrong's argument is prescient, for it reflects the most important shifts occurring in the religious landscape." —Lisa Miller, Newsweek
"A thoughtful explanation, well-sourced and impressively rooted in the writings of theologians, philosophers, scholars and religious figures through the ages. . . . If Armstrong is out to bring respect to both reason and faith in the search of that transcendent meaning, she has done well." —Repps Hudson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"The Case for God is Armstrong's most concise and practical-minded book yet: a historical survey of hwo rather than what we believe, where we lost the "knack" of religion and what we need to do to get it back." —Michael Brunton, Ode
"In over a dozen books [Armstrong] has delivered something people badly want: a way to acknowledge that faith can be taken seriously as a response to deep human yearnings without needing to subscribe to the formality of organized belief." —The Economist
"The Case for God should be read slowly, and savored." —Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Armstrong's thesis is provocative, and her book illuminates a side of Christianity that has recently been overshadowed." —Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch
"Armstrong is ambitious. The Case for God is an entire semester at college packed into a single book—a voluminous, dizzying intellectual history. . . . Reading The Case for God, I felt smarter. . . . A stimulating, hopeful work.  After I finished it, I felt inspired, I stopped, and I looked up at the stars again.  And I wondered what could be." —Susan Jane Gilman, NPR's "All Things Considered"
"Karen Armstrong's book is simply superb. Wide-ranging, detailed, well researched meticulously argued and beautifully written, it is a definitive analysis of the role of religious belief and transcendence in our history and our life." —Dr. Robert Buckman, author of Can We Be Good without God?
"Karen Armstrong, in writing The Case for God, provides the reader with one of the very best theological works of our time. It brings a new understanding to the complex relationship between human existence and the transcendent nature of God. This is a book that is so well researched and so deep with insight and soaring scholarship that only Karen Armstrong could have written it. The Case for God should be required reading for anyone who claims to be a believer, an agnostic or an atheist." —The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, D.D., Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. 
"No one is better qualified or more needed than Karen Armstrong to enter the hot public debate between believers and non-believers over the existence of God.  Her latest book, eagerly awaited and received, rings out with the qualities she brings to all of her work—The Case for God is lucid, learned, provocative, and illuminating.  Indeed, Armstrong once again does what she always does best by shining a clear light on the deepest mysteries of the religious imagination." —Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Harlot by the Side of the Road
"Challenging, intelligent, and illuminating—especially for anyone reflecting on current discussions of atheism, often characterized as conflict between religion and science." —Elaine Pagels, co-author of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity
"With characteristic command of subject and crispness, the prolific and redoubtable independent British scholar and former nun takes yet another run at the world's religious history. . . . She's conceptual, humanistic and exceedingly well-read. . . . [An] articulate and accessible sweep through intellectual history. The "unknowing" of the mystics has its virtues and its place, but being well-read and knowledgeable makes one powerful and persuasive book. —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Celebrated religion scholar Armstrong creates more than a history of religion; she effectively demonstrates how the West (broadly speaking) has grappled with the existence of deity and captured the concept in words, art and ideas. . . . A brilliant examination. . . . [An] accessible, intriguing study of how we see God." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"The new book by premier contemporary historian of religion is a history of God. . . . Presenting difficult ideas with utter lucidity, this registers at once as a classic of religious and world history." —Ray Olson, Booklist (starred review)
"Armstrong offers a tour de force. . . . Highly recommended for readers willing to grapple with difficult but clearly articulated concepts and challenges to the 'received' ways of perceiving religion.  A classic." —Carolyn M. Craft, Library Journal
"One of our best living writers on religion. . . . Prodigiously sourced, passionately written." —John Cornwell, Financial Times
"Karen Armstrong is one of [a] handful of wise and supremely intelligent commentators on religion. . . . As in so much of the rest of her hugely impressive body of work, Karen Armstrong invites us on a journey through religion that helps us to rescue what remains wise from so much that to so many . . . no longer seems true." —Alain de Botton, The Observer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410421531
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 11/18/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition Large Print
  • Pages: 651
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs—including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation—and two memoirs, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She has addressed members of the U.S. Congress on three occasions; lectured to policy makers at the U.S. State Department; participated in the World Economic Forum in New York, Jordan, and Davos; addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York; is increasingly invited to speak in Muslim countries; and is now an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations. In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and recently launched with TED a Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion. She lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt


We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile. In our democratic society, we think that the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody. "That book was really hard!" readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. "Of course it was!" I want to reply. "It was about God." But many find this puzzling. Surely everybody knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality, who created the world and everything in it. They look perplexed if you point out that it is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not a being at all, and that we really don't understand what we mean when we say that he is "good," "wise," or "intelligent." People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who "he" is and what he thinks, loves, and expects. We tend to tame and domesticate God's "otherness." We regularly ask God to bless our nation, save our queen, cure our sickness, or give us a fine day for the picnic. We remind God that he has created the world and that we are miserable sinners, as though this may have slipped his mind. Politicians quote God to justify their policies, teachers use him to keep order in the classroom, and terrorists commit atrocities in his name. We beg God to support "our" side in an election or a war, even though our opponents are, presumably, also God's children and the object of his love and care.

There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different worldview,people have always thought about God in exactly the same way as we do today. But despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive. In some ways the modern God resembles the High God of remote antiquity, a theology that was unanimously either jettisoned or radically reinterpreted because it was found to be inept. Many people in the premodern world went out of their way to show that it was very difficult indeed to speak about God.

Theology is, of course, a very wordy discipline. People have written reams and talked unstoppably about God. But some of the greatest Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians made it clear that while it was important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines were man- made, and therefore were bound to be inadequate. They devised spiritual exercises that deliberately subverted normal patterns of thought and speech to help the faithful understand that the words we use to describe mundane things were simply not suitable for God. "He" was not good, divine, powerful, or intelligent in any way that we could understand. We could not even say that God "existed," because our concept of existence was too limited. Some of the sages preferred to say that God was "Nothing" because God was not another being. You certainly could not read your scriptures literally, as if they referred to divine facts. To these theologians some of our modern ideas about God would have seemed idolatrous.

It was not just a few radical theologians who took this line. Symbolism came more naturally to people in the premodern world than it does to us today. In medieval Europe, for example, Christians were taught to see the Mass as a symbolic reenactment of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection. The fact that they could not follow the Latin added to its mystique. Much of the Mass was recited by the priest in an undertone, and the solemn silence and liturgical drama, with its music and stylized gestures, put the congregation into a mental "space" that was separate from ordinary life. Today many are able to own a copy of the Bible or the Qur'an and have the literacy to read them, but in the past most people had an entirely different relationship with their scriptures. They listened to them, recited piecemeal, often in a foreign language and always in a heightened liturgical context. Preachers instructed them not to understand these texts in a purely literal way and suggested figurative interpretations. In the "mystery plays" performed annually on the feast of Corpus Christi, medievals felt free to change the biblical stories, add new characters, and transpose them into a modern setting. These stories were not historical in our sense, because they were more than history.

In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition. Logos was forward- looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. For that people turned to mythos or "myth."

Today we live in a society of scientific logos, and myth has fallen into disrepute. In popular parlance, a "myth" is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self- indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way. Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos. Myth has been called a primitive form of psychology. When a myth described heroes threading their way through labyrinths, descending into the underworld, or fighting monsters, these were not understood as primarily factual stories. They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. People had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons. When Freud and Jung began to chart their scientific search for the soul, they instinctively turned to these ancient myths. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.

But a myth would not be effective if people simply "believed" in it. It was essentially a program of action. It could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the "truth" of the myth a reality in your own life. The only way to assess the value and truth of any myth was to act upon it. The myth of the hero, for example, which takes the same form in nearly all cultural traditions, taught people how to unlock their own heroic potential.4 Later the stories of historical figures such as the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad were made to conform to this paradigm so that their followers could imitate them in the same way. Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity. It showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to. But if we failed to apply it to our situation, a myth would remain abstract and incredible. From a very early date, people reenacted their myths in stylized ceremonies that worked aesthetically upon participants and, like any work of art, introduced them to a deeper dimension of existence. Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it. Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally.

Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the pool, you can float. You may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible or sing with unearthly beauty. You do not always understand how you achieve these feats, because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious, logical deliberation. But somehow you learn to transcend your original capabilities. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy. A musician can lose herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely "feeling good." It is what the Greeks called ekstasis, a "stepping outside" the norm. Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. This will be one of the major themes of this book. It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth—or lack of it—only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline. Some people will be better at it than others, some appallingly inept, and some will miss the point entirely. But those who do not apply themselves will get nowhere at all. Religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practices work, just as a skater may not be fully conscious of the physical laws that enable her to glide over the ice on a thin blade.

The early Daoists saw religion as a "knack" acquired by constant practice. Zhuangzi (c. 370–311 BCE), one of the most important figures in the spiritual history of China, explained that it was no good trying to analyze religious teachings logically. He cites the carpenter Bian: "When I work on a wheel, if I hit too softly, pleasant as this is, it doesn't make for a good wheel. If I hit it furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn't work! So not too soft, not too vigorous. I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it."6 A hunchback who trapped cicadas in the forest with a sticky pole never missed a single one. He had so perfected his powers of concentration that he lost himself in the task, and his hands seemed to move by themselves. He had no idea how he did it, but knew only that he had acquired the knack after months of practice. This self-forgetfulness, Zhuangzi explained, was an ekstasis that enabled you to "step outside" the prism of ego and experience the sacred.

People who acquired this knack discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was not simply an external reality "out there" but was identical with the deepest level of their being. This reality, which they have called God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana, has been a fact of human life. But it was impossible to explain what it was in terms of logos. This imprecision was not frustrating, as a modern Western person might imagine, but brought with it an ekstasis that lifted practitioners beyond the constricting confines of self. Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that the contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment, and contentment.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence. Music has always been inseparable from religious expression, since, like religion at its best, music marks the "limits of reason." Because a territory is defined by its extremities, it follows that music must be "definitively" rational. It is the most corporeal of the arts: it is produced by breath, voice, horsehair, shells, guts, and skins and reaches "resonances in our bodies at levels deeper than will or consciousness." But it is also highly cerebral, requiring the balance of intricately complex energies and form-relations, and is intimately connected with mathematics. Yet this intensely rational activity segues into transcendence. Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything. A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in hearer and player alike, and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight. We seem to experience sadness directly in a way that transcends ego, because this is not my sadness but sorrow itself. In music, therefore, subjective and objective become one. Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness. "It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers," explains the British critic George Steiner, "that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours." Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof. It is "brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expression." Hence all art constantly aspires to the condition of music; so too, at its best, does theology.

A modern skeptic will find it impossible to accept Steiner's conclusion that "what lies beyond man's word is eloquent of God." But perhaps that is because we have too limited an idea of God. We have not been doing our practice and have lost the "knack" of religion. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time that historians call the early modern period, Western people began to develop an entirely new kind of civilization, governed by scientific rationality and based economically on technology and capital investment. Logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining truth. This would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally, and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, and religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. We lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the earth, dead men striding out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously. We began to understand concepts such as faith, revelation, myth, mystery, and dogma in a way that would have been very surprising to our ancestors. In particular, the meaning of the word "belief" changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as "believers," as though accepting orthodox dogma "on faith" were their most important activity.

This rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism. The two are related. The defensive piety popularly known as fundamentalism erupted in almost every major faith during the twentieth century. In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favor of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion. In the United States, Protestant fundamentalists have evolved an ideology known as "creation science" that regards the mythoi of the Bible as scientifically accurate. They have, therefore, campaigned against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, because it contradicts the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.

Historically, atheism has rarely been a blanket denial of the sacred per se but has nearly always rejected a particular conception of the divine. At an early stage of their history, Christians and Muslims were both called "atheists" by their pagan contemporaries, not because they denied the reality of God but because their conception of divinity was so different that it seemed blasphemous. Atheism is therefore parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image. Classical Western atheism was developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, whose ideology was essentially a response to and dictated by the theological perception of God that had developed in Europe and the United States during the modern period. The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion. This has weakened their critique, because fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.But the "new atheists" command a wide readership, not only in secular Europe but even in the more conventionally religious United States. The popularity of their books suggests that many people are bewildered and even angered by the God concept they have inherited.

It is a pity that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid. Religious people have indeed committed atrocities and crimes, and the fundamentalist theology the new atheists attack is indeed "unskillful," as the Buddhists would say. But they refuse, on principle, to dialogue with theologians who are more representative of mainstream tradition. As a result, their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology. In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is "nothing" out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God's transcendence. In our talkative and highly opinionated society, however, we seem to have lost sight of this important tradition that could solve many of our current religious problems.

I have no intention of attacking anybody's sincerely held beliefs. Many thousands of people find that the symbolism of the modern God works well for them: backed up by inspiring rituals and the discipline of living in a vibrant community, it has given them a sense of transcendent meaning. All the world faiths insist that true spirituality must be expressed consistently in practical compassion, the ability to feel with the other. If a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job. But the modern God is only one of the many theologies that developed during the three thousand-year history of monotheism. Because “God” is infinite, nobody can have the last word. I am concerned that many people are confused about the nature of religious truth, a perplexity exacerbated by the contentious nature of so much religious discussion at the moment. My aim in this book is simply to bring something fresh to the table.

I can sympathize with the irritation of the new atheists, because, as I have explained in my memoir The Spiral Staircase, for many years I myself wanted nothing whatsoever to do with religion and some of my first books definitely tended to the Dawkinsesque. But my study of world religion during the last twenty years has compelled me to revise my earlier opinions. Not only has it opened my mind to aspects of religion as practiced in other traditions that qualified the parochial and dogmatic faith of my childhood, but a careful assessment of the evidence has made me see Christianity differently. One of the things I have learned is that quarreling about religion is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment. It not only makes authentic religious experience impossible but also violates the Socratic rationalist tradition.

In the first part of this book, I have tried to show how people thought about God in the premodern world in a way that, I hope, throws light on some of the issues that people now find problematic—scripture, inspiration, creation, miracles, revelation, faith, belief, and mystery—as well as showing how religion goes wrong. In the second part, I trace the rise of the "modern God," which overturned so many traditional religious presuppositions. This cannot, of course, be an exhaustive account. I have focused on Christianity, because it was the tradition most immediately affected by the rise of scientific modernity and has also borne the brunt of the new atheistic assault. Further, within the Christian tradition I have concentrated on themes and traditions that speak directly to our present religious difficulties. Religion is complex; in every age, there are numerous strands of piety. No single tendency ever prevails in its entirety. People practice their faith in myriad contrasting and contradictory ways. But a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today. Hence I have given special attention to this neglected discipline in the hope that it may throw light on our contemporary predicament. But I do not, of course, claim that this was a universal attitude; simply that it was a major element in the practice not only of Christianity but of other monotheistic and nontheistic faiths and that it needs to be drawn to our attention.

Even though so many people are antagonistic to faith, the world is currently experiencing a religious revival. Contrary to the confident secularist predictions of the mid-twentieth century, religion is not going to disappear. But if it succumbs to the violent and intolerant strain that has always been inherent not only in the monotheisms but also in the modern scientific ethos, the new religiosity will be "unskillful." We are seeing a great deal of strident dogmatism today, religious and secular, but there is also a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing. We can never re-create the past, but we can learn from its mistakes and insights. There is a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence, and awe. That is what I hope to explore in this book. One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight. It is not easy to talk about what we call "God," and the religious quest often begins with the deliberate dissolution of ordinary thought patterns. This may be what some of our earliest ancestors were trying to create in their extraordinary underground temples.

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Table of Contents

Part I The Unknown God (30,000 BCE to 1500 CE)

One  Homo religiosus
Two  God
Three  Reason
Four  Faith
Five  Silence
Six  Faith and Reason
Part II The Modern God (1500 CE to the Present)

Seven  Science and Religion
Eight  Scientific Religion
Nine  Enlightenment
Ten  Atheism
Eleven Unknowing
Twelve  Death of God?
Selected Bibliography

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Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Case for God, the masterful new book by the bestselling author of The Spiral Staircase and The Great Transformation. 

1. In her introduction, Armstrong writes that “Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart” [p. xiii]. Why does Armstrong repeatedly assert the primacy of religious practice, ritual, and discipline over merely assenting to a set of abstract beliefs?

2. In what ways is The Case for God surprising? How does it challenge conventional ideas of God, religious history, and the relationship between science and religion?

3. Armstrong writes that her aim “is not to give an exhaustive account of religion in any given period, but to highlight a particular trend—the apophatic—that speaks strongly to our current religious perplexity” [p. 140]. What are the main features of the apophatic tradition? What is the value of arriving at a state of “unknowing”? How does the apophatic experience speak to our current religious predicament?

4. What is the distinction between mythos and logos? Why is it important that these modes of thought remain separate? In what ways have they been confused in the modern era? What are the consequences of confusing them?

5. Why would premodern Christians regard as misguided the kind of literal interpretation of the Bible favored by fundamentalists today?

6. What are the dangers of idolatry? Why are monotheistic religions, as well as absolutist secular philosophies, especially prone to idolatry?

7. “We tend to tame and domesticate God’s ‘otherness,'” Armstrong writes. “We beg God to support ‘our’ side in an election or a war, even though our opponents are, presumably, also God’s children and the object of his love and care” [p. ix]. What are some recent examples that support these claims?

8. How did theologians respond to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution it engendered? What effect did these large intellectual and historical movements have on the way people viewed the truth of scripture?

9. Armstrong writes:“By revealing the inherent limitation of words and concepts, theology should reduce both the speaker and his audience to silent awe” [p. 142]. What is the value of being reduced to silent awe? Why might a state of silent wonder, or receptivity, be preferable to a state of religious certainty?

10. Why does Armstrong object to the kind of aggressive atheism and vehement anti-religious rhetoric exemplified in the work of writers like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins? In what ways do their arguments against religion mirror the thinking of the fundamentalists they so despise?

11. Armstrong writes that “the desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic” [p. 9]. Does this seem true? Why might the desire for transcendence be such a central human impulse?

12. How are postmodernist and deconstructionist ways of reading similar to ancient rabbinical forms of exegesis?

13. Armstrong summarizes the thought of a huge range of philosophers, theologians, and religious figures, from Socrates to Jacques Derrida. Within this broad overview, what religious ideas or practices seem most useful or relevant today?

14. Paul Tillich asserts that “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him” [p. 282]. What is the meaning of this apparent contradiction? In what ways does Tillich’s statement speak to the major themes of The Case for God?

15. The Case for God ends with a provocative question: “. . . how best can we move beyond premodern theism into a perception of ‘God’ that truly speaks to all the complex realities and needs of our time?” [p. 317]. Why is it appropriate that Armstrong end with a question rather than an assertion? How might this question be answered? What are the most pressing needs of our time?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 96 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 94 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Armstrong explains it all

    In this book, Armstrong lays out the history of philosophical and religious concepts of God, primarily in the Judeo-Christian tradition and churches.

    Her writing is exceptionally clear and straightforward. her essential theme is that God is fundamentally unknowable.

    All of the "idolatrous" notions of God over the centuries are very clearly human projections. They are in no way based on revelations of the true nature of the Divine, which human minds just cannot fully understand and describe.

    This is a great book for seekers. It is also very good for understanding the views of others. Her material on American fundamentalism is superb.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2010

    More than the title suggests

    "We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile." That opening line hooked me on Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God. As a devout atheist, I was not immediately drawn to the title, but the latest book by this eminent scholar of religion seemed destined for my 'essential reading' list. Within a few minutes it became clear that this was not just one case for God, it was a history of the variety of cases made for god over many centuries and cultures. As presaged by the opening line, Armstrong's focus is on the God beyond "god", the mystic's g*d whose very name cannot even be known, the ultimate of the universe. The book's title could just as easily be, "The Quest For Certainty".

    The book opens with a chapter on the twilight before history, Paleolithic cave paintings and their potential meanings. What meaning or use might they have had for the original people who made these images? She explores some potential parallels with our contemporaries who live in Neolithic societies. What meanings do these images offer us for the nature of God, the nature of our understanding of God, or our understanding of our images of God?

    From this starting point Armstrong delves directly into the interplay of mythology, meaning, belief and being. She probes the parallels that can be found in mystical foundations of Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other ancient religions of the Middle East, Mediterranean, India, and China. In chapter 2 Armstrong explores the beliefs about God among the ancient Israelites. So far this could be a retelling of her earlier History of God, but in chapter 3 entitled 'Reason' she expands the scope significantly by encompassing the early Greek Philosophers. Often their story is divorced from the religious subject matter and placed with the history of science. Armstrong's treatment brings them closer to the mystics. The call to a life of compassion becomes the common factor across many styles of belief and practice. In the following chapters Armstrong traces the ebb and flow of exegesis between literalism and allegory, between orthodoxy (right words) and orthopraxis (right action), between theology and philosophy.

    Armstrong explores the development of a variety of flavors of atheism. Often they are critical of the shallow, facile orthodox religious beliefs that deny the deep mystery of the Universe and may border on idolatry. Secularism is identified as a political movement which has sometimes identified religious practices to be economic disadvantages. Modern Atheism is called "a form of secular fundamentalism" which falsely propagates the absolute incompatibility of religion and science. Modern fundamentalism is drawn out as a reaction to these.

    In her Epilogue, Armstrong returns to the question of the purpose of religion. "Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle." Armstrong places religious practice in closer relation to art, music, creativity, and a life of compassion. "Religion's task. was to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life."

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2010

    Well written, and as unbiased as anyone can be about religion.

    It's definitely not an "easy read" (keep a dictionary handy), but Armstrong provides a comprehensive review of how past cultures and philosophers have approached their belief in God and the mysterious. Armstrong does a good job of putting people's faith into the perspective of the times that they lived in, and examining how that has changed over the past several thousand years. She skims over Islam (briefly mentioned as it spread to Western Europe), which was a little disappointing to me, and other than a few mentions of Eastern religions, this is primarily about Greco-Roman philosophy, Christianity and Judaism. I enjoyed the book (I had to return my copy to the library and went out and bought my own), and if you've ever wanted to know more about how Christians and Jews have changed in their justification for faith and how they practice their faith, this is the book to read. As I mention in my header - it's hard to find books about religion that aren't overtly biased from either a preachy-religious perspective or an angry-atheistic perspective. Armstrong's tone through this book was respectful (and almost kind) towards all the people and faiths she analyzed, which I think is missing in a lot of discussions about religion. I will say, if you are a fundamentalist (of any faith), then this probably isn't the book for you since the writing is very frank about how our views of God and the Bible have changed over time and in relation to the external pressures facing people through history.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 10, 2012

    Summary: This book is interesting, but Christians (and God-belie

    Summary: This book is interesting, but Christians (and God-believers of other religions) beware: this book reveals how there really isn't anything special, let alone supernatural, about God.

    The author systematically explains how every modern religion traces back to myths originally crafted by primordial man during the days of cave dwellers. The author is not against religion per se. If a person finds benefit in following a religion, and in doing so becomes a better person, especially as it might lead that person to interact better with others, then the author is all for religion. However the author contends that religion should be looked at for what it is: precepts based on myths that have evolved over time to help man cope with the realities of life. The author _is_ against people who are fundamentalists in their religion: people who take their religion as a literal truth, given by an actual God. The author does not single out any one particular religion, though Christianity is the religion most cited.

    With regard to Christianity specifically, the author does go into much detail explaining how the Bible was actually authored. The author's explanation adheres to the mainstream, scholarly explanation: that the Old Testament began as separate manuscripts, written by separate groups. These separate manuscripts were later combined to invent a unified history for nomad tribes which were previously independent. This was done as a way of bringing those tribes together under one rule. (i.e. the Bible was crafted as a means to promote a political agenda.) With regard to the New Testament the author explains how different authors wrote stories about the historical figure, Jesus, as a way of conveying their different messages to different people to achieve their agendas.

    The author also explains the original intent of the Biblical texts, explaining how the original intent and meaning of the words in their original context has been lost or twisted by fundamentalists. As an example, the word, "believe," in its original context meant only to "devote oneself as a follower". It didn't mean, as it does today, to believe something to be true. Thus in the original context, phrases such as "believe in Jesus" were never meant to suggest Jesus was some supernatural being.

    The author concludes by discussing how "God" has finally died out, as evidenced by the sharp reduction in church goers. The author attributes this to people finally realizing religion for what it is and thus keeping it in its proper place.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2009

    The Case for God....?

    Karen Armstrong takes the reader on a whirlwind trip through the history of religions. The message is that we have become reliant on finding a definite truth. This attitude came out of the scientific changes of the 1600-mid 1800s when people thought science could arrive at absolutes. To protect themselves many religions turned toward strict sets of beliefs requiring everyone else to be wrong. Although science no longer expects to have absolute truth (hypotheses are expressed in probability and are tentative), many religions have stayed stuck in their "truth" and disparage the truths of other religions.

    At the end, the author, asks us to look back to the early days of many religions when people were taught spiritual exercises and experienced rituals that lifted them out of this worldliness and created an emotional connection to something beyond ourselves. These were ways to discover truth, which is more important than believing certain things others insist are the true.

    I am not sure she made a "case" for God but she did make a case for recreating these exercise and rituals.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Karen Armstrong Has Written a Masterpiece on Humankind's Peception of God

    Karen Armstrong has done it again. She has written a readable and comprehensive book that informs humans of how our perception of God has changed over time. She has woven philosphy and science into her writing and demonstrated how these disciplines informed and affected how we view good.
    The most important message of the book is that it is only in the 19th and 20th centuries that the Bible has been viewed as the unalterable words, not word, of God. This change was occasioned by the growth of science and materialism. Everything had to be empirically proved. So defenders of faith had to find a way to have the Bible meet the standards of science. In contrast, historically, the Bible was seen as metaphors, allegories that helped us understand the world and our need for meaning in our lives. It was not taken literally.

    A. Eric Rosen

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2010

    Very thought provoking.

    This book a rich story of religion (world-wide) and its influence throughout history. It's well researched, thought out, and thought provoking. I highly recommend it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

    God With Us

    Karen Armstrong has provided an excellent historical overview of the progress of the notion of God throughout human history. It is unencumbered by grand leaps of faith or personal preferences. It is objective. In the end, the importance of a personal God for human advancement seeps through the pages into the reader.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Points out the oddness of our current views, makes strong case

    Armstrong has a point to make, and does so without hiding it too much, namely that for the last 5,000 years "God" has filled a role that worked remarkably well for humankind. And that while that role was slightly different in various cultures, the endpoint was similar. Her main point is that in the last 250 years we have slowly but steadily moved away from that viewpoint and in doing so have created the current either/or envronment surrounding God and religion. Very well stated, though she does use some selective facts. Still, her reach is amazing and I personally found the book wonderful.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2009


    Insightful book.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    This book provides an explanation of fundamentals, provides important historical perspectives, and provides ways of thinking about God and religion that are important.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2012

    Horrible book

    It always amazes me what Christians think is "proof" of their beliefs. This drivel wouldn't stand up in a junior high school debate. The circular reasoning, straw man arguments, and projection in this book make it a blueprint of how to lose an argument.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2012

    It is good for christians

    I am just a kid,to be excat 11years old and i am a christian and if you are a christian then you will like this book very much and i mean you will like it it is a very good for christians or people who are searching for god in your life come and read this book you might eve learn a thing or two

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2010

    Good Book

    There are good ideas about the case of God. It is clear and educational. But its final presentation is not well done. Maybe it is something wrong when the press work was done.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2010

    Great book for a better understanding

    I am currently a high school student looking for better answers on life and the beyond and this is a great book. It is an understandable reading for most ages with the only problem being the use of ancient greek and latin words and meanings. Great book overall.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2009

    The best book to date on the subject of God

    This book is a very realistic view of God and where the original idea came from. It also makes a compelling case for the need to explain events in our lives that cannot be understood logically. I would recommend this to anyone who has an open mind and wants to learn more about life.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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