April 2012 Selection: Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, 2009

At our April meeting we will discuss Bill Hagen’s selection:

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, Anchor Press, 2009


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
Aside | This entry was posted in 2012 Selections, The Case for God and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to April 2012 Selection: Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, 2009

  1. Burk Ketcham says:

    THE CASE FOR GOD by Karen Armstrong

    COMMENTARY by Burk Ketcham 3/13/12


    My own feelings before reading this book were that all God talk is nonsense. Those were not my original thoughts but those stated in a book by an English Professor at Union College who grew up in a Catholic family of 12 children in Brooklyn, NY and spent quite a few years in a failed effort to become a Jesuit priest. It is interesting to note that Karen Armstrong is a former nun. I do not know if either are still Catholics.

    My parents also grew up in Brooklyn where they were members of a Baptist church where you went to church three times on Sunday. When they were married and moved to the New York suburb of Montclair, New Jersey they became members of a Congregational Church. Even though the Congregational Church is fairly liberal in its beliefs, my parents never abandoned the puritan ways of their Baptist heritage.

    Games were not allowed on Sunday and I never saw a drop of any kind of alcoholic spirits in the house. I had to go to Sunday school and never had an interest in the biblical teachings of the lay Sunday school teachers. Later, as a teenager, I attended classes with the minister and became a member of the church before going into the Navy during World War II.

    After the war and graduation from Union College I attended some sessions for young members of the church and it was there that I got to know Helen Schmid who became my wife. I sincerely state that Helen was the only good thing to come out of church. Helen too had no interest in religion and we abandoned any participation in church activities. By and by we moved away from New Jersey and raised two sons. Our oldest son went to Sunday school once and came home with a bug and was never sent again. Our other son never attended a Sunday school class.

    Spiritual matters were not part of our lives as we moved from New Jersey to California and finally settled in Massachusetts. My Congregational vision of God was this something up in the sky people prayed to. Gradually, I came to the realization that I was an atheist and had no reservations about calling myself a WASA – white Anglo-Saxon atheist. There was no such thing as God.

    After 38 years of marriage Helen died of cancer in1989 at age 63. I must admit that during the 10 years she fought cancer I was not beyond praying to that something in the sky, if there was a something up there, for a miracle. One clutches at any straw in moments of crisis.

    Subsequently, in August 1996, on an across the US and back east through Canada trip, I met Peggy O’Connor in British Columbia with whom I had some in depth discussions of matters of the soul. It was on a second visit to her small seasonal cabin on a lake in New Denver, BC that one night I had what I called a spiritual awakening or mystical experience leading me to think there was such a thing as God. In retrospect it probably was a dream.

    Early in 1997 I sold the house in Massachusetts and moved to Tacoma, WA where Peggy lived. Upon arrival and at Peggy’s suggestion I applied for training as a chaplain in the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at St Joseph’s, a hospital run by the Franciscan nuns in Tacoma. Peggy had gone through CPE following her early retirement as the Superintendent of Schools at a small city near Tacoma and was working as a hospice chaplain. To my great surprise I was accepted into the yearlong program involving 20 hours of classroom studies and 20 hours of patient visits each week. My fellow trainees included priests, nuns, ordained ministers and seminary graduates.

    My one fear was that my scant knowledge of the Bible and religion would be a problem when visiting patients. That proved not to be the case as only on two occasions was the bible brought up for discussion. I found that most patients just wanted a sympathetic ear to listen to their stories. God never entered the room.

    During my year in CPE I started to attend the Tacoma Friends Meeting (Quakers) and applied for and was accepted as a member. The Quakers have little in the way of dogma and their view of God is it is the light within. That was something I could embrace and free myself from God being this all-encompassing person that pulls all the strings for life in this world.

    After finishing the CPE program I worked for about five years as a volunteer healthier communities planner doing outreach work in the communities served by the Franciscan Health System. That built upon my prior professional work as a consultant to cities on urban development and redevelopment. Peggy, now retired from hospice work, has remained a good friend. After about five years as a Quaker I resigned from the Meeting, as it was not serving my spiritual needs as I had expected.

    Now at age 87 and nearing the end of the road I find that God, whatever that may be, is not something I need. For me there is great beauty and food for the soul in nature (including humans) and the more enlightened works of man such as music, poetry, art and literature. I do not like organized religion and if I have any spiritual leanings they are unique to me. I am fortunate in having many friends of both sexes who make life worth living.


    After reading this book I have not changed my opinion that all God talk is nonsense. It appears that most philosophers and theologians agree that if there is something called God it is beyond comprehension to humans. There are those who feel that God appears through an altered state of consciousness, as I may have experienced in British Columbia.

    As Armstrong goes back into the early days of civilization it becomes evident that because of the complexity of life and its relationship to nature man felt that there were forces at work beyond their comprehension and Gods were invented to represent those unknowns pulling the strings. Voltaire said that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him; it made little difference to him if God did or not exist. I feel the same way and do not want to spend a lot of time speculating on the matter. God, pure and simple, is a human invention; Feuerbach (page 232) argued that God was an oppressive human construct. Freud (Page 248) concluded that religion was a neurosis that bordered on insanity.

    During my CPE training I learned to be respectful of other people’s views about religion and God. Some have greater needs than others. I visited my sister in Illinois a few weeks before she died of pancreatic cancer. She was a very sincere, devout person and in spite of the pain she was enduring was buoyed up by the “knowledge” that she would soon be reunited in Heaven with George, her wonderful husband.

    I will compliment Karen Armstrong in writing a very readable and well-researched book about God. She does make a case for those who seek a God but I add that there are those of us who do not seek a God or something we cannot imagine. It seems that our God worship through religion has not made for a better world. In far too many cases religion has done the reverse. I see the fundamentalist, anti-humanist direction the Republican Party is taking as a case in point.

    I also see money as the new God of this world and the capitalistic system is
    as fundamentalist (in economic terms) and anti-humanist as the Republicans.

    As Elie Wiesel was to hear from another prisoner as he saw the smoke from Auschwitz that burned his mother and sister to death, “Where is God?”

    It is evident that nobody knows the answer other than that God is something in our mind to which a word has been attached

    • Richard Smaby says:

      My Personal Experience with God
      Richard Smaby
      I was engaged by Burk’s personal and thoughtful comments on The Case for God. Thank you, Burk. I am inspired to share in a similar vein, perhaps with a slightly different perspective.
      My mother regularly brought me to the Episcopal Church. She also regularly brought me to choir practice. The former took, at least after a fashion. The latter did not, in any fashion what so ever. As a young teenager I agonized over the reason for my existence (probably caused by my exposure to religious teachings). Night after night I would lay awake trying to understand why I existed at all and what it would mean that I would someday cease to exist. The topic of the existence of God came up quite naturally, as did the various teachings of my mother, the moralist in our family. I understood that I had a responsibility to my fellow humans, to look out for them as well as for myself. Maybe I took that thought to an extreme, because I remember my mother saying to me, “Richard, you do not have to carry the weight of the whole world on your shoulders.” But I seemed mostly to look out for myself. This realization induced a strong sense of guilt. I connected it with the idea of original sin. Night after night as I deliberated, the question of the existence of God became more and more central to the solution I was seeking. I became obsessed with proving the existence of God. I had hope that I could succeed; I was quite good at proving theorems of geometry. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, after fretful but persistent deliberation I finally came up with the proof of the existence of God. Unfortunately, upon waking I had forgotten it.
      A couple of years ago the deliberations of that night came back to me. They went as follows. I have a strong drive to preserve myself, look after my own interests, and do things I enjoy doing. But I also need to live my life in a way that benefits my fellow human beings. Given the limited hours in the day and the limited time of my life in total, I had to make choices. I could rationalize that what I enjoyed doing would somehow automatically benefit others (I chose to become a teacher), but I knew that was a rationalization. Instead, I could ask forgiveness for my self-centered choices and work to grow the socially responsible side of me. But whom would I ask forgiveness of? No single person would be able to forgive at that level. I have always been skeptical of established authority, even as a teenager. So, religious authority would not do it. I needed God to forgive me. The thought that God would help me sort out difficult moral questions gave me a sense of peace. God was the part that made everything make sense.
      As an adult I have come to feel adequate in many endeavors, but in key areas I have to fight a sense of the futility of life – not a good place to be at the end of your life especially. Ceaseless and senseless wars, powerful self-serving political interest groups, and a passive citizenry make me feel powerless to have any effect no matter how much time and energy I would devote to a cause. I recover a portion of peace and purpose through the following thoughts. I have observed that there are a lot of people attempting to make the world a better place. I have also observed that a lot of those people are at least as competent as I to sort things out. But even so, it is hard to see how our efforts can actually make the world a better place. The forces against us seem so formidable. But then I look at history. Some of that history seems to support the belief of Theodore Parker (1853) made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” What is this arc of the moral universe? Maybe it is just another name for God. I am OK with that. And maybe this is not too far afield from what Karen Armstrong is arguing in The Case for God.

  2. Mohsen Mirghanbari says:

    Narrators, who represent the topic of religion and its theories “The Search for GOD and life’s beginning, like any scientific research create a verity of characters &/or actors, who present their own viewpoint of religion understanding, while trying to maintain the original story, each storyteller’s uniqueness help create a new philosophy, whether, consciously or sub- consciously, transforming religion to new findings.
    One also should not define science as the ultimate proof of life’s beginning or end, as in “A Case For GOD” the author does not prove the existence or no-existence of GOD, neither does Bible or any other spiritual book placed before us, which can also be said of science, since science is also based on assumption of thoughts and history recordings.
    The author’s main objective is an attempt to disqualify biblical stories and myths (fairy-tails) placed upon us by past narrators to accept an idea not uisually visible, and unlike science, religion is a tool per-say, that we humans use to help justify our emotional human needs.

  3. Ron Boothe says:

    I found reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God to be a very enjoyable experience. It provides a nice historical summary of theological thinking, primarily from a Judeo-Christian perspective but interlaced with a smattering of ideas derived from other religions. Her non-strident tone was refreshing and stands in sharp contrast with recent popular books arguing the opposite case against God such as (the late) Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), both of whom I respect intellectually except when they start discussing religion, in which case I find their strident, know-it-all tones to be as insufferable as those of the most dogmatic fundamentalist theists. In The Case for God you will find none of that heavy-handed “I have THE TRUTH on my side and anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot” rhetoric that unfortunately is all too commonly encountered in books of this type from both theist and atheist perspectives. Karen Armstrong comes across to me as a smart, knowledgeable, nice person; someone who I would probably find it a pleasurable experience to sit down with and have a conversation over a cup of coffee.

    I am always somewhat amused by the extreme reluctance of intellectuals to express any positive sentiment towards religion. Actually, I understand the reluctance. It is because so much bad stuff has been carried out, historically as well as in the present, in the name of religion, or by individuals who claim to be motivated by religious beliefs. But I do wonder, why do intellectuals insist on throwing out the baby with the bathwater? This is analogous to a similar problem I have in trying to understand why so many of my friends who have a leftist leaning political outlook have problems expressing positive sentiments towards the American Flag. Sure, lots of really bad stuff has been done under the banner of the flag – but why do liberals/progressives/leftists, cowardly in my opinion, allow the right-wing-nuts to appropriate the symbol of the flag? And similarly, why do liberal intellectuals allow right-wing fundamentalists to appropriate religious symbols and theological ideas? Intellectually, I have never encountered any convincing rational argument for a religious belief system other than agnosticism, with the possible exception of existential philosophical arguments asserting the value as living life “as though” certain (religious) beliefs are valid/true.

    The old adage, tell me about the god you don’t believe in and chances are I don’t believe in that god either, seems particularly apropos when discussing religion with my fellow scientists. Many scientists who claim to be avowed atheists when asked if they “believe in god”, will a moment later argue vehemently that “there is order in the universe”. As a working scientist most of my life, I have similarly always operated under the assumption that there is order in the universe, and it does not make me get all clammy and sweaty with anxiety if someone wants to use the name “God” to refer to that order. As far as I can tell, what most scientists mean when they claim that they “do not believe in god” is some combination of: 1) I don’t want to be associated with most of those who claim to believe in god, or with many of the things that have been, and continue to be, done in the name of god. 2) I don’t believe in a little man with a white beard who sits up in the sky and sometimes does magic tricks (miracles) . 3) I don’t believe in a god who is a person and/or is capable of having a “personal” relationship with me. 4 I don’t believe in all that crap I was indoctrinated with as a child when my parents forced me to go to Sunday-school. 5) I don’t believe in an afterlife and I sure the hell don’t believe in eternal damnation.

    A world-view that is compatible with the (implicit) belief systems of most modern scientists (but which probably also meets most criteria to qualify as a religious belief system) was outlined in a book we read in our book club in 2010 (Christopher Potter, You Are Here, 2009). The only criterion that the form of materialism described by Potter fails to meet to qualify as a religion is one emphasized by Armstong, practice. She makes a strong argument that the essence of religion is not “religious belief”, but “religious practice”. I have struggled with this dilemma personally during most of my adult life. I have personal “religious beliefs” that I find meaningful, but have never been able to find meaningful ways to practice those religious convictions within an organized religious institution. Sometimes wish I could though.

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