God has enjoyed quite the hot streak on the bestseller lists lately. Or rather, books about God have, specifically those about whether or not such a thing exists, with ample ink given to how misguided believers or atheists are, depending on which author you turn to.
Now Karen Armstrong has joined the debate over religion’s sway in modern society. The Case for God attempts to cut pop atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens off at the pass, exposing their attack on fundamentalist religion, particularly Christianity, as a wild goose chase. True religion, says Armstrong in a level-headed, cool tone, has nothing to do with intelligent design or predestination or any kind of dogma. She asserts that what most of us think of as religion emerged in the 17th century, as advances in science steered religious practice into something more cerebral than corporeal, and that for most of human history, “God” meant something very different than what it means now.
For Armstrong, herself a Catholic nun and atheist at different points in her life, God is a symbol, not an omnipotent ruler. Religion is a matter of deed, not belief. To prove that point, The Case for God begins way back at the dawn of civilization, examining the sacred implications of cave paintings in Europe, and follows the divine thread through several cultures. What emerges is a picture of several cultures that understood God not as a singular entity, but as an unknowable, mysterious essence. Despite her nebulous claim, Armstrong’s attention to detail is impressive, and the pace of her argument is well-plotted.
But if you’re looking for Armstrong to take a side in the God wars, don’t hold your breath. She opts for a third way, away from the blustery invective. Religion, she concludes, is a matter of silence, because God by nature is outside the realm of human comprehension. Words simply fail. That might sound like a cop-out, but when you consider her point, isn’t silence something we could use a bit more of?
Will Ayers is a writer in Nashville.