Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists. Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person.
Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.* She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should. The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes. The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains. We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.
The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)
The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience. “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke. The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying. But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence. Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not. Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.
What role science?
Armstrong understands that Max Planck had the right idea in the early days of the new physics (early 20th century). Science deals with the objective, material world, and religion with values and ethics. That puts it too narrowly, but it upholds the claim that conflict between science and religion is based “on a confusion of the images and parables of religion with scientific statement.” (Planck, pp 82-83)
Wittgenstein made much the same point while grasping what makes religion so fascinatingly complex is that it creates the reality it discovers. Religious language is essentially symbolic. It was “disgusting” if interpreted literally, but symbolically it had the power to reveal a transcendent reality in the same way as the short stories of Tolstoy. Works of art do not argue their case or produce evidence but call into being the reality they evoke. However, because this transcendent reality is ineffable (“wonderful beyond words” is how Wittgenstein described it) we would never come to know God merely by talking about him. We have to change our behavior, “try to be helpful to other people,” and abandon our egotism (Drury, pp 101, 129; Armstrong, p 279). If, Wittgenstein said, he was capable of making his entire nature bow down “in humble resignation to the dust,” then God might come to him (Monk, p 410).
True enough, but in her conclusion, Armstrong grants more to science than it deserves. Specifically, that a less determinate physics might inspire a less determinate religion.
Today, when science itself is becoming less determinate, it is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing. Here, perhaps, dialogue with the more thoughtful Socratic forms of atheism can help to dismantle ideas that have become idolatrous. (p 326)
By idolatrous, Armstrong refers to any view that thinks we can say something true about God. Here she follows Paul Tillich. “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (Tillich, p 205) The truth about God is silence. Perhaps, but even Wittgenstein found in myth a way to speak about “things that cannot be put into words.” But Wittgenstein was not inspired by the new physics.
Science has no more to do with a new, more imaginative way of thinking about religion than does the sublime experience of a sunrise, or a hawk riding the thermals outside my apartment window. Experiences like this are inspiring, but humans are fearful creatures. Whether or not we reflect upon its rituals and where they come from, religion provides a tincture for our agony that science has little to do with. Theologians may find inspiration in the new physics, but it’s only a metaphor. That counts for something, but for billions of people belief reinforced by shared ritual counts for so much more.
* Quantum indeterminacy refers to a number of different phenomena in quantum physics (the physics that studies the subatomic level) where the physical facts themselves seem to be indeterminate. Newtonian physics is deterministic: if we knew all of the initial conditions of some system, we could predict everything that would happen in that system. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the most well-known instance of quantum indeterminacy, says that it is not possible to know both the position and the velocity of subatomic particles (such as electrons). This uncertainty stems not from the limits of our ability to measure accurately, but is built into nature itself. Nature contains a inherent randomness, albeit within limits. Electrons don’t go jumping anywhere. See https://pressbooks.online.ucf.edu/introductiontophilosophy/chapter/free-will-supplement-quantum-indeterminacy-and-the-libet-experiments/).
Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. Knopf, 2009.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, 1955.
Maurice Drury, “Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees. Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.
Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Penguin (reprint), 1991.
Max Planck, quoted in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations. Harper and Row, 1972, pp 82-83.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies. London: Hogarth Press, 1931, first elegy.
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1. University of Chicago Press, 1951.