New model atheists also sometimes play off soundbites from one religious tradition against another to prove they’re all rubbish. If there were anything in any of them, they would all say the same thing. To test this approach, you need someone who has actually studied more than one religion historically to find out what they actually have or haven’t said, and how, and why, as a matter of fact, they have developed.
Enter Karen Armstrong. You might agree or not with her conclusions, but she is unquestionably one of the most learned and perceptive historians of comparative religion in the world. She knows a bucketful of languages, history, philosophy and poetry. She is not particularly orthodox or signed up to anything, but she undoubtedly knows her stuff, and has a real knack for getting ideas across.
This is what she says:
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... There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different world-view, 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.She goes on to map out historically those images of God, old and new, that have developed within the world’s major religious traditions over the past 12,000 years. It’s a briliant compact work of historical description — I managed to read it in an 8 hour flight.
The basic idea is that all kinds of sophisticated visions, practises and subtleties flourished in the pre-modern world with a surprisingly high degree of mutual respect, understanding and flashes of emergent coherence. During the early modern period tooled up renaissance people fell in love with the idea of absolute certainty. When they couldn't quite attain it, they over compensated by constructing various formulations of provisional truth to be peddled as absolutes.
Thereby they lost much of the directness, openness, discipline, poetry and praxis of religion. All meanings were narrowed and noddied up for use as polemical rocks. Selective ignorance and paranoia bred fundamentalisms various, including atheistic ones. These are increasingly angry and desperate means of licensing the self to wallow in one, defined over and against all the others.
Taking this narrowed rationalistic approach is very limiting; like playing opera on tinny little speakers. We need to learn how to learn again and wake up to the possibilities for unlocking truth that is not intellectually reductionist and ultimately fascistic. It’s a plea for the recovery of something that wouldn't have needed saying until comparatively recently — that God’s a big lad, and he can look after himself, and we can enjoy the sutlety, poetry and joy of discovering him for ourselves best in communities that are logged in and logged on, not fundamentalist blockhouses.