Karen Armstrong and the Meaning of Belief

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 be very surprising to our [recent] ancestors.  In particular, the meaning of “belief” changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so 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 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 unparalleled in the history of religion.

                                      Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (2009)

In Apes, Ants, and Ancestors, I accept that most of us have past the point of no return.  A modern myth must shrink down into a corner of religion, however small, that can be couched in the language of a hypothesis seeking to be a theory in order to elicit the emotion of belief.  Yes, belief is an emotion.  I am a psychiatrist and I shall demonstrate that belief is an emotion with an evolved function.  It is my hope that if it could be shown that it just might be possible to believe in God in the modern sense, that the old sense of belief as faith and mythos  might come flooding back.

About J.V. Wylie

Retired psychiatrist, who is writing a book called "How We Became Human"on the origin of the human mind. My blog, "Apes, Ants, and Ancestors" - is a "laboratory" for the ideas in the book.
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7 Responses to Karen Armstrong and the Meaning of Belief

  1. This is just wonderful! Her thoughts are so relevant to my situation: feeling myself to be a person of some faith, yet rejecting much dogma and knowing that “true Christians” would consider me no Christian at all. She puts her finger right on my dilemma and eases my angst. Thank you, John.

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  4. weisberg jeffrey says:

    How do you resolve the existence of the evolutionary forces acting on the individual and
    the natural selection at the level of the group.
    Are they separate entities?

    • Excellent question, Jeff. The idea is that, for 6 million years (our pre-human hominid era) our evolution was dominated by group selection, which created small groups of 20-30 relatives (tribes) all with a single group consciousness which virtually suppressed individual (id) awareness. However, 200,000 years ago, our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved “on top” of that group that consciousness, our own special brand of selection at the level of the individual – mostly based on Freudian-style selection of “sexual display.” So we ended up with this 6 million year legacy of group selection based on aversive emotions like anxiety and depression as our underlying consciousness (morality, good of the group stuff), but on top of this sits our newly minted human, goal oriented sex-obsessed, individually selected consciousness. The interaction between these two levels of consciousness – one group selected for 6 million yrs, and one individually selected for 200,000 yrs. results in self awareness and the phenomenon of the unique internal discourse of human thinking. So, the answer to your question is that they are separate entities but interact constantly. Answer your question? John

  5. Henry says:

    What “point of no return” has been passed in your generalizing assumption? And what remainder (rest) do you hope will come flooding back when we have belief in God – in a modern sense? Please help me get my footing so I can follow with keen interest.

  6. Thanks for your reply and interest, Henry.
    Karen Armstrong’s analysis is that the meaning of belief originally meant loyalty, trust and engagement. “In the English translations of the bible, it virtually means the same as faith. But, since during the 17th Century, it started to be used as intellectual assent to a particular proposition, teaching, opinion, or doctrine. It was used in this modern sense by philosophers and scientists, and this new usage did not become common in religious contexts until the nineteenth century.” When I say that I have reached a point of no return, I mean that I seem to be stuck with the modern sense of belief in which it refers to a hypothetical or theoretical postulation which is judged on the basis of the evidence for it. My book tries to understand God in this latter sense, and, my hope is that, if I can get some people to “believe” in admittedly a natural and “downsized” manifestation of God that it could act as a pathway or bridge for people to walk beck over to re-assume the old fashioned meaning of the word. The problem and challenge I refer to is nicely stated in E.O. Wilson’s quote. -John

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