Mythos and logos: Armstrong v Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

I admire people like Albert Einstein and Carl Jung (both characters in my book) who were able to feel awe. They retained their ability to be amazed by the world, and derived out of that amazement what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.”

I also admire people like Richard Dawkins (and of course Charles Darwin) who are able to use the precision-scalpels of their minds for clear thinking and shocking insight. Eg: Evolution. Eg: No God.

Like Einstein, I don’t really see combat between the one attitude and the other, between the left brain and the right, the yang and the yin. I especially like what happens when the two are well connected.

So I very much enjoyed this little contest in the Wall Street Journal (thank you Cheri) between Karen Amstrong, a religious scholar I have a lot of time for, and Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist. They were both asked: “Where does evolution leave God?”

Dawkins, true to take-no-prisoners form, answered:

The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip.

Armstrong responded brilliantly too, by avoiding the embarrassing efforts of certain people to deny the evidence of evolution and instead going a level deeper, into topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: story telling, mythology, and archetypes:

First Armstrong concedes that

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived…. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

But then she expands the topic:

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity…

(Note 1: Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in several different ways. Viktor Frankl, as you recall, translated it as meaning, and named his approach logotherapy after it.)

(Note 2: The complementarity of mythos and logos is the stylistic assumption behind the book I am writing. It is non-fiction (logos) but–or so I hope, and so the editor believes–reads like myth. That’s because I feel that ideas, even logical ones, require stories for their telling.)

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More trouble with “truth”: Religion

In opening this thread on Socrates and his relevance to our modern lives, I mentioned “an oddly serendipitous string of events”: Several of you had, independently, emailed me with links and thoughts that, directly or indirectly, touched on issues that Socrates raised.

Here is one example, which segues from the previous post on Socrates’ negativity, his apparent sacrifice of gentleness at the altar of unvarnished truth. A few weeks ago, Joel Rotem, a reader of The Hannibal Blog, emailed me this TED talk of theologist Karen Armstrong, in which she puts forth a theory of “good” religiosity. Joel was sceptical and asked philosophically:

Is it OK to misinform your listeners in order to get to a noble target? Do the ends justify the means?

As you see, Armstrong wants to persuade us that religion is not really about “believing” this or that, but about behaving in a certain way: with compassion. All religions, she argues, have at their core a version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Hatred, she infers, is alien to true religiosity and a form of “hijacking” religion.

Now, this is of course a Rorschach test of sorts. Those who would like to exonerate religion will tend to confabulate ways to agree with Armstrong, those who would like to indict religion will do the opposite. Joel is in the later camp, as I tend to be. But that is not the point.

The point, as Joel said in our impromptu debate (because Socratic dialectic seems to come naturally and effortlessly to readers of The Hannibal Blog ;)) is this same tension between true and good that got Socrates into so much trouble. Joel’s words:

In western thought, we often equate truth with good (both very subjective terms). Telling the truth is good. Lying is bad. We must always strive to reveal the truth. We have book and movies dedicated to heroes struggling to reveal the truth. Some of our (my) heroes fighting to reveal the truth include: Woodward and Bernstein, Galileo and hey, how about that Superman guy fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Seems pretty open and shut until you listen to a Karen Armstrong. Is it better to paint Islam as the religion of humility and peace or to [point to] Islam’s bloody roots and doctrines?

Joel did not single out Islam but implicated all religions. He then listed other topics, beyond religion, where “truth” will get you into a world of hurt. For instance, race: What if we were to discover a truth that we would find just too apalling to entertain? We seem to need lies to maintain civilization. The problem, as Joel said,

is of course the slippery slope. Who says what lies we should believe for the common good?

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