How Might Ritual Be Necessary For Maintaining A Dominant Perspective And How Might It Help To Change People’s Minds? How ••• KAREN ARMSTRONG IN 1981, KA

How Might Ritual Be Necessary For Maintaining A Dominant Perspective And How Might It Help To Change People’s Minds? How •••

IN 1981, KAR.EN ARMSTRONG published Through the Narrow Gate, a controver-
sial account of her experience as a Sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus,
a Roman Catholic order. Armstrong left the convent and the Church in 1972,
“wearied by religion” and “worn out by years of struggle,” and then spent the
intervening years pursuing a doctorate in literature and teaching at an English
girls’ school. Although her first book was a milestone, Armstrong has described
her life’s real turning point as a series of trips she made to Jerusalem beginning
in 1982. Shocked by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and also by the Palestinians’
intifada, Armstrong found herself questioning just how accurately most
W estemers-herself included-understood the lives and beliefs of Muslims in
the Middle East.

Convinced that the West was “posing as a tolerant and compassionate
society and yet passing judgments from a position of extreme ignorance and irra-
tionality,” Armstrong set out to help rectify cross-cultural rnisperceptions and
religious misunderstandings. She has written a number of books that explore
relations among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, including Holy War: The
Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (1991); Mohammed: A Biography ef
the Prophet (1992); and Islam: A Short History (2000). She has also written a bio-
graphy, Buddha (2001), and The Battle for God (2000), an account of the rise of
fundamentalism in modem societies.

The selection that follows comes from The Case for God (2009), in which
Annstrong, a self-described “freelance monotheist,” responds to the writings of
New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Victor]. Stenger,
and Christopher Hitchens. Armstrong makes the case that their view of religion
has been shaped by the very fundamentalism they reject. Dawkins, for example,
assumes that religion rests on faith in “a superhuman; supernatural intelligence
who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.” Today
this view of. God is accepted by hundreds of millions of believers, yet Armstrong
argues that in earlier times, religion was understood quite diiferently—as mythos, a

Excerpt from THE CASE FOR GOD by Karen Armstrong. copyright © 2009 by Karen Armstrong. Used by pemris-
sion of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publislring Group, a division of Random House LLC, and
Curtis Brown, Ltd. All rights reserved. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prolribited.
Interested parties must apply directly to Random House LLC for permission.

Biographical information and opening quotations are taken from;
the middle quotation is from The quotation from Richard
Dawkins appears on p. 304 of T1ie Case for G,d. The final quotation is drawn from http:/ /speakingoffirith.publicradio


symbolic language meant to transform our consciousness and our ways of bein
As she told an interviewer in 2008, she sees religion as “poetry”: g,

Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and
slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until some-
thing beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes
people’s perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I
think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we
would if we were writing such a poem … because I do see religion as a
kind of art form.

Homo religiosus

When the guide switches off his flashlight in the underground caverns of Lascaux
in the Dordogne, the effect is overwhelming. “The senses suddenly are wiped
out,” one visitor recalled, “the millennia drop away … You were never in darker
darkness in your life. It was-I don’t know,just a complete knockout. You don’t
know whether you are looking north, south, east, or west. All orientation is gone,
and you are in a datkness that never saw the sun.” Normal daylight consciousness
extinguished, you feel a “timeless dissociation from every concern and requirement
of the upper world that you have left behind.”1 Before reaching the first of the
caves decorated by our Palaeolithic ancestors in the Stone Age, seventeen thousand
years ago, visitors have to stumble for some eighty feet down a sloping tunnel,
sixty-five feet below ground level, penetrating ever more deeply into the bowels
of the earth. Then the guide suddenly turns the beam of his flashlight onto the
ceiling, and the painted animals seem to emerge from the depths of the rock.
A strange beast with gravid belly and long pointed horns walks behind a line of
wild cattle, horses, deer, and bulls that seem siniultaneously in motion and at rest.

In all there are about six hundred frescoes and fifteen hundred engravings in
the Lascaux labyrinth. There is a powerful bellowing black stag, a leaping cow,
and a procession of horses moving in the opposite direction. At the entrance to
another long passage known as the Nave, a frieze of elegant deer has been
painted above a rocky ledge so that they appear to be swimming. We see these
images far more clearly than the Palaeolithic artists did, since they had to work
by the light of small flickering lamps, perched precariously on scaffolding that
has left holes in the surface of the wall. They often painted new pictures over
old images, even though there was ample space nearby. It seems that location
was crucial and that, for reasons we cannot fathom, some places were deemed


h The subject matter was also governed by rules t~at
su.itable than ot ersd. t d The artists selected only a few of the species

h pe to un ers an . . 1· d
n never O • tures of the reindeer on which they re 1e

th ~th~~oo~ . n .. ··.·. to em, . t ntly paired–oxen and bison with horses, bison
? Animals are consis e 3

od.- . b. tions that would not occur in real life. Lascaux
oths-m com ma th. . f

m. am. m b t three hundred decorated caves in is region o
• There are a ou

unique. d h Spain In some the artwork is more elementary,
France an nort em . Th Ii ern th . agery and layout are basically the san1.e. e ear est

i.n·· all these caverns dae =fr bout 30 000 BCE a time when Homo sapiens
• ·· ·.. Chauvet tes om a , ‘ . .
a.·t· Grotte d , abrupt evolutionary change in this locality. There

h e un ergone an . .al . av . . ul • hich may have resulted m soc1 tension.

‘ , dramatic nse m pop anon, w . d
·~’.; . . . believe that the cave art records a “corpus of socially cons~c:e

….·hi···s· tonans nfli trol pictorially encoded for storage and transnussion :. ·.· _,_ for co ct con ••· . f ….. t” . …, ··· . ,,4 B t the paintings also express an intensely aestheo.c appre-
ci:. h generations. u . “d f V!roug __ 1 ld ‘·Iere we have the earliest known evi ence o an . . of the natur.u wor . r d

on . h. h remained in place for some twenty thousan years,
logical system, w 1c 5

. . h th caves fell into disuse in about 9000 BCE .

e•·.r./whlc e rail d that these labyrinths were sacred places for the

It is now gene Y agree •
· . · f kind of ritual Some historians have argued that their purpose
ormance o some · · d ·

rel ra tic, but their upkeep alone would have requrre an m_unense
pu y p gmad · labor Some of these sites were so deep that 1t took
unt of unpro ucuve · xh ·

h th
· ;rt~ermost core Visirino- the caves was dangerous, e ausung,

to reac err “‘”‘” · –., · ha th
> .·.· .· omical and time-consuming. The general consensus IS t t . ~ caves were

·.·.·.·.·.uµec. on . d, that as ill. any temple their iconography reflected a vision that was
‘ •.sanctuanes an , ‘ 6 b ild I lik ‘ • , a· ally different from that of the outside world. We do not u temp es . e

~ ·. the modern west. Our worldview is predominantly rational, and we think

.• .. ••· IS. Ill· ily . cepts than images we find it hard enough to decode the sym-
<' more eas ill con · . th Pal lithi ·.· .. ••.·.• · • f d' val thedral such as the one ill Chartres, so ese aeo c ;::bohsm o a me ie ca £shrines offer an almost insurmountable challenge. . . , .. But there are a few clues to aid our understanding. A remarkable pictur~, {dated to about 12,000 BCE, in a cave at Lascaux known as ~e Crypt because it is'even deeper than the other caverns, depicts a large biso~ th~t has be~ /eviscerated by a spear thrust through its hindquarters. Lymg m :front ~ '.. · · · dta · far dimentary stvle than the am- ( die wounded beast is a man, :wn ill a rp.ore ru ·, . t .. mals, with arms outstretched, phallus erect, and w~g what seems to_ b: a bu:d mask·. his staff which lies on the ground nearby, is also topped by a birds head. ' .This ~eems to' be an illustration of a well-known legend and could have been the founding myth of the sanctuary. The same scene appears on an engraved reilldeer '.(·holl1 at nearby Villars and on a sculpted block in a clitf shelter at ~oc d; Sers near ••.•.•.:·.·.· .. ·.t ...... im.·.·. oges which is five thousand years older than the Lascaux pamtmg. Fifiy-fr:e ... · ' al lith. k dtawmgs m similar in1ages in the other caves and three more P aeo 1c; roe .· · a have been found, all showing men confronting animals m a state of trance ~Vith upraised arms.8 They are probably shamans. . th ••,, We. know that shamanism developed in Africa and Europe du~g e eolithic period and that it spread to Siberia and thenc~ . to Amenca and 1.1stralia,. where the shaman is still the chief religious practitioner among the 4 KAREN ARMSTRONG indigenous hunting peoples. Even though they have inevitably been influenced by neighboring civilizations, many of the original structures of these societies, which were arrested at a stage similar to that of the Palaeolithic, remained intact until the late nineteenth century. 9 Today there is a remarkable continuity in the descriptions of the shaman's ecstatic flight all the way from Siberia, through the Americas to Tierra del Fuego: 10 he swoons during a public stance and believes that he flies through the air to consµlt the gods about the location of game. In these traditional societies, hunters do not feel that the species are distinc.t or per- manent categories: men can become animals and animals human. Shamans have bird and animal guardians and can converse with the beasts that are revered as messengers of higher powers.11 The shaman's vision gives meaning to the hunt- ing and killing of animals on which these societies depend. The hunters feel profoundly uneasy about slaughtering the beasts, who are their friends and patrons, and to assuage this anxiety, they surround the hunt with taboos and prohibitions. They say that long ago the animals made a cove- nant with humankind and now a god known as the Animal Master regularly sends flocks from the lower world to be killed on the hunting plains, because the hunters promised to perform the rites that will them posthumous life. Hunters often abstain from sex before an expedition, hunt in a state of ritual purity, and feel a deep empathy with their prey. In the Kalahari Desert, where wood is scarce, the Bushmen have to rely on light weapons that can only graze the skin, so they anoint their arrows with a lethal poison that kills the animal very slowly. A tribes- man has to remain with his victim, crying when it cries and participating symboli- cally in its death throes. Other tribes identify with their prey by donning animal costumes. After stripping the meat from the bones, some reconstruct their kill by laying out its skeleton and pelt; others bury these inedible remains, symbolically restoring the beast to the netherworld from which it came.12 The hunters of the Palaeolithic age may have had a similar worldview. Some of the myths and rites they devised appear to have survived in the traditions of later, literate cultures. Animal sacrifice, for example, the central rite of nearly every religious system in antiquity, preserved prehistoric hunting ceremonies and continued to honor a beast that gave its life for the sake of humankind. 13 One of the functions of ritual is to evoke an anxiety in such a way that the community is forced to confront and control it. From the very beginning, it seems, religious life was rooted in acknowledgment of the tragic fact that life depends upon the destruction of other creatures. The Palaeolithic caves may have been the scene of similar rites. Some of the paintings include dancing men dressed as animals. The Bushmen say that their own rock paintings depict "the world behind this one that we see with our eyes," which the shamans visit during their mystical flights. 14 They smear the walls of the caves with the blood, excrement, and fat of their kill in order to restore it, symbolically, to the earth; animal blood and fat were ingredients of the Palaeolithic paints, and the act of painting itself could have been a ritual of resto- ration.15 The images may depict the eternal, archetypal animals that take tempo- rary physical form in the upper world. 16 All ancient religion was based on what has been called the perennial philosophy, because it was present in some form in HOMO RELIGIOSUS 5 so many premodem cultures. It sees every single person, object, or experience as a replica of a reality in a sacred world that is more effective and enduring than our own. 17 When an Australian Aborigine hunts his prey, he feels wholly at one with First Hunter, caught up in a richer and more potent reality that makes him feel fully alive and complete. 18 Maybe the hunters ofLascaux re-enacted the archetypal hunt in the caves amid these painrings of the eternal hunting ground before they left their tribe to embark on the perilous quest for food. 19 We can, of course, only speculate. Some scholars believe that these caverns were likely to have.b.een used for the initiation ceremonies that marked the ado- lescent boy's rite of passage from childhood to maturity. This type of initiation was crucial in ancient religion and is still practiced in traditional societies today. 20 When they reach puberty, boys are taken from their mothers and put through frightening ordeals that transform them into men. The tribe cannot afford the luxury of allowing an adolescent to "fud himself" W estem-style; he has to relin- quish the dependency of infancy and assume the burdens of adulthood over- night. To this end, boys are incarcerated in tombs, buried in the earth, informed that they are about to be eaten by a monster, flogged, circumcised, and tattooed. If the initiation is properly conducted, a youth will be forced to reach for inner resources that he did not know he possessed. Psychologists tell us that the terror of such an experience causes a regressive disorganization of the personality that, if skillfully handled, can lead to a constructive reorganization of the young man's powers. He has faced death, come out the other side, and is now psychologically prepared to risk his life for his people. But the purpose of the ritual is not simply to tum him into an efficient kill- machine; rather, it is to train him to kill in the sacred manner. A boy is usu- ally introduced to the more esoteric mythology of his tribe during his initiation. He first hears about the Animal Master, the covenant, the magnanimity of the beasts, and the rituals that will restore his life while he is undergoing these traumatic rites. In these extraordinary circumstances, separated from everything familiar, he is pushed into a new state of consciousness that enables him to appreciate the profound bond that links hunter.and prey in their common strug- gle for survival. This is not the kind of knowledge we acquire by purely logical deliberations, but is akin to the understanding derived from art. A poem, a play, or, indeed, a great painting has the power to change our perception in ways that we may not be able to explain logically but that seem incontestably true. We find that th,ings that appear distinct to the rational eye are in some way pro- foundly connected or that a perfectly commonplace object-a chair, a sunflower, or a pair of boots-has numinous significance. Art involves our emotions, but if it is to be more than a superficial epiphany, this new insight must go deeper than feelings that are, by their very nature, ephemeral. If the historians are right about the function of the Lascaux caves, religion and art were inseparable from the very beginning. Like art, religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life. As meaning-seeking creatures, men and women fall very easily into despair. They have created religions and works of art to help them fud value in their lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary. The initiation experience 6 KAREN ARMSTRONG also shows that a myth, like that of the Animal Master, derives much of its meaning from the ritualized context in which it is imparted. 21 It may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws oflogic, but a good myth will tell us some- thing valuable about the human predicament. Like any work of art, a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. If we hold ourselves aloof, it will remain opaque, incomprehensible, and even ridiculous. Religion is hard work. Its are not self-evident and have to be culti- vated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be devel- oped. The intense effort required is especially evident in the underground labyrinth of Trois Freres at Ariege in the Pyrenees. Doctor Herbert Kuhn, who visited the site in 1926, twelve years after its discovery, described the frightening experience of crawling through the tunnel--scarcely a foot high in some places-that leads to the heart of this magnificent Palaeolithic sanctuary. "I felt as though I were creeping through a coffin," he recalled. "My heart is pounding and it is difficult to breathe. It is terrible to have the roof so close to one's head." He could hear the other members of his party groaning as they struggled through the darkness, and when they :finally arrived in the vast underground hall, it felt "like a redemption."22 They found themselves gazing at a wall covered in spec- tacular engravings: mammoths, bison, wild horses, wolverines, and musk oxen; darts flying everywhere; blood spurting from the mouths of the bears; and a human figure clad in animal skin playing a flute. Dominating the scene was a large painted figure, half man, half beast, who fixed his huge, penetrating eyes on the visitors. Was this the Animal Master? Or did this hybrid creature symbol- ize the underlying unity of animal and human, natural and divine? A boy would not be expected to "believe" in the Animal Master before he entered the caves. But at the culmination of his ordeal, this image would have made a powerful impression; for hours he had, perhaps, fought his way through nearly a mile of convoluted passages to the accompaniment of "songs, cries, noises or mysterious objects thrown from no one knows where," special effects that would have been "easy to arrange in such a place."23 In archaic thinking, there is no concept of the supernatural, no huge gulf separating human and divine. If a priest donned the sacred regalia of an animal pelt to impersonate the Animal Master, he became a temporary manifestation of that divine power.24 These rituals were not the expression of a "belief' that had to be accepted in blind faith. As the German scholar Walter Burkert explains, it is pointless to look for an idea or doctrine behind a rite. In the premodern world, ritual was not the product ofreligious ideas; on the contrary, these ideas were the product ofritual.25 Homo religiosus is pragmatic in this sense only; if a ritual no longer evokes a pro- found conviction of life's ultimate value, he simply abandons it. But for twenty thousand years, the hunters of the region continued to thread their way through the dangerous pathways of Trois fo~res in order to bring their mythology-- whatever it was--to life. They must have found the effort worthwhile or they would, without a backward glance, have given it up. Religion was not something tacked on to the human condition, an optional extra imposed on people by unscrupulous priests. The desire to cultivate a sense HOMO RELIGIOSUS 7 of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic. In about 9000 BCE, when human beings developed agriculture and were no longer dependent on animal meat, the old hunting rites lost some of their appeal and people ceased to visit the caves. But they did not discard religion altogether. Instead they devel- oped a new set of myths and rituals based on the fecundity of the soil that filled the men and women of the Neolithic age with religious awe.2 6 Tilling the fields became a ritual that replaced the hunt, and the nurturing Earth took the place of the Animal Master. Before the modem period, most men and women were nat- urally inclined to religion and they were prepared to work at it. Today many of us are no longer willing to make this effort, so the old myths seem arbitrary, remote, and incredible. Like art, the truths of religion require the disciplined cultivation of a differ- ent mode of consciousness. The cave experience always began with the disorien- tation of utter darkness, which annihilated normal habits of mind. Human beings are so constituted that periodically they seek out ekstasis, a "stepping outside" the nonn. Today people who no longer find it in a religious setting resort to other outlets: music, dance, art, sex, drugs, or sport. We make a point of seeking out these experiences that touch us deeply within and lift us momentarily beyond ourselves. At such times, we feel that we inhabit our humanity more fully than usual and experience an enhancement of being. Lascaux may seem impossibly distant from modem religious practice, but we cannot understand either the nature of the religious quest or our current religious predicament unless we appreciate the spirituality that emerged quite early in the history of Homo religiosus and continued to animate the major confessional traditions until the early modern period, when an entirely different kind of religiosity - emerged in the West during the seventeenth century. To do that we must examine a number of core principles that will be of fundamental importance to our story. The first concerns the nature of the ultimate reality-later called God, Nirvana, Brahman, or Dao. In a rocky overhang at Laussel, near Lascaux, there is a small stone relief that is seventeen thousand years old and was created at about the same time as the earliest of the nearby cave paintings. It depicts a woman holding a curved bison's horn above her head so that it immediately suggests the rising, crescent moon; her right hand lies on her pregnancy. By this people had begun to observe the phases of the moon for practical pur- poses, but their religion had little or nothing to do with this protoscientific observation .of the physical cosmos. 27 Instead, material reality was symbolic of an unseen dimension of existence. The little Venus of Laussel already suggests an association between the moon, the female cycle, and human reproduction. In many parts of the world, the moon was linked symbolically with a number of apparently unrelated phenomena: women, water, vegetation, serpents, and fertility. What they all have in common is the regenerative power of life that is continually able to renew itself. Everything could so easily lapse into nothingness, . yet each year after the death of winter, trees sprout new leaves, the moon wanes but always waxes brilliantly once more, and the serpent, a universal symbol of initiation, sloughs off its old withered skin and comes forth gleaming and fresh. 28 The female also manifested this inexhaustible power. Ancient hunters revered a 8 KAREN ARMSTRONG goddess kno:'n as the Great Mother. In large stone reliefs at <;atalhiiyiik in Turkey, she 1s shown giving birth, flanked by boars' skulls and bulls' horns- reli~s of a successful hunt. While hunters and animals died in the grim struggle for survival, the female was endlessly productive of new life.29 Perhaps these ancient societies were ttying to express their sense of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1899-1976) called "Being," a fundamental energy that supports and animates everything that exists. Being is transcendent. You could not see, touch, or hear it but could only watch it at work in the people objects, and natural forces around you. From the documents of later Neolithi~ an~ pastoral societies, we know that Being rather than a being was revered as the ultnnate sa::red power. It :'as impossible to define or describe because Being is all- enc_ompassmg and our ~ds ~e .o~y equipped to deal with particular beings, which can merely participate m 1t m a restricted manner. But certain objects became eloquent symbols of the power of Being, which sustained and shone through them with particular clarity. A stone or a rock (frequent symbols of the sacred) expressed the stability and durability of Being; the moon, its power of end- less renewal; the sky, its towering transcendence, ubiquity, and universality.30 None of these symbols was worshipped for and in itsel£ People did not bow dovVn and worship a rock tout court; the rock was simply a focus that directed their attention to the m~sterioQs essence of life. Being bound all things together; humans, animals, plants, msects, stars, and birds all shared the divine life that sustained the entire cos- mos. We know, for example, that the ancient Aryan tribes, who had lived on the C~u~asian steppes since about 4500 BCE, revered an invisible, impersonal force withi_n themselves and all other natural phenomena. Everything was a manifestation of this all-pervading "Spirit" (Sanskrit: manya). 31 There was, therefore, no belief in a single supreme being in the ancient w?rld. Any such creature_ could only be a being-bigger and better than any- thing else, perhaps, but still a finite, incomplete reality. People felt it natural to imagine a race of spiritual beings of a higher nature than themselves that they called "gods." There were, after all, many unseen forces at work in the world-wind, heat, emotion, and air-that were often identified with the vari- ous deities. The Aryan god Agni, for example, was the fire that had transformed h':111-an life, and as a personalized god symbolized the deep affinity people felt with these _s:cred forces. The Aryans called their gods "the shining ones" (devas) because Spmt shone through them more brightly than through mortal creatures, but these gods had no control over the world: they were not omniscient and were obliged, like everything else, to submit to the transcendent order that kept everything in existence, set the stars on their courses, made the seasons fol- low each other, and compelled the seas to remain within bounds.32 By the tenth century BCE, when some of the Aryans had settled iri the Indian subcontinent, they gave a new name to the ultimate reality. Brahman was the unseen principle that enabled all things to grow and flourish. It was a ?ower that was higher, deeper, and more fundaniental than the gods. Because 1t transcended the limitations of personality, it would be entirely inappropriate to pray to Brahman or expect it to answer your prayers. Brahman was the sacred energy that held all the disparate elements of the world together and prevented it HOMO RELIGIOSUS 9 from falling apart. Brahman had an irifinitely greater degree of reality than mortal creatures whose lives were limited by ignorance, sickness, pain, and death. 33 You cottld never define Brahman because language refers only to individual beings and Brahman was "the All"; it was everything that existed, as well as the inner meaning of all existence. Even though human beings could not think about the Brahman, they had intimations of it in the hymns of the Rig Veda, the most important of the Aryan scriptures. Unlike the hunters ofLascaux, the Aryans do n_o~ seem to have thought readily in images. One of their chief symb~ls of the divme "".as sound, whose power and intangible quality seemed a particularly apt embodiment of ~e all- pervasive Braliman. When the priest chanted the Vedi~ hymns, the music filled the air and entered the consciousness of the congregation so …

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