The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “The Case for God”

Last summer, we adopted a little girl who’d been fostered by a deeply evangelical couple, “called” to minister to children in China. I’m more accustomed to mocking the faithful than to thanking them, and I’m not good at hypocrisy. I picked up The Case for God looking for a reason to change.

I had a purely secular education, and except for a brief flirtation with the Christianity of Amy Grant (I’m so ashamed), I’ve never left the atheist fold in which I was raised. I had to respect the way Rory’s foster parents acted on their religious convictions-who wouldn’t?-but in my mind, evangelical Christians were those who “blindly accepted that ‘Jesus could be eaten in the form of a cracker .’ ” My effort to reconcile those two ideas led me to The Case for God . Karen Armstrong, once a nun and now a TED prizewinner, argues that it is the actions, rather than the doctrine, that have constituted “religion” for most of its history, and she effectively let me off the hook. If what people do with their religion (rather than what they say about it) is “God,” then that’s a God I can believe in.

The Case for God is a massive book, covering the history of the major religions and their varying descents into fundamentalism and including a thorough investigation into philosophy. I liked it. But in my mind it’s misleadingly titled-I’d call it The Case for God (Kinda) . Armstrong’s God is not the “God” that Richard Dawkins et al. protest, nor one that most people would recognize as such. She takes religion back to a time when examination, not faith, was its purpose, and the God she defends can’t be argued with because, in a sense, her God is argument itself. She makes a case, not for “God,” but for the kind of examined life that a search for God delivers. “Why is there something, and not nothing?” The answer, for Armstrong, isn’t God. But the question is. Which makes “The Case for God” that rare (maybe singular) book that lets you argue with your atheist cousin AND your fundamentalist aunt-or just reconcile your affection for the two.