Karen Armstrong: A Danger in Comparing the Nature of Music and of Religion

In the Karen Armstrong interview featured in my recent posts, and I assume also in her new book The Case for God, Armstrong mentions that the ‘pioneering atheists’ stated that ‘reason is all’. She points out that this is (to her) a flawed way to look at things, because she notes that it’s a feature of the human mind that we can have experiences that can go “beyond what we can grasp conceptually” (whatever that means – it’s a concept that I can’t grasp).
Look at music for example, she says. It introduces us to a mode of knowledge which isn’t about concepts and that goes beyond logical definition.
I’ll by-pass the intriguing idea that music is a mode of knowledge, and go straight on to point out that there’s a danger in putting forward this sort of argument.
It leaves the arguer open to the possibility of having their argument destroyed in future by progress in the study of the subject.
Look at music for example.
I think that Armstrong picked a bad example with music, because we don’t have to wait for the future to arrive in order to understand something of its underlying nature. We’re well on our way already.
Music often seems at first sight (or listening to) to be transcendental and ethereal, as though it’s some sort of mysterious force or power that’s there purely for our spiritual uplifting. This, I assume, approximates to Armstrong’s view. However, a deeper look will reveal that it’s a phenomenon that’s rooted firmly in our physical world, with its origins lying very much in the mundane sphere of day-to-day reality, despite its seemingly other-worldly qualities
The reason that music has such a powerful effect on us is that our brains have evolved to react to sounds in nature (either positively or negatively), and we have exploited that reaction by developing ways to generate sounds artificially that are more intense than those that are found in nature. Music, like many other art-forms, is a type of sensory super-stimulation.

Setting up music as a comparison to religion in terms of otherworldliness, as Armstrong does, has the flaw that as we come to understand more about the nature and evolution of music, and as we see more and more how it’s rooted in the mundane material world rather than on any mystical plane, it reflects badly on religion. It makes you start to suspect that religion may have a similar genesis, God forbid.
To my way of thinking the music-religion comparison is a good one however, for precisely this reason.

One final point.
I suspect that with her comparison of religion and music Armstrong is cherry-picking her music.
She’s probably thinking about Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. Not Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter.



Filed under Philosophy, Religion/atheism

2 responses to “Karen Armstrong: A Danger in Comparing the Nature of Music and of Religion

  1. Allan Muir

    Thanks for this comment comparing music with religion. Very thought-provoking! I found you site while trawling for stuff on evolution of humour (thanks also for that).
    You point out that Armstrong’s argument allows the source of religion to be located in the “mundane material world”. I fully agree that that’s where we should expect to find it. My only quarrel is with your use of the word “mundane”; I guess that you, as an obvious lover of the richness of the world, would be meaning that a bit tongue in cheek.
    To counter that tendency in myself, to “apologise” for a materialist perspective, I have, of late, begun referring to myself as a “transcendental atheist”. My aim is to merely declare that the world is inexhaustible in content, “transcendental” in the sense that there’ll always be something which is currently beyond our ken — not forever so, but puzzling enough to drive our quest for further exploration into the next unknown.

  2. Chris Madden

    Hi Allan.
    You’re absolutely right about my use of the word ‘mundane’. The mundane world is indeed endlessly intriguing and is more inexplicable than we can possibly comprehend. It’s just because we’re in the middle of it that we become rather blasé about the place and tend to think that we have to look for ‘wonder’ elsewhere.

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