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Karen Armstrong Builds A 'Case For God'

In her new book The Case for God, the author — a former nun — argues that religion is a practical discipline that can teach us to discover new capacities of the mind and heart.


Other segments from the episode on September 21, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 21, 2009: Interview with Karen Armstrong; Review of the Emmy Awards.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Karen Armstrong Builds A 'Case for God'


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

My guest, Karen Armstrong, has written bestselling books about the
religions of the world, but her new book starts with sentence: We are
talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often

She goes on to say: Despite our scientific and technological brilliance,
our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even

In her new book, “The Case for God,” she looks at the history of
religion as a practical discipline that has taught how to discover new
capacities of mind and heart, and how people through the centuries have
translated doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Religion, she says,
requires perseverance.

Armstrong’s books include “A History of God,” “The Battle for God,”
“Islam,” “Buddha” and “The Spiral Staircase,” which is a memoir about
why she left the convent in 1969, after seven years, feeling she’d
failed to find God.

Karen Armstrong, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that many people
today think of God as the supreme being, a divine personality who
created the world and everything in it, but God is not a being at all.
We really don’t understand what we mean when we say that he is good,
wise or intelligent. What do you mean when you say God is not a being at

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, “The Case for God”): Well, the idea of God
as a supreme being means that he is simply like us, writ large, and just
bigger and better, the end product of the series; whereas this divine
personality that we meet in the Bible was, for centuries, regarded
simply as a symbol of a greater transcendence that lay beyond it.

Some theologians call this the God beyond God. And this God isn’t just a
being like you or me, or the microphone in front of me, or even the
atom, an unseen being that we can find in our laboratories. What we mean
by God is, some theologians have said, is being itself that is in
everything that is around us and cannot be tied down to one single
instance of being.

GROSS: Now, one of the recent language problems people have had with
religion is deciding whether to call God he or she, and I think you
would say none of the above.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: None of the above. God is neither he nor she, and…

GROSS: So what are some of the difficulties that early religious
theologians had in describing or naming what God is and finding language
to describe what they meant by God?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, always in the religious quest, India has been way
out ahead, and way back in the 10th century before Christ, some of the
Brahman priests there devised a ritual, which was a sort of competition.
They went out into the forest, and there they made a retreat, put
themselves into a different frame of mind.

They’d fast, and they practiced certain sort of breathing exercises,
early forms of yoga, and then they came back, and the competition would
begin. And the challenger would try to define the Brahman, that is
ultimate reality in Hinduism, something that lies way beyond the gods,
that is way beyond anything we can know and yet is within us all.

And he had to do this definition in a very sort of poetic and enigmatic
way. And his opponents would listen to him very carefully, and then they
would respond, moving on from what he had said and make their own
definition of what Brahman, or we would say God, is.

And the winner was the priest who reduced everybody to silence. And in
that silence, the Brahman was present. The Brahman was not present in
the wordy definitions of the divine. It was present in the stunning
realization of the absolute powerlessness of language and speech to
describe this.

And that, I think, is an authentic model of religious discourse. A
theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words
and thoughts can do.

GROSS: Now, what you’re describing sounds to me like maybe these are the
theologians and scholars who are from the more mystical ends of the
religions that existed then, the more educated theologians, but in terms
of what most people observed, were they observing religion, do you
think, in earlier times in a more literal way, where the gods were real,
where the gods were namable, you know, something where God was a being
or the gods were beings, depending on the religion?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and indeed. I mean, in India and throughout the
world, the gods were seen as real beings, unseen beings. And of course
before the scientific era, there were so many aspects of life that were
unseen, like wind and emotion, that are realities in our lives, and they
thought the gods were more powerful than they, but they knew, too, that
the gods were not the ultimate realities.

The gods were not like what we call God today. They were not omnipotent.
The only thing that made them different from human beings is that they
were immortal. They wouldn’t die. But they had – they were bound by the
laws of the universe just as much as we were.

They shared the same predicament, and gods and humans, they thought,
would work together to preserve the cosmos and keep its energies going.
But they also knew that there was a reality that the gods couldn’t reach
that lay beyond all this, and that they called Brahman.

Now, what the ancient Israelites did was a very daring thing. They took
one of these gods, Yahweh, and said that is the chief symbol of this
ultimate reality. And no one had done that before. There was a clear
distinction always in people’s minds between the gods and what the God
beyond god.

GROSS: Do you think that monotheism brought us closer to believing that
God was the one, that there was one creator called God?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: There is a danger in monotheism, and it’s called
idolatry. And we know the prophets of Israel were very, very concerned
about idolatry, the worship of a human expression of the divine. Not
just a statue, but simply even an idea or a thought about God. And
there’s always a danger that we will mistake this symbol for the
absolute, for the reality to which it’s supposed to point.

All religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent
awe, and it was all too easy to end-stop it and say that, well, God is a
bit like us writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. And
when the Crusaders went into battle in the Middle Ages to kill Jews and
Muslims, they cried out: God wills it. This was their battle cry.

Now, of course, God meant nothing of the sort, but what these Crusaders
were doing were projecting onto an imaginary deity, that they were
creating in their own image and likeness, and giving him a seal of
absolute approval. And today, terrorists do the same.

So theologians and priests were very much alert to this. And so they
devised spiritual exercises, not just for mystics, not just for an elite
group, but for all the faithful to make them realize that when we talked
about God, when we said God was good, we were doing this in a very
inadequate way - that God couldn’t be good like you or me when we talk
about a good person or a good meal or a good dog. We have an idea of
what we’re talking about, but God was, as the Muslims say, allah hu
akbar - God is always greater than anything we can understand.

And in the Quran, for example, God is continually saying look,
everything I’m saying to you is an ayia(ph), a parable, a sign. Even the
great statements like paradise or talk about creation or the last
judgment, these are ayia. They’re parables, symbols of realities that
we, with our finite, earthbound minds, can’t grasp.

GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her new book is
called “The Case for God.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Karen Armstrong, and we’re
talking about her new book, “The Case for God.” You describe in your
book how most pre-modern cultures recognize that there are different
ways, two different ways, of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge,
and the Greeks called this mythos and logos, and I’d like you to briefly
describe what mythos and logos mean and how you think that applies to

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, logos is science or reason, something that helps us
to function practically and effectively in the world, and it must
therefore be closely in tune and reflect accurately the realities of the
world around us.

Mythos was about the discourse, stories about the more difficult aspects
of our humanity, about for which there were no easy answers. Like the
fact that we are – we get sick, that there are all kinds of questions
about suffering and pain that concern us, and for this, people turned to

And mythos and logos, they were not seen as in competition with one
another. People felt we needed both, and each had its particular sphere
of competence, and it was really rather dangerous to mix the two up.

GROSS: What do you mean by mixing the two up?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, if you’re going to organize a hunting expedition,
you need to be absolutely focused on the practicalities of your
situation - where the animals are and the man force and the terrain. You
can’t go off into a dream about gods, and you can’t mix myth into
politics or the economy, though that’s been done sometimes recently, I
think, and it’s not a good idea.

Now, if your child dies, or you experience a terrible natural disaster,
you want a scientific explanation. But a scientist will be the first to
tell you that it cannot help you to find some ultimate meaning and come
to terms with this tragedy. That lies outside the remit of science, to
find that kind of meaning.

GROSS: In your book “The Case for God,” you talk about the 16th and 17th
centuries as being the period when myth was discredited, and the
scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining
the truth. What happens in the 16th century and 17th century that
discredits myth?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, we began to create modern science, and science in
the 17th and 18th centuries achieved such spectacular results that
everybody was focused on it, and myth looked awfully flimsy beside these
scientific discoveries, which were backed up with the advanced
mathematics and clear and concise proof.

So we started to want only information that was scientific, that could
be proven logically. We were choosing logos and gradually, myth became
discredited, and people weren’t interested in this most elusive form of
knowledge anymore.

GROSS: At the same time during this period, science starts to come in
conflict with the church, like Galileo. You know, he said Copernicus was
right, the planets didn’t revolve around the Earth; the Earth revolved
around the sun. And the church condemned this view as false and contrary
to Scripture. He was accused by the Vatican of heresy and sentenced to
house arrest for the rest of his life. So is the time when religion and
science really start butting heads?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: That’s certainly a symptom, if you like, of a new kind of
spirit that was coming into being. When Copernicus had actually
presented his theory in the Vatican some 60 years earlier, the pope had
given it a cautious approval, but things were tougher by the time you’ve
had the Protestant Reformation. You’ve had terrible political disasters
in Italy. It was a new, hard-line Vatican that wanted people to tow the
line, and Galileo was not going to tow the line.

And so the pope made a terrible, terrible mistake when he condemned
Galileo. There was no excuse for it. It was an absolute disgrace, but
also Galileo made mistake.

He was also – could be quite an intransigent human being. He believed in
mythos and logos. He believed that you shouldn’t mix the two, and yet he
kept continually bringing up Scripture in a way that was no longer quite
safe to do in this new, hard-line climate.

But actually, this wasn’t the beginning of the end because, just a
little later when Newton, the great Sir Isaac Newton, starts his great
discoveries, science and religion became best friends. Science and
religion fell passionately in love with one another.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, because Newton and Rene Descartes said that they’d
found proof for God, and the churchmen, theologians, priests, church
bishops, they were intoxicated by this notion of a scientific religion,
a scientifically based religion that was in touch with the most exciting
thought of the day and that could give them cast-iron certainty. And so
they started to make Newton’s God absolutely central to Christianity.

GROSS: What was Newton’s God? How did he prove that God existed?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Newton and Descartes, too, both felt that unless
you had God, the solar system made no sense. God was absolutely
essential, they thought, to the universe. Something needed to start the
whole thing off, to get things going. And Newton discovered such a
magnificent order in the universe that he said that the only way you
could explain this was by an absolute, divine intelligence that was
omnipotent, omniscient, all-knowing, and that – and here I quote – was
also very well-skilled in mechanics and geometry.

He said that you couldn’t have a solar system unless you had an
intelligence designer. Well, of course, we know what happened. It was
only a few generations before later scientists were able to dispense
with God as the beginning of the universe, a necessary explanation.

GROSS: You see this coming together of science and religion and the use
of science to prove that there is a God as opening the door to two
fairly new phenomena. One is fundamentalism, and the other is atheism.
Let’s start with fundamentalism. How do you see the coming together of
science and religion as creating or at least opening the door to

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, once this scientific religion caught hold, people
started to read the Bible in a literal manner where they never had
before. Nobody before the 17th, 18th century understood the first
chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life.

GROSS: Is that true? Like, I never really know. Is it really true nobody
saw it as literal before?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, no, because you could always have a new version of
it. And right up to the 16th century, you find people making up entirely
new creation myths. The great Jewish mystic, Isaac Luria, 16th century,
created an entirely new creation myth that bore absolutely no relation
to Genesis at all.

Now, if someone did that today, there’d be hell to pay because people
would say you can’t do that. It contradicts the Bible. But Luria’s
story, his new myth, inspired a Jewish mass movement from Poland to
Iran. It was the only theology in the Jewish world to gain such
universal acceptance.

St. Augustine had made it quite clear, too, in the Christian world, that
if a Biblical text contradicted Scripture, that text must be re-
interpreted and given an allegorical interpretation. And that remained
the practice of the church right up until the 16th century.

So right up on the dawn of the scientific revolution, you have John
Calvin saying that the Bible has nothing at all to tell us about
science, and he’s very cross with what he calls frantic persons who are
trying to impede science by saying it doesn’t agree with the Bible. He
said if you want to learn about cosmology, don’t go to the Bible; go

GROSS: And you say that this coming together of science and religion
also opened the door to a new form of atheism.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, because really, the certainty that people were
beginning to expect from religion was unsustainable. Once you’ve got
people like Laplace, who says – a French physicist of the early 19th
century - who says that he doesn’t need the god hypothesis, he can
account for the universe perfectly well without God – and finally
Darwin. Then no longer is the advanced thought of the day with religion
as it had been for 200 years.

Now, people are expecting absolute certainty. They’re expecting
scientific proof. And when they don’t get it, and when science no longer
comes up with the goods they want, atheism becomes inevitable for some

GROSS: So you’re saying this is relatively new, because until the 16th
and 17th century, no one expected that science could prove the existence
of God. Therefore, nobody expected that kind of literal proof.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Nobody expected literal proof from Scripture, and that’s
whether you look in the Jewish world, people like Maimonides (ph); in
the Muslim world, people like Abu Sina or Al-Ghazali; or in the
Christian world with Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas in his great work, the “Summa Theologica,” he says yes,
now here are some proofs to show that something brought something into
existence when there could have been nothing. But then he pulls the rug
out from under our feet and said but we don’t know what it is we’ve
proved. All we’ve proved is the existence of a mystery. We have no idea
what God is. And that’s basically the way religion was left at the time.

Religion wasn’t about answering questions that we could answer perfectly
well by our powers of logos, of reason and science. Religion was helping
us to deal with aspects of life, facts of life for which there are no
easy answers.

GROSS: Karen Armstrong will be back in the second half of the show. Her
new book is called “The Case for God.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with religion scholar
Karen Armstrong. Her new book is called "The Case for God." When we left
off, she was talking about how religion and science first came into
conflict and how that led to a new form of atheism from people who
demanded scientific proof of God.

What's your response to an atheist like Richard Dawkins, who wrote a
bestselling book explaining his atheism and using scientific thinking to
disprove the existence of God and he calls religion supernatural

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Dawkins is a great biologist and I have been
inspired by his account of natural selection. He's helped me to see the
wonder of that. And it certainly deals a blow to the simplistic idea of
God as creator that has taken root in the West since the early modern
period. And many religious people talk about God today in a way that's
really quite simplistic, even primitive and give rise to the kind of
attacks that Dawkins, I think he sometimes goes too far in his attack,
but we thinking about God and talking about God far too easily.

Very often people hear about God when they're little and when, at the
time they first learn about Santa Claus. And over the years their ideas
about Santa Claus have changed and developed. But their ideas of God
have got stuck in this rather infantile mode, which mistakes the symbol
that God is supposed to be for hard fact. And so I think that in
pointing out that you can think about God in this way, Dawkins could
have done a service to religion in getting people back to a more
developed and symbolic sense of the divine that lies beyond us.

GROSS: So you agree with him in rejecting a literal minded version of
religion, but where do you start to disagree with him?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think some of his characterizations of religion
are a bit sort simplistic and uninformed really. I don’t like the way he
says that we should withdraw all respect from religion because whether
he likes it or not, the vast majority of human beings on the planet
wants to be religious, want to live in relation to transcendence. And it
seems to me that you don’t want to wipe out a species or to exterminate
it. You want to nudge it perhaps, into a more healthy form of evolution,
if I can put it that way, and I don’t like his aggression. I think that
in our very polarized, dangerously polarized world, we can't afford yet
another divisive discourse that puts us at odds with one another.

GROSS: Let me ask you a big and impossible to answer question, which is
what do you think religion is for?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that
we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life and helping us to
live in relation to that transcendence that I was speaking about
earlier. Religious people are ambitious. They want to feel enhanced.
They want to feel at peace within themselves. They want to live generous
lives. They want to live beyond selfishness, beyond ego.

All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or
Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of
selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision.

That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of
compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and
put another there, we live much more richly and intensely.

GROSS: You were in a convent for seven years. You were committed to
Christ and to the church, and then when you left, when you decided that
this life was not for you, you left religion behind for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then you made the study of the religions of the world,
basically your religion scholarship of, you know, religious scholarship
became like a religion to you. And every time you're on the show I like
to kind of take your pulse and see...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...where are you now in terms of what religion means in your
life. So where are you?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, for me, my study, my study of these wonderful
wonderful texts has become my form of meditation or contemplation. And
when I'm sitting at my desk or even in the British Library, I can have
moments of awe and wonder and excitement that lift me up beyond myself,
give me intonations of something touching me deeply within. And that's
become my path and I can't see any one of the world religions as
superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and
each its particular flaws. And it’s pushed me into a more compassionate
mode of living.

GROSS: Do you practice any kind of rituals, meditation, prayer, because
you talk about religion in your book as being a way of living, as being
a practice?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So do you have any kind of practice to help you get that kind of
focus that you want in life?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: It is my study, for me, and I can't pray. I'm absolutely
hopeless at prayer. Large...

GROSS: Why do you think you’re hopeless at prayer?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, when I was in my convent, we'd have to make a
meditation every morning for a whole hour and I could not keep my mind
on this for one minute at a time. My mind would instantly go skittering
off down a whole alleyways of distraction and worries and anxieties. And
I think I just seem to encounter absolute emptiness and nothingness. I
had a very simplistic idea of God. I had the idea of God as this divine
personality that would somehow get in touch with me. There'd be some
kind of encounter. Now I realize I was barking up the wrong tree. That
isn't what God is at all.

But those years of failure, every morning going into that church and
coming out not having meditated at all, left me with a kind of fear of
meditation, if you like. The thought of a sort of a worry about it, just
like some people might have after having had a say a bad sexual
experience that they don’t want to go there again. And the last thing I
ever thought I would end up doing is writing about religion and yet,
here I am.

GROSS: My guest is Karen Armstrong. Her new book is called "The Case for
God." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Karen Armstrong. Her new book is
called "The Case for God." I wonder if you’ve been following this, there
was a poll that was released by the Public Policy Polling firm and they
polled New Jersey residents and one of the questions they asked was if
they think President Obama is the anti-Christ and...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh dear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you hear about this?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No I didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Eight percent of the people polled said yes and 13 percent
said they weren't sure. And then among Republicans, 14 percent said yes,
Obama is the anti-Christ and 15 percent said they weren't sure. What
does that say to you?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Anti-Christ is a kind of bogie. It's a fundamentalist
bogie, the epitome of evil that challenges true faith and to pin that on
a human being is a kind of very worrying projection. We're making
scapegoats and looking at people to blame for the immensely difficult
and complex problems of our world. Anti-Christ is a kind of bogie. It
has no real roots in the Christian tradition. And...

GROSS: It doesn't?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Not really. It's a couple of chance remarks of Saint Paul
and then there's the "Book of Revelation." But the whole idea of there
being end-time battles reflects a more sort of Zoroastrian view of the
world. And I think it reflects a very pessimistic view of life, that the
world seems to be so evil that it's hurt lead towards to some
unimaginable catastrophe in which the evil and the evildoers will be
vanquished and Christ will be victorious. The Christ of Revelation will
fight anti-Christ in terrible end-time battles.

This, you know, if people came to psychiatrists with this kind of
fantasy, the psychiatrist would probably denote a profound disorder, a
profound neurosis. And the fact that it has such a grip in America is a
sign of I would say of an unhappy society, dare I say it.

GROSS: You see a big difference between America and England when it
comes to religion in general, fundamentalism in particular.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh well, England is just not interested in religion at
all, and I think only about six percent of Britons attend a religious
service regularly. And atheism is almost de rigueur among the chattering
classes of London which makes it a rather lonely existence for me here.
I mean friends will actually ask me not to speak about religion when I
come around to dinner, as though this was some kind of really a
retrograde subject and find it difficult to imagine why I should bother
with this discredited stuff.

But then we are beginning to seem endearingly old-fashioned in our
aggressive secularism because in the rest of the world, outside Western
Europe, there is an immense religious revival. And a lot of it, like
that anti-Christ thing, reflects real A: the aggression that we have
inherent in the modern world. The 20th Century was a terribly violent
century and religions absorbed some of that violence and also profound
anxieties. We’ve got so much to worry about at the moment, that perhaps
it's no wonder that it surfaces perhaps in a religious form.

GROSS: You recently made a wish while getting an award...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that, what did you call it, compassion committee or something

Ms. ARMSTRONG: A Charter for Compassion.

GROSS: A Charter for Compassion. Explain what your wish is.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was given this award by the TED conferences and
they like to give a prize to people whom they think have made a
difference in the world, but with their help could make an even more of
an impact. And so my wish was that they would help me to create and
craft a Charter for Compassion that would restore compassion to the
center of the religious life. And instead of seeing religion as part of
the problems of our world, would actually help religion to make a
positive contribution towards peace. And so the charter's being written
now and it will be launched in November.

But primarily, it's a call for action. Not just the sort of feel good
factor; so that compassion which is at the heart of all morality, of all
religious systems, far more important than believing things or accepting
orthodox views, should be speak again loudly and clearly in our world.
And I shall be working on this, now, I think for the rest of my days.

GROSS: As part of the group that you’re trying to organize around
compassion, do you want that to be an antidote for some of the more
extreme forms of religion that are forming now?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Definitely because you know, when we hear about
religion, when it hits the headlines it's either something like that
anti-Christ poll or else we hear the voices of hatred or extremism or we
hear our church leaders condemning things, like condemning homosexuality
or enforcing rigid beliefs. And this is not what religion is about.
Religion - all the world faiths have developed their own version of
what's been called the Golden Rule, don’t do to others what you would
not like them to do to you. And they’ve said, all of them, that that is
the essence of faith.

That it is that, not our beliefs and, but that bring us into
relationship with what we call God or Brahman or Tao, and it's that that
gives meaning to our lives. And so I want to restore compassion to that
and so that we have instead of religious antagonism, religious
aggression, we have a voice that speaks continually of compassion; that
endlessly tries to put us, make us put ourselves in the position of the
other. Because I'm worried that if we don’t manage to implement the
Golden Rule, globally, so that we treat all peoples, wherever they are
as though they were as important as ourselves, that we, I don’t think
we'll have, if we don’t do that, a viable world to hand on to the next

GROSS: The way you’ve portrayed it in your book and in our interview,
religion used to be something that was understood as myth. And it’s only
later on in modern times, when science comes in that there’s this more
literal version of it. And it used to be more about compassion, too.
But, you know, just really isn’t it true that throughout human history,
there have been religious conflicts?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh yes.

GROSS: Both within religions and between religions. And that…


GROSS: …religion has always been a force for – for bad, as well as for

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, because that’s what we are. That’s what the Garden
of Eden story is telling us about, that good and evil are inextricably
combined in our – in our hearts, in our all every single individual. And
of course, a lot of people don’t want to be compassionate, they’d rather
be right. And they – a lot of people get a kick out of hating people.
And God, as I’ve said earlier, can be abused and made to back up that
hatred, because religion is very difficult to do well. And it’s not the
easy thing that people imagine. It’s not a question of just bopping down
to church and singing a couple of hymns. It requires a daily effort to
overcome the ego that holds us back from enlightenment. And a lot of
people don’t – are not quite ready for that.

It must also be said that a lot of the tensions that we - religious
violence that we see in the world today, as well as in the past, has
been the result of political tensions. And when violence becomes
ingrained in a region, where warfare becomes chronic in a region, such
as the Middle East or Afghanistan, then religion gets sucked into the
whole unholy mess and becomes a part of the problem too.

GROSS: Now, you know, your view of religion isn’t that there’s a
personal God who has some kind of physical manifestation and who can
appear to you and speak to you. But some people have - say that they’ve
experienced that manifestation of God. They’ve had some kind of direct
contact or message from God. How do you – how do you process that?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Far be it for me to decry anybody’s religious beliefs or
religious experience. And if religion – your experience of God speaking
to you or whatever, compels you to live a more compassionate life, then
it’s doing its job. And if it’s filling you with respect and awe for the
natural world and for all God’s creatures, it’s doing its job. What we
call God comes to us in many ways. I couldn’t make the personal God work
for me. But that’s not to say it won’t work for other people. We all
experience the inimitable, limitless God - in as many different ways as
there are human beings.

GROSS: Karen Armstrong, really good to talk with you again. Thank you so

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Karen Armstrong’s new book is called “The Case for God.” Coming
up, the case for network TV. David Bianculli reviews last night’s Emmy
Awards and previews the new fall season that starts tonight. This is
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Emmys and TV’s Newest Crop of Fall Shows


Last night, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences handed

out its prime time Emmy Awards in its annual celebration of the best
that TV has to offer. Tonight, broadcast television officially begins
its new fall season, with less fanfare and fewer viewers than it had
even a few years ago.

Our TV critic David Bianculli looks at both subjects and what they have
to do with one another.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Last year’s Emmy Awards show, the one hosted by a tag-
team roster of reality show hosts, was awful. Last night’s, hosted by
Neil Patrick Harris, was delightful. But if you looked closely at what
was happening and being said as awards were handed out, you realized
something big was going on. Broadcast TV was losing its grip and the
revolution was being televised. Harris, in a terrifically confident and
cocky turn as host, began the show with a fast-paced musical number that
begged people to watch and put down their remotes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, speaking for herself and co-presenter Amy Poehler,
said they were quote “honored to be presenting on the last official year
of network broadcast television,” unquote. And almost every award went
to either a low-rated broadcast program or one from cable, where
audiences typically are limited to just a few million. Multiple awards
last night went to the tele-movie “Grey Gardens,” on HBO, the miniseries
“Little Dorrit” from Masterpiece Classic on PBS, the low-rated “30 Rock”
on NBC, Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central and the critically
adored “Mad Men” on AMC, which draws a very small but very fervent

All of them are excellent TV shows, but not one of them reaches what,
even in today’s broadcast TV terms, is considered a sizable mass
audience. Quality TV is becoming a boutique business. The Emmy telecast

did everything it could to disguise that and keep things moving. And by
the way, the idea to divide the evening by genres except for the top
awards and hand out most of the awards in a clump, that was brilliant.
But as people from the well-made, not-very-well-seen TV shows kept
picking up awards, Kristin Chenoweth for the canceled-by-ABC “Pushing
Daisies,” Toni Collette for Showtime’s “The United States of Tara,” even
Michael J. Fox for the FX series “Rescue Me” - it became clearer and
clearer that the commercial broadcast networks, who once ruled in this
arena, not only have lost their advantage, they’ve lost their way.

Matthew Weiner, whose “Mad Men” won the coveted Outstanding Drama Series
award for the second year in a row, was being musically nudged off stage
as the Emmy telecast was about to go a few minutes into overtime. But he
had something to say that was very important, very true and for the
major broadcast networks, very disheartening.

(Soundbite of 61st Annual Emmy Awards)

Mr. MATTHEW WEINER (Creator, “Mad Men”):…who – everybody says their
show’s a family. I will wrap that up in one sec. Everybody - but we
literally spend all this time together. We fight all the time. We have…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER:…we - everybody works so hard. And I'm glad that the show got
its recognition. And it is an amazing time to work in TV. And I know
that everything is changing. But I’m not afraid of it because I feel
like all these different media, it’s just more choice and more
entertainment and it’s better for the viewers in the end. And I’m glad
to be a part of it. So, thank you all very, very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

BIANCULLI: So, what can CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and the CW do to combat this
trend? They can start, or they should start, by making better programs.
And that’s where the new fall season comes in.

The launch of the fall TV season used to be a time of great
expectations, not because of adaptations of Charles Dickens, “Little
Dorrit” notwithstanding, but because a generation ago, viewers were
eager to sample and maybe even embrace the new stuff the networks were
turning out. And the networks were doing it in big, attention-getting
lumps in the fall to build giant audiences, not only for the shows, but
for the ads because that’s when the Big Three automakers from Detroit
rolled out their new models.

But Detroit is a shadow of its former itself and so is broadcast
television. This fall, among the more than two dozen new prime time
shows offered by over-the-air TV, there’s not much about which to get
really excited. I can save a lot of time by singling out just two that
have won me over already. One is “Glee,” the Fox musical comedy series I
hope you’ve already seen and added to your weekly viewing list. And the
other is “Modern Family,” the ABC single-camera, multi-family comedy
that starts Wednesday. Its stars include Ed O’Neill from “Married with
Children,” and Julie Bowen from “Ed.” And it’s a comedy that’s not only
laugh-out-loud funny, but commendably unpredictable.

The truth of the matter, though, is that Matthew Weiner is right. At
this point in TV history, in 2009, there are more wonderful options on
cable than on broadcast. HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which began its
latest year last night opposite the Emmys, is the can’t-miss series of
the season. And not just because of its Seinfeld reunion plot.
Showtime’s “Dexter” returns next Sunday, “Mad Men” is still going on and
before long we’ll have another season of AMC’s spectacular “Breaking
Bad.” And while broadcast TV took the summer off, cable gave us terrific
seasons of “True Blood,” “Rescue Me,” and others.

But even if cable is where it’s at, the best shows on broadcast TV
aren’t receiving enough support. And for that, the blame belongs not
with the networks, but with the viewers. Yes, ABC handled “Pushing
Daisies” dreadfully after the writer’s strike, but more people should
have continued to support it. The death of NBC’s “Life,” that excellent
cop series starring Damian Lewis, was due to viewer apathy not a lack of
quality. And though “30 Rock” keeps racking up well-deserved Emmys as
best comedy, most people still refuse to watch it.

Edward R. Murrow’s famous quote from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” used
when he denounced McCarthyism in the 1950s, applies just as well today,
when looking at the fate of commercial broadcast television. Perhaps, as
the quote goes, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in

(Soundbite of vehicles)

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of 61st Annual Emmy Awards)

(Soundbite of song, “Put Down the Remote”)

Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) Put down the remote. ‘Cause
this song what I wrote, is a welcome you should not miss. Put down the
remote. Every note from this throat is like a not-to-be-Tivo’d kiss.
Don’t touch that dial. Yes it’s been quite a while since a dial was in
style. But you know what I mean - Don't jump online. ‘Cause this fine
mug of mine needs a huge high-def screen. Turn off that phone ‘cause I
want you alone, for the treasures I’ve got to share. Don’t hit that
fridge-oh boy. Let’s abridge your sweet derriere. Don’t flip that
switch. Aren’t you…

GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site,

I’m Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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