Authors Find Fertile Mix Of Science And Religion The novelist Margaret Atwood wrote the anti-religious parable The Handmaid's Tale. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong's latest book is The Case for God. While they may seem at odds, Rick Kleffel investigates the areas in which their views overlap.

Authors Find Fertile Mix Of Science And Religion

Authors Find Fertile Mix Of Science And Religion

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Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, for which she received the 2000 Man Booker Prize. George Whiteside/House of Anansi hide caption

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George Whiteside/House of Anansi

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, for which she received the 2000 Man Booker Prize.

George Whiteside/House of Anansi

Karen Armstrong has called on people around the world to collaborate in the writing of a "Charter for Compassion" centered on the Golden Rule; now she's working with leaders from the Abrahamic faiths -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- to help finalize and propagate it. Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images

Karen Armstrong has called on people around the world to collaborate in the writing of a "Charter for Compassion" centered on the Golden Rule; now she's working with leaders from the Abrahamic faiths -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- to help finalize and propagate it.

Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images

Science and religion have an uneasy relationship. Margaret Atwood, known for her literary science fiction, thinks the future holds in store a religion that combines the two. She takes her lessons from a past charted by contemporary religious scholar Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong is a religious scholar who has studied the history of belief. In her latest book, The Case for God, she looks at the relationship between science and religion. The current conflict between the two, with Darwin's theory of evolution as a flash point, is not in keeping with historical interpretations of scripture.

"Darwin came along and found a natural explanation for life itself," Armstrong says. But she notes that at an earlier point, this wouldn't have caused conflict. "Saint Augustine had ... laid down an important principle ... that if a scriptural text contradicts science, you must give it an allegorical interpretation."

While Armstrong's work looks at the lessons of the past, Atwood extrapolates from the past to create visions of the future. One of Atwood's best known novels is The Handmaid's Tale, which imagines a future in which America has become a Christian fundamentalist theocracy.

Atwood says science fiction became necessary when the contradictions between objective reality and religious orthodoxy became too difficult to ignore.

"Those things that we used to just believe in all the time went to Planet X where they are alive and well," Atwood says by way of explaining the alternate realities that populate the genre. "Angels with flaming swords, the burning bush that speaks, you know, all of those really quite science fiction things in the Bible."

'The Case for God'

Looking For Meaning

Armstrong says her research into the history of religion demonstrates that science and religion are two very different kinds of knowledge.

"Religion is not answering our scientific questions about, 'How did the world come into being?' " Armstrong says. "That's a question for science. Religion is asking us to consider these problems that always occur to human beings: 'Why is life so filled with pain? What is the nature of happiness? What is the meaning of our mortality?' "

The Case for God
By Karen Armstrong
Hardcover, 432 pages
Knopf/Random House
List price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt

Armstrong sees the role of religion as a guiding force for ethical behavior. Atwood brings that notion to life in her newest novel, The Year of the Flood. It's set in a dystopian near future where genetic engineering has ravaged much of the planet and survivors have created a new religion based on preservation.

"This group, which is called God's Gardeners, has taken it to an extreme that not everybody will be able to do," Atwood explains. "They live on rooftops in slums in which they have vegetable gardens. They keep bees. And they are strictly vegetarian, unless you get really, really hungry. In which case you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work up. And they make everything out of recycled castoffs and junk."

200 'The Year of the Flood'

Rooted In Reality

Atwood points out that the beginnings of her religion of the future have already appeared in the present.

"Indeed, we now have the Green Bible among us, which I did not know when I was writing this book," Atwood marvels. "[It] has tasteful linen covers, ecologically correct paper ... and a list at the end of useful things which you can do to be a more worthy 'green' person."

For her novel, Atwood created a new pantheon of saints, including Rachel Carson, Al Gore and the murdered conservationist Dian Fossey. Fossey figures into one of the hymns Atwood wrote for God's Gardeners:

Today we praise our Saint Dian
Whose blood for bounteous life was spilled
Although She interposed her faith
One species more was killed ...
The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Hardcover, 448 pages
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
List Price: $26

Read An Excerpt

Atwood's environmentally based religion dovetails with an idea at the core of Armstrong's understanding of faith.

"The creation story was therapeutic," Armstrong says. "It was telling us how to be creative ourselves and, indeed, how to keep the cosmos in balance. Men and women and gods had to work together to keep this fragile ecostructure together."

Armstrong's philosophical ecosystem is reflected in Atwood's futuristic religion. But even though God's Gardeners feels like a real religion, Atwood is not ready to step up to the pulpit, despite a literary precedent.

"Well, not quite in the same way that L. Ron Hubbard did," Atwood says with a chuckle. "I don't have any adherents yet. But, who knows?"

Excerpt: 'The Case For God'

The Case for God
By Karen Armstrong
Hardcover, 432 pages
Knopf/Random House
List price: $27.95


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 darkness 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." 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 simultaneously 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 more suitable than others. The subject matter was also governed by rules that we can never hope to understand. The artists selected only a few of the species known to them, and there are no pictures of the reindeer on which they relied for food. Animals are consistently paired--oxen and bison with horses, bison with mammoths--in combinations that would not occur in real life. Lascaux is not unique. There are about three hundred decorated caves in this region of southern France and northern Spain. In some the artwork is more elementary, but in all these caverns the imagery and layout are basically the same. The earliest site, at Grosse Chauvet, dates from about 30,000 BCE, a time when Homo sapiens seems to have undergone an abrupt evolutionary change in this locality. There was a dramatic rise in population, which may have resulted in social tension. Some historians believe that the cave art records a "corpus of socially-constructed rituals...for conflict control...pictorially encoded for storage and transmission through generations." But the paintings also express an intensely aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. Here we have the earliest known evidence of an ideological system, which remained in place for some twenty thousand years, after which the caves fell into disuse in about 9000 BCE.

It is now generally agreed that these labyrinths were sacred places for the performance of some kind of ritual. Some historians have argued that their purpose was purely pragmatic, but their upkeep alone would have required an immense amount of unproductive labor. Some of these sites were so deep that it took hours to reach their innermost core. Visiting the caves was dangerous, exhausting, uneconomical, and time-consuming. The general consensus is that the caves were sanctuaries and that, as in any temple, their iconography reflected a vision that was radically different from that of the outside world. We do not build temples like this in the modern West. Our worldview is predominantly rational, and we think more easily in concepts than images. We find it hard enough to decode the symbolism of a medieval cathedral such as the one in Chartres, so these Palaeolithic shrines offer an almost insurmountable challenge.

But there are a few clues to aid our understanding. A remarkable picture, dated to about 12,000 BCE, in a cave at Lascaux known as the Crypt because it is even deeper than the other caverns, depicts a large bison that has been eviscerated by a spear thrust through its hind-quarters. Lying in front of the wounded beast is a man, drawn in a far more rudimentary style than the animals, with arms outstretched, phallus erect, and wearing what seems to be a bird mask; his staff, which lies on the ground nearby, is also topped by a bird's head. This seems 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 reindeer horn at nearby Villars and on a sculpted block in a cliff shelter at Roc de Sers near Limoges, which is five thousand years older than the Lascaux painting. Fifty-five similar images in the other caves and three more Palaeolithic rock drawings in Africa have been found, all showing men confronting animals in a state of trance with upraised arms. They are probably shamans.

We know that shamanism developed in Africa and Europe during the Palaeolithic period and that it spread to Siberia and thence to America and Australia, where the shaman is still the chief religious practitioner among the 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. 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: he swoons during a public seance and believes that he flies through the air to consult the gods about the location of game. In these traditional societies, hunters do not feel that the species are distinct or permanent 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. The shaman's vision gives meaning to the hunting 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 covenant 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 give 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 tribesman has to remain with his victim, crying when it cries and participating symbolically 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.

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. 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. 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 restoration. The images may depict the eternal, archetypal animals that take temporary physical form in the upper world. All ancient religion was based on what has been called the perennial philosophy, because it was present in some form in so many premodern 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. When an Australian Aborigine hunts his prey, he feels wholly at one with the First Hunter, caught up in a richer and more potent reality that makes him feel fully alive and complete. Maybe the hunters of Lascaux reenacted the archetypal hunt in the caves amid these paintings of the eternal hunting ground before they left their tribe to embark on the perilous quest for food.

We can, of course, only speculate. Some scholars believe that these caverns were likely to have been used for the initiation ceremonies that marked the adolescent 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. 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 "find himself" Western-style; he has to relinquish the dependency of infancy and assume the burdens of adulthood overnight. 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 turn him into an efficient killing machine; rather, it is to train him to kill in the sacred manner. A boy is usually 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 their lives while they are 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 struggle 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 things that appear distinct to the rational eye are in some way profoundly 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 find value in their lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary. The initiation experience 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. It may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws of logic, but a good myth will tell us something 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 insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed. 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." They found themselves gazing at a wall covered in spectacular 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 symbolize the underlying unity of animal and human, natural and divine?

Excerpted from The Case for God by Karen Armstrong Copyright 2009 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

Excerpt: 'The Year Of The Flood'



In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, so if she slips and topples there won't be anyone to pick her up.

The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Hardcover, 448 pages
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
List Price: $26

As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it's been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef bleached and colourless, devoid of life.

There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there's no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier? Toby has no idea. Unlike some of the other Gardeners the more wild-eyed or possibly overdosed ones she has never been under the illusion that she can converse with birds.

The sun brightens in the east, reddening the blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean. The vultures roosting on hydro poles fan out their wings to dry them, opening themselves like black umbrellas. One and then another lifts off on the thermals and spirals upwards. If they plummet suddenly, it means they've spotted carrion.

Vultures are our friends, the Gardeners used to teach. They purify the earth. They are God's necessary dark Angels of bodily dissolution. Imagine how terrible it would be if there were no death!

Do I still believe this? Toby wonders.

Everything is different up close.


The rooftop has some planters, their ornamentals running wild; it has a few fake-wood benches. It used to have a sun canopy for cocktail hour, but that's been blown away. Toby sits on one of the benches to survey the grounds. She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hairbrushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in pink adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate.

The flower beds, choked with sow thistle and burdock, enormous aqua kudzu moths fluttering above them. The fountains, their scallop-shell basins filled with stagnant rainwater. The parking lot with a pink golf cart and two pink AnooYoo Spa minivans, each with its winking-eye logo. There's a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it's gone now.

The wide lawns have grown up, tall weeds. There are low irregular mounds beneath the milkweed and fleabane and sorrel, with here and there a swatch of fabric, a glint of bone. That's where the people fell, the ones who'd been running or staggering across the lawn. Toby had watched from the roof, crouched behind one of the planters, but she hadn't watched for long. Some of those people had called for help, as if they'd known she was there. But how could she have helped?

The swimming pool has a mottled blanket of algae. Already there are frogs. The herons and the egrets and the peagrets hunt them, at the shallow end. For a while Toby tried to scoop out the small animals that had blundered in and drowned. The luminous green rabbits, the rats, the rakunks, with their striped tails and racoon bandit masks. But now she leaves them alone. Maybe they'll generate fish, somehow. When the pool is more like a swamp.

Is she thinking of eating these theoretical future fish? Surely not.

Surely not yet.

She turns to the dark encircling wall of trees and vines and fronds and shrubby undergrowth, probing it with her binoculars. It's from there that any danger might come. But what kind of danger? She can't imagine.


In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the waterpipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.

"Go to sleep," she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she's been alone in this building. Sometimes she hears voices human voices, calling to her in pain. Or the voices of women, the women who used to work here, the anxious women who used to come, for rest and rejuvenation. Splashing in the pool, strolling on the lawns. All the pink voices, soothed and soothing.

Or the voices of the Gardeners, murmuring or singing; or the children laughing together, up on the Edencliff Garden. Adam One, and Nuala, and Burt. Old Pilar, surrounded by her bees. And Zeb. If any one of them is still alive, it must be Zeb: any day now he'll come walking along the roadway or appear from among the trees.

But he must be dead by now. It's better to think so. Not to waste hope.

There must be someone else left, though; she can't be the only one on the planet. There must be others. But friends or foes? If she sees one, how to tell?

She's prepared. The doors are locked, the windows barred. But even such barriers are no guarantee: every hollow space invites invasion. Even when she sleeps, she's listening, as animals do for a break in the pattern, for an unknown sound, for a silence opening like a crack in rock.

When the small creatures hush their singing, said Adam One, it's because they're afraid. You must listen for the sound of their fear.

From The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Copyright 2009 by Margaret Atwood. Published by Random House. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.