Through the Narrow Gate – Karen Armstrong

I want to write the review of the book before it gets off of my head. I know it will get off soon. It’s a good book. I appreciate the bravery of the author in baring her soul. But, I also know that this book has not made a deep impact on me. That could be because I am not religious and this book deals mainly with religion and struggles to keep up with a religious life.

‘Through the Narrow Gate’ is an autobiographical work by Karen Armstrong, chronicling her feelings about deciding to get into a convent, her years of becoming a nun and then finally, why and how, she gave it all up for the world. The convent life, which she describes, is haunting and a novelty for me. Guilt and punishment seem to be the major themes in becoming a nun. ‘A nun has to die every day’. This sentence captures the essence of living in a nunnery. Sisters are never allowed to question anything, they are not allowed to form friendships or even try to get close to a person, they are to dutifully follow every wish and command of their superiors – all the while introspecting their relationship with God. What Karen finds impossible to do is to muster up such abandon. She cannot abandon her rationale, her sensitivity, her questions, her need for friendship and community. This causes her much trouble. For failing to do such things, she is punished and made to feel guilty. She changes herself so much that at the end, she is almost a complete stranger to her former self.

One of the main highlights of the book is the difference between the dream and reality of a religious life. While Karen enters a convent filled with a hope of communion with God, what she instead finds herself doing is dealing with a lot of practical and physical inconveniences which somehow do not let her think so much about God. There is a fear, of having done something wrong, all the time, in her mind. It is this fear of being wrong and then feeling guilty for it, for having to ask forgiveness for letting herself be sometimes is what exhausts her. At Oxford, in literature, she finds the kind of intellectual stimulation as well as the human bonding which she has been looking for. She sees hope. She finds herself useful. She sees purpose and which is why she gives up the ‘religious life’. It is not easy. It is not easy because she is again filled with a sense of betrayal. But this time, she can not take it more.

It is a story of a deep internal struggle. I can feel it. But it takes courage to give up the world at seventeen and become a nun and then renounce it all after seven years to start afresh in an unknown world. Karen Armstrong is brave and she is courageous and her story is fantastic. But, I could not connect with the Godliness and the religious line so much and that’s why it did not move me at a level at which it can potentially move other people.

It is a good book.


Thinking Atheism

I call myself an atheist. I believe that there is no creator all powerful, mighty, omniscient and omnipresent to look over our actions. I believe in the theory of evolution and all the discredit to the religion that comes with it. However, having said that, I can understand why would an institution like religion would be created: to impart moral values, to bind people in a sense of brotherhood, to make them fear for things that are wrong. Why this was done in the 17th-18th century and earlier is easy to see but not so easy to see that why is it important today when we have so much scientific knowledge at our hand. The defenders of the religion say that the fear of punishment by god (by going to hell in monotheistic religions and reincarnation as a lesser being in hinduism, for example) prevents people from doing wrong things. Is that true? Is moral behaviour tied to a sense of fear and damnation. Can we not be nice to each other if there is not an adverse result for being mean? Does this mean that on a basic level human being is a bad creature rather than good and has to be subverted with the fear of punishment? 

I can also raise the question that : is not this fear of punishment and deep sense of loyalty to some unexplained thing/being/phenomena causing the followers to do unimaginably terrible things? Blowing up people, waging wars, killing thousands and millions in the name of religion, destroying homes and families. I could see that this logic of preventing people from doing wrong has turned on its head in this case. 

Put all contentions from an atheistic viewpoint aside. Let me for a moment pretend to accept religion as it is today. When did it start?? Where does it come from?? Who started it and why? If God is the all powerful and he created everything, why did he create a being who could recognize him and praise him and be his servant at the very end? What about animals? Are they religious too? What about the different faiths and gods? How do we make a compatibility between the observed scientific phenomena and this concept of being created by a god? I mean there are so many questions that confound me and the answer that I get for them is : take a leap of faith. Well, I suppose I am not a good high jumper. My faith does not go there. So, I choose to be an atheist.

This is of course a topic which is being very hotly debated these days. More so, after the recent acts of terrorism in the name of religion. I have been pretty interested in it for quite a while now and although my knowledge about theology etc is not very great, I understand what the basis is. And starting from the first principles itself, it makes me very doubtful . As for the question of morality goes, I think that it is innate in a human being. Some people are wicked and they will be so, religion or no religion. I take for example myself. In many examples demonstarting very clearly, I have found myself more moral than people who are deeply or normally religious. 

* I wanted to write a really coherent and organized post about this but then there is not much time with me so this is a quick draft which I hope to improve further.

**Have been watching a lot of Dawkins’ material and also the BBC Atheism Tapes. Have also been thinking about this for a long long time. Planning to do a post on Hinduism as a religion because what I really believe is that more than being a religion, Hinduism is a way of life and a philosophy of thinking and is ultra rich. To do that post, I think I will have to wait for at least 5 more years. One very interesting thing which Prof. Weinberg said about Hinduism is that there is no theory here with which he could engage in a debate. He says that creation is not a major focus, way of living is. And, I agree. But it is also concerned a lot about afterlife and reincarnation. How does that fit in? These are some quetsions which hound me and I am sure have been studied thoroughly but I have not come across any such material yet. As I said, I think that in 5 years, I will have covered a lot more ground in this respect.