Karen Armstrong, time-traveling pollster

Karen Armstrong’s breezy way with facts and references can sometimes produce declarations that are really funny. On the first page of chapter 10, ‘Atheism,’ for instance, she starts with a preacher launching ‘a crusdade’ against Deism in 1790 and goes on with the rise of Evangelicalism into the 1830s. No references of course. The next paragraph starts ‘On the frontiers, nearly 40 percent of Americans felt slighted by the aristocratic republican government…’

!!! Really?! How the hell does she know that? She doesn’t even say at what particular moment in time that bizarrely exact claim was (according to her) true, and she certainly doesn’t say how she knows or how anyone else knows either. That’s not surprising, because no one does know that; no one could know that; there was no way for anyone to know that between 1790 and the 1830s. Actually there’s no way for anyone to know that even now, since even polling measures what people say they think or feel, not what they feel.

It is, frankly, typical of Armstrong’s level of thought to make such an absurd claim. It’s as if she winds herself up like a toy and then just cranks out some yards of prose, without really thinking about anything she’s saying. She tells stories, but unfortunately she presents her stories as factual narratives, and that’s very misleading.

This would matter much less if she weren’t so widely considered a deep and powerful and learned thinker. But she is, so it does.

And another thing. There’s no entry in the index for Aquinas. That surprised me when I looked for it, then I found him in the text – but she calls him Thomas. So I looked under Thomas, and there he is. But there’s no ‘Aquinas: see Thomas of Aquinas’ in the index. In any case – what’s that about? He’s known as Aquinas, not Thomas. He’s not like Leonardo, who is Leonardo, not da Vinci. I looked in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: he’s under Aquinas. So what’s Armstrong doing? Is this some Catholic thing? Is it an affectation? Or is she just clueless. I don’t know, but it’s damn silly.

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