The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong
A Review by Alan Goss
“We can’t be religious in the same way our ancestors were.”
So writes Karen Armstrong, (author of A History of God
) in this superb book which, although written before September 11, 2001, is a masterly commentary on one of the driving forces of our age.
Fundamentalism is a defensive religious faith which is fighting for survival in a hostile world. In essence it is a 20th century movement, originally western but now spread to other parts of the world. Its needs an ideology and it needs an enemy. Its chief enemy is the modern secular world, or secular humanism, along with an in-built fear of science, experts, sex and feminism, and western foreign influences like globalism. Fundamentalists are pro-God, pro-life, pro-morals, and are therefore strongly opposed to the granting of rights to homosexuals, to abortion, to euthanasia, and to the allegedly “anything goes” morality of liberals and radicals. The theory of evolution is constantly discredited and, in all three religions, (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), a strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the scriptural traditions — Bible, Koran and Torah — is demanded. A similar conformity to basic religious doctrines and standards is required. Certainty is needed in an uncertain world.
Armstrong draws an important distinction between two ways of thinking and speaking which reveals one of Fundamentalism’s chief weaknesses. Mythos (myth) is story-based and is not to be taken literally. We moderns are much more familiar with Logos which is forward-looking and which relates to rational, practical, scientific thoughts which enable people to function in the world. [A full treatment of Mythos and Logos appeared in Newsletter 51
Fundamentalists confuse the issue when they try to turn the mythical element in their faith into “logos”, that is, when they try to prove myth as being scientifically true. The result is not only bad religion, but also bad science. Both “Mythos” and “Logos” are needed, but to use myth as a vehicle for scientific, practical or political purposes has courted disaster for Fundamentalists, as Armstrong clearly shows. The other main weakness of Fundamentalism is the hatred and hostility directed against its enemies. Fundamentalists also express hostility towards those whom they suspect are either diluting or destroying the foundations of their faith.
Whatever are our views about Fundamentalism, it will not soon go away. It is a muscular, militant and at times, subversive faith which has got rid of a corrupt Shah in Iran, assassinated Prime Ministers in Israel and Egypt and, like Jerry Falwell’s moral majority in the U.S., is a powerful lobby group for political change.
Armstrong is wise when she suggests that secularists and others should try to understand what drives Fundamentalists and what kindles their anger and hostility. When you stand to lose everything that you feel is sacred, you feel powerless and alienated and in spiritual despair, [and so] there is nothing to lose. Is there any way out of this impasse?
To go beyond Armstrong, there are signs that people are beginning to look at religion in a new way — to make a new spiritual beginning. As institutional Christianity and the old relgious landmarks gradually fade away, people seem to be moving away from a church-based spirituality — services, rituals, doctrines — and discovering a spirituality of their own. Rather than seeing themselves as spiritual citizens of a particular church or denomination, people are beginning to regard themselves as spiritual citizens of the world.
Armstrong’s book is a major work, thoroughly researched and written in style — a sane and balanced commentary on the phenomenon of Fundamentalism. To try to understand its motives is a first and better step than resorting to force.