Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God A History of Fundamentalism reviewed by Don Webb Cover






Le cœur a ses raisons  que la raison ne connaît point.

— Blaise Pascal

The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.

I. Why this review, and why here?

Karen Armstrong is a historian of religion whose erudition and insights have justly earned her great renown. Her books, such as A History of God and The Battle for God establish her as a social philosopher, as well. As such, she is a companion to Jane Jacobs, whose latest book Dark Age Ahead was reviewed in issue 104. The two of them are essential to understanding the present time. They show in both grand outline and detail how culture, politics and economics have interwoven to shape the world we live in at the beginning of the 21st century.

Bewildering Stories is very happy to have published articles and reviews in non-fiction. Our fiction has frequently featured alternate history and alternate futures. We now find ourselves at a historical juncture that many science-fiction writers have foreseen or alluded to but, I suggest, have not fully understood. They and we need to know what our history really is and what alternatives it proposes. It behooves us to listen intently to Jane Jacobs and Karen Armstrong.

II. What is fundamentalism?

[ for III. The history of fundamentalism see the entire article]

Armstrong traces the history of three fundamentalist movements:

  1. in Judaism, especially in the state of Israel;
  2. in Islam, first in Egypt among the Sunnis and then in Iran, among the Shi’ites;
  3. and, finally, in American Protestantism.]


A. A general description

The best summary can be found in Karen Armstrong’s own “New Preface,” written a month or two after September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks — “made for television” — on the centers of American economic and military power changed nothing in the conclusions of the first edition, published the year before; they only confirmed Karen Armstrong’s worst fears: a worldwide cultural rift is headed — in my terms — toward a global civil war. At best it is being fought in the realms of culture, politics and economics; at worst it spills over onto battlefields.

Karen Armstrong doesn’t like the term “fundamentalism.” It originated in the United States in the early 20th century, and its use has only recently spread to include more than some forms of American Protestantism. The term implies that fundamentalism is a monolithic reactionary movement and is similar in all religions.

Fundamentalism is not monolithic: it is as faction-ridden as any religion. And it is only vaguely similar between religions: the Jewish and Moslem versions emphasize observance and practice; Christianity is unique in emphasizing adherence to formal doctrine. Nor is fundamentalism reactionary: “The term also gives the impression that fundamentalists are inherently conservative and wedded to the past, whereas their ideas are essentially modern and highly innovative” (p. xii).

But Armstrong admits that the term has been consecrated by usage; we’re stuck with it. It is a “militant piety” that has emerged in every major religious tradition. She summarizes the definition proposed by the eminent scholars Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby: “[Fundamentalisms] are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself” (p. xiii).

The fundamentalist world view implies some corollaries. Fundamentalists…see their struggle not as one of conventional politics but as a cosmic war between good and evil;fear annihilation;affirm their identity by selecting doctrines and practices from the past;often withdraw from mainstream society and create a counterculture;absorb the pragmatic rationalism of modernity;create an ideology and action plan under the guidance of charismatic leaders;
eventually fight back and attempt to resacralize a skeptical world.
Armstrong sums up the confrontation:

Even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state (p. xi).

B. The fundamentalist rationale

Why would anyone embrace such authoritarian thinking? For reasons that seemed good at the time: “This battle for God was an attempt to fill the void at the heart of a society based on scientific rationalism” (p. 370).
“Human beings find it almost impossible to live without a sense that, despite the distressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate meaning and value” (p. 135). Mythos — mythology and its cults — provides that meaning; it basically answers the question “why.” Logos — rationalism and science — answers the question “how.” Logos may heal the body but only mythos can heal the spirit.

In the pre-modern world, both mythology and rationalism were mutually indispensable. In our time, logos has become predominant and, according to an epigram of Jean-Paul Sartre’s that Armstrong is fond of citing, it has left a “God-shaped hole” in modern consciousness. And that “hole” is going to be filled somehow.

A similar philosophical adaptation has happened before. In the Axial Age of 700-200 BCE, trade began to replace agriculture as a prime source of wealth. The pagan fertility gods became irrelevant to people who were gaining a wider knowledge of the world. Ever practical, humanity replaced the old, local gods with the world religions we know today.

Now we are living in a Second Axial Age, where science has been added to land and trade as a prime source of wealth. And the old religions must once again redefine themselves and adapt lest they be discarded as irrelevant


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