"In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong shows us how and why fundamentalist groups came into existence and what they yearn to accomplish." "We see the West in the sixteenth century beginning to create an entirely new kind of civilization, which brought in its wake change in every aspect of life - often painful and violent, even if liberating. Armstrong argues that one of the things that changed most was religion. People could no longer think about or experience the divine in the same why; they had to develop new forms of faith to fit their new circumstances." "Armstrong characterizes fundamentalism as one of these new ways of being religious that have emerged in every major faith tradition. She examines the ways in which these movements, while not monolithic, have each sprung from a dread of modernityoften in response to assault (sometimes unwitting, sometimes intentional) by the mainstream society." "Armstrong sees fundamentalist groups as complex, innovative, and modern - rather than as throwbacks to the past - but contends that they have failed in religious terms. Maintaining that fundamentalism often exists in symbiotic relationship with an aggressive modernity, each impelling the other on to greater excess, she suggests compassion as a way to defuse what is now an intensifying conflict."--Jacket.
While she does do a very good job of tracing the development of the recent trends in fundamentalism in the three religions - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - I felt that there was too much information in the book. This was probably required in the telling of the tale. Yet, the information does tend to get heavy at times, especially if you are not in the best concentrating mood.
It is a book that needs to be read slowly, and with care.
Karen's strengths evidently lie in these three religions. I have never come across any writing from her on the religions of the East. This is a pity, because I have seen the rise of fundamentalism in Hinduism. While Hindus often talk of this as a reaction to militant action by the Muslims over the centuries, and by British oppression; this alone cannot describe the rise of fundamentalism among the Hindus.
For the next edition of her book, she should cast her eyes eastwards.
A worthwhile book for anyone who wants to seriously engage with other faiths and see beyond the stereotypes.
It has also had a profound political impact, unleashing terrorism for allegedly Islamic ends, pushing the U.S. consensus sharply to the right, and enflaming the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. In all three instances, Armstrong points out, there are massive conflicts within religious groupings as well as between them, so much so that as Armstrong says "Secularists and religious both feel profoundly threatened by one another". and are unable to understand the other side's world view as anything other than derangement. Armstrong raises the question of what is to be done to defuse these conflicts, but does not come up with many helpful answers. Perhaps there are not any.
Armstrong's thesis is that "Contrary to popular belief, fundamentalism is not a throwback to some ancient form of religion but rather a response to the spiritual crisis of the modern world...the collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Enlightenment forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious--and fundamentalism was born."
Using the two terms mythos, that which is concerned with "the eternal and the universal" as contrasted with logos, that which is concerned with what is "rational, pragmatic and scientific" she illustrates how the two have acted and reacted to one another to create the spiritual crises of the last five hundred years. While I initially did not understand this framework's usefulness, it grew in relevance and became the foundation of ultimately understanding how fundamental groups so often become polarised: "Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists ... turned their mythoi into pragmatic logoi designed to achieve a practical result. Protestant fundamentalists ... perverted myth in a different way. They ... turned the Christian myths into scientific facts, and had created a hybrid that was neither good science nor good religion." (p. 355)
Readers with a background in European and Euroasian history will find this tome especially rewarding as it fills in the "why" gap of much of the post-Crusades history of the region. On that note, this book is perhaps best read hand-in-hand with a history of the Ottoman Empire or the European Enlightenment which will provide the larger historical and geographical picture of the societies that gave rise to the personalities that inspired the movements in the three religions. Many names will be familiar to readers--Muhammad Ali, Moses Maimonides, John Locke, Khomeini, John of the Cross, but rarely does find one work that tells their stories as part of a single narrative as well as Armstrong does.
Another strong point of this book is it explains in very simple language why certain historical events have happened as a result of religious whiplash. Two examples: the American temperance movement sprang, for example, from the fears of the early Protestant settlers of America when large numbers of Catholic immigrants began to appear. American support for Israel stems in part from its fundamentalist population, which sees the return of "Israel to the Israelites" as proof of the literal accuracy of the Bible.
As a reader who remembers the [in]famous Time magazine cover that announced "God is Dead", I found for the first time explanations of behaviours that I have long (personally) found incomprehensible. Coverage of such events as the Iran Crisis explained as rational behaviour from Khomeini's point of view is fascinating (pp. 317 ff.), and some readers may discover that they were rooting for 'the wrong guy'.
I suspect this work's usefulness for most will be as a reference work in the area of history of religions. It's a work that one can turn to frequently if interested in the broader history of the region and the growth and spread of these three great monotheistic religions.
One would hope that it would also bring mankind closer together in understanding. As Armstrong shows us, "suppression and coercion are clearly not the answer" (p. 368). "If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterises modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience but which no society can safely ignore" (p. 371)
Dare we be optimistic and hope this message will be heard in time?