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13 Oct, 2002

Karen Armstrong’s Book Traces Monotheism’s “Battle for God”

Originally Published: 10 Oct 2002

The global resurgence of Islamic, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism is the theme of the latest book by well-known religious writer Karen Armstrong. The former nun who is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the monotheistic religions has produced a powerful book called “The Battle for God,” which should be must reading for anyone trying to comprehend one of the most phenomenal trends of our time.

In the book, Ms Armstrong refers to fundamentalism as a ‘militant piety’ that has been one of the most startling developments of the late 20th century.

“Its manifestations are sometimes shocking,” she says. “Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government.

“It is only a small minority of fundamentalists who commit such acts of terror, but 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. Christian fundamentalists reject the discoveries of biology and physics about the origins of life and insist that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound in every detail.

“At a time when many are throwing off the shackles of the past, Jewish fundamentalists observe their revealed Law more stringently than ever before, and Muslim women, repudiating the freedoms of Western women, shroud themselves in veils and chadors. Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists both interpret the Arab-Israeli conflict, which began as defiantly secularist, in an exclusively religious way.”

Ms Armstrong notes that fundamentalism is not confined to the great monotheisms. “There are Buddhist, Hindu, and even Confucian fundamentalisms, which also cast aside many of the painfully acquired insights of liberal culture, which fight and kill in the name of religion and strive to bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle.”

This religious resurgence has taken many observers by surprise, she says.

“In the middle years of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would never again play a major part in world events. It was assumed that as human beings became more rational, they either would have no further need for religion or would be content to confine it to the immediately personal and private areas of their lives.

“But in the late 1970s, fundamentalists began to rebel against this secularist hegemony and started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to centre stage. In this, at least, they have enjoyed remarkable success.

“Religion has once again become a force that no government can safely ignore. Fundamentalism has suffered defeats, but it is by no means quiescent. It is now an essential part of the modern scene and will certainly play an important role in the domestic and international affairs of the future.

“It is crucial, therefore, that we try to understand what this type of religiosity means, how and for what reasons it has developed, what it can tell us about our culture, and how best we should deal with it.”

Ms Amstrong traces back the origins of the term “fundamentalism” itself, noting that it had been first used by American Protestants in the early decades of the twentieth century to distinguish themselves from the more “liberal” Protestants, who were, in their opinion, entirely distorting the Christian faith.

“The fundamentalists wanted to go back to basics and re-emphasise the ‘fundamentals’ of the Christian tradition, which they identified with a literal interpretation of Scripture and the acceptance of certain core doctrines. The term ‘fundamentalism’ has since been applied to reforming movements in other world faiths in a way that is far from satisfactory.”

“However, like it or not, the word ‘fundamentalism’ is here to stay…..The term is not perfect, but it is a useful label for movements that, despite their differences, bear a strong family resemblance.”

She quotes Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, authors of a six-volume Fundamentalist Project as arguing that the ‘fundamentalisms’ all follow a certain pattern.

“They 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. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.

“They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers.

“They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these ‘fundamentals’ so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly sceptical world.”

To explore the implications of this global response to modern culture, Ms Amstrong focuses on American Protestant fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt, a Sunni country, and Iran, which is Shia. Instead of studying them in isolation, she traces their development chronologically, side by side, to help the reader see how deeply similar they are.

Her goal, she says, is “to show how these particular movements, which have been among the most prominent and influential, have all been motivated by common fears, anxieties, and desires that seem to be a not unusual response to some of the peculiar difficulties of life in the modern secular world.”

“It is becoming very difficult to be conventionally religious in the brave new world. Modernization has always been a painful process. People feel alienated and lost when fundamental changes in their society make the world strange and unrecognisable.”

The first part of the book goes back to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when the people of Western Europe had begun to develop their new science. She examines the mythical piety of the premodern agrarian civilization to see how the old forms of faith worked.

She traces the impact of modernity upon the Christians of Europe and America, upon the Jewish people, and upon the Muslims of Egypt and Iran. She then explores what the fundamentalists were trying to do when they started to create this new form of faith toward the end of the 19th century.

“Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values,” Ms Armstrong says. “During a war it is very difficult for combatants to appreciate one another’s position.

“Modernization has led to a polarization of society, but sometimes, to prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try to understand the pain and perceptions of the other side. Those of us who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists.”