The Battle for God,
A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong
Book review by David White, 6/15/02.
Published in the Summer 2002 issue of Peacework magazine.
This is another
fascinating book by a skilled and prolific interpreter of religious
traditions, her most notable book being “A History of God” about the
4000 year religious quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The central theme of
this book is that Fundamentalism is an historically recent historic
religious movement that is a response to modern secular culture.
As Karen Armstrong
says in the preface:
For almost a
century, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been developing a militant
form of piety whose objective is to drag God and religion from the
sidelines, to which they have been relegated in modern secular culture,
and bring them back to center stage. These “fundamentalists,” as they are called, are
convinced that they are fighting for the survival of their faith in a
world that is inherently hostile to religion.
They are conducting a war against secular modernity, and in the
course of their struggle, they have achieved notable results.
The book starts with
the expulsion and the forced conversion of the Jews in Spain in the
fifteenth century with the formation of a modern centralized state.
In this context, the Spanish Inquisition was not an attempt to
preserve an archaic world, but a modernizing institution employed to
create national unity. In
Spain, the chief victims of the Inquisition were the Jews.
Over 100,000 Jews were also forced into exile.
These Sephardic Jews experienced a spiritual as well as a
physical dislocation and makes one’s very existence feel threatened.
The experience of these people was an extreme form of the
uprooting and displacement that other peoples would experience with
aggressive modernization. Because
their conditions had so drastically changed, they developed new
traditions to match their new conditions.
One of the responses was reflected by the Safed Kabbalah with a
new creation myth that gave comfort in these new circumstances.
Other responses included “secularism, skepticism, atheism,
rationalism, nihilism, pluralism, and the privatization of faith.”
These were the initial responses to modernization.
By the end of the
nineteenth century, modernization had many discontents.
To quote, “The dynamic optimism that had inspired Hegel’s
philosophy had given way to perplexing doubt and malaise.
… People felt obscurely afraid.
Henceforth, at the same time as they celebrated the achievements
of modern society, men and women would also experience and emptiness, a
void that rendered life meaningless;
many would crave certainty amid the perplexities of modernity;
some would project their fears onto imaginary enemies and dream of
It is out of this
situation that fundamentalist movements have arisen in all three of the
monotheist faiths, and similarly in other traditions such as Hinduism as
well. Fundamentalism gives
certainty and meaning in a world that seems to have none.
It gives a purpose to life, and a way of responding to and living
in a changing world. Underlying the fundamentalist response is a fear of
annihilation and destruction. However
at the same time that fundamentalist reject modernity, they often
incorporated elements of it by being innovative in practice and in
rejecting old traditions.
In recent decades
fundamentalism has played a major role in countries as different as
Iran, Israel, Egypt and the United States.
The course of these movements has yet to play themselves out.
From one perspective, fundamentalism can be viewed as a response
to the failures of modernism and its economic and social order.
Thus one can see fundamentalism not as the problem, but as a
I’d like to close
with some quotes from Karen Armstrong that appear in the Reader’s
guide at the back of the second edition.
cannot be defeated, and, in a sense, fundamentalists have won a great
victory. … Today no
government can ignore it. …
But, on another
level, fundamentalism represents a defeat for the religious traditions
that fundamentalists are trying to preserve, because they tend to
downplay compassion, which all the world’s faiths insist is a primary
religious virtue, and overstress the more belligerent and intolerant
aspects of the tradition. …
We have to try to
make the huge imaginative effort to put ourselves in the shoes of
fundamentalists because they threaten our values just as we threaten
theirs. If we understand a
bit more clearly what the fundamentalists really mean, if we learn to
read the imagery of fundamentalism, we take the first step in learning
about and understanding each other.
You can make war in a minute, but peace takes a long time.
I strongly recommend
Karen Armstrong’s book for those who want to understand more about the
fundamentalist movements in the modern world.