The Battle for God

Reacting to a technologically driven world with liberal Western values, fundamentalists have not only increased in numbers, they have become more desperate, claims Armstrong…Yet she also acknowledges the irony of how fundamentalism and Western materialism seem to urge each other on to greater excesses. To “prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try and understand the pain and perception of the other side…”

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    Fundamentalism is a movement which has emerged in the twentieth century within every major religious tradition as a response to modern culture and plays an important role not only in the world of religion but in the domestic and international affairs of nations. The impact of fundamentalism in the contemporary world provides the rationale and scope of this book. The author believes it is crucial "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." Karen Armstrong teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism. She is perhaps best known for her previous best-selling book, A History of God: The 4000 -Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Armstrong concentrates her exploration of fundamentalism as it is manifested by Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, Christian fundamentalism in American Protestantism and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran. She traces their development chronologically "side by side" so that the reader can see how similar they are, "motivated by common fears, anxieties, and desires that seem to be a not unusual response" to life in the modern secular world.Part One is devoted to a historical overview of the transition of the people of these three traditions from the world of the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth centuries to the world of the nineteenth century in Western Europe. During this period people in Western culture began to experience the death of the "old world" and the birth of a "new world." Armstrong writes, "The economic changes over the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth; and once again, a radical religious change has become necessary." Fundamentalism is one response to the need for religious change.The basic issue underlying the origin and development of fundamentalism, according to Armstrong, is the "two ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge," which is popularly designated as the way of religion and the way of science and which scholars have called mythos and logos." Armstrong points out that mythos, for the people of the past, was concerned with meaning, and was "thought to be timeless and constant" in human existence." Logos was "the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought" that enabled people to function in the world. In the pre-modern world, she suggests, mythos was regarded as primary but logos, although secondary was regarded as essential. Mythos and logos were indispensable and complimentary to each other.By the eighteenth century a radical shift began to take place in the ways people thought. People began to think that logos was the primary means to truth and mythos was relegated to status of irrelevance if not superstition. Thus began the conflict between science and religion that has continued over the past two centuries. It is this conflict that gave rise to fundamentalism and fuels its continuing force. In the face of the ascendancy of science (logos) as the primary avenue of truth in the modern world, fundamentalist religion has attempted to turn mythos into logos by declaring their sacred books inerrant and to be read literally, like books of science!Part Two of the book traces the historical development of fundamentalism, in the context of modern culture, as manifested in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from 1870 until 1999. By the end of the nineteenth century, (1870-1900), some Jews, Christians and Muslims believed that their faith was threatened by the dominance of scientific rationalism. Consequently, in the early years of the twentieth century (1900-25), there was a growing movement among the three groups, which insisted that their religion had to be as rational as science. This marked an era of return to "fundamentals," followed by a time (1925-60), in which fundamentalists attempted to withdraw from the dominant culture to create their own defensive countercultures. Then, armed with their "fundamentals," devotees of the movement began (1974-79) to take the offensive against secularism, to fight for their survival and to change society. Armstrong concludes her historical overview with a chapter entitled Defeat? (1979-99). Her lingering question is, "Did the fundamentalist triumphs amount, in fact, to a defeat for religion, and has the fundamentalist threat subsided?"In appraising the meaning of the fundamentalist movement, Armstrong believes it is important to recognize (1) that it is rooted in fear of the modern world and (2) that the response to fear is to attempt to create an alternative society by preaching "an ideology of exclusion, hatred, and even violence." She concludes her study with these words: "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 characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbors experience but which no society can safely ignore."This book is a scholarly work but written for the general reader and is highly recommended for anyone desiring to understand some of the forces impacting the contemporary religious scene.

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