Brett Williams's Reviews > The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism

The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
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Unraveling our most recent religious developments

Armstrong's opening line summarizes the theme of her book. "One of the startling developments of the late 20th century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety known as fundamentalism." She doesn't set off on an attack of religion, but rather explains in her view why this has taken place. In short, her answer is, a reaction to modernity. In part, modernity in terms of excess secular rationalism encroaching on spiritual matters where "analysis" doesn't belong, mostly unintentionally, and even by the pious as influenced by the larger society. The result being a listlessness of civilizations defined by what Nicholas Humphrey ("A History Of The Mind") characterizes as too much perceptual and too little sensory, with little space for the soul. This is not to say she'll fill the pious with joy, after all, she says, "A literal reading of Scripture is a modern preoccupation springing from the prevalence of rational over mythical interpretation." Such interpretations then force a militant stance on Scriptural literalism in the face of criticism revealing Scriptures laced with contradictions (when read literally).

Students of civilizations will find thrilling Armstrong's notion we are in a 2nd Axial Age. All over the globe people are struggling with new conditions, says Armstrong, forced to reassess their religious traditions designed for entirely different types of societies. That is, for agricultural, not urban societies. She argues the first Axial Age (700BCE - 200BCE) was similarly transitional. At least in the manner of accumulating stress over thousands of years of social, cultural and economic change, all beginning with Sumer and its invention of the city (the wheel, writing, etc.). Compare thousands of years of accumulating change to the upheavals now witnessed where whole civilizations rise, globalize, and fall in 72 years (USSR). Technology, with almost no idea of what problems it will breed, and these fiercely dislocating financial machinations are too rapid for humans well suited for hunter gatherer groups of 25 individuals (as Richard Leakey claims), not a planet crammed with 7 billion of us. Armstrong notes that change at a slower pace, or none at all for generations, was once addressed by religion born from and suited for that era without the challenge of scientific criticism and such a fierce pace of technological pressure. While some have tried to withdraw from the secular world (not unlike that classic example of the Essenes), she says, there's no getting away from it.

Armstrong chronicles a list of offenses, response and counter response over the last 400 years for all three Levantine religions. Unlike countermeasures in weaponry, reaction of the social organism takes much longer - generally on the order of at least a half century or more. Such spans seem to be required before populations are able to realize their condition, articulate and maneuver in any meaningful way. The 1926 Skopes trial and America's fundamentalist response begun in the 1970's is presented as one example. A fundamentalism Armstrong observes has nothing to do with earlier forms of religious faith, but is rather a new form in which modern science-like interpretations of religion (otherwise known as Creationism) are used to counter modern science-like criticisms of religion. Armstrong seems to have heard of neither Marcel Gauchet ("Disenchantment Of The World") or Joseph Campbell, who both shed added light on this subject with more on political and mythological aspects respectively.

Armstrong not infrequently conflates any form of human hostility since the 16th century with rational modernity. Ethnic cleansing, aggressive force, and abuse of power are hardly new to our world, though one might argue we are provided another avenue over which humans can practice these favored pastimes. Similarly a scent of our Postmodernist fashion occasionally rises from her pages in the usual manner of vilifying the West while lauding other groups for precisely the same acts. "Establishment" of three Islamic Empires (Ottoman, Safavid, Moghul) were to Armstrong "exciting and innovative", not "violent and imperialistic." A generally fine book, occasionally tedious with repeated use of Arabic or Hebrew terminology, and finally a reasoned explanation for the secular among us who view fundamentalist forms of pious behavior as so odd. An excellent text for scientist Michael Dawkins and comedian Bill Maher offering them an opportunity to lose some of that smugness.
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April 15, 2014 – Shelved

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