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The Battle for God

The Battle for God

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Add This - The Battle for God

Written by Karen ArmstrongAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karen Armstrong

  • Format: Trade Paperback, 480 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • On Sale: January 30, 2001
  • Price: $15.95
  • ISBN: 978-0-345-39169-8 (0-345-39169-1)
Also available as an eBook.
EXCERPT

Introduction

One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has
been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant
piety popularly known as "fundamentalism." Its manifestations are
sometimes shocking. 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
<p>
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.
Fundamentalism, moreover, 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. 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
center 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.

But before we proceed, we must look briefly at the term "fundamentalism"
itself, which has been much criticized. American Protestants were the
first to use it. In the early decades of the twentieth century, some of
them started to call themselves "fundamentalists" 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 reemphasize 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. It seems to suggest
that fundamentalism is monolithic in all its manifestations. This is not
the case. Each "fundamentalism" is a law unto itself and has its own
dynamic. The term also gives the impression that fundamentalists are
inherently conservative and wedded to the past, whereas their ideas are
essentially modern and highly innovative. The American Protestants may
have intended to go back to the "fundamentals," but they did so in a
peculiarly modern way. It has also been argued that this Christian term
cannot be accurately applied to movements that have entirely different
priorities. Muslim and Jewish fundamentalisms, for example, are not much
concerned with doctrine, which is an essentially Christian
preoccupation. A literal translation of "fundamentalism" into Arabic
gives us usuliyyah, a word that refers to the study of the sources of
the various rules and principles of Islamic law. Most of the activists
who are dubbed "fundamentalists" in the West are not engaged in this
Islamic science, but have quite different concerns. The use of the term
"fundamentalism" is, therefore, misleading.

Others, however, argue simply that, like it or not, the word
"fundamentalism" is here to stay. And I have come to agree: the term is
not perfect, but it is a useful label for movements that, despite their
differences, bear a strong family resemblance. At the outset of their
monumental six-volume Fundamentalist Project, Martin E. Marty and R.
Scott Appleby argue 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 skeptical
world.

To explore the implications of this global response to modern culture, I
want to concentrate on just a few of the fundamentalist movements that
have surfaced in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three
monotheistic faiths. Instead of studying them in isolation from one
another, I intend to trace their development chronologically, side by
side, so that we can see how deeply similar they are. By looking at
selected fundamentalisms, I hope to examine the phenomenon in greater
depth than would be possible in a more general, comprehensive survey.
The movements I have chosen are American Protestant fundamentalism,
Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt,
which is a Sunni country, and Iran, which is Shii. I do not claim that
my discoveries necessarily apply to other forms of fundamentalism, but
hope 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.

There have always been people, in every age and in each tradition, who
have fought the modernity of their day. But the fundamentalism that we
shall be considering is an essentially twentieth-century movement. It is
a reaction against the scientific and secular culture that first
appeared in the West, but which has since taken root in other parts of
the world. The West has developed an entirely unprecedented and wholly
different type of civilization, so the religious response to it has been
unique. The fundamentalist movements that have evolved in our own day
have a symbiotic relationship with modernity. They may reject the
scientific rationalism of the West, but they cannot escape it. Western
civilization has changed the world. Nothing -- including religion -- can
ever be the same again. All over the globe, people have been struggling
with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their
religious traditions, which were designed for an entirely different type
of society.

There was a similar transitional period in the ancient world, lasting
roughly from 700 to 200 BCE, which historians have called the Axial Age
because it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. This
age was itself the product and fruition of thousands of years of
economic, and therefore social and cultural, evolution, beginning in
Sumer in what is now Iraq, and in ancient Egypt. People in the fourth
and third millennia BCE, instead of simply growing enough crops to
satisfy their immediate needs, became capable of producing an
agricultural surplus with which they could trade and thereby acquire
additional income. This enabled them to build the first civilizations,
develop the arts, and create increasingly powerful polities: cities,
city-states, and, eventually, empires. In agrarian society, power no
longer lay exclusively with the local king or priest; its locus shifted
at least partly to the marketplace, the source of each culture's wealth.
In these altered circumstances, people ultimately began to find that the
old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke
fully to their condition.

In the cities and empires of the Axial Age, citizens were acquiring a
wider perspective and broader horizons, which made the old local cults
seem limited and parochial. Instead of seeing the divine as embodied in
a number of different deities, people increasingly began to worship a
single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness. They had more
leisure and were thus able to develop a richer interior life;
accordingly, they came to desire a spirituality which did not depend
entirely upon external forms. The most sensitive were troubled by the
social injustice that seemed built into this agrarian society, depending
as it did on the labor of peasants who never had the chance to benefit
from the high culture. Consequently, prophets and reformers arose who
insisted that the virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual
life: an ability to see sacredness in every single human being, and a
willingness to take practical care of the more vulnerable members of
society, became the test of authentic piety. In this way, during the
Axial Age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to guide
human beings sprang up in the civilized world: Buddhism and Hinduism in
India, Confucianism and Taoism in the Far East; monotheism in the Middle
East; and rationalism in Europe. Despite their major differences, these
Axial Age religions had much in common: they all built on the old
traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they
cultivated an internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of
practical compassion.

Today, as noted, we are undergoing a similar period of transition. Its
roots lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the modern era,
when the people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of
society, one based not on an agricultural surplus but on a technology
that enabled them to reproduce their resources indefinitely. 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. All over the world, people are finding that in their
dramatically transformed circumstances, the old forms of faith no longer
work for them: they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation
that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to
find new ways of being religious; like the reformers and prophets of the
Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in
a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have
created for themselves. One of these modern experiments -- however
paradoxical it may superficially seem to say so -- is fundamentalism.

We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like
us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In
particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring
knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were
essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at
truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as
primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and
constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to
the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind.
Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless
we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall
very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a
context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their
attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what
we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories,
which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of
psychology. When people told stories about heroes who descended into the
underworld, struggled through labyrinths, or fought with monsters, they
were bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm,
which is not accessible to purely rational investigation, but which has
a profound effect upon our experience and behavior. Because of the
dearth of myth in our modern society, we have had to evolve the science
of psychoanalysis to help us to deal with our inner world.

Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more
intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture. Myth
only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and
ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshippers, evoking within
them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the
deeper currents of existence. Myth and cult were so inseparable that it
is a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical narrative
or the rituals attached to it. Myth was also associated with mysticism,
the descent into the psyche by means of structured disciplines of focus
and concentration which have been evolved in all cultures as a means of
acquiring intuitive insight. Without a cult or mystical practice, the
myths of religion would make no sense. They would remain abstract and
seem incredible, in rather the same way as a musical score remains
opaque to most of us and needs to be interpreted instrumentally before
we can appreciate its beauty.

In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They
were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more
concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not
seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to
be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence
history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under
the sun. Historical narratives tried to bring out this eternal
dimension. Thus, we do not know what really occurred when the ancient
Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the Sea of Reeds. The
story has been deliberately written as a myth, and linked with other
stories about rites of passage, immersion in the deep, and gods
splitting a sea in two to create a new reality. Jews experience this
myth every year in the rituals of the Passover Seder, which brings this
strange story into their own lives and helps them to make it their own.
One could say that unless an historical event is mythologized in this
way, and liberated from the past in an inspiring cult, it cannot be
religious. To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as
recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence
to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose
of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.

Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and
scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the
world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we
are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike
myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external
realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the
mundane world. We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to
make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to
adopt a particular course of action. Logos is practical. Unlike myth,
which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges
ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights,
achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something
fresh, and invent something novel.

In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as
indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two
were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse
mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was
not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated
empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical
activities worthwhile. You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of
a pragmatic policy. If you did so, the results could be disastrous,
because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not
readily applicable to the affairs of the external world. When, for
example, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade in 1095, his plan
belonged to the realm of logos. He wanted the knights of Europe to stop
fighting one another and tearing the fabric of Western Christendom
apart, and to expend their energies instead in a war in the Middle East
and so extend the power of his church. But when this military expedition
became entangled with folk mythology, biblical lore, and apocalyptic
fantasies, the result was catastrophic, practically, militarily, and
morally. Throughout the long crusading project, it remained true that
whenever logos was ascendant, the Crusaders prospered. They performed
well on the battlefield, created viable colonies in the Middle East, and
learned to relate more positively with the local population. When,
however, Crusaders started making a mythical or mystical vision the
basis of their policies, they were usually defeated and committed
terrible atrocities.


Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or
sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could
not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist
could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts
about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of
life.9 That was the preserve of myth and cult.

By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had
achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they
began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to
discount mythos as false and superstitious. It is also true that the new
world they were creating contradicted the dynamic of the old mythical
spirituality. Our religious experience in the modern world has changed,
and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism
alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith
into logos. Fundamentalists have also made this attempt. This confusion
has led to more problems.

We need to understand how our world has changed. The first part of this
book will, therefore, go back to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth
centuries, when the people of Western Europe had begun to develop their
new science. We will also examine the mythical piety of the premodern
agrarian civilization, so that we can see how the old forms of faith
worked. 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 unrecognizable. We will trace the impact of
modernity upon the Christians of Europe and America, upon the Jewish
people, and upon the Muslims of Egypt and Iran. We shall then be in a
position to see what the fundamentalists were trying to do when they
started to create this new form of faith toward the end of the
nineteenth century.

Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten
their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for
combatants to appreciate one another's position. We shall find that
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 -- myself included
-- who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to
comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists. Yet
modernization is often experienced not as a liberation but as an
aggressive assault. Few have suffered more in the modern world than the
Jewish people, so it is fitting to begin with their bruising encounter
with the modernizing society of Western Christendom in the late
fifteenth century, which led some Jews to anticipate many of the
stratagems, postures, and principles that would later become common in
the new world.

Excerpted from The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.