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A History of Fundamentalism

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On Sale: August 10, 2011
Pages: 480 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79860-2
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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In our supposedly secular age governed by reason and technology, fundamentalism has emerged as an overwhelming force in every major world religion. Why? This is the fascinating, disturbing question that bestselling author Karen Armstrong addresses in her brilliant new book The Battle for God. Writing with the broad perspective and deep understanding of human spirituality that won huge audiences for A History of God, Armstrong illuminates the spread of militant piety as a phenomenon peculiar to our moment in history.

Contrary to popular belief, fundamentalism is not a throwback to some ancient form of religion but rather a response to the spiritual crisis of the modern world. As Armstrong argues, the collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Renaissance forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious--and fundamentalism was born. Armstrong focuses here on three fundamentalist movements: Protestant fundamentalism in America, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran--exploring how each has developed its own unique way of combating the assaults of modernity.

Blending history, sociology, and spirituality, The Battle for God is a compelling and compassionate study of a radical form of religious expression that is critically shaping the course of world history.



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
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

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.
Karen Armstrong|Author Q&A

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong - The Battle for God

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It was launched globally in the fall of 2009. Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.  

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong was interviewed by Jonathan Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times who writes and lectures widely on biblical, literary, and legal top-ics. He is the author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed books King David, Moses: A Life, and The Harlot by the Side of the Road.

JH: Your very first book, Through the Narrow Gate, is a memoir of your experiences as a nun. What convinced you to enter a convent?

KA: Very few of our motivations are simple and clear and pure, and what drew me to the religious life was a complex decision. There certainly was a religious desire--I did want to find God. Of course, there were other less noble reasons, too--I was only seventeen years old, and the whole mess of adolescent confusion was certainly a factor. I was very shy, believe it or not, and I was very scared about how I was going to cope in the big wide world. The convent seemed something familiar. I thought I'd become so holy and wise that I would transcend these con-fusions and lose myself in a sort of being called God and become saintly and happy. But that didn't happen. If you're just seeking to escape your-self, you're not going to stay very long because in the convent you are confronted with yourself twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

JH: What prompted you to leave the convent?
KA: Why I left is equally complicated. I didn't want to leave at all. I was really frightened to leave. I wasn't thinking, Now I can wear beautiful clothes and fall in love and be free. I left with real dread. I had missed the 1960s, and I came out into an entirely transformed world. But I knew that I had to do it. I knew I wasn't going to be a very good nun. Some women can live a life of complete chastity and still become mature; a life in which they never make any decisions themselves and always obey, and have no per-sonal possessions. But only a few women had done that, and I knew that I wasn't one of them. I knew it wasn't for me. I had to go.

JH: Using the definition of fundamentalism that you offer in The Battle for God, was your stay in the convent a fundamentalist experience?

KA: Yes, in the sense that it was a deliberate attempt to turn my back on the modern world. And there is certainly a sense in which the convent was an embattled community at odds with the world outside--ours was not to wonder why, ours was to do and die. But there were differences, too. A lot of fundamentalists are angry and about to declare war on the world. We never got to that stage. We were in retreat from the world.

JH: You have been remarkably prolific as an author since leaving the convent. What is your writing life like?

KA: I work alone here in my house in London, I work at the library, and I write all the time. I write longhand and then I type the manuscript. It slows down the writing but I think it's a good thing to write more slowly. I am not just a Luddite, forsaking all machinery--I am an epilep-tic due to a birth injury, and I am worried about the effects of sitting in front of a computer screen all day long. But I am finally getting a com-puter because the fact is that they are not making typewriters anymore, and soon the only place you'll find them is in antique shops.

When I'm not writing, I also do a little lecturing and a bit of teaching at the Leo Baeck College in London, but that's a tiny part of my year. I teach Christianity, but there's a Dominican priest at the college who thinks I'm not Christian enough to teach the whole course.

JH: Your books range from biographies of St. Paul (The First Christian) and Muhammad (Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet) and Bud-dha (Buddha) to studies of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (A History of God and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths). The Battle for God, for example, focuses on fundamentalism in all three Bible-based religions. What interests you in the study of so many different and disparate faiths?

KA: It was the different expressions of faith that drew me back to religion. After I came out of the convent, I was sick to death of religion and I thought that I had completely finished with it. I'd had a bad experience of religion, and I was literally nauseated by it. It's like a bad sexual experience at an early age that can skew you forever. My early books were written in a spirit of great skepticism.

Then I made a trip to Jerusalem to make a documentary on St. Paul, and there I encountered Judaism and Islam as living faiths, vibrant and independent, and yet interconnected with my own. I was intrigued and enthralled, and I realized I had to look into it. The study of Judaism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity showed me that there was a lot in the monotheistic tradition that I had never encountered and could really relate to, and it drew me back to a greater appreciation of what my own religion was trying to do. I always tried to present the monotheistic religions in a triple vision by trying to see them all as valid ways to God.

JH: Do you still regard yourself as a Catholic?

KA: No, I would call myself a freelance monotheist. My main source of spiri-tuality is study. When I immerse myself in the sacred texts, whatever they happen to be, I live moments of awe and wonder and transcen-dence.

This is one of the common experiences of the twentieth century. Peo-ple don't want to leave their own traditions, but they are reaching out instinctively to other faiths. Our society is becoming more and more global, and religious pluralism is one aspect of it.

JH: And yet the fundamentalists you write about in The Battle for God would be aghast at the idea of religious pluralism, wouldn't they?

KA: Some people feel very threatened by pluralism, and they want to assert their identity more strongly than ever before, out of fear, by erecting new barriers. Fear is at the heart of fundamentalism--the fear of losing yourself.

But you can't escape modernity. Ironically, the very stance of choos-ing to be a fundamentalist is a modern stance, and most of the funda-mentalist ideologies could not have taken root in a time other than our own. A Christian who reads the Bible from a fundamentalist point of view, for example, is reading it in a way that would have been impossi-ble prior to the invention of printing and widespread literacy.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, too, was a man of the twentieth century, innovative and revolutionary, and his politics were typical Third World politics--anti-imperialist and antiAmerican. Like any modern politi-cian, he appealed directly to the people, and he overturned centuries of Shiite tradition.

JH: The final chapter of The Battle for God is titled "Defeat?" What do you intend to say about the future of fundamentalism with that provocative question mark?

KA: Fundamentalism cannot be defeated, and, in a sense, fundamentalists have won a great victory. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was generally assumed that religion would never again play a role in great events. Today, however, no government can ignore it. Israel began as a defiantly secular state, for example, but now the Prime Minister of Israel must go hat in hand to the religious parties to make a government. In Egypt, Islamic fundamentalism is as popular today as Nasserism was in the 1960s. Even in the United States, politicians have to flaunt their born-again credentials. At the height of the Lewinsky scandal, we saw President Clinton attending a prayer breakfast and weeping and saying he had sinned.

But, on another level, fundamentalism represents a defeat for the religious traditions that fundamentalists are fighting to preserve, because they tend to downplay compassion, which all the world faiths insist is the primary religious virtue, and overstress the more belligerent and intolerant aspects of the tradition. At the root of fundamentalism are nihilism, hopelessness, and despair.

We have to try to make the huge imaginative effort to put ourselves in the shoes of the fundamentalists because they threaten our values just as we threaten theirs. If we understand a bit more clearly what the fun-damentalists really mean, if we learn to read the imagery of fundamen-talism, 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 called my book The Battle for God not just because it was a snappy title but because I saw a society that is so polarized that the two sides are not yet ready to come to the table. Both sides are cowering in their corners and looking out at the same world but they don't see the same thing. We've got to learn to listen. One of the things I am trying to do in my book is to decode some of the fundamentalist imagery so that we can see what lies at the root of what they're trying to say--the myths and dreams, the fears and anxieties. Instead of dismissing fundamentalists as a bunch of loons and crazies, we must listen to what they have to say.



"One of the most penetrating, readable, and prescient accounts to date of the rise of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam."
--The New York Times Book Review

"EXCELLENT . . . HIGHLY INTELLIGENT AND HIGHLY READABLE . . . This is a book that will prove indispensable . . . for anyone who seeks insight into how these powerful movements affect global politics and society today and into the future."
--The Baltimore Sun

"ARMSTRONG SUCCEEDS BRILLIANTLY . . . With her astonishing depth of knowledge and readily accessible writing style, [she] makes an ideal guide in traversing a subject that is by its very nature complex, sensitive and frequently ambiguous."
--The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle

--The Boston Globe
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Have you or someone close to you ever adhered to a religious group that Karen Armstrong would define as fundamentalist? Does her view of funda-mentalism "ring true" for you?

2. Karen Armstrong uses the terms mythos and logos to describe "two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge." Mythos is concerned with "the eternal and the universal," she writes, and logos is concerned with "ratio-nal, pragmatic, and scientific thought." How do these terms apply to your own experience of religious and secular life?

3. Armstrong points out that the first Grand Inquisitor, whose mission was to stamp out Judaism in Spain, was himself a Jew who converted to Catholi-cism. Do you believe that a convert is more likely to be zealous in his or her new faith than someone who was born into the same faith?

4. Were you surprised to learn that Islam treated Christians and Jews as a "protected minority" (dhimmi)? Did Armstrong's description of the history of Islam change the way you view the Islamic world as it is depicted in news media and popular entertainment today?

5. According to Armstrong, the events in Spain of 1492--the expulsion of Jews and Muslims--marked the beginning of "a new order" in world his-tory. She also finds history-changing significance in the rise of Napoleon, the industrial revolution, and World War I. Do you agree that these events changed the world as we know it?

6. In writing about modernization in the Western world, Armstrong points out that some scientists and scholars came to embrace the principle that "the only information upon which we could safely rely came from our five senses," and "anything else was pure fantasy." In their view, she writes, "[p]hilosophy, metaphysics, theology, art, imagination, mysticism, and mythology were all dismissed as irrelevant and superstitious because they could not be verified empirically." Does your own experience of life prompt you to agree or disagree with this point of view?

7. Armstrong insists that modernism, despite all of the material benefits that it bestowed upon humanity, was not a complete replacement for religion and spirituality. "Human beings find it almost impossible to live without a sense that, despite the distressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate meaning and value," she writes. What is your own view of the "ultimate meaning and value" of life in the modern world? Do you find meaning and value in life through religious observance?

8. "In their way, fundamentalists were ardent modernists," writes Armstrong. Do you agree that fundamentalism, as Armstrong defines and explains it, is a feature of the modern world and could not have existed in an earlier era?

9. "The death camp and the mushroom cloud," writes Armstrong, "are icons that we must contemplate and take to heart so that we do not become chauvinistic about the modern scientific culture that so many of us in the developed world enjoy." Do you believe that the benefits of the modern world outweigh such horrors as the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear destruction?

10. Armstrong argues that there is "a void at the heart of modern culture," which French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described as "a God-shaped hole." Do you experience such a void in your own life? If so, how have you tried to fill the "God-shaped hole"?

11. Armstrong holds out the hope that fundamentalists and modern secular societies can come to understand and live in peace with each other. "If fun-damentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their ene-mies in order to be true to their religious traditions," she writes, "secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best." Do you see any specific ways in which "secularists" can express these qualities in a way that fundamentalists can understand them?

12. How do the conflicts between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East differ from the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland? Do the ideas that Armstrong explores in The Battle for God apply to both of these "hot spots" of the modern world?

13. Has The Battle for God changed the way you understand the role of religion in defining and encouraging morality in public and private life? Has reli-gion played a positive or a negative role in shaping the world we live in today?

14. Does The Battle for God change how you feel about fundamentalism in reli-gion? In what way? Are you more or less sympathetic toward fundamen-talists than you were when you first picked up the book?

  • The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
  • January 30, 2001
  • Religion; History
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.95
  • 9780345391698

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