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Fundamentalism (Karen Armstrong)

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Harper Collins, 2000)

Reviewed by Rod Benson

James Barr described it as “a pathological condition of Christianity”; Catherine Lumby as “excessively public devotion”; and David Bebbington as “evangelicalism with an inferiority complex.” From within it is often seen as “biblical Christianity.” However it is perceived, religious fundamentalism is alive and well, not only in Christian cultures but among Jews and Muslims and other religious traditions.

In The Battle for God Karen Armstrong sets her own distinctive spin on the term. Drawing on historical research into the three so-called Abrahamic faiths, she traces the roots and fruits of fundamentalist impulses from the late fifteenth to late nineteenth centuries. Then, focusing on the period 1870-1999, she maps the impact and legacy of fundamentalism on events and nations in the recent past.

Armstrong is considered one of the foremost commentators on religion in North America and Europe. At 17 she chose to devote her life to God as a nun in a Catholic convent. She left her order after seven years in 1969. In Through the Narrow Gate (St Martins Press, 1982), Armstrong describes this ordeal that she says pressed her to the limit of endurance and led her to embrace atheism.

After teaching English and working on television documentaries, Armstrong was appointed to London’s Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, where she continues teaching, researching and writing. Today she describes herself as “a freelance monotheist,” and likens religion to a raft: “once you get across the river, moor the raft and go on. Don’t lug it with you if you don’ t need it anymore.”

Central to her reading of history is the notion that premodern cultures possessed two complementary and indispensable ways of thinking, speaking and knowing: mythos and logos.

Mythos was concerned with meaning; it “provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.” Logos, on the other hand, dealt with practical matters. It forged ahead, elaborating on old insights, mastering the environment, and creating fresh and new things.

Armstrong argues that modern Western society has lost the sense of mythos and enshrined logos as its foundation. Mythical narratives and the rituals and meanings attached to them have ceded authority to that which is rational, pragmatic and scientific – but which does not assuage human pain or sorrow, and cannot answer questions about the ultimate value of human life.

However, far from embarking on a wholesale rejection of the modern emphasis in favour of the old balance, the author contends, religious fundamentalists unwittingly turn the mythos of their faith into logos. Fundamentalism is a child of modernity, and fundamentalists are fundamentally modern.

With rigorous depth of research and astonishing attention to detail, Armstrong traces the impact of modernity (not to be confused with modernism)

on the Christian cultures of Europe and North America, on the Jewish people, and on the Muslims of Egypt and Iran. The so-called “battle for God” refers to attempts by fundamentalists to fill a void at the heart of societies that are based on scientific rationalism.

Apart from functioning as justification of her thesis, the account is worth reading for its perspective on many twentieth-century events such as the growth of secular Zionism leading up to 1948, the Iran hostage crisis of 1980-81, and the confidence of Christian fundamentalists in the 1980s and 1990s in contrast to the mentality of withdrawal after the Scopes trial in the 1920s.

One of the book’s weaknesses is its strong focus on fundamentalism in the US, and its preoccupation with the personalities and proclivities of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jim and Tammy Bakker. It could be argued, of course, that reliance on British fundamentalism would make for less outrageous illustrations and require treatment of the arguably more respectable British evangelical tradition.

Armstrong concludes by observing that:

Secularists and fundamentalists sometimes seem trapped in an escalating spiral of hostility and recrimination. 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 characterises modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience but which no society can safely ignore.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and October 12, 2002, and their politically-driven repercussions, such comments are all the more relevant and urgent.

[This review first appeared in Mosaic, the Quarterly Journal of the NSW Baptist Ministers Association, Vol. 5, No. 1, Autumn 2003. For more information contact ]


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