The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
March 19, 2000            

For the ultra-sophisticated denizens of 21st-century Greater Boston, it is doubtless tempting to dismiss religious fundamentalism as merely the rage and resentment of the intellectually dispossessed.


That may be what it is, at least in part, but such automatic scorn is uncharitable and undiscriminating. As with any phenomenon involving millions of people in scores of countries, there are distinctions to be made, histories to be traced, and perhaps even the occasional flicker of sympathy to be experienced.

Karen Armstrong was a Roman Catholic nun for several years, now teaches Jewish history at a rabbinical college in London, and last year won an award from Britain’s Muslim Public Affairs Council, so she’s an ecumenical triple threat. Her 1994 “A History of God” was a best-seller, though its 400-page dash through 4000 years of intellectual history left this reader a little breathless at times. “The Battle for God,” a chronicle of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalisms since around 1900 and an inquiry into their historical roots, is sharper in focus, thicker in texture, more relaxed in pace. It’s a useful and rewarding book.

Obviously fundamentalism is a response to modernity, but it is not, Armstrong argues, a mere negation of modernity. It is an adaptation, not a throwback. The first and weightiest distinction Armstrong introduces is between “mythos” and “logos,” myth and rationality. Myth is a collective framework, a shared, taken-for-granted intuition about how everything hangs together. It is expressed in inherited symbols and rituals, and sees history either as cyclical or as a falling off from an original Golden Age. Rationality is practical and piecemeal, demands explicit definitions and justifications, looks to the present and future, and sometimes descries progress. Premodern life was a combination, more or less harmonious, of mythos and logos. But beginning in the 16th century, as we all know, a new “pragmatic, scientific spirit” gathered momentum and “slowly undermined the old conservative, mythical ethos.”

Modernization, Armstrong emphasizes, is thoroughgoing and irreversible. Fundamentalists cannot escape it and are not trying to. Instead, she claims, they are seeking to rationalize religion: not as religious liberals do, by blurring and accommodation, but by drawing out and insisting upon, ever more rigorously and relentlessly, the implications of their Scriptural premises. From the outside, it may seem absurd to believe in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, to observe every one of the 613 commandments of the Torah, or to regulate every transaction in a complex society by the Koran and Shariah. But from the inside it feels entirely logical and consistent – which, Armstrong points out, is just how traditional religion does not feel. The mystery, the numinousness of traditional, mythical religion is nearly as alien to the fundamentalist as to the secularist. Both are modernists, practitioners of logos, however different their starting points.

This is a plausible analysis, and it is embedded in an ample, well-told history. Wielding the mythos/logos distinction (sometimes perhaps a little overenthusiastically), Armstrong narrates the history of Islam from its founding in the 7th century, of Judaism from the Spanish “reconquista” and the subsequent expulsion or forced conversion of the Jews, and of Christianity from the Reformation. In each of these three creeds, there was a specific catalyst for 20th-century fundamentalism. The advent of Zionism, many of whose leaders were nonreligious, seemed to be leading to the secularization of Judaism. This alarmed the Orthodox, who insisted that only the Messiah should establish a Jewish state and “saw the Zionists as the latest manifestation of the evil hubris that had consistently brought disasters upon the Jewish people.” In response they advocated passivity, withdrawal, and literal observance. After the founding of Israel, some of the Orthodox came to terms with it, but others reacted furiously, going so far as to blame Zionism for the Holocaust. “To this day,” Armstrong reports, a little incredulously, “the placards and graffiti on the walls of an [ultra-Orthodox] district in Jerusalem equate the political leaders of the State of Israel with Hitler.”

For Muslims it was European imperialism that forced a confrontation with modernity and a reformulation of Islam. The founding in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first Islamic mass movement, was preceded by an anguished declaration: “We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. We see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and no dignity; they are no more than hirelings belonging to foreigners.” As Armstrong points out, Islam has always been about conduct more than doctrine and about social as much as individual morality, so popular religious movements were inevitably political as well. And because the British, Russians, and Americans continued to overturn election results and manipulate government policy throughout the Middle East, while even native rulers like Nasser, Sadat, and the Shah were harsh autocrats, Islamic fundamentalism has become increasingly militant.

Christian fundamentalism was initially a response to the twin evils of Darwinism and Biblical Higher Criticism. It has been more doctrinal than political, only entering American politics in the late 1970s. American readers may think themselves on familiar ground here, but as Armstrong shows, there are important distinctions to be drawn among fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Pentecostalists.

As in any good, long story, there are many intriguing details: the legend of the Twelfth Imam, the Shabbetai Zevi episode, the first and second Great Awakenings in 18th- and 19th-century America; exotic doctrines like Zimzum and the Rapture; the exotic sounds of the Arabic and Hebrew terms Armstrong sprinkles generously over the text (and explains in an excellent Glossary). One is fascinated to learn that St. Theresa of Avila and the inquisitor Torquemada were “conversos” (i.e., from a family of converted Jews) and that Ayatollah Khomeini was actually a voice for moderation at critical moments during the Iranian revolution. Did you know that famed radio preacher Carl McIntyre described liberal Protestant clergymen as “atheistic, communistic, Bible-ridiculing, blood-despising, name-calling [!], sex-manacled sons of green-eyed monsters” or that Bob Jones II called Jerry Falwell “the most dangerous man in America”? See how these Christians love one another!

I couldn’t help that sarcasm; but Armstrong never allows herself even a touch of it, and she’s right. Respect is due. After the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, one commentator, trying to rescue the group from near-universal condescension, remarked that it is better to have the wrong answers to the right questions than – like many ultra-sophisticates – the right answers to the wrong questions. That wise caution is worth bearing in mind as one gets to know the troubled, angry, earnest subjects of “The Battle for God.”