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John A. SalibaJuly 15, 2000
The Battle For Godby Karen ArmstrongAlfred A. Knopf 448p $27.50

It could be argued that fundamentalism is a serious contemporary problem that affects all aspects of society and will likely influence all cultures for the foreseeable future. Such is, in fact Karen Armstrong’s assumption. Her book makes an attempt to understand the development of fundamentalism throughout the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It explores the reasons for its many successes, with the goal of finding ways of dealing with it. She maintains that as a global response to the modern secularist culture, fundamentalism cannot be ignored or dismissed as an innocuous passing fad.

Armstrong, a distinguished British scholar and religious commentator, divides her treatment of fundamentalism into two basic parts. The first deals with the early history of religious revivals from the end of the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century, which marks the rise of modernism and the impact of scientific research on Western thought and culture. Here she shows how Jews, Christians and Muslims were faced with different social and cultural problems and how they responded to the pressures of the times. She explains how the persecution of the Jews by the Inquisition led to various reactions, including the developing of a new mythology; how the Islamic empires of the period maintained a conservative spirit; and how the Christian world developed a modern rationalistic attitude that was opposed to faith.

The second part of her book takes up the emergence of recent fundamentalist movements dating from the second half of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century. This section is divided into five main periods. The first (1870-1990) explains how the battle lines were drawn when modern scientific research questioned and sometimes discarded religious tenets that had hitherto been taken for granted. It is argued that the fundamentalist movements that arose in all three religions were reacting against feelings of void, meaninglessness and uncertainty. The second (1900-25) is marked by a return to fundamentals, a search for a modern faith that would overcome the challenges brought about by the rational, empirical and historical methods that had begun to govern the quest for knowledge. The third (1925-60) takes up the counterculture, during which period Jewish and Christian fundamentalists concentrated on creating their own "defensive counterculture" against modernity, often by establishing separatist citadels like the Jewish yeshivot and fundamentalist colleges. The Muslims of this period, still lagging behind in the modernization process, did not develop a new offensive, but continued to maintain a conservative stance while still developing their religious traditions. The fourth period (1960-74) is concerned with "mobilization." Fundamentalists now arose to defend their world view, with force if necessary, against the forces they believed were intent on destroying their faith. This era is exemplified by the revolution in Iran, by religious Zionists in Israel and by the attempts of fundamentalists in the USA to gain political power. The final period (1979-99) discusses recent developments. Here the author questions whether fundamentalism is on the decline and concludes that "fundamentalism is now part of the modern world" and that it "represents a widespread disappointment, alienation, anxiety, and rage that no modern government can safely ignore."

Throughout the book, Armstrong effectively uses the metaphors of "mythos" and "logos" (myth and reason) to describe the tension between the traditional religious worldview and that provided by modern science and rational thought. Both worldviews have their distinctive way of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. For centuries, both existed side by side as complementary, each covering a different area of human inquiry. Armstrong criticizes modern science for dismissing the mythological dimension of human life and thus leaving human beings with no way of explaining their "inner world." She faults fundamentalists for turning their "mythos" into "logos," with disastrous results: They have distorted their religious traditions and, by presenting their religious beliefs as scientific and/or reasoned truths, they "all have neglected the more tolerant, inclusive, and compassionate teachings and have cultivated theologies of rage, resentment, and revenge." Consequently they have failed in religious terms. She concludes by stating that, in order to understand fundamentalist movements, one must take into account two factors: 1) that fundamentalists’ theologies are rooted in fear; and 2) that these movements are modern and innovative and not just an attempt to return to the past. She suggests that while fundamentalists need to become more compassionate and tolerant, secularists must themselves find ways of dealing with the fears and anxieties of modern societies.

The Battle for God is a very informative, well-documented and challenging book. Crammed with information, which many readers might find somewhat overwhelming, it does an excellent job of charting the continuous struggles between secular culture and conservative movements in three world religions. There is little doubt that the rise of fundamentalism, particularly in modern times, is a reaction to the secularizing trends that have beset the West and are now making inroads in other parts of the world.

The author is inclined to believe that the conflict between fundamentalists and the modern scientific world can be resolved or at least assuaged. How this can be done she never spells out in detail. The reader is assured at the beginning of the book that fundamentalists "have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech, or separation of church and state." With this mentality one wonders whether any dialogue, let alone a rapprochement, is possible. The question that still remains in this reviewer’s mind is whether fundamentalists can ever adjust to the paradigm shift that is sweeping the contemporary world. If the answer is in the negative, then social and religious conflicts are bound to increase and the future of religion looks rather grim.

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