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Bewildering Stories

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
A History of Fundamentalism

reviewed by Don Webb

The Battle for God
Author: Karen Armstrong
Publisher: Ballantine
Paperback: 2000, 2001
Length: 441 pp + annexes
ISBN: 0-345-9169-1
Price: $15 U.S.

Le cœur a ses raisons
que la raison ne connaît point.

— Blaise Pascal
The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.

I. Why this review, and why here?

Karen Armstrong is a historian of religion whose erudition and insights have justly earned her great renown. Her books, such as A History of God and The Battle for God establish her as a social philosopher, as well. As such, she is a companion to Jane Jacobs, whose latest book Dark Age Ahead was reviewed in issue 104. The two of them are essential to understanding the present time. They show in both grand outline and detail how culture, politics and economics have interwoven to shape the world we live in at the beginning of the 21st century.

Bewildering Stories is very happy to have published articles and reviews in non-fiction. Our fiction has frequently featured alternate history and alternate futures. We now find ourselves at a historical juncture that many science-fiction writers have foreseen or alluded to but, I suggest, have not fully understood. They and we need to know what our history really is and what alternatives it proposes. It behooves us to listen intently to Jane Jacobs and Karen Armstrong.

II. What is fundamentalism?

A. A general description

The best summary can be found in Karen Armstrong’s own “New Preface” written a month or two after September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks — “made for television” — on the centers of American economic and military power changed nothing in the conclusions of the first edition, published the year before; they only confirmed Karen Armstrong’s worst fears: a worldwide cultural rift is headed — in my terms — toward a global civil war. At best it is being fought in the realms of culture, politics and economics; at worst it spills over onto battlefields.

Karen Armstrong doesn’t like the term “fundamentalism.” It originated in the United States in the early 20th century, and its use has only recently spread to include more than some forms of American Protestantism. The term implies that fundamentalism is a monolithic reactionary movement and is similar in all religions.

Fundamentalism is not monolithic: it is as faction-ridden as any religion. And it is only vaguely similar between religions: the Jewish and Muslim versions emphasize observance and practice; Christianity is unique in emphasizing adherence to formal doctrine. Nor is fundamentalism reactionary: “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” (p. xii).

But Armstrong admits that the term has been consecrated by usage; we’re stuck with it. It is a “militant piety” that has emerged in every major religious tradition. She summarizes the definition proposed by the eminent scholars Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby: “[Fundamentalisms] 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” (p. xiii).

The fundamentalist world view implies some corollaries. Fundamentalists...

Armstrong sums up the confrontation:

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 (p. xi).

B. The fundamentalist rationale

Why would anyone embrace such authoritarian thinking? For reasons that seemed good at the time: “This battle for God was an attempt to fill the void at the heart of a society based on scientific rationalism” (p. 370).

“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” (p. 135). Mythos — mythology and its cults — provides that meaning; it basically answers the question “why.” Logos — rationalism and science — answers the question “how.” Logos may heal the body but only mythos can heal the spirit.

In the premodern world, both mythology and rationalism were mutually indispensable. In our time, logos has become predominant and, according to an epigram of Jean-Paul Sartre’s that Armstrong is fond of citing, it has left a “God-shaped hole” in modern consciousness. And that “hole” is going to be filled somehow.

A similar philosophical adaptation has happened before. In the Axial Age of 700-200 BCE, trade began to replace agriculture as a prime source of wealth. The pagan fertility gods became irrelevant to people who were gaining a wider knowledge of the world. Ever practical, humanity replaced the old, local gods with the world religions we know today.

Now we are living in a Second Axial Age, where science has been added to land and trade as a prime source of wealth. And the old religions must once again redefine themselves and adapt, lest they be discarded as irrelevant.

III. The history of fundamentalism

Armstrong traces the history of three fundamentalist movements:

  1. in Judaism, especially in the state of Israel;
  2. in Islam, first in Egypt among the Sunnis and then in Iran, among the Shi’ites;
  3. and, finally, in American Protestantism.

Returning to the general outline of fundamentalist thought, I think the process of “resacralization” is key to all of them. Jewish fundamentalist movements arose in response to political crises in Europe. They eventually overcame the radically secular nature of the founding of the state of Israel and have given a religious dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, Islamic fundamentalisms arose in Egypt and Iran in response to British and, in Iran, American colonialist practices. They also opposed their own secular governments, particularly Nasser, in Egypt, and the Shah, in Iran.

Fundamentalism in the United States has a dynamic all its own. A curious and little-known article of theology allowed of a post-millenialist “end time” whereby Christ would return to earth after mankind had achieved a millennium of peace. The notion was optimistic but must have seemed too fanciful to warrant much attention, even in a post-Enlightenment age. However, times changed.

In the mid-19th century United States, the Civil War was a trauma that presaged Europe’s war of 1914-18. The American Civil War had been given meaning — especially by the Abolitionists — in apocalyptic terms. Small wonder, then, that John Nelson Darby, who was almost completely ignored in his native England, was received with acclaim in the U.S. between 1859 and 1877.

Darby’s message — premillennialism — was profoundly pessimistic. It recalls nothing so much as the story of Noah and the flood, but the meaning of that story — explicitly stated in Genesis — directly contradicts Darby’s message, and he ignored it, along with so much else.

In brief, Darby preached a modernistic version of hellfire and brimstone: humanity was so depraved that God would smash society and impose the millennium by force. Faithful Christians would be spared the Tribulation of the Last Days by being literally snatched up into Heaven in the Rapture. Darby’s god, then, was not the God of Genesis but a sectarian demon who would fulfill revenge fantasies and a morbid, nihilistic death wish.

Ironically, Darby’s theology was quite rationalistic: a literal — though grotesquely selective — reading of the Bible and a view of history as stages of conflict. Aside from the supernatural fantasy, Darby was perfectly in tune with the philosophical and scientific spirit of his times, including that of Hegel, Darwin... and Karl Marx.

Jump ahead to 1925: the Scopes “monkey trial” was a humiliating defeat for fundamentalism, and the modernist view appeared to reign supreme. However, fundamentalists simply became more intransigeant. In the 1970’s, they went on the offensive nationwide. They had great success particularly in the South, where industrialization had uprooted the populace both psychologically and socially. Fundamentalists even invented a “great Satan” of their own: secular humanism, which they saw as a competing religion with which they were engaged in a life-or-death struggle.

In the United States, then, as in the Near and Middle East, the reality or perception of oppression has led to paranoia. When two sides become ideologically straitjacketed, they can no longer listen to each other. And from there it is a short step to being unable to tolerate each other’s existence.

IV. Conclusion

Karen Armstrong points to what I see as two fatal flaws at the core of fundamentalism:

American fundamentalism is based on inherent contradictions that are the seeds of its own destruction: by rejecting science, it embraces poverty in theory but not in practice; by practicing authoritarianism and rejecting democracy, it will inevitably foment strife not only with the people whose world view it opposes but within itself as well.

The Biblical injunction “Fear not...” takes on especially urgent meaning in our times. Karen Armstrong reminds us repeatedly — and with good reason — that any religious movement must practice compassion above all; otherwise it betrays itself. At best, its fear leads to paranoia; at worst, to the nihilistic fanaticism that has marred so much of the 20th century. In that regard, Karen Armstrong looks kindly upon the Muslim Brotherhood’s charitable works, which exemplified the social consciousness of Islam and stood in stark contrast to the policies of Egypt’s secular governments.

Karen Armstrong urges us to listen to the fear in fundamentalism, however incoherently it may be expressed. At bottom, it is existential dread, that we may all be only accidental organisms in a meaningless universe. And if corporations and governments — one’s own or those of foreign powers — treat us as though that’s all we are, then are they not, in their turn, Satanic and nihilistic? I will go farther: all parties — fundamentalists, “mainline” denominations in all religions, and “secular humanists” as well — have a lot to learn, and they will need each other to learn it.

One of the birth certificates of the modern age can be found here in Bewildering Stories: Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World. It shows a freethinker, Cyrano, writing at the birth of modern science and confronting the world of antiquity. But note: he has no quarrel with the mythos of Christianity; rather he satirizes religion on only one ground: taking mythology literally rather than explaining its meaning.

Cyrano de Bergerac, along with Descartes and others, were defining the Second Axial Age at its beginning. One of their contemporaries deserves to be its patron saint: Blaise Pascal. Armstrong likes to cite Pascal as expressing the archetype of existential anguish: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie — ‘The eternal silence of infinite space frightens me’. That is the world seen through the logos of science alone, and Pascal earned his status as one of the early geniuses of modern science. His greater genius consists in realizing that science is only part of the equation.

On November 23, 1654, the nuit du Mémorial, Pascal had a mystical vision, an experience all the more notable because Christianity has less of a mystical tradition than other religions, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. Ever the methodical scientist, he recorded it on two pieces of paper. He did not broadcast it to the world or try to use it to convert others; he sewed his notes into the lining of his coat, preserving them as the personal testimonial they were. Rather, he set about to persuade freethinkers — such as Cyrano — that they, too, could make their own way to experiencing the unity of mind and body, head and heart.

The spirit of the Mémorial is summed up in the epigraph to this article, although those particular words appear elsewhere, in the Pensées. Pascal reconciled mythos and logos in the terms of his own time, with mythological references we might not use, ourselves. Had he lived to complete his work, he might have discovered that he was in effect redefining religion for the modern world; that task now falls belatedly to less capable hands. But Pascal’s example remains as a starting point for the great task of the Second Axial Age: a grand unified theory of faith and reason.

Cassandra's Voices

Cassandra’s Voices
Warnings to the Modern Age

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Don Webb, Cassandra’s Voices in 2016

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

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