Quote:Today's newspapers and magazines are filled with stories about religious extremism: from the conflicts in Israel and the terrorist bombings around the globe, all the way to the bible-thumpers of the American Heartland. Although these people come from very different heritages, they share one thing in common: adherance to religious fundamentalism, which is actually a fairly new force in the world. They feel threatened by modernity, change, and uncertainty, and they wield very real political power.
"The Battle for God" by Karen Armstrong is an examination of religious fundamentalism in the three monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Armstrong traces the history of these three religions through the great changes wrought during the European Enlightenment, showing how fundamentalism ultimately emerged as a coherent reaction against modern ideas. She then describes the recent history of fundamentalism-- things we remember, like the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the "born-again" Christian movement in America-- and draws conclusions about where fundamentalism is headed in the coming century. Armstrong is no fundamentalist, but ultimately her view is sympathetic, and she encourages readers to understand fundamentalism in order to be able to deal with its followers (whose actions can seem annoying and downright irrational for nonbelievers).
The concept behind this book is great. I admit to plain old-fashioned incomprehension of religious fundamentalism, and I have zero desire to read fundamentalist literature or try to have conversations with these people (actually, I've already done that, and it's quite frustrating). Here at least was a book I could read to get some perspective. Why the heck do people drive suicide truck bombs? Why do they feel personally threatened if prayer in school is not allowed? Why do they have to be so intolerant of anything except their (OK, I'll say it) own wacko beliefs? I thought maybe I could get some enlightenment.
To some degree, I got what I came for. I now have a clue where fundamentalists are coming from and how their version of religion came to be. But frankly, this book is not well-written. It is chock-full of logical errors and straight-out contradictions (see below). I had to really sort through it to figure out what I could believe and what was just plain hogwash. Armstrong is supposed to be a highly acclaimed religious scholar. If this is the quality of top-notch religious studies professors, I have newfound disrepect for the field. As much as I wanted to get a lot out of this book, I have to rate it a solid "-".
The book is dense, as are its problems, so I won't try to describe everything Armstrong says or everything I found troubling about it. I'll just sketch the major issues. The most glaring structural feature of the book is Armstrong's division of the world into two dichotomies: mythos and logos, and "conservative" and "modern."
Let's start with the mythos/logos dichotomy. Armstrong makes a huge deal out of the "two ways of knowing" called mythos and logos. (She didn't make these up-- they're well known in other fields too). Mythos is a mystical sort of knowledge, based not on factual, here-and-now truth, but on a universal Truth that is demonstrated through stories, tales, analogies, and symbols. Logos is more logical; it is about knowing things because you can demonstrate that they are true, or you can sense them with your own senses. Logos is practical, while mythos is spiritual.
According to Armstrong, religion used to incorporate elements of both mythos and logos in order to form a complete social structure for people's lives. Everyone understood that neither was dominant over the other and that each had its own realm in which it worked best. Logos was for government and law, while mythos sustained the soul and family. If anything, however, mythos was believed to be deeper and more meaningful than logos.
But during the European Enlightenment, logos came to dominate mythos, gradually cutting into its realm until rationality became the only way to approach life. With the death of mythos, religion had less meaning, and people began to feel disoriented and dissatisfied spiritually. Although I am greatly oversimplfying Armstrong's history, what ultimately filled the mythos gap was fundamentalism. It is the rebellion of mythos against the "aggressive" encroachment of logos.
The second dichotomy is "conservative" vs. "modern." Religions employing the conservative spirit look backward to a better past, and are concerned that people not stray too far from the established order of their ancestors. Some very conservative movements even go so far as to discourage independent thought, believing that all the good ideas have already been implemented and need simply to be followed by people today. Conversely, the modern spirit involves looking forward to a better future. Creativity is encouraged, and new solutions to old problems are generally welcomed. While fundamental principles are important, it is understood that they may need reinterpretation for the modern times.
Armstrong explains that the European Enlightenment was the setting for a shift from conservative to modern, accompanying the shift away from mythos. With the whole Universe divided into two neat dichotomies, Armstrong spends much of the rest of book trying to fit history into these tidy boxes. Not surprisingly, it doesn't quite fit. In fact, the only other group of people I've run across who are quite so attached to dichotomies are..... religious fundamentalists.
The most spectacular failure of Armstrong's dichotomies comes from science. With hardly a thought, Armstrong casts Science (capital S) as pure logos, pure modern. She cites Science's tendency to look forward and its acceptance of new ideas as evidence for her categorization. In these aspects, she is correct. But only a naive observer would deny that Science has a strong conservative component. It looks toward a fundamental Truth that is unchanging, and was perfect at the moment of Creation. It relies on rigid rules of mathematics that cannot be reinterpreted "with the times."
This is not to say that Science was not something fairly new to the people of Europe in the late Middle Ages. But it was less of a clean break than Armstrong tries to make it. She tries to force science into a role diametrically opposing religion, which is inappropriate for the Enlightenment years. Only centuries later did people begin claiming that science and religion were incompatible, and even today, that assertion is false for many people. Armstrong cast science in the stereotypical role that people who don't know much about science tend to cast it in-- an act that annoys me greatly.
There are other problems with Armstrong's descriptions-- flat-out contradictions, in fact. She makes an attempt to summarize what various religious leaders and movements believed, but often ends up writing things that aren't consistent. It's hard to tell if the problem lies with Armstrong's rendering of the tale or with the movements themselves. Here is just one example out of dozens that I found [the contradictions are in bold, my emphasis]:
page 68: Armstrong is describing how Science changed people's interpretation of their experiences. "Copernicus has initiated a revolution, and human beings would never be able to see themselves or trust their perceptions in the same way again. Hitherto, people had felt able to rely on the evidence of their senses... The myths they had evolved to express their vision of the fundamental laws of life had been of a piece with what they experienced as fact."
OK, so before Science came along, we all trusted our senses. Now read page 70/71: "[Francis] Bacon [an early proponent of Science in its purest form] insisted that all truth, even the most sacred doctrines of religion, must be subjected to the stringent critical methods of empirical science. If they contradicted proven facts and the evidence of our senses, they must be cast aside... He believed that the only information upon which we could safely rely came from our five senses; anything else was pure fantasy. Philosophy, metaphysics, art, imagination, mysticism, and mythology were all dismissed as irrelevant and superstitious because they could npt be verified empirically." What's going on? What happened to Armstrong's neat-and-tidy division of the world into pre- and post-Science? The problem is not with the world, it's with Armstrong's categorization. Science and religion are highly complex worldviews and methods of approaching problems. Although they are quite different in some ways, they are far from mutually exclusive, and they are so multifaceted that it's difficult to compare them head-to-head. "The Battle for God" recognizes the extreme complexity of religion-- which is why it takes 350 pages of dense description to trace a few hundred years of religious history-- but still treats science as a monolithic, unchanging worldview. It reminds me of the way people tend to see all the complexities of their own ethnic group or culture, while treating "the rest of the world" as uniform and simplistic. Returning to the bullet points noted above, there is a lot of interesting analysis that can go into understanding why both Bacon and pre-Enlightenment religious movements laid claim to the five senses as the ultimate truth (while claiming that the other did not appreciate this truth). But Armstrong ignores all that. Most of the book is like this-- sweeping aside huge portions of history in order to make things fit the mythos/logos and conservative/modern dichotomies.
Did I get anything out of this book besides a few good rants and furious underlining with my pencil when I hit particularly annoying sections? Well yes, actually. One thing I found interesting was the notion that once Europe had begun to modernize, the rest of the world faced a dilemma. One tenet of modernization (stepping into Armstrong's definitions for a moment) is that it involves creating new social structures and technologies that are fresh and exciting because they have never been experienced before. But if Europe had already embarked on that path, what was left for the Middle East was simply imitation-- and that violated the modern tenet of original creation. This unavoidable dilemma has enormously complicated the path of development for non-Western cultures over the past few centuries. Of course, this is not the first time I have thought about the challenges faced by such nations, but Armstrong's structure, limited as it is, provided a new way of seeing these challenges.
Another interesting theme that wove in and out of "The Battle for God" was separation church and state. I wish Armstrong had been more explicit about this particular aspect of religious history instead of letting it passively emerge here and there. One does not have to read much religious history before realizing that religion and politics are very intimately entwined. The American legal separation of church and state is nearly unheard of throughout history-- and perhaps unstable. The relation between spiritual and political leadership has been a source of both conflict and stability and has been used for both good and ill over the ages. Armstrong delves into enough detail in her descriptions of religious movements to show some of the historical complexities in negotiating the roles of religion and politics in the monotheistic societies. It's interesting stuff. Perhaps I'll go read more about that aspect of history.
But overall, this was a disappointing book. I found it hard to read because I kept yelling at it. And it wasn't "good" yelling, where I was genuinely engaged with the writer's discourse and disagreeing with some of their points. Instead, I was pointing out blatant contradictions from page to page, and I was objecting to the casting of science as a two-dimensional, static entity that emerged full-blown in the early Enlightenment, and hasn't changed since (NOT).
There must be better histories of fundamentalism. Armstrong fails at painting a complete picture that makes sense. Her details seem well-researched and are probably right, but if a book fails at the Big Picture, I cannot recommend it.
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