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The Battle For God


The Battle For God Cover





One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has

been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant

piety popularly known as "fundamentalism." Its manifestations are

sometimes shocking. Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a

mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics,

have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government.

It is only a small minority of fundamentalists who commit such acts of

terror, but 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. Christian fundamentalists reject the

discoveries of biology and physics about the origins of life and insist

that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound


in every detail. At a time when many are throwing off the shackles of

the past, Jewish fundamentalists observe their revealed Law more

stringently than ever before, and Muslim women, repudiating the freedoms

of Western women, shroud themselves in veils and chadors. Muslim and

Jewish fundamentalists both interpret the Arab-Israeli conflict, which

began as defiantly secularist, in an exclusively religious way.

Fundamentalism, moreover, is not confined to the great monotheisms.

There are Buddhist, Hindu, and even Confucian fundamentalisms, which

also cast aside many of the painfully acquired insights of liberal

culture, which fight and kill in the name of religion and strive to

bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle.

This religious resurgence has taken many observers by surprise. In the

middle years of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for

granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would

never again play a major part in world events. It was assumed that as

human beings became more rational, they either would have no further

need for religion or would be content to confine it to the immediately

personal and private areas of their lives. But in the late 1970s,

fundamentalists began to rebel against this secularist hegemony and

started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to

center stage. In this, at least, they have enjoyed remarkable success.

Religion has once again become a force that no government can safely

ignore. Fundamentalism has suffered defeats, but it is by no means

quiescent. It is now an essential part of the modern scene and will

certainly play an important role in the domestic and international

affairs of the future. It is crucial, therefore, that we try to

understand what this type of religiosity means, how and for what reasons

it has developed, what it can tell us about our culture, and how best we

should deal with it.

But before we proceed, we must look briefly at the term "fundamentalism"

itself, which has been much criticized. American Protestants were the

first to use it. In the early decades of the twentieth century, some of

them started to call themselves "fundamentalists" to distinguish

themselves from the more "liberal" Protestants, who were, in their

opinion, entirely distorting the Christian faith. The fundamentalists

wanted to go back to basics and reemphasize the "fundamentals" of the

Christian tradition, which they identified with a literal interpretation

of Scripture and the acceptance of certain core doctrines. The term

"fundamentalism" has since been applied to reforming movements in other

world faiths in a way that is far from satisfactory. It seems to suggest

that fundamentalism is monolithic in all its manifestations. This is not

the case. Each "fundamentalism" is a law unto itself and has its own

dynamic. 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. The American Protestants may

have intended to go back to the "fundamentals," but they did so in a

peculiarly modern way. It has also been argued that this Christian term

cannot be accurately applied to movements that have entirely different

priorities. Muslim and Jewish fundamentalisms, for example, are not much

concerned with doctrine, which is an essentially Christian

preoccupation. A literal translation of "fundamentalism" into Arabic

gives us usuliyyah, a word that refers to the study of the sources of

the various rules and principles of Islamic law. Most of the activists

who are dubbed "fundamentalists" in the West are not engaged in this

Islamic science, but have quite different concerns. The use of the term

"fundamentalism" is, therefore, misleading.

Others, however, argue simply that, like it or not, the word

"fundamentalism" is here to stay. And I have come to agree: the term is

not perfect, but it is a useful label for movements that, despite their

differences, bear a strong family resemblance. At the outset of their

monumental six-volume Fundamentalist Project, Martin E. Marty and R.

Scott Appleby argue that the "fundamentalisms" all follow a certain

pattern. They 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. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional

political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces

of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their

beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain

doctrines and practices of the past. To avoid contamination, they often

withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture; yet

fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the

pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of their

charismatic leaders, they refine these "fundamentals" so as to create an

ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually

they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical


To explore the implications of this global response to modern culture, I

want to concentrate on just a few of the fundamentalist movements that

have surfaced in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three

monotheistic faiths. Instead of studying them in isolation from one

another, I intend to trace their development chronologically, side by

side, so that we can see how deeply similar they are. By looking at

selected fundamentalisms, I hope to examine the phenomenon in greater

depth than would be possible in a more general, comprehensive survey.

The movements I have chosen are American Protestant fundamentalism,

Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt,

which is a Sunni country, and Iran, which is Shii. I do not claim that

my discoveries necessarily apply to other forms of fundamentalism, but

hope to show how these particular movements, which have been among the

most prominent and influential, have all been motivated by common fears,

anxieties, and desires that seem to be a not unusual response to some of

the peculiar difficulties of life in the modern secular world.

There have always been people, in every age and in each tradition, who

have fought the modernity of their day. But the fundamentalism that we

shall be considering is an essentially twentieth-century movement. It is

a reaction against the scientific and secular culture that first

appeared in the West, but which has since taken root in other parts of

the world. The West has developed an entirely unprecedented and wholly

different type of civilization, so the religious response to it has been

unique. The fundamentalist movements that have evolved in our own day

have a symbiotic relationship with modernity. They may reject the

scientific rationalism of the West, but they cannot escape it. Western

civilization has changed the world. Nothing — including religion — can

ever be the same again. All over the globe, people have been struggling

with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their

religious traditions, which were designed for an entirely different type

of society.

There was a similar transitional period in the ancient world, lasting

roughly from 700 to 200 BCE, which historians have called the Axial Age

because it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. This

age was itself the product and fruition of thousands of years of

economic, and therefore social and cultural, evolution, beginning in

Sumer in what is now Iraq, and in ancient Egypt. People in the fourth

and third millennia BCE, instead of simply growing enough crops to

satisfy their immediate needs, became capable of producing an

agricultural surplus with which they could trade and thereby acquire

additional income. This enabled them to build the first civilizations,

develop the arts, and create increasingly powerful polities: cities,

city-states, and, eventually, empires. In agrarian society, power no

longer lay exclusively with the local king or priest; its locus shifted

at least partly to the marketplace, the source of each culture's wealth.

In these altered circumstances, people ultimately began to find that the

old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke

fully to their condition.

In the cities and empires of the Axial Age, citizens were acquiring a

wider perspective and broader horizons, which made the old local cults

seem limited and parochial. Instead of seeing the divine as embodied in

a number of different deities, people increasingly began to worship a

single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness. They had more

leisure and were thus able to develop a richer interior life;

accordingly, they came to desire a spirituality which did not depend

entirely upon external forms. The most sensitive were troubled by the

social injustice that seemed built into this agrarian society, depending

as it did on the labor of peasants who never had the chance to benefit

from the high culture. Consequently, prophets and reformers arose who

insisted that the virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual

life: an ability to see sacredness in every single human being, and a

willingness to take practical care of the more vulnerable members of

society, became the test of authentic piety. In this way, during the

Axial Age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to guide

human beings sprang up in the civilized world: Buddhism and Hinduism in

India, Confucianism and Taoism in the Far East; monotheism in the Middle

East; and rationalism in Europe. Despite their major differences, these

Axial Age religions had much in common: they all built on the old

traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they

cultivated an internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of

practical compassion.

Today, as noted, we are undergoing a similar period of transition. Its

roots lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the modern era,

when the people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of

society, one based not on an agricultural surplus but on a technology

that enabled them to reproduce their resources indefinitely. The

economic changes over the last four hundred years have been accompanied

by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the

development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept

of the nature of truth; and, once again, a radical religious change has

become necessary. All over the world, people are finding that in their

dramatically transformed circumstances, the old forms of faith no longer

work for them: they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation

that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to

find new ways of being religious; like the reformers and prophets of the

Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in

a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have

created for themselves. One of these modern experiments — however

paradoxical it may superficially seem to say so — is fundamentalism.

We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like

us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In

particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring

knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were

essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at

truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as

primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and

constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to

the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind.

Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless

we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall

very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a

context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their

attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what

we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories,

which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of

psychology. When people told stories about heroes who descended into the

underworld, struggled through labyrinths, or fought with monsters, they

were bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm,

which is not accessible to purely rational investigation, but which has

a profound effect upon our experience and behavior. Because of the

dearth of myth in our modern society, we have had to evolve the science

of psychoanalysis to help us to deal with our inner world.

Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more

intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture. Myth

only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and

ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshippers, evoking within

them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the

deeper currents of existence. Myth and cult were so inseparable that it

is a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical narrative

or the rituals attached to it. Myth was also associated with mysticism,

the descent into the psyche by means of structured disciplines of focus

and concentration which have been evolved in all cultures as a means of

acquiring intuitive insight. Without a cult or mystical practice, the

myths of religion would make no sense. They would remain abstract and

seem incredible, in rather the same way as a musical score remains

opaque to most of us and needs to be interpreted instrumentally before

we can appreciate its beauty.

In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They

were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more

concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not

seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to

be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence

history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under

the sun. Historical narratives tried to bring out this eternal

dimension. Thus, we do not know what really occurred when the ancient

Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the Sea of Reeds. The

story has been deliberately written as a myth, and linked with other

stories about rites of passage, immersion in the deep, and gods

splitting a sea in two to create a new reality. Jews experience this

myth every year in the rituals of the Passover Seder, which brings this

strange story into their own lives and helps them to make it their own.

One could say that unless an historical event is mythologized in this

way, and liberated from the past in an inspiring cult, it cannot be

religious. To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as

recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence

to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose

of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.

Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and

scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the

world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we

are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike

myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external

realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the

mundane world. We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to

make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to

adopt a particular course of action. Logos is practical. Unlike myth,

which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges

ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights,

achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something

fresh, and invent something novel.

In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as

indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two

were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse

mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was

not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated

empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical

activities worthwhile. You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of

a pragmatic policy. If you did so, the results could be disastrous,

because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not

readily applicable to the affairs of the external world. When, for

example, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade in 1095, his plan

belonged to the realm of logos. He wanted the knights of Europe to stop

fighting one another and tearing the fabric of Western Christendom

apart, and to expend their energies instead in a war in the Middle East

and so extend the power of his church. But when this military expedition

became entangled with folk mythology, biblical lore, and apocalyptic

fantasies, the result was catastrophic, practically, militarily, and

morally. Throughout the long crusading project, it remained true that

whenever logos was ascendant, the Crusaders prospered. They performed

well on the battlefield, created viable colonies in the Middle East, and

learned to relate more positively with the local population. When,

however, Crusaders started making a mythical or mystical vision the

basis of their policies, they were usually defeated and committed

terrible atrocities.

Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or

sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could

not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist

could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts

about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of

life.9 That was the preserve of myth and cult.

By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had

achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they

began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to

discount mythos as false and superstitious. It is also true that the new

world they were creating contradicted the dynamic of the old mythical

spirituality. Our religious experience in the modern world has changed,

and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism

alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith

into logos. Fundamentalists have also made this attempt. This confusion

has led to more problems.

We need to understand how our world has changed. The first part of this

book will, therefore, go back to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth

centuries, when the people of Western Europe had begun to develop their

new science. We will also examine the mythical piety of the premodern

agrarian civilization, so that we can see how the old forms of faith

worked. It is becoming very difficult to be conventionally religious in

the brave new world. Modernization has always been a painful process.

People feel alienated and lost when fundamental changes in their society

make the world strange and unrecognizable. We will trace the impact of

modernity upon the Christians of Europe and America, upon the Jewish

people, and upon the Muslims of Egypt and Iran. We shall then be in a

position to see what the fundamentalists were trying to do when they

started to create this new form of faith toward the end of the

nineteenth century.

Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten

their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for

combatants to appreciate one another's position. We shall find that

modernization has led to a polarization of society, but sometimes, to

prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try to understand the

pain and perceptions of the other side. Those of us — myself included

-- who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to

comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists. Yet

modernization is often experienced not as a liberation but as an

aggressive assault. Few have suffered more in the modern world than the

Jewish people, so it is fitting to begin with their bruising encounter

with the modernizing society of Western Christendom in the late

fifteenth century, which led some Jews to anticipate many of the

stratagems, postures, and principles that would later become common in

the new world.

Product Details

Armstrong, Karen
Ballantine Books
New York
Comparative Religion
Church History
Religious fundamentalism
Islamic fundamentalism
Orthodox judaism
Christianity - General
Judaism - History
General Religion
Religion Comparative-General
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Ballantine Reader's Circle
Series Volume:
368/March 2001
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.24x5.56x1.02 in. .83 lbs.

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Religion » Western Religions » General and Comparative Religion

The Battle For God Used Trade Paper
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Product details 480 pages PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE - English 9780345391698 Reviews:
"Review" by , "An impressive achievement. Armstrong has mastered a mountain of material, added some brilliant insights of her own, and made it accessible to the general reader."
"Review" by , "Karen Armstrong takes the bull by the horns in this richly detailed study of fundamentalism's many faces through the ages...The book is a timely reminder: that religious ideologues and secular advocates of the nation-state, having helped create each other, must moderate their conflicts or pay the price?in violence at the expense of spirit."
"Review" by , "Going beyond her best-selling A History of God, Karen Armstrong has given us a wide-ranging review of the wrenching "Battle for God" between the forces of modernity and fundamentalism. Too many prefer to curse and denigrate the rise of fundamentalism. Karen Armstrong chooses to light a candle of understanding and comparative analysis."
"Review" by , "The Battle for God presents us with a sweeping panoramic view of the cultural and religious development of the Western world. Karen Armstrong first leads her readers into a brilliant udnerstanding of our present situation, then with equal skill she enables us to grasp a vision of a apiritual future that holds enormous promise. No one who occupies a role of leadership in political, educational, or religious arenas should ignore this illuminating book."
"Review" by , "Armstrong's Battle for God must immediately have a place on the bookshelf of anyone who wants to understand contemporary religious revivalism. She combines historical perspective with clear and balanced analysis in a way that provides remarkable insight into how religion interacts with modernity to create both conflict and new visions."
"Review" by , "As a portrait of militant fundamentalism — Jewish, Islamic, and Christian  it is a stunning acheivement."
"Review" by , "Whether or not you see fundamentalism as a threat, as Karen Armstrong does in The Battle for God, hers is one of the most penetrating, readable and prescient accounts to date of the rise of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Rather than make sweeping pronouncements, she wisely focuses on the fundamentalist strains in the United States, Israel, Iran and Egypt. She displays, as she should, sympathy for the plight of those who turned to fundamentalism after being shunted aside by forces and states that have little patience with the quest by the poor and the dispossessed to find meaning and purpose."
"Synopsis" by , "One of the most penetrating, readable, and prescient accounts to date of the rise of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam."

--The New York Times Book Review

"EXCELLENT . . . HIGHLY INTELLIGENT AND HIGHLY READABLE . . . This is a book that will prove indispensable . . . for anyone who seeks insight into how these powerful movements affect global politics and society today and into the future."

--The Baltimore Sun

"ARMSTRONG SUCCEEDS BRILLIANTLY . . . With her astonishing depth of knowledge and readily accessible writing style, [she] makes an ideal guide in traversing a subject that is by its very nature complex, sensitive and frequently ambiguous."

--The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle


--The Boston Globe

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