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Powells.com
Saturday, March 8th, 2003


 

The Battle For God

by Karen Armstrong

A review by C. P. Farley

After September 11th, religious scholar Karen Armstrong became one of the bestselling authors in the country. Known for her erudite, accessible writings about the three great monotheisms, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, thousands of Americans read her work in an effort to understand the culture that had produced men capable of conceiving and carrying out such terrible acts. Most relevant was her recently published historical analysis of the rise of religious fundamentalism, The Battle for God.

Armstrong traces the beginning of fundamentalism to the watershed year 1492, which she pinpoints as the dawn of the modern era. Though fundamentalists generally believe they are practicing a pure form of their religion, Armstrong argues that fundamentalism is a distinctly modern phenomena

Whereas pre-modern cultures sought a balance between the rational (logos) and the mythological (mythos), the rise of western science shifted the balance. Europeans began to emphasize knowledge gained through the logical intellect above all else. As a result, the importance of religion as a cultural force began to decline.

Ironically, the fundamentalists, who appeared in response to rationalism, sought to reestablish the former importance of the religious sphere; however, their methods were deeply rooted in rationalism. Religious truths had always been considered beyond logic, but the fundamentalists transformed them into literal truths. They turned myths into histories and mysteries into facts. Though they stood opposed to the modern world, their worldview was decidedly modern.

In The Battle for God, Armstrong brilliantly traces the struggle between the burgeoning Western secularism and the religious fundamentalism that has dogged its heels for the past five hundred years, culminating in that greatest of all fundamentalist attacks on secularism, 9-11.

But 9-11 holds a fresh irony. While Osama and Co. wouldn't exist without the hegemony of Western secularism to rally against, their most effective attack on the Great Satan has breathed new life into our own fundamentalist tendencies.

There is little doubt that 9-11 made the presidency of George W. Bush and presented a boon to the fundamentalist Christians who support him. As a result of the attack, this evangelical Christian, who had a minister publicly dedicate his inauguration to "our savior, Jesus Christ," who, purportedly, hasn't yet made up his mind about the validity of evolution ("The jury's still out."), who, according to Bob Woodward "[casts] his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's Master Plan," has become one of the most popular presidents in history. Osama bin Laden has made possible an American president who justifies an unprecedented pre-emptive war in apocalyptic, Manichean language: We must "answer these attacks and rid the world of evil....We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of this great nation."

Such rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. It has deep cultural roots that reach back hundreds of years. Perhaps it's time to reread The Battle for God. Last year we read it to understand our enemies. This year we should read it to understand ourselves.


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