Battle For God (Book Review)

(Written October 7, 2005) Battle for God - A History of Fundamentalism (Amazon Link) is the title of a book by Karen Armstrong that I just read. I found it deeply disturbing, if only for the implications for the future. It is not an easy read, mainly because it is densely packed with history. Especially in the earlier years (the time line starts in the 1400’s) there are many unfamiliar (to me) characters and events - I had the sense at times that what was covered in one paragraph could have been the topic for a book by itself. But even without being able to keep all of the players and events straight the book still successfully conveyed the ever-changing theological interpretations, splits and power struggles within and between religions.

While acknowledging that all religious faiths have fundamentalist movements, Armstrong selects only four for her in-depth history: Jews (Israel), Sunni (Egypt) and Shii (Iran) Muslims, and Protestant (American) Christians. One point she makes is that the “fundamentalist” movements are themselves products of the modern age, with uniquely modern approaches to religion. And although the ways in which each religion manifests fundamentalist behavior are quite different, there is a common thread through all of them:

“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 selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices from the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream culture 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 world. (p xiii)”

Throughout the book she refers to the concepts of mythos and logos, which are both essential. She makes the point that in the past people saw things in terms of both, which were effective in different realms in our lives.

“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… Mythos provided … context; it directed attention to the eternal and 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.” (p xv)

“Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world…. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities … to be effective…. We use this logical, discursive reasoning to make things happen…. Logos is practical, unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new.” (p xvii)

In the modern world we have mostly left mythos behind and operate almost entirely in logos. But,

“Logos had its limitations … could not assuage human pain and sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. … 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. That was the preserve of myth and cult” (p xvii)

She contends that because the modern world runs almost solely on logos, many religious people have tried to turn the mythos of their faiths into logos, and that is where much confusion and many problems arise. I can’t even begin to hit the basics of this book as it covers so much. But it is worth the read - I finally feel like I have a basic understanding of the whole Jewish conflict about the divisive Israeli struggle concerning settlers in the Palestinian territories (that land was promised to them by God, and it is their sacred duty to carry out God’s wishes at any cost). Or the overthrow of the Shah in Iran - after reading this and seeing the history and context, it seems hard to conceive of it having gone any other way.

I found the latter parts of the book much more readable, if only because I knew or had heard of many of the players and events, and this book filled in the blanks.

I found the Protestant Evangelical history particularly fascinating. They have their roots in

“… the millenial movement founded by New York Farmer William Miller (1782-1849), who pored over the biblical prophecies, and, in a series of careful calculations, “proved” in a pamphlet published in 1831 that the Second Coming … would occur in 1843. Miller was reading his bible in an essentially modern way. Instead of seeing it as a mythical, symbolic account of eternal realities, Miller assumed that … Book of Revelations were accurate predictions of imminent events… Miller was treating the Mythos of Scripture as though it was logos…”

Although greatly disappointed when 1843 came and went, it did not end “millenialism”, which “has continued to be a major passion” in the US.

“At first this new, rough, and democratic Christianity was confined to the poorer and more uneducated classes, but during the 1840’s Charles Finnay … brought it to the middle classes. He thus helped make this ‘evangelical’ Christianity, based on a literal reading of the Gospels and intent on converting the secular nation to Christ, the dominant faith of the US by the middle of the 19th century”. (p 91 - page number of the book from which direct quotes are taken)

Between 1780 and 1860 there was a 21-fold increase in the number of Christian congregations in the US(2,500 to 52,000), while the population increased only 8-fold (4 to 31 million) (p 93)

Darwin’s theories of evolution did not at first cause a great conflict with the religious.

“…the first shots were fired not by the religious but by the more aggressive secularists. …. Thomas Huxley, Karl Vogt, Ludwig Buchner (and others) popularized Darwin’s theory, touring and lecturing to large audiences to prove that science and religion were incompatible. They were, in fact, preaching a crusade against religion.

Huxley clearly felt that he had a fight on his hands. Reason, he insisted, must be the sole criterion of truth. …. There could be no compromise … one or the other (mythology or rational science) would have to succumb after a struggle of unknown duration.” (p95-6)

The fundamentalists (justifiably) felt they were being attacked and fought back at the Scopes (Monkey Trial) in Dayton, which ended up being a public opinion disaster for them:

“But the ridicule… was counter productive. Fundamentalist faith was rooted in deep fear and anxiety and could not be assuaged by a purely rational argument. After Dayton they became more extreme. Before the trial, evolution had not been an important issue for them, and even.. literalists.. had accepted that the age of the world was more than 6000 years, whatever it said in the bible…. but after Dayton, fundamentalists closed their minds even more, and Creationism and an unswerving biblical literalism became central to … their mindset.” (p 178)

Their immediate response was to withdraw from the mainstream into their own counterculture and form their own institutions.

“By 1930 there were at least 50 fundamentalist bible colleges. … during the Depression 26 more were added… Fundamentalists also formed their own publishing and broadcasting empires. … Bob Jones university, founded in 1927 … epitomized the ethos of the new fundamentalist institution. …. to found … a ’safe’ school, which would help young people preserve their faith while they prepared to fight atheism which <they believed> pervaded the secular universities. BJU was a world unto itself; it made the difficult decision not to seek academic accreditation, believing any such compromise with the secular establishment to be sinful…. This discipline was essential, for BJU students knew they were at war…. BJU became the largest supplier of fundamentalist teachers in the country; graduates are known for their self-discipline and self-motivation, if not for their broad education.” (p 215)

“Fundamentalism was becoming a religion of rage… this rage was rooted in deep fear. — There were ‘two nations’ in America, unable to share each other’s visions for a modern world. … The atomic bomb, they believed, had been foretold by St Peter —– (a “prediction” interpreted as an atomic explosion) in Scripture showed that the Bible was indeed inerrant…

Yet this fatalistic scenario also gave the fundamentalists, who felt despised and ostracized by mainstream culture, a sense of confidence and superiority. They had privileged information … knew what was really going on. The catastrophic events of the 20th century were really heading toward Christ’s final victory.”

Yet this would not affect the true believers, who would be raptured up to heaven before it happened - it was only unbelievers who would suffer. This was

“… fueling the resentment … by allowing them to cultivate fantasies of revenge that were quite out of keeping with the spirit of the Gospels.” (p 217)

A turning point for the withdrawal from society came in the 1970’s with the Roe v. Wade (abortion) decision. Fundamentalists decided they could no longer stay apart but had to mobilize to take an increasingly sinful world back to God.

“The symbol of this revived fundamentalism was the Moral Majority, created in 1979 under the leadership of Jerry Falwell.”

— The inspiration for the MM came not from Falwell, but from

“three professional right wing organizers…. Richard Vignerie, Howard Phillips, and Paul Weyrich had become frustrated with the Republican party and alienated even from Ronald Reagan….. wanted to build a new conservative majority to oppose the moral and social liberalism that had entered <American life> during the 1960’s. They noted the strength of the evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, and saw Jerry Falwell as perfect for their needs.” (p 309)

By the 1980’s,

“Fundamentalists in what soon became known as the New Christian Right had gone on the offensive, after fifty years of quietism.” (p 311)

And the fight goes on. What I realized was that this will probably never be resolved - the “two nations” in America (and in the world, for that matter) are both fighting fiercely for survival. Ways of thinking and absolute truths to one are incomprehensible to the other. Reason does not work against fundamentalism - and suppression and ridicule only serve to drive the fundamentalists into even more extreme behavior and beliefs.

Frankly, I came away from this book very disquieted - I don’t see a way out of this conflict. I guess the best we can hope for is to fight to a perpetual draw. If you have any interest at all in this area, I highly recommend this book. It won’t leave you feeling comfortable, but understanding is important too.

2013: - My concerns have not abated in the years since I wrote this, if anything, they have increased. The fundamentalists live in a separate world, impervious to the derision often directed at them from atheists and even those of more moderate beliefs. Indeed, ridicule seems only to strengthen their resolve - after all, they are doing God’s work, and any obstacles they encounter are nothing more than God’s way of testing their faith and commitment…