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,
[Read more…]