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The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong

The Battle for God (2000)

by Karen Armstrong

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History, geographic treatment, biography > Religion > Religion > Religion
  FHQuakers | Feb 12, 2018 |
Karen Armstrong is rightly recognized as one of the leading scholars of western religions. In this monumental best seller she traces the people and causes of the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Islam and Christianity from the years 1492 (when the last European bastion of Islam, Granada, fell to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) through the end of the 20th century.

Armstrong's thesis is that "Contrary to popular belief, fundamentalism is not a throwback to some ancient form of religion but rather a response to the spiritual crisis of the modern world...the collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Enlightenment forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious--and fundamentalism was born."

Using the two terms mythos, that which is concerned with "the eternal and the universal" as contrasted with logos, that which is concerned with what is "rational, pragmatic and scientific" she illustrates how the two have acted and reacted to one another to create the spiritual crises of the last five hundred years. While I initially did not understand this framework's usefulness, it grew in relevance and became the foundation of ultimately understanding how fundamental groups so often become polarised: "Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists ... turned their mythoi into pragmatic logoi designed to achieve a practical result. Protestant fundamentalists ... perverted myth in a different way. They ... turned the Christian myths into scientific facts, and had created a hybrid that was neither good science nor good religion." (p. 355)

Readers with a background in European and Euroasian history will find this tome especially rewarding as it fills in the "why" gap of much of the post-Crusades history of the region. On that note, this book is perhaps best read hand-in-hand with a history of the Ottoman Empire or the European Enlightenment which will provide the larger historical and geographical picture of the societies that gave rise to the personalities that inspired the movements in the three religions. Many names will be familiar to readers--Muhammad Ali, Moses Maimonides, John Locke, Khomeini, John of the Cross, but rarely does find one work that tells their stories as part of a single narrative as well as Armstrong does.

Another strong point of this book is it explains in very simple language why certain historical events have happened as a result of religious whiplash. Two examples: the American temperance movement sprang, for example, from the fears of the early Protestant settlers of America when large numbers of Catholic immigrants began to appear. American support for Israel stems in part from its fundamentalist population, which sees the return of "Israel to the Israelites" as proof of the literal accuracy of the Bible.

As a reader who remembers the [in]famous Time magazine cover that announced "God is Dead", I found for the first time explanations of behaviours that I have long (personally) found incomprehensible. Coverage of such events as the Iran Crisis explained as rational behaviour from Khomeini's point of view is fascinating (pp. 317 ff.), and some readers may discover that they were rooting for 'the wrong guy'.

I suspect this work's usefulness for most will be as a reference work in the area of history of religions. It's a work that one can turn to frequently if interested in the broader history of the region and the growth and spread of these three great monotheistic religions.

One would hope that it would also bring mankind closer together in understanding. As Armstrong shows us, "suppression and coercion are clearly not the answer" (p. 368). "If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterises modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience but which no society can safely ignore" (p. 371)
Dare we be optimistic and hope this message will be heard in time? ( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
It's a book rich of detailed information. It has to be read twice or taken notes. ( )
  phbrasile | Jul 12, 2015 |
Made a couple of minor changes: Rarely does one come across a book that is recognized as erudite, essential, and readable simultaneously. The author of [b:The History of God|1923820|Holy Bible King James Version|Anonymous|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1195454548s/1923820.jpg|6405906] has brilliantly analyzed the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction to the emphasis on logos of the Enlightenment as opposed to mythos that had been essential to one's view of the world. "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." As science and technology began to become associated with such visible successes in overcoming disease and social ills, the tendency was to believe that logos (rational, scientific thinking related exactly to facts and external realities) was the only “means to truth and began to discount mythos [that which is timeless and constant, “looking back to the origins of life . . to the deepest levels of the human mind . . . unconcerned with practical matters” and rooted in the unconscious, that which helps us through the day, mythological stories not intended to be literal, but conveying truth:] as false and superstitious.” The temptation is to think of mythos as meaning myth. In this context that would be incorrect. Armstrong uses this word as it relates to mystery and mysticism, rooted ultimately in traditional biblical and Islamic history “which gives meaning to life, but cannot be explained in rational terms.”Logos, however, was unable to assuage pain and suffering leading to a vacuum the fundamentalists sought to revive. The danger unseen by modern fundamentalists is that they have tried to imbue mythos with an element of literalism essential to logos. The difference between these two concepts forms the basis for the battle between modernism and fundamentalism.

Armstrong traces the beginning of the fundamentalist movement back to the time of Columbus when a crisis occurred in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled both Muslims and Jews from Spain. The three religious groups had actually coexisted quite happily and profitably together for several centuries, but the prospect of modernity and threats from a new world view, science, threatened age-old traditions and myths. The fundamentalist movement was an attempt by traditionalists to retain a sectarian view of the world.

For many of these people the world can be divided into two
e faithful. Often an arrogance and condescension – I plead guilty here – make secularists insensitive to those who feel their religious beliefs have been undermined and challenged. The seemingly irreconcilable difference between rationalism and mysticism perhaps make militant fundamentalism inevitable. The danger for fundamentalist lies in their attempts to turn mythos into logos, e.g., have sacred texts be read literally and inerrantly as one would read a scientific text. That may lead to inevitable discrepancies between observation and belief that may hasten the defeat of religion.

Of great benefit, is Armstrong's clear explanation of the differences and conflicts that exist in Islam. Shiite and Sunni branches represent very different interpretations of a major faith.

The eventual outcome of the dichotomy of secular versus sectarian remains unknown. What is apparent is that fundamentalism cannot tolerate pluralism or democracy and compromise seems unlikely. The author identifies two major threads in the development of fundamentalism: (a) fear of the modern world and (b) that the response to fear is to try to create an alternative society by preaching "an ideology of exclusion, hatred, and even violence." She warns at the end of the book, "If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbors experience but which no society can safely ignore." ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
On the whole, I would say that this is a very good book. She does a very good job of tracing the course of history when seen from a religious aspect, through the ages. I especially liked the way that she emphasized the play between the mythos and the logos. I must confess that, when I read the book, I was going through some strange times, so I did not concentrate that much on the book. In that sense, I possibly did not do the book as must justice as I should have.
While she does do a very good job of tracing the development of the recent trends in fundamentalism in the three religions - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - I felt that there was too much information in the book. This was probably required in the telling of the tale. Yet, the information does tend to get heavy at times, especially if you are not in the best concentrating mood.
It is a book that needs to be read slowly, and with care.
Karen's strengths evidently lie in these three religions. I have never come across any writing from her on the religions of the East. This is a pity, because I have seen the rise of fundamentalism in Hinduism. While Hindus often talk of this as a reaction to militant action by the Muslims over the centuries, and by British oppression; this alone cannot describe the rise of fundamentalism among the Hindus.
For the next edition of her book, she should cast her eyes eastwards. ( )
1 vote RajivC | Oct 20, 2012 |
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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." (Introduction)
In 1492, three very important things happened in Spain.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345391691, Paperback)

About 40 years ago popular opinion assumed that religion would become a weaker force and people would certainly become less zealous as the world became more modern and morals more relaxed. But the opposite has proven true, according to theologian and author Karen Armstrong (A History of God), who documents how fundamentalism has taken root and grown in many of the world's major religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Even Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism have developed fundamentalist factions. Reacting to a technologically driven world with liberal Western values, fundamentalists have not only increased in numbers, they have become more desperate, claims Armstrong, who points to the Oklahoma City bombing, violent anti-abortion crusades, and the assassination of President Yitzak Rabin as evidence of dangerous extremes.

Yet she also acknowledges the irony of how fundamentalism and Western materialism seem to urge each other on to greater excesses. To "prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try and understand the pain and perception of the other side," she pleads. With her gift for clear, engaging writing and her integrity as a thorough researcher, Armstrong delivers a powerful discussion of a globally heated issue. Part history lesson, part wake-up call, and mostly a plea for healing, Armstrong's writing continues to offer a religious mirror and a cultural vision. --Gail Hudson

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:46 -0400)

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Reveals how the fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were born out of a dread of modernity.

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