In our supposedly secular age governed by reason and technology, fundamentalism has emerged as an overwhelming force in every major world religion. Why? This is the fascinating, disturbing question that bestselling author Karen Armstrong addresses in her brilliant new book The Battle for God. Writing with the broad perspective and deep understanding of human spirituality that won huge audiences for A History of God, Armstrong illuminates the spread of militant piety as a phenomenon peculiar to our moment in history.
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. As Armstrong argues, the collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Renaissance forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious--and fundamentalism was born. Armstrong focuses here on three fundamentalist movements: Protestant fundamentalism in America, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran--exploring how each has developed its own unique way of combating the assaults of modernity.
Blending history, sociology, and spirituality, The Battle for God is a compelling and compassionate study of a radical form of religious expression that is critically shaping the course of world history.
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January 30, 2001
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Excerpt from The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
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
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.