Book Review - The Battle for God

Cultic Studies Review, 7, (2), 2008, 188-189.

The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Karen Armstrong

U.K.: Harper Collins, 2001. ISBN-10: 0006383483; ISBN-13: 978-0006383482 (paperback), £6.99. 464 pages. 

U.S.: Ballentine Books, 2001. ISBN-10: 0345391691; ISBN-13: 978-0345391698 (paperback), $15.95. 480 pages.

Reviewed by Bonnie McKenzie

Religious fundamentalism has unsettled and perplexed many persons. Karen Armstrong in this book maintains that by understanding fundamentalism and its role in history, Westerners can come to understand that we cannot put down fundamentalism by force. If we are to defeat fundamentalism, we must first understand it. Through understanding, we can take it seriously and devise humane and thoughtful strategies for coping with it.

Armstrong focuses on essentially twentieth-century fundamentalist movements as a reaction against the scientific and secular culture that first appeared in the West but has since taken root almost everywhere else. She has chosen to study the three monotheistic faiths side by side to emphasize the vast similarities in the growth of fundamentalism. In many instances, one can also draw analogies between fundamentalism and the development of cults.

According to Armstrong and other quoted sources, fundamentalist movements follow a certain pattern:

There is a spirituality at risk and a response to a perceived crisis;

There is a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs are contrary to religion itself; and

This battle is not a conventional political struggle but is experienced as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.

Armstrong says that fundamentalists retreat from mainstream society but can be quite pragmatic in creating an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action, often under the guidance of a charismatic leader.

According to Armstrong, what separates us from our ancestors is our extreme focus on realism and not myth, on actual events instead of the meaning of the event—logos vs. mythos. Ancient peoples regarded logos and mythos as inseparable and indispensable to life. As societies began to discount mythos as false and superstitious in favour of science and technology, fundamentalists felt and continue to feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values.

Throughout this book, one learns that the modernizing process can induce great anxiety. As their world changes, people can feel disoriented and lost. Emotions of helplessness and fear of annihilation may follow. In extreme circumstances, these emotions may erupt in violence. In less extreme circumstances they may lead to isolation and/or attempts to change the threatening world.

Armstrong sums up by saying that fundamentalist ideologies are rooted in fear, with a need for fundamentalists to segregate the faithful. This way, the battle for God can then be seen as an attempt to fill the void created by scientific rationalism. Alternative societies spring up, with the faithful demonstrating their disillusion with cultures that cannot easily accommodate the spiritual. Fundamentalists often lack the compassion that all faiths have insisted is essential to religious life. Instead, these modern branches of fundamentalism are preaching an ideology of exclusion, hatred, and, as noted, even violence.

Armstrong finishes the book by identifying the problems with rationalism, which often shows lack of respect for religion and its adherents. She states that secularists must also show benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity, and show empathy for the fears, anxieties, and needs of the fundamentalists amongst us.

A worthwhile and scholarly read.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008, Page