Sunday, August 29, 2004

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, 2000.

Paul recommended this book to me when we last chatted, and I'm quite glad indeed that he did so. Armstrong's history of the rise of fundamentalism across Judaism, Christianity and Islam is fascinating, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Armstrong's essential argument is that fundamentalism arises in response to modernity, and to the new challenges it presents to religion as it attempts to grow in the face of new knowledge and standards of reasoning. The problem with the experiments that are fundamentalism is they lose "sight of some of the most sacred values of the confessional faiths" from which they have evolved. Armstrong's theory is that this confusion occurs because of a disconnect of mythos and logos: "Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos, either by insisting that their dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology. They have thus conflated two complementary sources and styles of knowledge which the people in the premodern world had usually decided it was wise to keep separate" (366). That is, reason and mystery both have a place in faith, and reducing one into the other diminishes an experience of God. Or, as I'd put my own concern about fundamentalism, that it makes faith--something that's supposed to be complex and challenging--too simple, too reductionist. Armstrong's careful historical tracing of evidence of her thesis, from about 1470 to the present day, is well written and argued, and makes for a good read.

Now, rather than gush completely, I will take an issue with her book. She has a tendency to oversimplify that occasionally detracts from her argument, though it makes sense given the scope of her book. This book is one that should be read with either a decent knowledge of the development of one or more major religions and its sects and denomination, or followed by such a study. Otherwise, Paul was exactly right: this book is fascinating and informative, and rewards a careful reading.