Excerpt from The Battle For God by Karen Armstrong, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Battle For God

by Karen Armstrong

The Battle For God
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2000, 448 pages
    Jan 2001, 448 pages

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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 world.

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 of society.

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.

Excerpted from The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong Copyright© 2000 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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