Summary and book reviews of The Battle For God by Karen Armstrong

The Battle For God

by Karen Armstrong

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

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Book Summary

Brilliantly and sympathetically shows us how and why fundamentalist groups came into existence and what they yearn to accomplish.

In the late twentieth century, fundamentalism has emerged as one of the most powerful forces at work in the world, contesting the dominance of modern secular values and threatening peace and harmony around the globe. Yet it remains incomprehensible to a large number of people. In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong brilliantly and sympathetically shows us how and why fundamentalist groups came into existence and what they yearn to accomplish.

We see the West in the sixteenth century beginning to create an entirely new kind of civilization, which brought in its wake change in every aspect of life -- often painful and violent, even if liberating. Armstrong argues that one of the things that changed most was religion. People could no longer think about or experience the divine in the same way; they had to develop new forms of faith to fit their new circumstances.

Armstrong characterizes fundamentalism as one of these new ways of being religious that have emerged in every major faith tradition. Focusing on Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran, she examines the ways in which these movements, while not monolithic, have each sprung from a dread of modernity -- often in response to assault (sometimes unwitting, sometimes intentional) by the mainstream society.

Armstrong sees fundamentalist groups as complex, innovative, and modern -- rather than as throwbacks to the past -- but contends that they have failed in religious terms. Maintaining that fundamentalism often exists in symbiotic relationship with an aggressive modernity, each impelling the other on to greater excess, she suggests compassion as a way to defuse what is now an intensifying conflict.

Introduction

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Have you or someone close to you ever adhered to a religious group that Karen Armstrong would define as fundamentalist? Does her view of fundamentalism "ring true" for you?
     
  2. Karen Armstrong uses the terms mythos and logos to describe "two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge." Mythos is concerned with "the eternal and the universal," she writes, and logos is concerned with "rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought." How do these terms apply to your own experience of religious and secular life?
     
  3. Armstrong points out that the first Grand Inquisitor, whose mission was to stamp out Judaism in Spain, was himself a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Do you believe that a convert is more likely to be ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

Armstong succeeds--brilliantly--in placing fundamentalist movements in a historical context, showing how each is both a product of its times and typical of recurring trends...With her astonishing depth of knowledge and readily accessible writing style, makes an ideal guide in traversing a subject that is by its very nature complex, sensitive and frequently ambiguous. Her unwavering respect for the great faiths and their followers balances nicely with her apparent disdain for extremism in all its forms.

New York Times Book Review

Hers is one of the most penetrating, readable and prescient accounts to date of the rise of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Boston Globe

A useful and rewarding book.

Baltimore Sun

Excellent...This is a book that will prove indispensable, not only for the student of comparative religion, but also for anyone who seeks insight into how these powerful movement affect global politics and society today and into the future...Highly intelligent and highly readable book.

Kirkus Reviews

Former nun Armstrong has done it again. As in her justly acclaimed A History of God (1993), she has written a well-researched, highly informative, accessible, and otherwise superb study of the three great Western monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)....[It] is so well written that it is must reading for anyone with a serious interest in contemporary religion.

Booklist

Provocative...Combining synoptic and interpretive historical manners, Armstong, author of the widely read and well-received History of God, produces another splendid book.

Publishers Weekly

Armstrong is a masterful writer, whose rich knowledge of all three Western traditions informs the entire book, allowing fresh insights and comparisons.

Author Blurb Michael Wolfe, author of The Hadj and One Thousand Roads to Mecca
Karen Armstrong takes the bull by the horns in this richly detailed study of Fundamentalism's many faces through the ages. Part One reveals the roots; Part Two explores the process by which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have each occasionally devolved from creative faith to destructive fanaticism. The book is a timely reminder that religious ideologies and secular advocates of the nation state, having helped create each other, must moderate their conflicts or pay the price -- in violence at the expense of spirit.

Author Blurb Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and How Good Do We Have to Be?
An impressive achievement. Armstrong has mastered a mountain of material, added some brilliant insights of her own, and made it accessible to the general reader.

Reader Reviews

rachel

Armstrong brilliantly documents the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm with clear and objective prose. I had fallen for the widely-held belief that fundamentalism was a throw-back to earlier belief systems. She refutes this ...   Read More

Ethan "Strange"

Karen Armstrong's work is brilliant. In this work, she avoids many biased statements that would have been tempting for anyone with any beliefs at all. After some consideration, I found that most of the areas in which I felt she strayed from the ...   Read More

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