Read The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong Free Online
Book Title: The Battle for God|
The author of the book: Karen Armstrong
Loaded: 1490 times
Reader ratings: 3.3
Date of issue: March 7th 2000
ISBN 13: 9780679435976
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 8.83 MB
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For the last decade or so, most of us have had to form some kind of opinion on religious fundamentalism, and it's a subject which can very easily become hysterical, sensational or just terrifying when it's addressed by the mass media. This exceptional book, which came out a few years ago now, is a careful examination of fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and it tries to answer the basic questions many people feel – who the hell are these people, and how can they believe what they believe?
As a jumping-off point, Armstrong points to an ancient distinction between two forms of truth (as described by the Greeks): mythos and logos. Logos is scientific, rational truth which has allowed us to build cars and bridges and visit other planets. Mythos is a different kind of truth, found in myth, art, and in the beliefs of religion. The central theme of her book is that fundamentalism is essentially the result of confusing one kind of truth with another.
As she demonstrates, pre-modern peoples saw religion as belonging firmly to the realm of mythos. Religion was concerned with stories and concepts not to be taken literally, but used as ways to consider the nature of humanity, our relationship to the spiritual, and our place in the world. Logos is useful for science and politics, but it cannot answer the big questions of existence: that is the job of mythos, and the two realms of truth were kept very separate until a few hundred years ago. But after the Enlightenment, when rationalism became so effective and so much a part of life, there was a gradual change of mood, and an increased sense that scientific truth was more important than spiritual or mythic truths. Mythos became sidelined and subsequently discredited as ‘only’ a myth. It was, Armstrong argues, in reaction to this mentality that some religious groups, feeling threatened, attempted to reinterpret mythos as logos, taking religious concepts as being literally true, and using them as a basis for legislation and political life.
Using this distinction between scientific and spiritual truths makes for an interesting reexamination of historical issues: the Reformation, for instance, becomes a clash between idea systems. In the pre-modern Catholic church, the Eucharist was a rich spiritual symbol of human participation in the divine. But for the rational Reformers, it must either be literally true (Luther), or else plain false (Zwingli, Calvin). They were unable to see beyond scientific truth. Similarly, for many Orthodox Jews in the 1930s and '40s, the idea of a modern State of Israel was deeply abhorrent. For them, Israel was a profound symbol of their religion, a vital part of Jewish spirituality to be contemplated – not a place to make a farm and start tilling sacred soil. When many of the ultra-Orthodox considered a kibbutz, Armstrong writes, they ‘felt the same outrage and dread as, later, people felt when the heard about the Nazi death camps.’ She adds, ‘This is not an exaggeration,’ and cites Jewish clerics who actually blamed the Holocaust on the settlement of Israel.
By pointing to such fundamental differences of opinion, Armstrong shows that most contemporary fundamentalist movements are in fact decidedly modern, despite the fact that they all profess a wish to go ‘back to basics’. The literalism which is seen in fundamentalism is a concept which is really only a few centuries old.
She is particularly strong when it comes to Islam, pointing out that while Western Europe had three or four hundreds years to adjust to modern rationalism, most Islamic countries had such ideas foisted on them more or less overnight by colonial powers (generally Britain, France, Russia and later the US). It is difficult for most of us to understand, for example, why terrorists seem to hate democracy, but she points out that the Islamic experience of democracy has been very different from ours – imposed on a country in one fell swoop, and usually resulting in a lot of business contracts for foreign companies, and a lot of money for those in power but little for anyone else. Her case studies of Egypt and Iran make this point beyond doubt, and show the importance of making a place for religion in society, to prevent it from becoming sidelined and hence feeling threatened.
If you're from the UK or the States, the book is not comfortable reading, since most of the problems in the Middle East are traced squarely back to Western interference, and in some cases the details are heartbreaking. In particular, America's complete failure to understand Islamic societies throws a lot of light on the Iranian Revolution as well as the rise in reactionary groups, and reading this won't make you feel too hopeful about Iraq's or Afghanistan's chances, let alone the way Iran itself is currently being dealt with.
But this is far from being an exclusively Islamic problem; rather, the book shows that fundamentalism is just a reaction to the secularism of modern life, a frightened response to the ‘God-shaped hole’ which Sartre talked about, or Nietzsche's ‘God is dead’. We have lost an appreciation of mythos in the West – though many people feel the lack of it, which may explain the popularity of such things as tarot cards, dream dictionaries and psychoanalysis. In that sense, this book, while clearly condemning the abuses of fundamentalism, is equally unimpressed by modern secularism. ‘If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions,’ she writes, ‘secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties and needs which so many of their fundamentalist nieghbours experience’. These movements do not represent a knee-jerk reaction, but a considered response to modernity, and unless we try and understand that, the problems will not go away.
This is an important book. Suffice to say that if you have any interest in religion, politics, history or current affairs then you will get something out of it. I hope as many people as possible read it.
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Read information about the authorBritish author of numerous works on comparative religion.
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