Fundamentalism: just a personality type?

The Battle for God
May 18, 2001

Most religious fundamentalists, notwithstanding their "extreme" beliefs or ways of life, contribute to the general wellbeing of society or at least do not molest it. Only a tiny minority are involved in the sort of activity that gives rise to the impression, articulated on the dust cover of this book, that: "Fundamentalists gun down worshippers in mosques, kill doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, shoot presidents and have even toppled a government."

In the first part of her book, Karen Armstrong renders an account of the origins of modernity in terms of the struggle between mythos , the essential world of religious thought, and logos , the rational world of science. She acknowledges the crucial part played in the transformation to modernity by the conversos ( marranos ), Iberian Jews who, from the 14th century, accepted Christianity under duress and, critical of both the religion they had left behind and the one they had been forced to adopt, began to question the foundations of the Judaeo-Christian heritage. Armstrong deftly weaves the more complex story, intertwined with the politics of colonialism, of the unleashing of modernity in the Islamic world; she interlaces unexpected and enlightening analogies such as that between the Jewish messianic pretender Shabbetai Zevi and the Bab of Iran, precursor of the Bahai religion.

She then moves rapidly from a detailed account of the rise of Protestant fundamentalism in North America to focus on the contemporary groups she has selected for special attention. Mawdudi, Gush Emunim, the Iranian revolution and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority come alive as part of a global response to modern culture. Events commonly viewed as isolated aberrations begin to make collective sense: "Like the murder of Sadat, the assassination of Rabin showed that two wars are being fought in the Middle East. One is the Arab-Israeli conflict; the other is a war within such individual countries as Israel and Egypt, between secularists and religious."

Armstrong occasionally reads texts naively. She takes Copernicus's statement that his science was "more divine than human" as a serious protestation of religious faith, rather than as a feeble attempt to defend his orthodoxy. She fails to note that the real challenge of Copernicus to established doctrine was not the more convenient mathematics that resulted from his heliocentric description of the universe, but the far more serious implication that heaven and earth were subject to the same physical laws, a proposition that undermined the whole "chain of being" from the Creator through the heavenly spheres "down" to earth; the very heavens were dethroned, "disenchanted".

Were Luther's depressions and outbursts of violence due to his "struggles with the pain of the new world", to the anxiety of the modernising process? Undoubtedly such matters worried him; but he may well have developed a similar personality even had he lived in less testing times. Erasmus was subject to intellectual stresses, but did not manifest these personality disorders. Such matters call into question Armstrong's basic approach - is fundamentalism a peculiar facet of "modernisation" or is it the expression of a personality type that occurs in all times and places?

The book is addressed to the general reader; specialists will note that it is mostly based on secondary sources, a minefield when the primary material is in Arabic or Hebrew, so they may grumble about details. But to carp at Armstrong because, for instance, she relies on Gershom Scholem's now-outmoded account of the Frankist movement would be to overlook her grand theme, the comparison between the transformation of religious ideas in the wake of modernity and the transformation in the Axial Age in which our concepts of God originated between 700 and 200BC. The role of fundamentalism in this transformation, Armstrong claims, is the essential one of recreating the lost wholeness of logos and mythos , "because it was so embattled, this campaign to re-sacralise society became aggressive and distorted".

The range of this engagingly written book is so wide that few will fail to learn from it, and especially from the parallels Armstrong so ably draws between phenomena in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds. To have encompassed three civilisations with such assurance and sensitivity is a great achievement and readers will enjoy her virtuosity.

Norman Solomon is fellow in modern Jewish thought, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

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

Author - Karen Armstrong
ISBN - 0 00 255523 9
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 442

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