I was, of course, emotionally touched by the attacks of September 11, 2001. I knew the world had, in some ways, changed. I did not, however, find that my view of the world changed all that much; I wasn’t shocked by more evidence that the world is dangerous and that some people in it are cruel. As the years went by I did not particularly mark the anniversaries of the disaster. Rightly or wrongly, I was preoccupied by current events, both personal and national, not by the recent national past. I don’t know why this year is different. Maybe it is the even decade that inspires me to add my voice to the national process of emotional digestion. Maybe I just have something to say; read this book.
Karen Armstrong is a religious historian. She is one of the few writers able to consider religion in a way that transcends individual religions. She can address each religious movement with sympathy, and in its own terms, and yet with a crisp analytical perspective. Despite a Catholic upbringing and training, her own leaning is reportedly now a form of fascinated agnosticism. In her writing, she assumes implicitly that religion is a facet of human psychology and culture, a response to the historical context in which peoples find themselves. Some would argue this is an incomplete view, and it may be, but she can bring a nuanced clarity to some very muddled topics, including, in this book, religious fundamentalism.
“Fundamentalism” is an odd word. It’s not the kind of word most people apply to themselves. Fundamentalists are the fanatics, the extremists, the terrorists, the crazies--in one way or another, the Other. Much of our national conversation takes the subject no further than that. Armstrong defines fundamentalism as a very specific kind of religious movement, an understandable response to a very real recurring problem that fundamentalists themselves usually can’t articulate. She points out that the vast majority of all fundamentalists are not violent, that fundamentalist movements exist within all the world’s major religions, and that far from being a return to tradition (as the members of fundamentalist movements generally claim) fundamentalisms are a distinctively modern religious impulse.
I will not try to summarize Armstrong’s argument, as I might not do it justice. I will say she is to be commended for making the argument, for un-othering the Other, and for making clear that whether Christian, Moslem, Jewish, or something else, fundamentalists the world over have a basic commonality. It’s not all or nothing, of course; religious communities are fundamentalist to varying degrees. They are us, and we are not fools to be worried about the course of our often overly materialist, frenetic civilization.
The Battle for God was published in 2000. Not surprisingly, a new forward was added by the author the following year, written only a month or so after the attacks. That forward reads raw in a way in a way we no longer are. It is uncertain, even reflexive, in a way nearly everyone was ten years ago, and that is as evocative of that time as anything can be. The forward is also a lucid reformulation of the ideas of the book around a specific, arresting event. The forward alone is worth the price of the book.
I should point out that several books exist with similar titles, including another by Armstrong; The History of God. It, too, is a good book, but it is a different one.
Armstrong, K. (2000). The battle for God. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.