Saturday, January 15, 2011

R holds forth on The Battle for God

The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Knopf, 2000
Where I got this book: The library.
Why I read this book: I've always been fairly interested in the topic.

The Battle for God is a historical overview of fundamentalism in the Abrahamic traditions, with a focus on American Protestant fundamentalism, Israeli/Zionist fundamentalism, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt (Sunni) and Iran (Shii). It explores the circumstances through which fundamentalism arose as a uniting force in each of these cases, the conditions that led to the development of these four movements that play such important roles in the international arena today.

To describe this book as merely a factual overview, however, would be to misrepresent it - Armstrong does in fact put forth some of her opinions on the theological, political and social implications of the various veins of fundamentalism.

The main thrusts of Armstrong's argument are as follows:
  1. The dawn of religious thought saw the development of two different but mutually reconcilable methods of perception, mythos (myth abstraction, metaphysics, religion and so on) and logos (rational thought, the scientific method, you get the drift), both deemed integral to a holistic existence, but also two distinct realms that were not to encroach upon each other (i.e. mythos was not considered a "blueprint for practical action");
  2. The incidence of fundamentalist movements are reactionary in nature, emerging as they do in response to the participants' perception of undesirable or overly rapid modernization;
  3. While the stated aims of these movements are often purportedly conservative, to espouse a continuation of or reversion "to the wellsprings", their interpretations of theological principles as well as the manner in which they go about furthering their causes are often modern and in alignment with the contemporary zeitgeist;
  4. The modern world has moved away from its previous balance of mythos and logos, and is now almost entirely reliant on logos to the detriment of mythos; and
  5. Much of the religious unrest of the modern world is a result of fundamentalists who choose mythos as a means of practical action in response to the overwhelmingly logos-driven world, a plan of action that is incongruent with traditional religious principles.

Now, I can agree with points 2, 3, 4 and the first half of 5. However, I find it difficult to believe that, as Armstrong asserts, the earliest generations of humanity thought of mythos as entirely metaphorical, not at all seeing religion as a literal explanation for things happening in the physical world. Surely such abstract ideas as creation myths were passed down because they were actually believed, not merely because they were known to people as allegorical manifestations of the lack of human understanding. Certainly, whether these ideas are literal, allegorical or indeed totally redundant is always an issue that is hotly debated. But considering the spectrum of opinions today, is it not possible that this spectrum existed even as our main monotheistic religions were taking shape? There really is no solid, documented evidence of whether or not religion had been understood metaphorically by its practitioners all those years ago, hence the fact that Armstrong took such a leap with her main thesis really undermines the book.

That said, the exhaustive chronological landscape drawn by Armstrong is a strong point. I must say that I feel like I learnt a lot about a number of related topics - from the difference between Sunni and Shii Islam (in my ignorance, I used to think it was just some kind of family feud ... well, it kind of was, but there's so much more to it than that) to the dispersion of the Jewish diaspora (which I'd known even less about).

What I appreciated most about the book is its overriding message of religious tolerance. A recurring theme that is brought up in various scenarios is that the use of oppression and force against a religious group tends to have a contrary effect. In her capacity as a former Catholic nun and recipient of the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award who teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, Armstrong herself is apparently a beacon of interfaith understanding. As one whose natural inclinations tend in this direction, I was as such particularly well-disposed to the book on this count, even in spite of my aforementioned scepticism of its main argument.

It is because of this that I give The Battle for God 4 stars; the readability and meticulousness of its factual overview trumps the lack of veracity of its mythos/logos thesis. Regardless of its flaws, I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic that it covers; ultimately it does a pretty decent job.


  1. I like Karen Armstrong's books. Have you read "A History of God"? It's a really informative but easy to read account of the history of the three monotheistic religions.

  2. Sounds very interesting. I've heard of this one before, but wasn't quite sure what it was all about.

    I wonder if the conclusion that the myths were taken metaphorically comes from the fact that the myths were repeated (many aspects of the Jesus story are a repeat of some Egyptian mythology, for example). Surely, if people re-purposed these myths, they recognized them as myths... and not as events that happened literally over and over again. I don't know... It's just a theory.

    You might like a book called The Fall by Steve Taylor. It talks about monotheistic religion, but more about why it arose in the first place (and the problems that came with it). It's one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I've ever read.

  3. Sam- I've not read A History of God yet, but I intend to. Thanks for the recommendation! I think I'm starting to like Karen Armstrong's books too...

    La Coccinelle- You may have a point about that. In fact, it is possible that the very fact that people allowed themselves to evolve new religions from older ones might indicate an implicit acknowledgment of the non-literal nature of their myths. On the other hand I don't think you can discount the possibility that a number of early practitioners of, say, Christianity were unaware of the Jesus story's similarity with Egyptian mythology. I'm not saying that they necessarily spontaneously came up with a similar story on their own, just that there is a possibility that a number of the early followers might have been unaware of the myth re-purposing that has gone on.

    Thanks for the recommendation. I've looked it up and it does sound fascinating. I'll check it out.

  4. Sounds very interesting.

    I think that religion was created not only to police when no police existed but also to explain the unexplainable.

    The problem with fundamentalists, I think, is that they see the world in black and white. If you don't agree 100% with me than you're 100% wrong.

    I'm not the smartest guy around but I certainly recognize that our world is built from shads of gray.

  5. I've been shying away from Karen Armstrong's books because I worried that she might be too smarty-pants-ish for me, and I was worried about how biased she might me. But it sounds as though she tries to be objective at least, so maybe I'll give her a try soon!

    Thanks for the review!

  6. Man of la Books - Oh yes, in fact, Armstrong's "religion as mythos" argument is that religion explains the unexplainable. And I'm definitely a shades-of-grey person myself, for better or for worse (better, I hope).

    Sarah - I was worried about the bias too. But no, she definitely tries to be as objective as she can, and she tries to treat each religion with an equal amount of respect. Hope you like her stuff, if you do decide to give her a try.


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