A critique of Karen Armstrong’s book The Battle for God A History of Fundamentalism ? I find it personally distasteful that in many instances the serious debates involving religion, ethics and world views are dominated by persons who’s faith in the greatness of G-d has been shaken in such a way that they feel compelled to attempt to drag the rest of the faithful along on their personal journey in search of what they hope will be the ultimate answer to their personal questions. I felt this way after reading Karen Armstrong’s book The Battle for G-d A History of Fundamentalism.
Karen Armstrong has, since leaving the Catholic convent in the late 1960’s, been on what seems in my estimation to be a quest for some sense of an inner personal experience with G-d that has constantly evaded her grasp or perhaps understanding. She has spent a lifetime searching through historic records of the world’s major religions and come to rest, in this book, The Battle for G-d, on what most sociologist or historians would consider the deeper corner pockets of each of the three major religions whom descended from the Biblical figure Abraham.
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However, in describing the depth or intensity of the individuals involved in those narrow corners of the three religions in question she fails to consider that the pockets which she has designated as “fundamentalist” are at the very least not as equally deep or even perhaps mislabeled. It is my belief that Armstrong has allowed her own struggle with the spiritual and secular aspect of modern life to influence her evaluation of the three major religions of the Western World, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and their role in the strife currently present in our Western culture.
In her book The Battle for G-D, Armstrong takes the reader through a complex review of World History. This review however is not a sequential time line, but a bumpy or choppy presentation of mixed eras, events, and dates which would confuse most readers. This journey through time starts in Spain in the year1492 and compares events and groups of people in such dissimilar places and times that this reader began to question the accuracy or perhaps better stated the validity of her argument. Armstrong’s purpose with this always shifting account of history is to onvince the reader that the Christians of the American Midwest, The Jewish Zionist from the European ghettos, and the Moslems in the Mid East share Fundamentalist movements within each of the religions who have preponderance towards aggression when clashing with what she defines as the modern secularist society. Perhaps Armstrong would have seen the great gap in her argument had she spent an equal amount of time and energy contrasting the movements instead of just comparing non-equal aspects of the three religions.
To understand the problems I had with Armstrong’s argument it is important to analyze the historical context, not of the three religions which Armstrong attempts to document through more than five centuries, but instead the time which encompasses Armstrong’s start on her own struggle with the spiritual aspects of living in the materialistic world. Hopefully an evaluation of her experience will help account for what I surmised to be her inaccurate or misinformed definition of the term “Fundamentalism”.
There are many accounts of Armstrong’s years spent in the convent, including her own writings. But it is far more important to look not at the years she spent secluded in the convent as it is to look at the time and description of the particular period of time when she left the closed protected life, offered or forced depending upon your perspective, of the convent. In the year 1969, the year Armstrong started her “civilian life” I was just finishing my freshman year at St. Mary’s Academy, an all girl Catholic High School in Southern Maryland.
Although Karen Armstrong was at that time about ten years older than myself I believe that I can make some comparisons as well as important contrasts in our experiences. For a young girl raised in the Catholic Church as were both I and Armstrong, and educated in the Catholic parochial schools, life was very controlled. Mass was attended at least twice a week, once on Sunday with your family and again on Friday with the school student body. When attending Mass it was required that all females cover their heads for what was explained to us as an expression of humility before G-d.
But often adherence to this and many like rules directed at females within the Catholic religion became not an act of humility but a humiliating experience. The rule that forbade women from entering the church without their head covered was so important that often, if one forgot to bring a hat to school for Friday Mass the good nuns who taught us would search the pockets of the boys (the girl’s uniform had no pockets) for a handkerchief or Kleenex to pin to the girls’ heads.
It didn’t matter if the kerchief had already been used for its intended purpose of wiping one’s nose. It was far more important that a female’s head be covered. It was not until I had started high school in 1968 that there was an awaking not just within the women of the Catholic Church but also the women within the Western Culture. Although women had had the right to vote for many years it was at this time in history that women were joining the workforce with the intent of starting a “career” and not just to bring home a paycheck.
As a young lady recently removed from an exclusionary environment so rigidly controlled by the Catholic authorities and thrust into a more open and liberated world my first reaction was confusion which quickly developed into anger. I realize that my personal experience as a young teenager was not nearly as dramatic as a woman who was at that time leaving the confines of a convent but we were both, I and Armstrong, entering the same changing culture at the same time. This was certainly a time when Mythos did come into conflict with Ethos especially for women.
Up until this point I have been comparing my experiences within the Catholic religion with that of Armstrong’s experiences but it is now time to contrast the differences in our lives’ paths created by our age difference. Because I was approximately ten years younger than Armstrong I was allowed the next eight years of formal education to deal with my confusion and anger with what was becoming a very secular society. As a student I was offered an environment which was not as controlling as my earlier experiences within the Catholic Church but certainly an atmosphere that had retained a great deal of its structure and foundation.
Armstrong had to figuratively “step of the cliff”. My struggle with the Mythos or the spiritual side of my persona had the time to develop with experience and guidance from outside sources necessary to allow a more tranquil blending with the Ethos or the reality of the world that I was at that time facing. Armstrong was not allowed that transitional experience but entered the secular world already in spiritual conflict with Christianity. Her dismay and confusion as she transcended her strict religious background and entered a materialistic realm is even now many years latter often reveled in her positions and writings.
In the begging of her book, The Battle for G-d, Armstrong states that the term fundamentalism originated in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century with a group of Protestants who were concerned with the more liberal movements within their churches and decided to return to the fundamental teachings of Christianity. This was a very humble beginning for a word that seems to have morphed throughout Armstrong’s book into a label with militant connotations.
However the problem I have with her use of the term fundamentalism arises when Armstrong tries to apply the label with equal ferocity, not just to those who have come to be defined as the “far right” or “conservative” side of the established religions engaging in defining or interrupting their beliefs through the written text but also to those on the opposite end of the fringes engaged in violent political terrorism. Neither of these two extremes fit the term “Fundamentalist” as the vernacular use of the word has defined it.
Most of the Christian individuals, whom Armstrong identifies as “fundamentalist” in chapter ten of her book such as Pat Robertson or even Jim and Tammy Bakker cannot be defined as fundamentalist but must be acknowledged as evangelical. The evangelical movements within the Christian church involve those persons engaging not in returning to the fundamentals of the written Bible but to those who take their Christian beliefs to the faithful with the intent of reenergizing the believers in the word of the Lord.
They wish to share the word of G-d through inspiration and love, not through force or pressure and certainly not through violence. Here in the United States we have established a governmental system which separates any established religion from the established government and prohibits the hijacking of the government by any religion. Armstrong however in what I perceive to be her preexisting bias towards the Christian religion, which she interrupts as the suffocating agent of her youth, ignores not just America’s political system but also the current European tolerance for and in many cases promotion of differing religious beliefs.
It also seems that Armstrong’s approach to and understanding of Zionism and the current Israeli government is in many ways distorted. In analyzing the history of what the western cultures call the “Holy Land” her starting point of 1492 ignores all previous historical events of an area of the world that produced some of the earliest examples of written history. It is again in this context that I believe her definition of fundamentalism comes under question. The Jews whom Armstrong identifies as having formed the fundamentalist movement were instead more ccurately defined as Orthodox. The Orthodox Jews adhere not to a strict interpretation of the written word but rely instead on the belief that there is also an oral law which holds an equally respected tradition and authority. The oral law does not come into conflict with secularism, but instead finds support for many aspects of the modern societies in which the Orthodox Jews reside. It is this oral law that has allowed the Orthodox Jews to not only adjust to the secular society but in some cases embrace many of the advantages which it provides.
In 1997 I took a job teaching art at the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater which is a Jewish Day School serving not just the Orthodox Jews but also the entire Jewish community of Hampton Roads, Virginia. During the six years that I worked there I progress from what I would describe as a cursory or superficial knowledge of the Jewish religion to a more thorough understanding built on a sincere respect for their beliefs. When I first started interacting with the Orthodox Jewish community I found their method of adherence to many of the “rules” confusing.
The Orthodox Jews followed laws that required many dietary restrictions in which I found many contradictions. They were very strict in the separation of meat and dairy products. A pan or plate on which meat had been placed could never be used for dairy products and vice versa. This separation of the utensils included having separate sinks in which to wash them but yet meat utensils could be washed with the pots and dishes which were designated for use only with dairy products in the same modern automatic dishwasher at the same time provided they were washed on separate racks.
Why then were different wash basins required? The dietary restrictions also excluded the consumption of pork but yet they used artificially flavored bacon bits on their salads with a dairy based dressing. Another example of the Jewish adherence to their religious laws which confused me was their observance of Shabbat, the day of rest. Orthodoxy forbids the engagement of any activity which could be construed as work on Shabbat which begins at sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.
This includes the turning on or off of light switches or televisions. To get around this problem Orthodox Jews use timers on necessary and unnecessary appliances to turn them on and off. At first watching these activities which I defined as contradictory I was quick to criticize this behavior as not adhering to the spirit of the law. It was not until I realized that I was judging these activities from a strict Catholic perspective, which I share with Armstrong that I finally began to understand and respect their solutions to these minor issues.
These apparently incompatible behaviors as judged by those from outside their community are examples of their religion’s ability to adapt to the changing world around them while retaining the customs and core beliefs of their religion. Armstrong’s narrative or account of the Jewish Zionist movement and her comparison to fundamentalism was an ill-informed assumption made from what I identify as this same narrow perspective from which I originally began my evaluation of the Jewish religion.
I also feel that Armstrong errs on the opposite end of the spectrum by attempting to identifying as fundamentalist, those whom must be recognized as aggressive and at times brutal extremist based on their engagement in premeditated acts of violence incited not by an interest in promoting a true belief in G-d or honest interpretation of written words. They are Terrorist who are engaging in a concentrated effort to control other’s behavior through intimidation and violence for their personal opinionated advantage.
Although these persons attempt to be recognized as agents of an established religious movement they must instead be identified as radical fanatics interested in what can only be defined as a biased political agenda. Although I have very little knowledge or exposure to the established Muslim religion I believe that in light of Armstrong’s misrepresentations of the movements within the Jewish and Christian religions which she has identified as fundamentalist I must also doubt her insights into Islam.
However in conclusion I feel that I must be cautious and qualify that I do not believe that Armstrong’s alignment and presentation of historical events and the suppositions she makes from them are a deliberate attempt to manipulate or exaggerate facts for a malicious reason. But I do believe that Armstrong had already reached her conclusion before compiling the information. The assumptions she made throughout her book were made without the necessary self reflection which is essential when analyzing these events in light of the participants’ religious beliefs and not just as historical facts.
Throughout the book Armstrong seemed unaware of her own biased perspective which limited the validity of her world view that fundamentalism is the underlining factor of the social strife within the context in which she has placed it. The world today presents a complex interaction of culture, religion, and most importantly political diversity that it is impossible to blame any one aspect of this intricate mix of interdependency of civilization for all of the conflict with which we are all responsible.