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Created: January 20, 2003
Latest Update: January 27, 2005

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Site Teaching Modules The Battle for God: Understanding Religious Fundamentalism in Western Culture and Politics
By Karen Armstrong
This essay is based on Karen Armstrong's Battle for God: Understanding Religious Fundamentalism in Western Culture and Politics Ballantine Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-345-39169-1.

I wanted to include this lecture from January 2003 because it will give you some insight into how long we have included this issue in our discussions and how the picture has changed over this two-year period. jeanne. January 27, 2005.

I had been meaning to read Battle with God, but somehow September 11 and the aftermath managed to interfere. So I pulled it down this week to include it as one of the options for reading and analysis in Sociology of Reality. Let me link it conceptually for you, as best I can.

For me, Battle with God touches deeply on our "war against terrorism" and the social justice of both the attack on September 11 and our response thereto. Whatever else present global conflicts signify, they revolve around religious fundamentalism and around East-West relations. Oh, and oil and economics and colonial exploitation of the "Other." But Armstrong is going to stick to the religious involvement.

Karen Armstrong, who writes well and coherently, ties all the many "fundamentalist" approaches together, and sees them as rebelling against modernism. Now so far I haven'tcome across any reviewers accusing her of a post-modern approach, but certainly her thesis is post-modern when you consider it as we have defined post-modernism: recognizing that there is and can be no metanarrative, no overall theory or religion or mythos that can serve for all. So I would call this a post-modern approach. Just be sure you communicate clearly your definition of postmodernism when you decide if you agree with me.

Armstrong's theory, as I understand it, is that religion is that aspect of understanding and communication that deals with mythos and culture. That is important because with the coming of modernism, Western culture turned primarily to logos or reason. Armstrong says, as have many in the past, that we need both mythos and logos, both the narrative stories that tell us who we are and why we are here and where we are going, and the reason that permits us to sort out and understand the complexities of the world we live in. Reason gave us science, which has given us industrialization, technology, and ever rising standards of living. Mythos gave us the local narratives, the story of our culture and our identities as individuals and as members of a social group.

Maybe this will help you see the problem with postmodernity. There can be no overall metamyth that effectively communicates our individualism within the social group that we actually live in, because each social group and each individual within that social group must turn to local narrative to capture the events, myths, and signifiers that make up the social infrastructure of that group. So it's understandable that Lyotard insists that there is no metanarrative that will serve all mankind. Each local metanarrative has and must preserve its own local settings and signifiers. And individuals and their social settings are interdependent. So the individuals are a part of the definition of the group identity as well as of their own individual identity. Now that leads to the concepts of ambiguity and relativity.

Each race, each ethnic group, each tribe, each neighborhood, each human unit defines the essence of itself and its members interdependently and continuously. That is what existentialism means when it says that humans have no essence until their final moment, when life is over. Then we can describe their essence as the sum total of who they were within the siutatedness of their and our reality. Before that moment, humans have only "existence." Only when they have lived can their essence be defined. And this is one of the critiques of "essentialism." Essentialism is the perspective that says that some status characteristic associated with our identity actually defines our essence or who we are. Postmodernists, by my definition of interdependence and existence preceding essence, would say that no human can be defined by membership in any race, ethnic group, neighborhood, religion, etc. That would be because the individual, regardless of the group to which he/she belongs, is continuously involved in the interdependent act of becoming, as is the group.

Habermas recognizes the importance of the lifeworld, an interdependently formed infrastructure, but believes that legitimacy, the right of anyone to govern others, depends more on reasoned argument than on the mythos Armstrong and others describe as constituting the elements of identity and social group. Habermas continues to argue for at least a critical evaluative metatheory. That is, for a set of rules of criticism and analysis of truth claims. One way to make sense of all this is to see it in terms of Armstrong's theory that humans must seek both mythos and logos. This is another way of saying that we ignore the spiritual side of humanity at our peril. People from time immemorial, as we deduce from our history and archeology, have practiced and recorded spiritual awareness. Logic does not answer our need in spiritual searching, for the spiritual revolves around what we cannot know and verify scientifically. Too often that has led humans to simply measure badly, to ignore that which doesn't fit into either a mythos scheme or a logos scheme. We have become used to choosing between dichotomies: bad/good, right/wrong, mythos/logos, when in fact reality often includes a broad range between the two extremes.

Conceptually, we arrive back at there being no absolute right/wrong, much as Lyotard says there can be no metanarrative. But that doesn't mean that we as a social group cannot agree on anything as universally moral, in the sense that killing, under most of the circumstances we know it, is immoral and wrong. That doesn't mean that all killing is at all times wrong morally. There are instances of defense of another, which justifies and/or excuses a killing. There is war, in which individuals are justified and excused for killing. Though maybe we need to reconsider the morality of the orders that are given to those individuals. In ancient Chinese law these differentiations of killing were not recognized. Today, in most countries, they are.

Karen Armstrong, in Battle for God, considers violence and exile and their effect on religious intolerance. She begins the book with the story of Isabellan and Ferdinand of Spain, Catholics, who demanded that all in their realm confess their religion. They reigned around 1492, so that should help you place the time in history Armstrong chose to begin with. Columbus and all he represented in the New World came from this exclusively Catholic environment, when one group of Westerners dictated religion, and forced it upon others.

* * * * *

. . . . First of all, I have now read Battle for God. And I have lived through a period of religious concern I had not before seen in my lifetime. I was born into a Catholic family. Seven great uncles were Priests, and one aunt was a Carmelite nun. I never knew any of them. Many years later I ended up at the University of Judaism, studying Rashi, the first written commentator of the Torah, in 12th Century Hebrew. In the interim I was introduced to Zen and other Eastern religions. Even more today, I recognize the need for developing illocutionary discourse that lets us understand how different our beliefs are, and how similar they are, in our attempts to meet our spiritual needs, meaning our needs to understand those parts of our world not amenable, not caught by scientific reason. jeanne. January 27, 2005.

    Resources on the text:

  • Excerpts from the text at Link to Look inside this book for Table of Contents and excerpts.

  • January 20, 2003: The Battle for God By Karen Armstrong. Start of a summary and review file on Armstrong's 2000 book. She's a good writer and many of her topics are very timely. This is one of them. jeanne

  • January 20, 2003: Karen Armstrong: The Life of Buddha. On a Smithsonian Site.

  • January 20, 2003: An Ex-Nun in Search of God - but Biblically none the wiser! Book review by Professor Arthur Noble. This critical article was written by a professor who is attached to the European Institute of Protestant Studies, whose new building was dedicated and supported by Bob Jones of American Fundamentalist fame. Remember that you need to consider all perspectives. But you need also to be informed by who the "authorities" are that represent those perspectives.Backup.

  • January 20, 2003: Robert Fulford's column about The Battle for God "Robert Fulford is a Toronto author, journalist, broadcaster, and editor. He writes a weekly column for The National Post and is a frequent contributor to Toronto Life, Canadian Art, and CBC radio and television." Backup.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, January 2003..
"Fair use" encouraged.