Yesterday I purchased a copy of Karen Armstrong’s book The Battle for God, which examines the origins of the fundamentalist aspects of the three major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). I began reading the book around 9:30 p.m. last night, and have remained awake all night until I finished it at 6:50 a.m. I suspected that I would find it good reading, since I had admired A History of God, one of Armstrong’s earlier books, but I had not anticipated it engrossing me to the point where I would forgo an entire night’s slumber. The recent tragic events in Israel, as well as the terrorist attacks of September 11th, made this book timely reading for me, I believe.
I found the book to be enormously educational, particularly in outlining the factors behind the Iranian Revolution, an event that occurred when I was very young and oblivious to the political events of the world. But as informative as I found the material, I also found it to be depressing, almost chilling, particularly in its final two chapters.
My interest in this area is not purely academic. I have a cousin that I care for very much who fits Armstrong’s description of an American Protestant fundamentalist to perfection. A few other family members are similar in his beliefs, but none so fervently devout. In addition, I am an American who does have concerns about where this country is going, and cannot ignore his own belief that the violence in the Middle East will have a direct impact upon us here.
My own personal background with regards to religion is somewhat complex. My father was raised Baptist…my mother was raised in the same church I was. I was raised in a very conservative Protestant church (the Church of Christ), which ascribed to a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. During my sixth grade year, I began read about other religions, and began to question the logic behind such a literal interpretation of the Bible. I had special difficulty with the concept of Christians being the only ones eligible for heaven, with all others doomed to hell regardless of their actions…it seemed to me an unusually cruel and barbaric piece of theology. In later years, I found it difficult to accept the notion of “scientific creationism.” The narrowmindedness and hypocritical prejudice of too many of the Christians I know was what drove me away from that faith. Today I would describe myself as an agnostic.
After reading The Battle for God, I realized that Karen Armstrong is very likely correct in her assessment that fundamentalism is unlikely to ever go away, that it will always be some part of society’s fabric. The question that occurred to me is…what to do about it?
Repression of fundamentalist faith would not work, as Armstrong indicated in her book. Not only would such repression likely lead to a backlash that could worsen the situation, in the U.S. at least such repression would be in violation of the American constitution, and it would actually play into the fundamentalist belief that the world is against them. Neither would ignoring the fundamentalists completely be a practical approach.
Karen Armstrong stated that the fundamentalist movements she examined ultimately had a common root – fear, a dread of the secularization of society. If this is true, and Armstrong made a fairly convincing case for it in her book, what what then be a rational approach to remedy this fear, without giving in to the goals of the fundamentalists?
My questions wouldn’t necessarily apply to the American Protestant fundamentalist movement, of course. I wouldn’t mind hearing answers regarding other fundamentalist movements as well, since even though they are not strongly present in this country, they do have an impact on how the U.S. interacts with the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East.