20 October 2005

Exhausting, But Not Exhaustive

I've also, just this lunchtime, finished The Battle for God. Very, very interesting work on Karen Armstrong's part, which has given me the (probably rather unwise) impression that I understand fundamentalist monotheisms considerably better than I used to. It's obvious that in most respects the book barely scratches the surface, but for an overview of the historical contexts and backgrounds of the modern fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam it's both impressive and weighty. It managed to make me feel rather sympathetic towards Ayatollah Khomeini, which I can't say is something I ever expected to happen.

Armstrong's book draws out a number of patterns in the way fundamentalisms have manifested themselves in various cultures: she observes that fundamentalism usually emerges among groups who feel themselves to be in danger of extinction from the forces of secularism; that it often involves a withdrawal from "the world" into sacred enclaves; but that initially at least it defines itself in opposition, not to that secular world, but to more liberal groups within the same faith who seek to make accommodations with that world. The experience of having suffered repression (and it's "experience" that's important here, not always fact) generates in many fundamentalist movements a desire to repress others in turn. Armstrong makes the further pertinent point that the rise of fundamentalism has in many situations entailed a resounding defeat for the actual values of traditional religion, which are generally rather conscientious about promoting virtues such as peacefulness, compassion and altruistic love.

The book's main flaw is its incompleteness, inevitably so given its publication in 2000. People, movements and events who don't even get a mention include the Taliban, the World Trade Center attacks, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, al-Qa'eda and the London and Bali bombings. A revised and updated edition would seem to be due, but would probably also be disturbingly out of date as soon as it was published.

I remember that in her Greenbelt seminar Armstrong spoke rather surprisingly of the rise in the U.K. of what she called "a fundamentalist secularism", which I'd have been interested to read about. It's a comment I've only heard before from hardline christian conservatives who (in a fine example of experiencing not-necessarily-factual repression) appear to think that secular society's valuing of tolerance is compromised by its refusal to let them live in a theocracy of their own devising. I imagine that Armstrong must have something rather more rigorous in mind, and I'd have liked to know more what she meant by it: certainly one can see how secularist culture in the U.K. might feel itself somewhat embattled by the current wave of christian-flavoured imperialism emanating from the U.S.

This, though, isn't in the book either. Still, what's there is informative and fascinating, and I'd heartily recommend it to anyone (with a month's reading time on their hands) who wants to understand better some of the more disturbing cultural tendencies which the current century has inherited from its predecessor.

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