Fundamentalism from a Fundamentalist’s Perspective

By Mu’adz D’Fahmi


Title: The Battle for God

Author: Karen Armstrong

Publisher: Serambi and Mizan

Edition: I, August 2001

Content: xx + 641 page

Karen Armstrong is a British prominent researcher in religious studies. After seven years as a Roman Catholic nun who failed to find “God” in the Papal system, she left the church in 1969 and continued her study of religion at Oxford University. Some of her works have become best sellers listed in the New York Times, as for example, The Gospel According to Woman (1987), Holy War (1991), Muhammad; A Biography of the Prophet (1992), and A History of God (1993).

The Battle for God is a sequel to Armstrong’s previous work: A History of God. Both works are interconnected. In a History of God, she describes the endeavor of searching for God undertaken by disciples of Semitic religions over the last 4000 years. In The Battle for God she describes the phenomena of fundamentalism within three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Jew and Islam. Her research into the history of these three religions charting their transformations during and since the European renaissance (Aufklärung) details how fundamentalism has arises as a logical reaction to modernism.

Recently fundamentalists have masterminded critical historical events such as the murder of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, the September 11 tragedy, and the frequent suicide bombings characteristic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are examples of the kind of dangerous activities in which fundamentalists are reacting to modernism. Though the perpetrators come from different religious backgrounds, they share a common characteristic, that is — religious fanatism.

Fundamentalism is one of the most widely discussed phenomenon of the 20th century. It has always been a part of the world views of radicals practicing the world’s major religions, not only Christianity and Islam, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Confucianism. There is no lucid definition for the term “fundamentalism”. Initially, the term was used by American Protestants in the early 1990’s to differentiate themselves from the more liberal Protestants. Since then the term “fundamentalism” has been more freely used to refer to the purification movements to be found within all world religions. Therein all fundamentalist movements share certain approaches in that fundamentalism is a defense mechanism which arises as a reaction to a threat or crisis (Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, 1991)

The main argument in this book revolves around Armstrong’s conception of the world’s belief systems as being divided into two dichotomous categories: “myth versus logos” and the “conservative” versus the “modern.” Drawing on other social scientists work, she argues that humans have developed two ways of thinking and obtaining knowledge. Johannes Sloek similarly terms them — “myth” and “logos,” in his book of Devotional Language. Therein myth is a form of mystical knowledge, having an abstract supra-logical object, based not on fact and its truth capacity as determined by sense. Myth cannot be confirmed by rational evidence while logos depends on it, i.e. is a rational, pragmatic and scientific form of thinking. Logos is related to the facts and external realities, consequently it can be proved empirically.

To Armstrong, previously religions used both elements of myth and logos to create a perfect social structure of society’s life. When myth and logos are equally important, neither dominates. Logos exists in the realm of law and governance, while myth instead fills every corner of the human soul. Even so, myth is considered more prominent since it relates to the eternal, to the supra-logical.

However, since the renaissance, logos has come to dominate myth. The extraordinary achievements in the fields of science and technology has changed European thinking. The euphoria of science’s success has diminished the power of myth and relegated it to mere superstition. Rationality has thus become the only means for reaching the truth.

Religion has been made meaningless by the death of myth. The religious devotees have been seen as being drowned in spiritual emptiness. Yet the empty space left by the death of myth has resulted in fundamentalism, that is, in a form of rebellion in which the “ghost” of myth is reacting to the unlimited aggression in the domination of logos.

The second dichotomy is that of the “conservative” versus the “modern.” Issa J. Boullata has an interesting reaction to this. To him, the power of tradition, or of the spirit of “conservatism,” in Karen Armstrong’s terms, is oriented toward the past through a reference to an internal model. To the conservatives success lies in taking uswatun hasanah (good precedent) from previous experience since the past is for them the proof of success. On the other hand, modernity’s power lies in its future orientation in which it uses an external model as the point of reference. Progress is achieved through the attempt of creativity and progress based on rational values.

Kim Allen has noted that the fatal mistake with Armstrong’s dichotomy is in the logic she used. She incorrectly posits science as being pure logos, as purely modern, and uncritically praises the future orientation of science and its assumed natural acceptance of new ideas. On a basic level, she is right, nevertheless only a naïve thinker would deny the fact that science has a strong conservative component in its views about the existence of eternal, unchangeable, and perfect absolute truths (see Kim Allen, 2000). Indeed, Armstrong sees science as playing a stereotypical role diametrically opposed to religion. Though historically, religion and science were inseparable components within belief systems, and though over the centuries people have increasingly come to see science and religion as opposing each other, to some people this view is essentially incorrect.

Armstrong’s dichotomy creates a dilemma. She argues that the European renaissance was behind the paradigm shift from conservative into modern and that it resulted in the elimination of myth western society. By dividing the world in this way, she “exploits” history such that it appropriates her previous assumption. Little wonder then that her description seems overly “enforced” and that historical facts are ignored in order to support her opinion about the dichotomy of myth-logos and conservative-modern.

Armstrong’s efforts instead indicate that she is a fundamentalist herself. No fundamentalist dislikes this sort of dichotomy. The problem is not with the world, but with Armstrong’s categorization. Religion and science are two complex matters. Even though one can make distinctions between them in several respects, both are too complex to be so simply contrasted.

In his article, “An Ex-Nun in Search of God; but Biblically Non The Wiser,” professor Arthur Noble criticizes Armstrong’s attitude. He argues that her thinking tends to be biased even though she is no longer a nun. Indeed, in her last contribution in this religious debate, Battle for God, she strongly supports the image of the infallibility (ma’shum, innocence) of the Roman Catholic Church. Her awareness in explaining how fundamentalism is rooted and advanced within many major world religions is not accompanied with any criticism of the fallibility of fundamentalist Roman Catholicism.

In fact, Armstrong condems Christian fundamentalists in America who criticize the Roman Catholic Church. In particular, she focused on the fundamentalist “televangelists”, puritans, and Calvinists while neglecting the dark history of the Catholic church while highlighting a positive image of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the book. Apart from these and the earlier-mentioned defects, The Battle for God will be greatly appreciated by those interested in fundamentalism. The theme of fundamentalism as she uses it involves a new spirit and point of view. She shows us how and why fundamentalists appear in every major religion and she reveals their real objectives both accurately and brilliantly.

Such studies allow us to be more objective toward fundamentalists and not merely observe them as movements of orthodoxy, Puritanism, or revivalism an such, but appraise them just as she writes: “Fundamentalism is indeed a complex, innovative and modern movement”.

Jakarta, 21st March 2002

Mu’adz D’Fahmi. Student of IAIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta, Presidium Fascho Learning Center, IMM of Ciputat branch.

(Translated by Lanny Octavia, edited by Jonathan Zilberg) URL: http://islamlib.com/en/page.php?page=article&id=438


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