In Part I, Ms. Armstrong a self-described “freelance monotheists”, discussed how she came to be one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers of religious history. In this section she talks to me about her book The Battle for God and the rise of fundamentalism around the world.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: In The Battle for God, you discuss how religions have evolved in the past millennia, could you explain the essential differences between pre-modern and modern society/religion what you call “mythos and logos”?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: The basic change is economic. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the West began to develop a kind of civilization that was entirely new and without precedent in the world. Instead of based economically on the surplus of agriculture, as all premodern societies have been, it was based on technology which could be replicated ad infinitum, or so people imagined. During this time science achieved such spectacular results that the old mythical way of looking at religion became entirely discredited.
Today in popular parlance the word “myth” means basically something that’s not true. If a politician is accused of some peccadillo he will often say that this is a myth — it didn’t happen. In the premodern world, myth was a primitive form of psychology, an event that in some sense happened once and which also happened all the time. This is a concept for which we have no word in our language because we’ve lost that sense. We think of history in terms of a succession of unique events. In the premodern world people knew that what they called myth and logos –scientific rationalism — were distinct and entirely separate. You needed both. You needed myth to give yourself the meaning that human beings require from life, because we’re meaning seeking creatures and fall very easily into despair. But you also needed logos — practical, scientific, rational, logical reason to sharpen an arrow correctly or run your societies. But you did not mix the two. Both had complimentary tasks. Each had its own particular area of competence.
Once myth had been discredited, religion had to be rethought. In America, in particular, the fundamentalists became extremely concerned that if the truth of religion were not historically demonstrable and scientifically verifiable facts, then they couldn’t be valid. That’s been a crucial thing in the West. In the Jewish religion people are less concerned with dogma and doctrine than Christians are. This dogmatic concern is a peculiar and unique aspect of Christianity. Judaism and Islam are both religions of practice. People are more concerned to make their religions function effectively in the world and often use the truths of religion as a blueprint for action in a way that usually would not deemed advisable in the premodern world. So religion has changed because our society changed. We rethought the old truths of religion. Fundamentalism is just one of the many attempts to say how we can be religious in the modern world.
FLJ: The essence of your book (The Battle for God)is how fundamentalism evolved in response to modernity. Could you define modern fundamentalism and give us the short course on its roots?
KA: Basically fundamentalism is a reactive and revolutionary movement. It’s a reaction against the rationalistic, secularistic ethos of modern society which developed over a long period of time in the Western world and has since been transplanted in other cultures. As modernity becomes established, a fundamentalist movement usually grows up along side it. There are now fundamentalist movements in every religious tradition — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism Sikkism and Confucianism. This is not just a peculiar response in a few corners of the world.
The fundamentalist phenomenon represents a profound malaise or disturbance about our new modern society. They feel profoundly threatened by modern society. Every single movement that I’ve studied is convinced that the liberal secular movement wants to wipe them out. As a result they tend to withdraw from society, create a counter culture — a sort of sacred enclave of pure faith where they can gather strength — and eventually they make a counter-offensive — an attack to challenge the hegemony of secular modernity and to resacrilize the world. They fight a battle for God in a monotheistic sense. Not every traditionalist or conservative person is a fundamentalist. What characterizes a fundamentalist is this embattled sense, the determination to campaign on behalf of the divine, and to bring God off the sidelines to which He had been relegated in modern secular society.
The tragic flaw — to borrow a literary term — in some fundamentalists is their use of mythos as a plan of action in the real world. You see this in the Dome of the Rock incident, millennial cults and recent African self-destruction. These people retreated from the world rather than create a counter offensive. It requires actions to bring God back, not just to make a retreat. They got stuck in the retreat phase and made the final retreat.
FLJ: Has the modern secularist movement spawned its own version of fundamentalism?
KA: There are certainly secular fundamentalists — people who feel religion is something barbarous that should be stopped. They feel threatened by religion because of its hold on people. It threatens their beliefs that religion is going to wither away as the clear light of reason dawns. Very often these are people that have as bigoted a view of religion as fundamentalists have of secularism.
FLJ: I was disturbed by your discussion of the “two worlds”; that unlike other situations of prejudice “getting to know one another” does not bring fundamentalists and secularists closer to understanding.
KA: I wrote this book because I think we need to draw attention to this fact. We can’t confine ourselves to our own circles and not realize we’re sharing a culture or a society with people who have diametrically opposed ideas. For example, the Salmon Rushdie crisis was a clash of two competing and irreconcilable ideologies. One side saw the sovereignty of God as the essential thing and could not therefore tolerate blasphemy. The other saw freedom of expression as the sacred value. The two could not find a bridge to speak to one another. All they could do was revile each other.
FLJ: We do seem “trapped in an escalating spiral of hostility and recrimination.” What can individuals and institutions do to better this scenario?
KA: I don’t have a quick fix. I call the book The Battle for God not just because it’s a snappy title, but because I do think secularists and religious people in a country like the U.S. are in an incipient state of war. This occasionally surfaces like at Waco, Texas or the Oklahoma bombing. People don’t understand. The federal troops did not understand the Waco community and behaved ineptly and the Waco community did not know how to communicate with the secular world.
In the Middle East, two wars are being fought. The first is between the Arabs and the Israelis. The other, as the murders of President Sadat of Egypt and President Rabin of Israel by religious fellow countrymen shows, is between the religious and the secularists within the cultures. There is a state of war. We know about peace processes. Look at Northern Ireland which was proceeding smartly and now has hit insuperable difficulties. It’s not something where you can get an arbitrator in and sort things out. Hurt feelings, prejudices and sacred values have been trampled by both sides. There’s a residue of hurt.
In any peace process you have to get the participants to the table. I don’t think we’re nearly ready for dialog. But I wrote this book because someone has to start to listen. I wrote this book in an attempt to decode some of the fundamentalist theologies, imageries, fantasy and scenarios, which look bizarre to an outsider. But any religious practice or belief looks and sounds bizarre to an outsider. Why do Catholics dip their fingers in water and sort of slap it around their bodies? It sounds insane unless you know about the cross and understand the roots of the emotion it addresses. I’m trying to find the fundamentalist movements’ roots; decode what they are trying to say.
Before we can even begin a dialog, we have to listen to the profound fears and terrors that fundamentalists express. They often don’t express it coherently, but we know in our own lives when we’re frightened, we find it difficult to express our fears rationally. When we’re really, really frightened or a child or animal is frightened, it’s no use telling them to pull themselves together, be more rational, get on with life and face facts. It doesn’t work like that. People become paralyzed. Every fundamentalist movement I’ve studied is rooted in profound terror. It’s a matter of extreme urgency. No government or society can safely ignore such anxieties.
FLJ: You leave us with a question “What lessons can we learn from the past that will help us to deal more creatively in the future with the fears that fundamentalism enshrines?” Do you have any thoughts on possible answers?
KA: Only what not to do, because I’m an historian. I know you Americans like an upbeat scenario at the end, but I think things have got out of hand here. What we mustn’t do is ignore the fundamentalists or dismiss them as a bunch of crazies. That simply exacerbates matters. Nor does it help to either suppress or attack. Fundamentalism, as we see historically, develops in a symbiotic way with aggressive modernization and secularization. Each movement I studied began with an assault by the secularist establishment or so called liberal establishment. The worst kind of Sunni fundamentalist developed in the concentration camps into which President Nassar interred members of the Muslim Brotherhood — often for doing nothing more than handing out leaflets or attending a meeting.
The Shah used to have his soldiers go through the streets and take the veils off women with their bayonets and rip them to pieces in front of them. On one occasion in 1935 he had his soldiers kill hundreds of people who were peacefully protesting the secular dress laws. In this kind of atmosphere, it is not surprising that people experienced secularism, not as benign, but as an assault. When fundamentalism is suppressed or reviled, as was done in the Scopes trial in 1925, it simply drives fundamentalists to greater extremity.
FLJ: Why did/do people feel the need for something greater than themselves and how is it different in pre-modern and modern times?
KA: In saying “the need for something greater than themselves” don’t fall into the trap of thinking we have to have a God figure. We don’t need that, but we do need a sense of sacredness.
KA: Because it’s how we are. Human beings are the only animals that have to live with the knowledge of their own mortality. We’ve always found that vision of extinction extremely disturbing. We are creatures that fall very easily into despair. Dogs don’t have a great deal of difficulty living up to their canine nature. They don’t agonize over the dog condition or the plight of dogs in other parts of the world or what the canine life is for. We do! If we can’t make some sense of things or make a pattern, we fall into despair. As soon as we fell out of the trees and became recognizably human we started to create religions. At the same time we started to create works of art. The two are related.
We should see religion as an art form. It helps us find significance, beauty and meaning in a frightening, tragic world. Life is hard. We look at human injustice or natural disasters wiping out the guilty and the innocent and it doesn’t get any easier. We created religion to keep ourselves psychologically whole. Men and women are “homoreligiosis” — we’re religious beings. That doesn’t mean we have to subscribe to particular theologies about God or the divine, but we need to cultivate a sense of sacredness. We’re almost the only animals that kill their own kind. Religion at its best (it’s vital to underline this because there is bad religion, just as there is bad art and bad sex) helps us cultivate a sense of sacredness — the absolute, inviolable value of a human being and other beings.
FLJ: Where does “logos” come in — the God-gene, research into brain chemistry and emotions, mystics vs. schizophrenics?
KA: I’m not particularly interested in the God gene. We can only know our own human condition. We crave ecstasy in our lives. That doesn’t mean we need to talk in tongues or go into an exotic state of consciousness. We seek out experiences that take us beyond ourselves — that transcend our existence. “To go beyond the self” is what ecstasy means. We get it when we’re touched deeply within, lifted momentarily beyond our mundane concerns and feel for a few seconds that everything is absolutely fine. Even though we’d be hard put to justify that conviction in rational terms. This is something we do. It’s something we seek out.
Religions used to provide a way. People are very pragmatic. When they can’t find ecstasy in a synagogue, church or mosque, they’ll look for it elsewhere — in art, music, sex or even drugs. This is what we do. Whether it’s a gene or not, it’s all we know. Religion has to be cultivated. We’ve lost that in the modern world. We think we have to satisfy ourselves of the existence of a God (something which is an absurd concept to me) and then we’ll live the religious life. If we can’t satisfy ourselves about God then we won’t live a religious life — why should we if there’s nothing out there? This puts the cart before the horse. The myths of religion only make sense in a system of prayer, worship and ethical action.
We have to cultivate our sense of the sacred in the same way we cultivate our esthetic senses. It’s not a question of walking into an art gallery, never having set eyes on a piece of western art before and seeing a Matisse and saying, “Wow!” You have to train your eye. It’s very difficult to listen to other culture’s music, because we have different expectations of melody and harmony. You have to train your ear. So you have to train yourself to discern the sacred in others. That’s what religion is supposed to be about, not about imposing dogmas
FLJ: You express some admiration for disciplined rational approaches to spiritual fulfillment, do you practice any beliefs?
KA: I don’t belong to a religion or a church. I call myself a freelance monotheist. I think one has to cultivate a sense of the divine, but I don’t think determination is going to do it. Some people are very good at religion and some people are not. Not everybody who learns the piano will end up playing like Alfred Brindle. Nevertheless, if you tried the piano at least you’ll appreciate Alfred Brindle a bit more and learn and have a sense of music, if it hasn’t put you off. Some people have had bad piano lessons or bad religious experiences and want nothing more to do with it. A lot of atheism is fueled by that, I think. It’s not just a question of clocking into something and it happening.
I don’t think the British are very good at religion at all. It’s very nice coming over here, because people better understand what I’m talking about. Whereas in England, they’re interested, but it’s as though I became an expert on the manners of some obscure Polynesian tribe. You know, “Fascinating, really!” But they have no idea what it’s for. The Dutch, who are a secularist and liberal people — you know wicked Amsterdam! — understand about religion much better. Religion is very very difficult, like great art. It’s not surprising that we sometimes fall on our faces when we try to be religious. It’s difficult to implement the sacred imperative in the flawed, confused, and tragic circumstances of our daily lives.
This interview will continue in Part III, where Ms. Armstrong discusses the history of Islam and it’s place in the modern world