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.