Karen Armstrong: The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. London: Harper Collins, 2000. 442 pp., hardback, £19.99.
Karen Armstrong is another of the many disillusioned members of the Vatican's army of ecclesiastics who have deserted the fold. After entering the religious order when she was seventeen and spending seven years as a Roman Catholic nun, she obviously failed to find God in the fundamentalist 'infallibility' of the Papal system. She left her convent in 1969, studied at Oxford, and now teaches at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers. She is also an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences.
Well known amongst British commentators on religious affairs, she had already published The New York Times best-seller, A History of God, as well as The Gospel According to Women, Holy War, and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.
Despite her exit from the nunnery, Armstrong has remained at heart a Roman Catholic, and her latest contribution to the religious debate, The Battle for God, bears the unmistakable stamp of the Vatican's current drive for an apostate union of the world's religions in a new order which the Pope is frantically scheming to dominate. While she carefully documents how fundamentalism has taken root and grown in many of the world's major religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, she makes no attempt to criticise the fundamentalist 'infallibility' of Roman Catholicism itself or to mention that its particularly evil brand of fundamentalism was responsible for the systematic and wilful slaughter of more innocent people that the crimes of all other religions – and forms of political extremism – put together.
She is quick to condemn the Protestant fundamentalism of the United States for "hurling vitriolic abuse at Roman Catholics" (p. 275), singling out "televangelists", Puritans, Calvinists and Baptists including Bob Jones, while ignoring the bloody history of her own Church and portraying it throughout the book in an almost exclusively positive light. She embellishes, for instance, the "doctrinal conformity" of the Counter-Reformation, initiated by the Council of Trent, as part of a "modernising movement that brought Old Catholicism into line with the streamlined efficiency of the new Europe"; she dismisses the 'fundamentalism' of the Inquisition and its unspeakable horrors as the use by priests of "cruel and tyrannical methods" (p. 73); and she misrepresents mediaeval Roman Catholic fundamentalist theology as a return to "the Bible and [!] the Fathers of the Church" (p. 5). She distorts the essence of the Protestant Reformation, stressing Luther's "rage against the Pope" and claiming that, like him, Zwingli and Calvin "evolved a religion in which the love of God is often balanced by a hatred of other human beings" (p. 65); but the fundamentalism of their love of God as revealed in the Scriptures is never discussed in depth, as it would, of course, demolish the basis of Armstrong's pro-Roman bias.
She summarily – and dubiously – ties together all the very dissimilar movements called 'fundamentalist' as fearful reactions to modernity, in whatever age, especially the modernist pre-dispositions for materialist reason and empirical evidence, which, she argues, have increasingly encouraged denying the validity, or even the possibility, of truths expressed by 'symbolic' systems of religion such as, in particular, Roman Catholicism. This tends to give the impression of a silent argument for the superiority of the latter.
At the same time she maintains that these – very differing – fundamentalisms are themselves typical products of 'modernity' in the sense that tacitly accept the modern scientific devaluation of religious mythos by insisting on the literal truth of sacred writings, for instance in the Christian fundamentalists' concept of logos, in which the Book of Revelation is used as a set of predictions of particular historical events and persons. She portrays Roman Catholicism, at various stages in its history, as consistently associated with the mysticism that is part of that realm of mythos and enables people "to husband their spiritual energies productively" (p. 5).
In this way the book gives the impression of being pervaded by a simplistic formula, namely that there are "two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos […] regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth". Her bias towards mythos ensures that Roman Catholicism is seen throughout in a positive and preferential light. Thus she can point, e.g., to the Oklahoma City bombing, violent anti-abortion crusades, and the assassination of President Yitzak Rabin as evidence of dangerous extremes of fundamentalists reacting to a technologically-driven world with liberal Western values (the offshoot of logos); but while she acknowledges that Luther was reacting to the corruption within the Church of Rome, she is silent, like the Pope, about the millions murdered by its own brand of fundamentalism.
It is impossible to review here in depth the mass of historical, religious and cultural facts presented by Armstrong to illustrate her thesis of how fundamentalists have not only increased in numbers, but have become more desperate. What stands out is her sweeping generalisation of the term 'fundamentalism' to include a hotchpotch of widely differing beliefs and practices under the one definition, as well as the fact that the book is partly a plea for 'healing' attuned to the spirit of ecumenical whitewashing prevalent at this time.