Religious fundamentalism has existed for centuries. For any secular person who seeks to be guided by reason rather than myth and scriptures, the history of religious fundamentalism will tower like a daunting vampire that has sucked too much human blood already. Why does so much violence continue to plague the human civilisation in spite of the tremendous progress we have made in science and technology which are antithetical to religion? What prompts our scientists to offer coconuts or milk to granite idols for the successful take-off of a scientific marvel like a satellite launcher? Why does religion, especially the fundamentalist version of it, linger on persistently and stubbornly when it has wreaked more havoc than done anything substantially good for mankind?
Karen Armstrong’s book, The Battle for God, answers these questions. Originally published in 2000, the book is subtitled Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and traces the history of religious fundamentalism in the three Semitic religions. This scholarly history can throw ample light on fundamentalism in other religions too.
The book is divided into two parts: (1) The Old World and the New; and (2) Fundamentalism. The first part looks at the years from 1492 to 1870. 1492 is a significant year in religious history because it is the year in which Christopher Columbus set out to discover India and ended up in America and also the year in which the King of Spain who sponsored Columbus’s expedition started his religious war on the Jews (Edict of Expulsion) and the Muslims (conquest of Granada). The brutal head of religious fundamentalism revealed its fangs in that year, in short. Part 1 of the book looks at the various fundamentalists and their theories beliefs that swayed the centuries that followed.
The second part of the book covers the period between 1870 and the end of the millennium. By 1870 (the year of the Franco-Prussian war which revealed the hideous effects of modern weaponry), people began to look at science with suspicion. Sigmund Freud had argued that human beings are motivated more by the dark forces in the subconscious and unconscious mind than by the rational thinking in the conscious mind. Charles Dickens had illustrated the dark side of industrialisation and scientific progress. The Romantic poets had described the city as the new hell.
Scientific progress and rational thinking created a vacuum in human minds. As Sartre said later, “a god-shaped hole” arose in the human consciousness. Armstrong says that “Human beings find it almost impossible to live without a sense that, despite the distressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate meaning and value.” Science and rationalism took away that sense of meaning and value. Hence religion came back with vengeance.
The second part of the book is a history of the fundamentalisms that shook the modern world. Once again we encounter the fundamentalists of all the three religions under investigation.
Armstrong does not point a finger at anyone. Her strength is her empathy, her ability to stand in the shoes of the other person. She is of the opinion that most religious fundamentalists were serving a meaningful function by offering people a new meaning and a new purpose in their life which had otherwise become spiritually sterile.
Armstrong argues that knowledge has two forms: mythos and logos. Mythos appeals to the dark side of the human mind while logos, rational knowledge, can only satisfy the conscious mind. The dark side is more dominant. Myths and religious rituals help people to deal with their inner demons.
This is the reason why those fundamentalists who tried to rationalise religion, to explain its scriptures and rituals rationally, failed to make any impact. Only those fundamentalists succeeded who went back to the old myths and rituals and made them relevant in their own times.
She also warns against using myths for political purposes. All such misuse of myths have boomeranged in history. While fundamentalism is an effort to contain the demons within, politics lets lose the demons and wreaks havoc.