Religion's Battle for Hearts, Minds and Souls; the Battle for God. by Karen Armstrong (HarperCollins, Pounds 19.99). Reviewed by Charlie Hill
Hill, Charlie, The Birmingham Post (England)
Whether it is polemic dressed up as analysis or diatribe masquerading as criticism, the attraction of the intellectual quick fix is obvious. The reader is hurried in and out of arguments in unseemly haste, leaving each with another piece of the post-modern classic - A Bluffer's Guide to Understanding - in place.
Now passion has its role. At its best, the emotionally engaging instant-hit also functions as an intellectual cattle-prod. But there remains the question
of how best to channel that passion most effectively. At worst (think for example of Mailer and Dworkin) strongly-held beliefs acquire their own momentum, whereby the personality of the writer impresses itself more forcefully upon the reader than the glaring holes in the arguments they espouse.
Sometimes then, it is better to take the longer view, to opt for an analysis that will seep more slowly into your critical consciousness. This is the level at which The Battle for God operates, not with bombast but stealthy insistence, less Charge of the Argument-Lite Brigade, more carefully considered behind-the-lines maneouvering.
The book concerns itself with religious fundamentalism in the three monotheist faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is a 20th century phenomenon whereby, as Armstrong puts it, organised religions have experienced a resurgence based on a rebellion against a 'secularist hegemony' and the attempt to 'wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage'.
Go beyond the the obvious truth of this definition, however, and you quickly discover that most received wisdom about fundamentalism is skewed. Many of the misconceptions can be linked to the inadequacy of the term itself in that it 'gives the impression that fundamentalists are inherently conservative and wedded to the past, whereas their ideas are essentially modern and highly innovative'. Armstrong's analysis begins with a look at the way in which the spiritual lives of our ancestors evolved around two distinct ways of 'thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge', mythos and logos.
Mythos 'was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters but with meaning.
The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology. …