Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fundamentalism isn't fundamental

One of the books I've been reading for fun this summer is Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. I haven't read any of Armstrong's other books, but this one is great--a defense of religion that's quite unlike most defenses of religion, including those from the left. For one thing, Armstrong is ridiculously learned, which means that her book ranges confidently through Eastern and Western religions, and their historical developments and intersections. Her essential claim is that all religions (though the Abrahamic faiths are her primary focus) are at their core not about theology, or accepting a specific set of beliefs, but about the attempt to apprehend the unknowable and to live a life that reflects that attempt. In less skilled hands this might boil down to a vague, just-be-nice-to-others-and-go-to-yoga form of spirituality, but Armstrong's book is so deeply rooted in the particulars of different faith traditions that this doesn't happen.

From my perspective, the most important point Armstrong makes is that fundamentalism--taking sacred texts literally--is a quite recent development, and one that emerges out of a desire to hitch religion to scientific rationalism. As such, fundamentalism isn't about going "back to basics" at all: it's an active rejection of the richer and more complicated reading practices (and, Armstrong would argue, of the religious experiences) of centuries of believers. This impoverished understanding of religion also underlies the more dogmatic and crusading of today's atheists, who assume that fundamentalists are, as they claim to be, the only authentic exemplars of religious belief.

There are things to quibble with in Armstrong's book, which is, in its mild-mannered way, polemical and somewhat partial. But it's a refreshing and invigorating read for those who care about religion and the varieties of religious experience.


What Now? said...

Thanks for this review. The book has been on my "Gee, I should read that someday" list, but I seem not to make much headway on that list! I read Armstrong's memoir a few years ago and thought it was just meh, so I'm glad to know her more scholarly work is better (not surprising, since of course that's the career she's carved out for herself).

Anonymous said...

I agree that Armstrong's capacity for wearing great learning lightly makes her books wonderful to read. But -The Case for God- shares a flaw with the many other theistic apologists who make versions of the same argument: in emphasizing that religious experience involves more than truth claims, KA minimizes the fact that all religions do make truth claims.

Cheers, TG

Flavia said...


Oh, I don't disagree. I think Armstrong would say that she's just trying to highlight an essential aspect of religious experience that often gets neglected--but as I said, her work does have a polemical purpose (although it doesn't remotely have a polemical tone), and that means it presents a decidedly partial picture.

I'm all for her version of religiosity, and it would be great if the traditions she focuses on were those all people of faith chose to return to. But it's not the full historical reality.