During what are certainly usual times, many of us have turned to faith to cope with the dreadful news surrounding Covid-19. The virus has changed our lives in ways we could have never imagined and in these times, faith is one of the few things that some people have left. Whether it is Jesus, Allah, Yahweh or another God, belief in the higher power has proven to be a clutch as fears of the unknown settle in. Depending on where and to whom you were born, your faith may be Christianity, Islam, Judaism or one of hundreds of religions and denomination. Regardless of what you faith is, we can all agree that next to politics, religion is one of those topics that can bring people together in peace or drive them apart with anger and rage. And even within a culture, disputes about religion are bound to surface as fundamentalism and modernity clash head to head. Author Karen Armstrong has taken a closer look at the passionate struggle between fundamentalist and secular forces in what she appropriately calls the battle for God.
Though there are hundreds if not thousands of religions in the world, the primary focus here is on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which are considered the world’s largest monotheisitc faiths. Although Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is polytheistic and it is not organized in the exact same manner as the others. God, Yahweh and Allah take center stage in a book that it sure to provoke deep thought about how we view the concepts of the supernatural and life after death. I want to point out that at no time does the author degrade any of the religions discussed within. Her goal is not to slander but to show the inner struggles within each as opposing forces battle for the direction of their faith. It is imperative to keep this in mind to see the true value in what she has written.
I do warn readers that the author moves between three religions as the book progresses and the changes may seem abrupt to some. But what is taking place is actually three discussions woven into one main account. Putting that aside, there is a wealth of information in the book and a rock solid presentation of how religion became a battleground between opposing points of view. And to entice us early on, Armstrong does give us a telling clue:
Fundamentalism—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—rarely arises as a battle with an external enemy (in the case of Volozhin, this external enemy would have been gentile European culture); it usually begins, instead, as an internal struggle in which traditionalists fight their own coreligionists who, they believe, are making too many concessions to the secular world.
This statement sets the stage for what is to come and it is a roller coaster ride in which we see how widely practice religions have virtually taken two different tracks of development as society continues to evolve. To help us understand the divisions, Armstrong takes us back in time to when fundamentalism was normal and modernity was an unknown concentp. But as humanity moved forward and science became a larger influence in society, the fundamentalist began to feel that their way of belief was in imminent danger of extinction and those who considered themselves true believers were willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their faith, even resorting to acts of violence. The emergence and proclamations by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) only increased the fundamentalists’ paranoia and as we see in the book, they believed that the writing was on the wall.
Readers may find themselves taking a significant amount of notes. As the story moves between the three faiths, it is easy to get sidetracked and I did find myselfpreferring to read the book when I had periods of near absolute silence. Names of historical figures are peppered throughout the story. Some are easily recognizable while others may be known for the first time to the reader. However, they all have a role to play as the West and Middle East become hotbeds for religious extremists. I will refrain from listing too many names here because the amount of figures who enter the story is quite large. But I will say that Armstrong presents deeply interesting discussions of how religion has developed in the United States, home to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant simply known as a WASP and in the Middle East where Shiite and Sunni Islam became the dominant forms of Islam. And her analysis of events leading up to the assassination of Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) and the Iranian Revolution are just right for anyone seeking a condensed explanation of how radical Islam has gained so much power. And as one would expect, the story of Iran includes an in-depth focus on Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini known to the west as Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). However, I do feel that the most eye-opening part of the book is the discussion of Zionism versus Orthodox Judaism in Israel. I personally found myself glued to this section as I learned more about Zionism and how Israel is actually two belief systems in a nation that also grapples with continuing tensions with its Palestinian neighbors. There is certainly more than meets the eye. In fact, some readers may be surprised to see what Armstrong says about the early relationship between Jews and Muslims.
One of the most popular concepts of American democracy is the separation between church and state. Armstrong touches on this as the religious right that has become a significant force in American culture. it is fascinating and older readers will recall the nearly earth shattering revelations of Tamm Faye and Jim Bakker. And who can forget the video of Jimmy Swaggart crying on national television? Their escapades and the constant battle between Christian fundamentalism and secular society continues to this day as televangelists grace the airwaves reminding us of our need to repent. What Joel Osteen and Crefo Dollar are able to do, follows but also exceeds the prominence of televangelist Oral Roberts (1918-2009). And as technology continues to improve, the battle between opposing forces within Christianity will continue to do battle for the God they believe in.
After finishing the book, I took a moment of silence to sit and digest all that I had read. And while I do know there is far more to the story than could have been included here, the book is simply amazing. I do feel that everyone can find value in it regardless of who God they believe in. Armstrong never attempts to sway anyone from belief. But the value she does provide is that she takes a neutral view at the inner struggle from an analytical standpoint as any good author would. Those who are religious will need to be able to read it with an open mind for it is not so much a challenge to faith but an examination of it. And that examination is needed as fundamentalism shows no sign of going away. But we could ask, should fundamentalism have no place at all in society? A knee-jerk reaction would say no but upon closer inspection, through Armstrong’s words, we see that those in power did not seek to abolish fundamentalism but rather find a way to placate all as reasonably possible. But what we also see is that fundamentalism eventually took a dark and even deadly turn inspite of concessions as adherence to the scripture took priority over liberal freedoms.