I like reading, and am generally grateful for books. I am grateful for the book I just finished, although reading it was like indulging in a film genre I deplore: horror. Trouble is? This was a non-fiction book.
So, while I am gratefully deploring “The Battle for God” by Karen Armstrong; I’m pretty sure she would ungratefully deplore my used graphic today. Tough. I think Ms. Armstrong, for all her meticulous research and very fair minded approach, has a couple blind spots.
Armstrong peaks my tolerance meter when she suggests that people under duress from fear and economic distress feel “left behind” by modernism — the general post-Enlightenment default mode of most of the Western World. Her discussion of American fundamentalists in particular comes across to me as a prettily written gloss for “Yes, we are fucking idiots who like to boost our ego by being assholes to others; how DARE you college kids and atheist/feminist/faggot jerks tell us no; it’s a religious RIGHT, damn it!”
All in all, I DO recommend the book. It might be better read with a bottle of Scotch near at hand instead of the coffee I used to plough through it. I absolutely enjoyed her careful historical analysis of the religious revolution in Iran — the whole nasty business that downed well-meaning Carter with hostages he could not retrieve. However, it was NOT Carter who set that stage with letting the Shah be an autocratic asshole to his people, driving them to religion for refuge. However, she also describes how a well-meaning revolution descended into a reign of terror devouring many Iranians; and yet somehow misses sounding alarm klaxons for what could happen if the legal “cuffs” every came off in America.
While she discusses how the less educated, poorly employed, tech-deficient Americans embrace Iron Age mythologies because they feel “left behind” by modern secular life? I think she should have perused the book series “Left Behind” for where those mythological dreams would actually TAKE those pitiful fundamentalist sorts. While she DOES discuss the American Christians who openly want theocracy, complete with slavery and forced birth? She seems to believe the “Dominionists” are more dangerous than their Islamic brothers. I wonder?
Like many modern apologists for Islam, and monotheism in general, she repeatedly stresses the nice things the Koran says instead of discussing with complete honesty what believers in the Koran did, including plenty of “conversion by the sword” by Mohammed himself. She notably does not address the absolutely Iron Age mentality in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — the way women are property (whether or not they veil for their own purposes, thank you very much), children can be slaughtered for disobedience or apostasy, and wonderfully non-modern things like slavery are AOK with God (and Jesus?).
She seems to want to defuse the religious fanatic bomb without actually acknowledging that religion IS a bomb. She insists that humans need both “mythos” and “logos” and it is her opinion that problems happen only when mythos is treated AS logos. One of my issues with this is that she seems to think monotheism is the only viable mythos out there; and second, as she said, any mythos being transformed to logos becomes an ideology. And that, folks, let me tell you, IS the road to human hell paved with allegedly good intentions. Ideologies make people into a means to an end — and as a good Kantian/Nietzschean Existentialist, that is a huge no-no.
For every chapter and verse she quotes on peace and love, there is more than one for “Kill the unbelievers!” in any of the three faiths she discusses; she can list all the external pressures in the world — but that is only the making of the gun, if you ask me. The ammunition and the will to put finger to trigger comes from the “mythos” she tells us we cannot live without!
For a woman who once called herself an atheist, Karen Armstrong has returned, it seems to an idealized fold. She thinks a religion-free era leads to emptiness and nihilism — whether she got this from Sartre’s “god shaped hole” or Nietzsche’s dead god, I don’t know. I think with a bit of practice, we big-brained adaptable primates could find plenty of grist for that empty mental mill — IF we could stop fearing an afterlife punishment we are propagandized, beaten, and bamboozled into accepting. I sympathize with her personal struggle and applaud her “praxis” approach to religion — her description of it as “ethical alchemy” enchants me. But as a priest once told me, shortly before I, myself, abandoned the Catholic Church, “Your ethics and logic applied to religion are not in line with the bulk of religious people; they will not rise to your level.”
Note, this book came out before 9-11, 2001. I know she has written more on the topic of religion and terror. I am not sure I want to read more, even with a bottle of Scotch at easy reach! I walk (gratefully?) away with the uncomfortable sensation that Armstrong believes religion necessary, even IF it is an evil, and is trying to put lipstick on a pig. She finds criticism of her take on Islam destructive, fearing it could lead to another Islam-directed Holocaust. I share those fears, to be honest.
But if we could see ALL religions and hierarchies based on the holier than thou sorts ordering large groups of semi-stupid people into action as dangerous? Well, then perhaps change would happen. I think pointing out more loudly that, just as feelings are not facts, NOR is FAITH, might lead to more societal benefit than merely writing hall passes (in blood) for religious manias.