Not a day goes by without the media mentioning a fundamentalist attack on modern society. Questions race through your mind: Who are these people? How and why did they come into existence? What are they trying to accomplish? Karen Armstrong, author of The New York Times bestseller A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has written her latest book in an attempt to answer such questions from a position of empathy, instead of the more common one of crude judgment.
Armstrong diligently analyzes the evolving perception of religion from the 1500s to the 1990s by exploring fundamentalist movements in Judaism (Jewish fundamentalism in Israel), Christianity (American Protestant fundamentalism), and Islam (Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran).
Opposing the general perception that fundamentalism is inherently conservative and wedded to the past, Armstrong argues that it is essentially modern and highly innovative. She observes that people of the past developed two ways of thinking: mythos and logos. Mythos was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence: meaning. In the context of this book, it is defined as: Mythos (Greek): A mode of knowledge rooted in silence and intuitive insigh which gives meaning to life but which cannot be explained in rational terms. Logos, on the other hand, was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled us to function well in the world. Regarded as complementary ways of arriving at the truth, each had its own special area of competence.
But by the eighteenth century, Europe's startling success in science and technology caused it to begin considering logos the only means to truth and mythos as false. Armstrong argues that fundamentalism, which interprets the truths of mythos as though they were logoi, is a response to modernity's resulting attack on religion, a response rooted in the fear that modernity will destroy religion. She cautions, however, that such a reactionary fundamentalism reduces religion to an ideology that admits only one interpretation, thereby negating religion's inherently life-valuing, positive attitude.
Armstrong builds her argument carefully. Starting from the life and world order of the premodern era, she traces how modernity came about and how people and societies reacted to it. It took the West nearly 300 years to become modern. Once it became established there, it was ruthlessly directed outward to the world at large. Faced with the West's global hegemony, the peoples of the Middle East had to become modern in a much shorter span of time.
The author points out that modernism wears one face in the West and another one in the Middle East. In the West modernization was characterized by independence and innovation; in Egypt and Iran, however, it was accompanied by dependence and imitation.
Quick fixes for modernization did not work very well. She writes: Frequently, modern society is divided into ˜two nations': secularists and religious living in the same country cannot speak one another's language or see things from the same point of view. What seems sacred and positive in one camp appears demonic and deranged in the other. Secularists and religious both feel profoundly threatened by one another Although this separation was deeper in the Middle East, similar divisions have occurred in Jewish and Protestant communities.
Armstrong looks for a solution to this escalating spiral of hostility and recrimination. She writes that fundamentalists must remember religion's more compassionate and life-valuing aspects, whereas secularists must embrace modern culture's benevolent, tolerant, and respectful characteristics. Her wealth of comparative religious knowledge has interesting insights to offer both fundamentalists and secularists in this search for a better understanding of the other side.