You see, Armstrong writes history in a way that is pretty much forbidden to "serious" historians: she asks what her stories of the past mean to contemporary readers. She's not unsophisticated; she is perfectly well aware that what we take for meaning, what we can see at all, is shaped by our contemporary experiences and understandings. We, too, like those who went before us, will one day appear ignorant and anachronistic. Historians today don't write sweeping conclusions -- when they are honest, they are too aware that when you dig into the nitty gritty of the historical record, broad strokes tend to erase the particularities of moments in the past. Honesty requires preserving whatever granularity we can recover and modern writers usually take that to mean that we should not strive for synthesis. We're still recovering from epic histories of great men that told us that progress was irreversible and heroes abounded. Modern histories demand more modesty.
There have been moments, when I was reading Armstrong's accounts of the past, when I have wanted to say -- hey, wait a minute, I happen to know enough about that event or that period so I think that what you write is too glib, too easy. Unequivocally, of all Armstrong's histories, The Case for God inspired the least of these mental hiccups in me. The woman gets better at the task she has given herself. What more can I ask?
Armstrong's most influential idea -- that "fundamentalism" is an historically novel modern reaction to modern religious anxieties -- is revisited brilliantly in this book. Her argument is enormously useful to understanding our world and politics. Here's some of her story of the time and place where U.S. Protestant fundamentalism got started:
Both sides read pretty wacky now, don't they? But this round of super-heated anxiety about God and country set the stage for next round, the Scopes trial in 1925 in which liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow convincingly branded fundamentalist Christian hero William Jennings Bryan with the ignominy of being an anti-intellectual hick for opposing the teaching of Darwinian evolution. And with that, a nearly unbridgeable divide with strong elements of regional and class-based bigotry opened between liberal and conservative Protestants -- and we are still living with the results. Armstrong concludes that fundamentalists made a tactical retreat, then came back with a vengeance in the contemporary religious right.
And there we are today, with Tea Baggers, Michigan militias, and legions of fearful people who are convinced that the majority is stealing something from them.
If Armstrong is right, some part of the remedy for eruptions of fundamentalist fear has to be get get these people calmed down. We have to promise not to annihilate them -- no wonder they fight for their survival. But their beliefs really do attack my survival as a lesbian, as a small "d" social democrat who believes the country ought to use its wealth to promote the general welfare of all its people, as a liberal who wants to live in tolerance and civilized accommodation with all faiths and non-faiths. It's all very well to point out that fundamentalism is a product of fear, but how to live with it in a plural society? That's the puzzlement I'm left with from Armstrong's book. She enjoins compassion. I can agree, but easier said than done.
This post is only part one of some reflections on The Case for God. I hope to find the time for more over the next few days.