Monday, March 29, 2010

A daring history of the religious impulse

I'm a fan of Karen Armstrong's many writings on religion. She's is astonishingly prolific; since 1982, she has churned out 22 volumes including a memoir of her early religious exhaustion within an arid Roman Catholicism, much Christian history, Jewish history, a wonderful Islam for the uninformed, the Bible as understood by its adherents and detractors, Buddhism, the story of the so-called Axial Age (800 BCE-200 CE) when most world faiths came into being, and, in The Battle for God, an effort to explain the origins of fundamentalism. Her most recent book, The Case for God struck me as the most complete, most smoothly constructed and argued of her many volumes, a synthesis of what has survived a lifetime of study.

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?
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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:

Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in profound fear ... it is usually a response to a campaign of coreligionists or fellow countrymen that is experienced as inimical and invasive. In 1917, during a particularly dark period of the war, liberal theologians in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago launched a media offensive against the Moody Bible Institute on the other side of town. They accused these biblical literalists of being in the pay of the Germans and compared them to atheistic Bolsheviks. ...The conservatives responded in kind, retorting that, on the contrary, it ws the pacifism of the liberals that had caused America to fall behind in the arms race...

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.

Subsequent history would show that when a fundamentalist movement is attacked, it almost invariably becomes more aggressive, bitter, and excessive. Rooted as fundamentalism is in a fear of annihilation, its adherents see any such offensive as proof that the secular or liberal world is indeed bent on the elimination of religion. Jewish and Muslim movements would also conform to this pattern. Before Scopes, Protestant fundamentalists tended to be on the left of the political spectrum, willing to work with socialists and liberals in the disadvantaged areas of the rapidly industrializing cities. After Scopes, they swung to the far right ... an unswerving biblical literalism became central to the fundamentalist mindset and creation science became the flagship of the movement. It would become impossible to discuss the issue rationally, because evolution was no longer merely a scientific hypothesis but a 'symbol,' indelibly imbued with the misery of defeat and humiliation. ...When attacking religion that seems obscurantist, critics must be aware that this assault is likely to make it more extreme.

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.

1 comment:

libhom said...

The only long term solution is for people to accept the fact that religion is an outdated superstition that serves no constructive purpose in society.

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