Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Battle For God: Part Six

I lost my notes for the chapter entitled "Fundamentalism", and it wasn't worth rereading, so you'll never know what I thought about it. I was enraged, incensed, and otherwise bored, but I had too many comments to remember, so to heck with it.

Page 270: In the next chapter, "Counter-Culture", Armstrong describes how, in traditional Christian theology, hell is defined as the complete abscence of God. She then makes an interesting comparison of how the Holocaust, which was extremely efficient and scientific, and wholly devoid of God, was considered an earthly incarnation of hell. Strict secularism as hell--that's an interesting concept.

Now for a meta-critique. Armstrong continues to stress how fundamentalist movements are essentially modern, because they incorporate modern viewpoints. A modern viewpoint, in her definition, is future-oriented. Rather than looking to the past for inspiration, and seeking to reclaim some lost golden age, the modern ethos seeks improvement. I have two problems with this:

First, it limits the natural growth of religious belief. Even without a new revelation, the understanding of religious doctrine can grow phenomenally. Think of all the great scholars who have emerged solely in Christianity since the end of direct revelation, the foremost of whom would be Augustine and Luther, who dramatically expanded our understanding of the divine. Religion does not have to be past-oriented, even if direct revelation has ceased.

Third, Armstrong parses the virtues and vices of fundamentalism and secularism in a very biased way. When a fundamentalist movement does something praiseworthy, she describes it as an incorporation of the modern ethos. When a secular movement does something evil, it is categorized as a conservative, reactionary, un-modern move--the not-as-yet purged remnants of the conservative ethos. Thus any of fundamentalism's virtues are accorded to the adoption of secularism, while its vices are its own, and the reverse is true for secularism.

If they same distinctions were applied by the adherents of a religion, if a Christian, for example, disavowed the Crusades and the Inquisition as the misuse of religion by evil people with non-religious aims, they would rightly be accused of hypocrisy. A religion with no evil adherents is like the Confederate General Johnston, who had a marvelous reputation as a sharpshooter, but he never took a shot. The birds always flew too high, or too low, or the wind was wrong. He didn't want to shoot and ruin his marvelous reputation. If we limit a religion's children to only the saints among them, then that religion is useless and dead. In fact, a religion that brings in the scoundrels and rogues--a religion that is truly working with the dregs of society--will have many more crimes committed by its adherents. Secularism does not have this excuse; it does not deliberately target the immoral and unethical in order to improve them.

This is probably why the chapter on Fundamentalism seems desperate in its attempt to foist evil off on non-modern elements. If Secularism was held to the same standard as religion--that the actions of all of its adherents be counted against it--religion would appear far more benign and tolerant than secularism (but Armstrong would label these as modern developments).

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