The battle of religious interpretations

“The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism” by Karen Armstrong

Writing a review for any of Karen Armstrong’s books is not easy. It is because the depth of human knowledge from the ancient past is written in such detailed and complete manner, while the range and the scope of it is also tremendously broad – from major and minor religions, to every mythology ever recorded, to philosophy, even atheism.

In an unmistakable Ms Armstrong’s style, her books cover the historical part of any occurrences, they also see them from the theological point of view and the human emotions side, and perhaps more crucially they cover the evolution of every religion. Any myth or any popular religious stories are analysed and explained. Any events are given the proper context and the long background stories. Whatever lost ancient civilisation, she would know about them, understand their place in the proper history, and their hidden influences to the world. Whatever misconception or false truth, she will know and will go to a great length to straighten them out.

The truth, it seems, will always come out from her. No matter how ugly. This makes me believe that somewhere between the passages in Ms. Armstrong’s books we can find the answer. While I don’t know exactly what the question is, but I bet she have the answer. Questions like what’s the meaning of life? Are religion man made? And perhaps the ultimate question, does God exist?

This particular book discusses about the evolution of interpretation over religion, with the focus on the Abrahamic religion of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ms Armstrong uses the word fundamentalism for this, but this is not “fundamentalism” as we understand it in the mainstream media, which touches only the surface of what being discussed in the book. But instead, fundamentalism in this regard means the battle between many different strong-held interpretations of their respective religions, from liberal view to moderate, conservative, to hardliner.

This many different interpretations have resulted, for example, in a breakaway of sub-sects in Judaism or in movements like the secular Zionism. It can be found in the schism between Sunni and Shia within Islam, not to mention the emergence of Wahhabi interpretation. And it is the reason why we have many different kinds of Christian churches: from Catholicism to protestant, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Methodist, Jehovah witness, Mormonism, and many more.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation from the book is how historical events shaped and molded the many different interpretations, that the core changes of the religion were triggered by some very human occurrences such as the Spanish Inquisition, World War 1, the Holocaust, United States independence, or a coup in Iran and Egypt. It can ever evolved from existential crisis caused by the God-shaped hole in an increasingly atheist society, just like the emergence of the likes of Pat Robertson in the US. It shows that fundamentalism is really a response to a crisis or problem that appears in their environment, which provoked some kind of specific counter-hardline response for survivorship.

The book also addresses the challenges that fundamentalists are facing against secularism, nationalism, science, and atheism. Mix them with another complicated relationship between the many different interpretations within the same religion, and the interactions with other religions, will provide us with the full picture of multi-religious society that we have in the modern world. It’s really mind blowing to be able to see the world views of so many different religious sects, and for a few moment walk on their shoes.

This shows that fundamentalism is really relative, that one person’s extreme view is another person’s safety net, that it depends on who implement and use it as a tool and why (which can turn political real quick). And sometimes, the label of fundamentalist is imposed on a relatively mild one that just happen to live under a majority or ruler that have opposing views.

It dawn on me that in the end of the day us humans have the yearning to understand who we are and why are are here. And the need for certainty has produced so many different beliefs and myths under different environments, which are trying to explain our existence and role in this planet. And sometimes their many different interpretations can create frictions or conflicting views over the same subject, perhaps most notable in the case of the meaning of Jerusalem for many different faiths.

This is why religious conflicts will never die down, as different faiths have different interpretations and agendas. And today they are increasingly consolidating power up to the very top of the political chain, with the likes of the Republican party, Narendra Modi, Mohammed Bin Salman, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Ayatollahs, to name a few. And suddenly the world’s geopolitics makes a little bit more sense.