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73nd Annual Summer Conference, August 5–8, 2004

Contemporary Voices:
The VisionTV Address on Religion and Public Life

Keynote Speaker: Karen Armstrong

Summary by Rosalyn Yake

In the middle of the 20th century, it was assumed secularism was the ideology and religion would never play a role in public events. We got that wrong. The title of this conference is “God is Back with a Vengeance.” Tonight, I would like to do two things: the religious phenomenon that goes under the inappropriate title of fundamentalism, and what we mean when we say “God.” Perhaps in the course of the next few days we can begin to unravel one of the major problems of the 20th century that we are not doing a good job of solving.

Fundamentalism is often seen as a very unhappy term. Unfortunately, this term does reflect a militant form of piety that erupted during the 21st century. My objective was to look at my book and then describe my reflections since September 11. But instead, I’d like to backtrack and look at this phenomenon of fundamentalism.

First of all, it’s not solely an Islamic term. Of the three world religions, it is a trend and a lust to develop a fundamentalism strain. Fundamentalist movements have erupted in Christianity and Judaism as well. It first developed in America at the time of World War One. Hinduism, Sikhism, etc., have all developed fundamentalist trends in the course of the 21st century. It’s not exclusively an Islamic term.


The term “fundamentalism” is often used to describe someone who is conventional in their religious views. This is wrong. The Saudis, for example, are not fundamentalist. They are traditionalists. Therefore, we have to be more careful about our terminology. It is not necessarily violent. Only a fraction of fundamentalists actually take part in acts of terrorism. The vast majority is simply trying to live an authentic religious life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith.

So then, what is “fundamentalism”? It can largely be described as a revolt against the secular modernity. In every government when a secular government has been established, a religious movement arises beside it. Every major change in the world is always accompanied by protest. Nobody ever said: “let’s have a democracy.” Democracy did not come about as a result of our human kindness and concern for others. Democracy tells us that there will always be people who will have different views. Today, thanks to modern media, people are able to express their ideas more succinctly.

What fundamentalists tend to do is to retreat from mainstream society into a sacred enclave of pure faith. They no longer feel at home in society at large and so they set up their own system. They retreat from a godless society, and live in a godly society. From that vantage point, some remain in that enclave, and we never hear about them. Some organize a counter offensive, and try to regain some of the territory they feel they have lost. We have to remember that however wonderful modernity has been for all of us in this room, there are vast amounts of people who have felt marginalized.

As a woman, I can think of no other time in society that I would feel comfortable than in today. I have been lucky. I have never felt hunger. I was educated at one of greatest universities in the world. I have led a charmed life. I exist quite outside the purviews of most people on the planet who see our secular modernity as a hideous shock. What the fundamentalists are trying to do is drag God and religion from the sidelines back to center stage. In this they have achieved a success of sorts.

I’m speaking in Canada today and I’m a Brit, and our societies are beginning to look out of date. As soon as I come here, I feel Canada is like home because people here are saying, “why do you want to bother about religion?” Isn’t secular society a good thing?

The U.S. is the second most religious country next to India. The reaction there is quite different. Today people think religion is passé. It’s out of date. But it is we who are out-of-sync. Because whether we like or not, people are demonstrating that they want to see religion reflected more clearly in public life.

This is a trend. Now we need to think about how we make the best and most creative use of this? What are the dangers and what are the strengths?

We can’t see it as just all-lunatic stuff. Basically, every fundamentalist movement is rooted in fear. A profound fear of annihilation. Every movement in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced that modern secular society wants to wipe them out. This isn’t paranoia. If you consider that in Judaism, fundamentalism took two major leaps forward. One after the Nazi holocaust, the second after the 1973 war in Israel. In the Islamic world, modernity has developed so quickly that secularism has been experienced as an assault. Secularism has not been the lovely freeing thing it has been for us as it has in other countries. It has been lethal.

When people feel their backs are to the wall and they are fighting for survival, they are not always speaking from a position of paranoia. Even in the U.S., people feel colonized by what they regard as the aliens of Harvard, Yale, Washington, DC.

As I already said, the first fundamentalist movement developed in the U.S. as a revolt against modernity. In 1925, in the so-called Monkey trial (the Scopes trial), fundamentalists tried to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools. They were ridiculed by the press. We thought they were gone forever. In fact they were regrouping, founding their own colleges, churches, broadcasting stations, their own sacred enclaves to burst forth in the 70s. But at the time of the Scopes trial, they felt humiliated by the attack in the secular press. After the Scopes trial, they became more literalists, and creation science became their flagship. Before the trial, they were on the left of the political spectrum alongside socialists in the slums of industrial cities in America. After the trial, they swung to the extreme right where they remained.

Secularism and fundamentalism exist in tandem, in a symbiotic relationship. They are felt to be intrusive and regressive. Every single one of the movements that I have studied has developed in response to this kind of aggressive intrusion into their lives. What was it about modernity that was so troubling to them?

In the 16th century, Europe and America began to develop an entirely new civilization. They were no longer based on surpluses of agriculture, but on technology and the constant reinvention of capital that freed people up from the economic uncertainty of agrarian societies. This changed life. One was democracy. It was found to be necessary in order to be productive. More and more people had to be involved in the production process. That meant that they had to acquire modern education. This was not, as we know, easily won. Women only got the vote shortly ago. Those countries that tried to hog the benefits to the elite fell behind.

The next thing was to use all human resources at its disposal. We could no longer cast people aside like the Jews in Europe. Everybody had to be brought to the mainstream. This tolerance was skin deep. Once Jews proved to be truly successful, the old prejudices came into force again with horrible effects. It took us three hundred years to develop our modern secular institutions, and they were three hundred years of great trauma. There was terror, bloody revolutions, horrible wars of religion, exploitation of women and children. We’re seeing some of these effects today while other countries are going through this painful right of passage.

Two important things to note: our modernization had two main watchworks; one was independence. Declaration of independence by the U.S. was a typical modernizing document. But they were also religious documents of independence.

Secondly, however traumatic the modernization process in the U.S. and Britain, there was dynamism about it. We were always doing something fresh, coming up with novel unprecedented ideas. In such places as in the Middle East, modernization did not come with independence, it came with colonial dependence. The wrong kinds of ingredients have been going into the stew of modernity.

The example I like to use is the baking of a cake. If you get the recipe, and you don’t have the proper ingredients, you’re not going to get the beautiful cake in the cook book. You could get something very nasty indeed. Some of the wrong ingredients have gone into this cake. Others are saying, “We see the kind of cake you’s good...let us work with our own recipe to produce it for you.”

Some fundamentalist movements have been analogous to this method. Therefore, they come to modernity with their own terms rather than just copying ours.

That’s what I wrote before September 11. I ended up saying that fundamentalist movements were becoming more extreme. What happened was the more you tried to supress them, the more extreme they became. This should not be a glaring surprise. In regards to September 11, I have very grave doubts about how religious those people were. I’m not talking about Osama. I’m taking about the highjackers. Many of them were known to frequent nightclubs. No Muslim fundamentalist would go within a 10-mile radius of a night club. It’s a symbol of modernity and the barbarism they would like to replace. A lot of the terrorists were drinking alcohol before the highjacking. A lot of those people who have been picked up have been disaffected drifters. They were not driven by the imperative of Islam to commit these acts.

Secondly, our fear of terrorism comes mainly from the Arab world. However, Arabs comprise only 20 per cent of fundamentalists world wide. There has been religious revival all around the world including in the Middle East. There has been an upsurge of religious fundamentalism. When violence becomes entrenched in religion, religion gets sucked into it. Religion comes from the place where our dreams come from. The Middle East has been ruled by corrupt dictators, many of them supported by Western governments. The only place people have been felt to express their anger has been the Mosque. It’s not just Islam; it has to do with the surrounding ambiance that makes people do violent things.

For centuries, Islam practiced the separation of church and state. The elites led a secular aristocratic life. There is a tradition of the separation of church and state but what have they seen of secularism? They’ve seen Sadam Hussein, a secularist ruler, who operated by socialist ethos and separated religion and politics. They’ve recently seen the outrage in the war prisoners by British troops alongside Americans. This is the secularism that we regard ourselves as the proud purveyors of.

We have to ask ourselves how we are presenting our secularism to the religious world. That is a hard problem because secularism has its problems too.

Secularism can be as lethal as bad religion. It’s not as though we are going to separate church and state and we are going to be in some sort of lucky utopia. Sadam, Hitler and Stalin show that human nature is that we can take a wonderful ideal and ruin it.

So what’s wrong with 9-11, the religious killings we’ve seen and Sadam Hussein? I think the common threat that goes through them all is to say what is wrong is a lack of the sense of the sacred. I don’t mean that the sacred has to be supernatural. There are religions such as Buddhism that have no perception of this. Bliss and Nirvana are entirely natural to the human being. We don’t need to think of God as a being who is zapped in. Secularism and religion at its best is to promote a sense that life is sacred, the planet is sacred, and every being who walks the earth is absolutely sacred.

In Catholic theology, hell is not a place or a pit of burning fire, it is the absence of God. The absence of the sacred. The Holocaust is a symbol that all sense of life’s sacredness has been lost. 9-11 is another example of the lack of the knowledge that other people who may be opposed to us have sacred value. Similarly, those photographs from the prisoners of war being subjected to abuse show a similar lack of sense of sacredness for every human being. This is the sin of humanity. The last thing we want is the God of the Crusaders, the God who is like one of ourselves, writ large with likes and dislikes similar to our own. When I was a little girl I had to learn the definition of God in Roman Catholicism. I said, “God is the lone spirit.”

Since I’ve been studying the subject in the three religions, it is impossible to draw breath that would set limits and define this concept. It is a reality that must transcend all of our preconceptions that challenge us deeply. All three religions started with an image of a personalized being. They then went on to say it’s better to say God does not exist, God is nothing. And yet as human beings, we yearn for transcendence. We have ideas and experiences that go beyond our conceptual grasp. If we don’t find it in church or mosque, we look for it elsewhere. We look for it in the arts, in sports, in music, an experience that will allow us to become one with something other than ourselves. When we feel most fully alive.

At its best, religion must have an ethical component. It’s possible to have bad religion just as its possible to have bad sex. Because religion is a human activity and like sex, it’s hard to get right. It’s easy to fall on your feet. But right now I’m writing a book about how all the great world religions came into being at about the same time. What they all had in common is that they all recoiled from the violence of their society. All of them came up with the ideal of compassion as the best and safest way of achieving ecstasy. When you dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put something else there, you are going outside of your self.

When you mention compassion, it means to feel with, not feel sorry. People feel angry because what’s the fun of being religious if you can’t disapprove of someone? If Christians went to heaven and noticed everyone was there they would be furious! People want to feel righteous rather than compassionate. This is bad religion. Compassion is the key. That’s what we want in our public space. Whether a secular society or religious society, people need to be taught to value the absolute sacredness. There are secular fundamentalists who have a bigoted view of religion just as religious people have of a bigoted view of secularism

This is not the kind of society we now have to live in if we have to survive. We are now in a global society. In order to survive, we’ve got to recognize that we live with people of different opinions. I don’t like the word “toleration.” It’s just putting up with people. I think we all need to “appreciate.” Fundamentalism represents a failure of religion, because when people feel they are fighting for their lives, they depart from the passionate ethos of their religion.

In most societies, a gulf now exists not only between nations. Fundamentalists always start by revolting against their own counterpart religions. This kind of divide whereby people cannot speak to one another is not a healthy sign. We feel as threatened by the fundamentalist as they do by us. This is an unhealthy state of affairs. We need to learn to study the fundamentalist movements. To look at them, however bizarre they seem to be, because they are expressing anxieties and fears that most societies cannot safely ignore.