Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Calling Out Fundamentalism

A lot of us have had it up to here with extremism right about now.

And though 'extremism' is the term we use, most of us actually mean ‘religious fundamentalism.’ Few of us—particularly moderate religious people—will speak that way openly and assertively, but I’m pretty sure that’s what's goin' on between our ears.

If that’s true, then it seems important to define what we mean by ‘religious fundamentalism’ and then figure out how to help it back to the bronze age where it belongs.

So let me suggest a working definition and at least one approach to giving fundy-ism a one way ticket home on the wayback machine.

Here's my take on fundy-ism:

The more a religious group tends to ignore the scientific method, the application of disciplined observation and reason in general decision-making, and the moral and cultural advances normally associated with the Enlightenment concept of human rights, the higher the score on the 'fundy-o-meter.'

Bonus points are awarded for an unusually powerful sense of cultural alienation and a literalist method for interpreting sacred texts.

I guess you could also say that the more a strain of religious thinking and practice resembles the thinking and practice of dudes in skins from the Iron Age the more likely it is you've got some ignorant wackies on your hands.

I'm really only half joking with that comment. Tom Cruise jumping up and down on couches and Scientology aside, virtually every major religion comes out of the Bronze or Iron Age, so we're far less removed from guys in loin cloths than most of us may think :^)

Of course, something like ‘religious fundamentalism’ is a continuum. One person’s moderate is another person’s loon toon. And since the fundamentalist label is a PR no no, everybody--including obvious fundamentalists--insists they aren't.

But when you’ve got a whole bunch of Americans (40% in some polls)who believe the world is 4000 years old or who believe the current animal species came down to us just as they are from the time of the creation—you’re dealing with more than a whiff of fundamentalism. When you’ve got hundreds of millions of Muslims hoping to live out a social ethic pretty much unchanged from the 7th century you’ve got some big time fundy-ism goin' on.

That’s pretty bad news in my mind.

Religious fundies are helping block all kinds of positive advances in science and social ethics around the world. Religious fundamentalism is one of the primary causes of widespread poverty. And when you add the inevitable future availability of suitcase nukes into the mix--and take into consideration the violent aspects in most religious texts--I’ve begun to wonder if we can afford religious fundamentalism any longer.

A big can of worms no doubt. I’ll come back to it in the next few posts. But let me suggest at least one way to blunt the impact of the current fundy wave.

Religious moderates have gotta get with it and start speaking up in no uncertain terms against religious fundamentalism of every kind. By remaining silent religious moderates give fundamentalists legitimacy and cover.

But at this point religious moderates—including most American moderate evangelicals—often have little to say about religious fundamentalism.

Why? Well, in the Islamic world lots of ‘em probably fear ending up on the wrong end of a gun.

But here in the US I think most religious people feel its bad manners to speak ill of anyone’s religion. Christians often say they don’t want to criticize fellow Christians. And maybe just as important, many religious folks are afraid if they start standing up for science and reason and human rights and against religious ignorance they’ll end up on a slippery slope that will eventually threaten even moderate religion. And then you've got the relativizing influence of pomo.

Seems like the American religious types most willing to speak up clearly against Islamic fundamentalism (most of current Islam?) are American fundamentalists. But of course they're not challenging the whole concept of fundamentalism. They just don't like the particular brand.

Wonder if its time for religious moderates to stand up and get into the mix?


Blogger Samer Farhat said...

Great post Tom.

With the parenthetical statement in your second to last paragraph, are you asking if Islamic fundamentalism represents most of current Islam?

7:54 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yeah, that's right Samer. I've traveled quite a bit in the Islamic world and it seems like the fundamentalists are the most common roosters in the barnyard. They definitely make the most noise :^)

10:00 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

What do you think of "Jesus Camp"?

12:10 AM  
Blogger Samer Farhat said...

Well, as far as making the most noise, I would certainly agree with you on that. I still think a moderate Islam is the most common among all Muslims. But just like the American Christian fundy wackos are the loudest of the Christians, so are the fundies in Islam.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Matthew Pascal said...

Ya, I would agree with Samer that moderate Islam is the most common among Muslims. However, if being a strict creationist and rejecting evolutionary theories classifies one as a fundy, then I'd say the overwhelming majority of Muslims are fundamentalists (according to that definition).

I'm saying this based on the fact that I have relationships with Arab Muslims from all social classes in the country in which I live who by no means consider themselves fundamentalists (most of them are not even practicing Muslims at all!), but yet they are extremely strict creationists...

1:46 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Good comments guys.

I think most people in most cultures aren't serious members of whatever the predominant faith is--nominalism is the world's biggest religion by a long shot.

But I still think most practicing Muslims are fundamentalists by the standards I'm describing. Certainly, most practicing Muslims don't adhere to the violence and extremism of groups like Al Qaeda. But that doesn't get them into the religious moderate category for me. I think when people speak of Muslim moderates these days they mean, "Not like Al Qaeda."

Islam simply hasn't gone through a Reformation or dealt with the implications of the Enlightenment in the way Christianity has. The fact that most everyday Muslims would hold to a strict creationist line (my experience too) and that the Koran is still largely interpreted literally and without the application of post-Enlightenment literary criticism puts most of Islam in the fundamentalist realm for me.

I think the destructive results of holding on to that kind of religious fundamentalism on a wide scale are pretty clear in the Islamic world.

I'm not sure how much things are going to change until that Islamic reformation happens and reason plays a greater role in that wide religious movement. If it doesn't happen it's hard to see much but conflict in the future.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Samer Farhat said...

Tom, you make some excellent points. I have to think about those. I may even come to agree with you!

5:06 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

Don't forget the secular fundamentalists. After spending quite a bit of time with them, I've come to think of fundamentalism as more than religious. Richard Dawkins, for example. I know of plenty of very educated people who believe quite firmly in the Enlightenment and all. But one can cling to Enlightenment thinking like a religious fundamentalist clings to a literal reading of the Bible. I think of it more as the way people cling to some ideas and block out others. Something about losing the ability to question oneself (which both the Enlightenment and religion supposedly promote) and being unable to deal with complexity.

Here's my stab at a definition:

a fundamentalist is someone who believes that life is all about a pretty short list of beliefs and rules for behavior, divides the world starkly into two camps: those who follow the list and those who don't, and rejects automatically any alternative points of view.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great definition Ruth. I agree. I'm dealing with the religious version here in this series but there are a whole lot of fundamentalisms out there. I'd love too somebody write a book on the psychological and spiritual roots of fundamentalisms. Certainly self-justification and fear are key--and universal human--elements but I would guess you'd see a lot of the same stuff underneath every form of fundy-ism. I mean, who among us doesn't walk a fine line trying to keep from falling into inflexible fundamentalist thinking? Does anybody know of a work like that?

12:43 PM  

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