Friday, September 22, 2006

Fundy Fundamentals

In my last post I mentioned some blistering attacks on the idea of compatibility between science and religion. Wanted to mention one as an example of a trend I’m seeing.

I read Sam Harris’ best selling The End of Faith about 6 months ago and I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Letter to a Christian Nation which just came out this past Tuesday.

The End of Faith is a brilliant challenge to traditional religion. Don’t read it unless you’re willing to get your socks knocked off. Newsweek called it ‘bone rattling.’ Yeah, that would about cover it :^)

No way to do justice here to his wide ranging and subtle argument.

In short, he argues that authentic religion is fundamentalism and that moderate religious people are inauthentic cherry pickers who have compromised the real versions of Christianity, Islam, etc. in order to make them more compatible with reason and current western culture. He views a lot of biblical interpretation as a process of editing out the 'barbaric and irrational' parts of Christianity to focus on aspects that make more sense in a modern, reason driven society.

So he views moderate religion as incoherent and inauthentic and moderate religious people as folks who want to have it both ways. They want to enjoy the fruits of a reason and science driven culture but also enjoy a toned down and neutered version of traditional religious faith. The problem, he believes, is that moderate religion tends to cover up the basically intolerant and ‘barbaric’ blood and fire aspects of religion that are lurking just below the surface.

So he wants moderate religious people to abandon their pretense and leave the playing field to the authentic religious people—the fundamentalists. He believes fundamentalism (read ‘religion’) is a grave danger and that only by seeing it clearly for what it is will a powerful new movement develop to straightforwardly challenge it and eventually reduce its influence.

He has no patience, for example, for folks that talk about the true Islam which is tolerant and peaceful. He believes Islam is fundamentally intolerant, hostile to modern reason, and biased towards violence and goes to great lengths to demonstrate his take (pretty convincingly) from the Koran and Islamic history. In place of the barbarisms of traditional religion, he calls for a scientifically based religion rooted in a sophisticated understanding of the human brain and verifiable religious experience.

I view myself as a religious moderate and I hope I’m not inauthentic and incoherent :^), so obviously I’m not buying parts of his argument. But he makes you think about things religious types normally leave hidden away in the attic. Sort of kicks the dust off!

In any case, all of this is a long way from the consensus of a few decades ago. Harris is just one example, but I believe he represents a general trend and movement that I think is going to do nothing but pick up more steam. With the rise of fundamentalist influence around the world, and with science more and more able to delve into religious experience on the level of brain cells and bio-chemistry, it’s probably inevitable. Still, I’m kind of sorry to see it. The compatibility consensus was good for both science and religion.

OK, a couple of concluding comments by way of clarification:

*** I view most of Islam as a form of fundamentalism. People right now often speak about ‘Muslim moderates,’ but I think what they normally mean are nominal Muslims (secular folks living in the midst of Islamic cultures) or practicing Muslims who don’t agree with the terrorist violence or the extreme social thinking of groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Simply rejecting the use of terrorist violence or a Taliban style regime doesn’t make most practicing Muslims ‘religious moderates’ in my mind. If you go back to the definition of fundamentalism I gave in Wednesdays’ post, much of current Islam certainly fits the bill. Islam simply hasn’t gone through the kind of Reformation that western Christianity did and it hasn’t dealt with the implications of the Enlightenment the way the western church was forced to do. The vast majority of serious Muslims I’ve met around the world are strict creationists, and even more significant, the Koran is still overwhelmingly interpreted in a literalist fashion without the application of serious literary/historical/critical tools based on reasoned analysis that are commonplace in western Christianity and at places like Fuller Seminary. In short, I don’t believe Islam in general has the capacity for serious self-criticism based on reason the way current moderate western Christianity does. Christianity primarily received those gifts from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Until something similar happens within Islam you’re dealing with a variety of fundamentalism in my mind.

*** What differentiates American evangelicalism from American fundamentalism? Well, there are differences in cultural expression and tone for sure and other less critical differences too. But the heart of the difference is the degree to which evangelicals have embraced science, reason and human rights and incorporated them into their biblical interpretation, views of culture, and religious practice. Evangelicals have simply bought into that agenda far more than fundamentalists. And it shows in everything from views on evolution to views on equal rights to the much higher level of comfort evangelicals tend to have with the surrounding culture. Some evangelicals think evangelicalism has become ‘too comfortable’ with the surrounding culture, but the trend is clear. Fuller Seminary and other institutions like it have been ‘waging’ a non-violent and loving campaign to reduce the influence of fundamentalism for decades. Good for them! Given what’s been going on more recently in America, we obviously need a whole lot more people to join that fight.


Blogger ruth said...

good things to think about.

oh, like a scientifically based religion wouldn't have barbarism lurking beneath the surface. please, let's be honest with ourselves.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yeah, that's the problem with the science guys. They can be naive like the rest of us.

But I do think they're on to something important.

Though they don't believe in original sin they do believe in original irrationality and stupidity.

Folks in science and politics who got the message about human weakness developed some impressive approaches to reduce the impact. The scientific method and checks-and-balances democracy seem like the best fruit of that take.

I'm not sure the more powerful spiritual approaches to blunting the effects of weakness and sin are functioning right now, so I'll take well intentioned efforts where I can find them.

8:52 PM  

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