On Fundamentalism

                                                                                                                                                                                    January 2011

I was inspired to write this essay by a platform at the Washington Ethical Society given by our wonderful Senior Leader, Amanda Poppei, titled, “The Fundamentals of Division,” about “fundamentalism in its many forms and the division that it creates.”  “Fundamentalist” is generally a pejorative term.  You don’t hear people saying in a complimentary tone, “Yes, he’s a fundamentalist. Isn’t it admirable?”  You might hear fundamentalists speak highly of the firmness and steadfastness of their beliefs.  But such admiration generally comes from within the fundamentalist fold, not from outside it.

We often admire people who have strong beliefs and stand by them, people who have the courage of their convictions – but not if those convictions are fundamentalist in nature.  So what, then, is fundamentalism?  And how is it distinguished from just having strong convictions?

Well, I did what any self-respecting essayist would do at this point –I went directly to Wikipedia and read what it had to say about “fundamentalism.” From Wikipedia (on or about January 21, 2011): “Fundamentalism is strict adherence to [a] specific set of theological doctrines typically in reaction against the theology of Modernism. … The term has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs in the face of criticism or unpopularity …, but has by and large retained religious connotations. Historically, for some constituencies fundamentalism connotes an attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs.”  Other definitions stress the strict and literal interpretation of a religious text – the Bible, for fundamentalist Christians, for example, and the Koran for fundamentalist Muslims.

Wikipedia points out, however, that even some nontheists have been called fundamentalists – which is odd, since they don’t adhere to any theological doctrine, let alone one with a strict and literal interpretation of a holy book.  But it is, perhaps, the strength of their nontheistic beliefs that draws the label “fundamentalist” from some quarters, the feeling that they are certain they’re right, just like the religious fundamentalists who are certain they’re right about what God thinks (because it is, after all, written right there in their holy book for all to read).

Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists” have been called “fundamentalists” by opponents who argue that they are as certain of their belief that there is no god as fundamentalists are about their belief that there is a god.  But Dawkins and the other “new atheists” aren’t really saying they’re certain there is no god; they’re saying that there’s no evidence for a god, and in the absence of evidence it doesn’t make sense to believe that something exists.   If evidence were to present itself, these so-called “fundamentalist atheists” would reconsider – just as a scientist would reconsider a long-held theory if evidence to the contrary became available.  As Dawkins put it, the atheists’ position is not a fundamentalism that is unable to change its mind, but is held based on the verifiable evidence.  I suppose one could say that the  atheist’s – or the scientist’s – certainty that belief should be based on evidence is itself a fundamentalism, in the sense of a certainty about something, but that, I think, extends the definition of “fundamentalist” too far.  If not, then I guess I’m a fundamentalist too.

The inability or unwillingness to change one’s mind regardless of the evidence (or lack thereof) is, I believe, at the heart of fundamentalism.   One problem with religious fundamentalism is that the beliefs that religious fundamentalists hold with such certainty are unverifiable.   There can be no evidence to confirm or refute them.  There can be no evidence, for example, that God believes homosexuality is sinful; Christian fundamentalists point to the Bible as evidence, but, then, there’s no evidence that the Bible is the literal word of God, nor that there is a God.  So people who are sure that homosexuality is a sin against God cannot be dissuaded by evidence about God’s attitudes (nor do they seem to require evidence).  And yet this belief, like other religious fundamentalist beliefs, has caused untold misery in the world and, in some quarters, even death.  That’s the other problem with religious fundamentalism – the beliefs that religious fundamentalists hold with such certainty are often harmful.

If it weren’t for the harm caused in the name of some fundamentalist beliefs, we might just say, oh well, whatever; some people believe crazy things.  But the harm caused in the name of these beliefs is just too great to shrug off; and with modern technology, the potential to cause harm on a massive scale is sobering indeed.

So, what to do?  Let’s first ask if we’re absolutely sure that fundamentalists simply cannot be dissuaded from their beliefs.  Well, actually, no.  There is evidence that at least some people who had fundamentalist beliefs eventually let go of them.  There have been fundamentalist Christians who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible who gradually came to doubt; there are some who went so far as to doubt the existence of God.  There have been fundamentalist Muslims in whom doubt similarly grew.  So the evidence suggests that fundamentalist beliefs aren’t necessarily cast in stone for all time in those who hold them.  So even if it may at first appear to be a lost cause, we shouldn’t write off having a dialogue with fundamentalists.

Which brings me back to Amanda’s platform.  Being a good Ethical Culturist, Amanda finds the answer in talking, “in conversation that tries to see similarities, even among those who seem at first to be so different that the divide gapes wide between us.”  That sounds good to me, and I actually believe it can sometimes help – conversations that look for commonalities rather than conflicts can show people who see us as “the other” that we’re really not so “other” as they might have thought – and show us that they’re really not so “other” – that beneath any theological or ideological differences, we are, in the end, all human beings, and that implies a wealth of commonality.

But while there are commonalities, there are also differences.  If we focus on the commonalities in our dialogues with fundamentalists, we may (hopefully) come to realize that we’re not two different species of being, and they will (hopefully) come to realize that too.  But what about the differences?  Just coming to acknowledge the commonalities won’t necessarily, or even probably, make the differences disappear.  And when the fundamentalist beliefs with which we disagree are harmful, these differences matter.

Amanda labeled Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” a fundamentalist, presumably because he seems so sure he’s right and because “his atheism … extends beyond personal belief into a desire to change the beliefs of others…one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism.”  Harris’s writing of “The End of Faith” was motivated by 9/11; he wrote it because 9/11 was such a spectacular example of what can happen if fundamentalists act on their unverifiable beliefs.  If a desire to change the beliefs of others is a hallmark of fundamentalism, then perhaps I’m a fundamentalist – because I desire to change people’s beliefs about a variety of things.  I desire to change people’s beliefs about homosexuality being sinful or sick; I desire to change people’s beliefs about women being inferior to men; I desire to change people’s beliefs about this being a Christian nation.  You get the point.  Not all people hold these beliefs, of course.  But I desire to change these beliefs in those people who do hold them.  I desire to change these beliefs because I can see the tremendous harm these beliefs have caused – and because there is no evidence to support these harmful beliefs.

Sam Harris perhaps rubs some people the wrong way because he’s critical of religion – not only the fundamentalists, but the moderates who give the fundamentalists a pass, until something catastrophic happens.  Which brings me to the question of criticism: Is there a role for criticism in the discussion of religion?  Should we avoid criticizing religious beliefs because so many people hold them so dearly?  One of the reasons I so liked “The End of Faith” is that Harris was saying things I’d so often thought but was afraid to say outright, because criticizing religion has been so taboo.

But as Harris and others point out, belief isn’t solely a private matter; it has very clear public consequences – not just in horrific events such as 9/11, but in the more mundane arena of our public political discourse.  Harris documented some examples of this.   We don’t want to criticize others’ religious beliefs, but those beliefs are affecting us in so many ways, even though we don’t hold them ourselves.

I guess I’d say that, while dialogue is a good and necessary start, it alone is unlikely to succeed at effecting the kinds of change that would really make a difference.  We should talk to – and listen to – religious fundamentalists, by all means.  But we should also do more.  I don’t believe in shouting – literally or metaphorically.  Not only is it unseemly, but I think it’s counterproductive.  I do believe in taking a stand, however, when we believe it’s necessary – the way Amanda took a stand against the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptists who picket funerals.  If it’s done in the right way – in a way that reflects our underlying Ethical Culture attitudes – it will, I believe, eventually succeed.

Recent history in this country reflects just how successful a combination of dialogue and taking a stand can be.  I am heartened by the incredible progress I’ve seen in my own lifetime towards more liberal, inclusive attitudes towards subgroups in the population that were previously oppressed and excluded – African Americans, women, gays.  One of the few advantages of being older is that I can remember how things were decades ago.  I remember, and I’m astounded and proud of how far we’ve come.  A debate about gay marriage was simply unthinkable back in the sixties when the feminist and gay movements began breaking barriers on college campuses like the University of Michigan, where I talked to other young women in “consciousness raising” groups and where I first got to know gays and lesbians as real people.  An African American president was, of course, also unthinkable back then.

Fundamentalist religious beliefs, formulated centuries ago and immutable, since they are thought to be handed down by a supreme being, stand apart from the centuries of human progress in reexamining who we are and what we’re really about, progress that has liberated millions of people.  Simply put, life is so much better for so many people because we’ve applied our rational abilities to assess and reassess – and because we took stands to say that, in light of our reassessments, things should change.

What Sam Harris criticizes, I believe, is the mentality that says that, when it comes to religious beliefs, we should tread lightly, even when those beliefs are the cause of untold harm.  It’s a mentality that says that it’s okay not to question, and it’s not okay to question, when it comes to religious beliefs – even when those beliefs are clearly harming others.  It’s not just that these beliefs (e.g., attitudes about homosexuality, about women, about doubt) strike others as strange and outmoded. It’s that these beliefs are causing harm – and not just minimal harm, but major harm.  These beliefs don’t just stay in the minds of those who hold them; they affect other people – they humiliate others; they radically limit others; they kill others.  They tell others to close their minds to doubt.

So, yes, I think we should open a dialogue – and, in the best of all possible worlds, that might be enough.  But since this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, it probably won’t be enough, and we should do more – in a thoughtful, mindful, non-shouting way, we should confront the harmful beliefs and, perhaps most important, the attitude that has allowed such beliefs to continue and flourish for so long.

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4 comments on “On Fundamentalism

  1. chicagoja says:

    Nice post. Working to find things that people have in common is always better than the opposite. However, people at both ends of the spectrum unfortunately tend to define their life by their beliefs. Religious fundamentalists believe that they, and only they, can know God (who, even if it exists,is by definition unknowable). As for atheists, you’re right when you say that they base their belief on verifiable evidence and that they won’t believe in anything that is not provable. That’s fair enough. However, some atheists then say that God doesn’t exist because God is not provable. That’s a fundamentalist also in my opinion. Ultimately there can be no rapport between the two groups unless people adopt the attitude of live and let live. So, in your opinion, why don’t they?

    • ellen post says:

      chicagoja, an attitude of “live and let live” is fine as long as what one is “letting live” isn’t something that is in some way harmful to people. In this essay I argue that adopting a “live and let live” attitude toward religious fundamentalism isn’t such a great idea as long as religious fundamentalists’ ideas are actually harming others. For example, I’m not in favor of “letting live” ideas that brand gays as sick and/or sinful or ideas that condone killing people who your religion brands as “infidels.” So I’m saying that, in my opinion, we shouldn’t adopt a “live and let live” attitude about some things fundamentalists believe.

      As for atheists, there are undoubtedly many varieties of what atheists say about God. My preferred approach — and I think the preferred approach of most atheists I know — is to say that there is no evidence to support the notion of a god, so no reason to suppose there is one. There is no way to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist, so I wouldn’t agree with someone who says he’s got proof that God doesn’t exist.

  2. Doug Molitor says:

    Well said. I’d only add that the House Science Committee contains fundamentalists whose views, if they prevail, will delay action on catastrophic climate change, spelling the death of hundreds of millions without regard to race, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

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