Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fundamentalism – a cause for concern

My tolerance for religious fundamentalism of any variety – Christian, Muslim, or otherwise – is rapidly vanishing. Fundamentalism results from ignorance, too many of whom prefer ignorance to knowledge. Fundamentalism inherently promotes extreme views and narrow interpretations; it unavoidably leads to social backwardness and terrorism.

Religious fundamentalism of any persuasion requires a person to ignore both the plurality of religions and non-religious sources of knowledge. A person may have little knowledge of other religions. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century only members of the most isolated and primitive tribes can truthfully claim not to know that the world has several widely held religions. Ideas such as God created those other religions to confuse people or that God condemns all persons who are not adherents of my religion reflect an arrogance that human finitude cannot justify.

Furthermore, all major religions have scriptures. Science, literary criticism, and historical studies challenge a literal reading of those scriptures, e.g., questioning reports of miracles, inaccurate accounts of alleged historical events, etc.

Fundamentalist claims that rigorous intellectual effort undergirds their positions are deceptive if not dishonest. The theology of many fundamentalist groups is admittedly elaborate, reflecting the expenditure of great mental effort to integrate disparate materials, to paint a comprehensive worldview, and to draw logical and exhaustive connections between all points of doctrine and the full gamut of their scriptures.

The quality of intellectual effort is more important than quantity. A fundamentalist theology, examined as a whole and in isolation, may appear cogent. Examining that same theology using the lenses of multiple disciplines, exposing purported facts to historical, literary, and scientific examination will reveal fundamentalism for the fraud that it is.

Illustratively, a literal reading of the Christian Bible requires compromising one's intellectual integrity to bend, spindle, or mutilate the text in order to harmonize hundreds of contradictions and discrepancies. In the Christian tradition, scripture contains multiple accounts of creation based upon different scientific theories, numerous reports of miraculous events including the bodily assumption of living beings into heaven and the resuscitation of the dead, and conflicting accounts of events in Jesus' life.

Thus, why do so many people subscribe to Christian fundamentalism? Part of the answer is that many people do not expend much intellectual effort examining their nominal religious beliefs. Demographers have long reported that most people do not choose a religion but simply follow the religion of their parents. Another part of the answer is that many people compartmentalize their religion from other aspects of life, thereby minimizing the cognitive dissonance that a fuller integration would generate. These explanations of why people subscribe to Christian fundamentalism also apply to fundamentalists of other faiths.

There are yet two more explanations of why people adopt fundamentalism. First, in a world of incessant change occurring at an accelerating pace, some persons seek the stabilizing comfort that they hope an unchanging worldview and set of beliefs will provide. To guarantee that one's religion will not change, a person must adopt a fundamentalist, literal interpretation of its scriptures and then unquestioningly and adamantly reject all alternative views. This insistence on a myopic, unexamined interpretation largely explains why fundamentalists who share a religious tradition argue as stridently and vociferously among themselves as with non-believers. For example, various contemporary Salafist groups insist that competing Salafist groups are in error and therefore apostate. Christian fundamentalists exhibit a similar narrow-minded exclusivity.

Second, some people turn to fundamentalism as a source of political power. For example, in a nominally Islamic state, the government finds it difficult to squelch protests couched in Islamic rhetoric. Analogously, Christian anti-abortionists have found the language of Christian fundamentalism powerful because of respect for religious freedom, e.g., misinterpreting the words of Jeremiah – "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" – to mean that personhood begins at conception. My next Ethical Musings post delineates three evils that religious fundamentalism unavoidably spawns in this pursuit of power.


Travis Cork said...

If I correctly am reading you, you basically are saying that there are no absolutes, that ethics evolve to suit the passions and appetites of the people. It, therefore, is curious that you are offended by what you see as the power demands of fundamentalists. In a world of relativism, what is ethical ultimately is always decided by power; jefferts-schori being a good example.

George Clifford said...

I am not arguing for relativism. I am arguing for an ethic shaped by multiple sources. All major religions and most important philosophical schools emphasize respect for the dignity and worth of all humans, for example. The Golden Rule – to love one's neighbor as one's self – is basic to ethics. Fundamentalists believe that they, and they alone, have the authoritative source for truth; they reject testing their beliefs against what others believe as well as against what humans learn from non-religious sources such as science. Your comment about the Most Rev. Jefferts-Schorri baffles me. She functions according to the canons of The Episcopal Church, effectively and ethically leading by respecting people, their dignity, and their rights.

Anonymous said...

Very well written. Thank you.

George Clifford said...

A reader emailed this comment to me:

I do like your personal approach to these issues instead of an intellectual compromise of the situation by authors who may never experience these situations or reflect on the outcome of narrow visions. You are making life real instead of theoretical. My experience with the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church or the divisions of the Baptist community reflect our fundamentalism and inability to disagree. You might be leaning towards an agnostic attitude as your eyes are open now to the real world in religion.
I'm still surprised at the majority of Americans think we need boots on the ground in the ISIS situation as if we can change anything. Until there is a definite draft of all our kids, then we are just hypocrites looking to feel better.

George Clifford said...

Thanks for the feedback. I've worked for both Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran chaplains, and had both work for me. Their conflicting attitudes were alternately frustrating and amusing. Much of the popular support in the US for boots on the ground against ISIS reflects the disengagement and distance between most Americans and their military. It's much easier to advocate sending someone into harm's way when you are don't know those people and are confident that your loved ones will not be among them.