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What is fundamentalism?
How does it differ from theism?
Can atheists or scientists behave
There have recently been a number of bestselling books championing atheism and advocating the abolition of religion. One such book is god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, one of the New Atheists.
Upon reading the book, though, it becomes clear to the reader — if not to the author — that what Hitchens is attacking is neither religion nor god. It’s religious fundamentalism. That is, the belief that the totality of the scriptures of one’s religion is God-given, absolute truth, and not subject to change over time in terms of accuracy, interpretation and authority. (There are lots of types of fundamentalism, but when I use it without qualification I am referring to religious fundamentalism.)
In the fundamentalist worldview, when science says anything contrary to the scriptures, it is wrong, either erroneous or hoax. Also it is obvious that those not of that religion are wrong, and that all co-religionists who do not behave according to the one and only acceptable way to understand the text are, to one degree or another, blasphemous if not heretical.
And then the Lord spake unto them saying, and I quote…
Most fundamentalists that I have met are good people, although fundamentalism itself is possibly the greatest evil available to humankind. At its best, it stultifies the ability to be rational when considering not only religious, but worldly, issues. At its worst it leads to widespread and agonizing terror and death.
It also serves as a cloak for evil people, providing them with an excuse for what they do. One type of fundamentalism is “violent fundamentalism.” Islamist terrorists and suicide bombers are one extreme example. Fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims are making it near impossible to achieve peace in the Holy Land. Fundamentalist Christianity has provided us with the Crusades, witch-hunts and the Inquisition. I am not sure that it’s always the scriptures that lead a person to be a violent fundamentalist. I strongly suspect that violent people sometimes look for and find fundamentalist interpretation of scriptures as a vehicle for justifying and leveraging their own violent nature.
Is fundamentalism always violent? It’s almost always harmful to society, but there is also less extreme behaviour inspired by fundamentalism that falls far short of terrorism.
Many anti-abortionists and anti-gays, for instance, armed with their selective interpretation of their scriptures, attempt to change the law and/or embarrass those who don’t agree with their “God-given” moral standards. They are certain that their approach to these issues is the only correct one, no matter what other people believe. These are “fundamentalist activists.” There are also “passive fundamentalists.” They feel that their fundamentalist values are correct in the face of a society gone wrong, but they apply those values only to their own behaviour and within their families.
It should be noted that both violent and activist fundamentalists sometimes work very hard to try to get governments to adopt their policies or, at the most extreme, to take over the government and declare a state religion.
Can atheists be fundamentalists? Atheists can certainly appear to be like fundamentalists when they accept and promote atheistic claims without investigating them, and ignore or dismiss out of hand any input that does not conform completely to those claims. What about scientists? Though you’re not likely to hear about a scientist who is a violent fundamentalist, there are certainly scientists who, on a knee-jerk basis, reject any ideas contrary to the current “mainstream” of scientific wisdom. As well, it’s fair to say that materialism, reductionism, randomness, determinism and several other approaches to science are all doctrinaire.
Materialism in science is the belief that reality consists only of matter and energy, which can be measured in the lab or observed by telescope. Reductionism believes that complex things can be explained by examining the constituent pieces. Randomness is the conviction that all natural processes follow the laws of chance within the bounds of a certain range of behaviours. Determinism is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. This implies that individuals, having no free will, cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. I personally consider such rigid beliefs to be fundamentalism, and determinism the worst of them all.
A world without any sort of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, would doubtless be a very different, and better, world. Understanding what fundamentalism is — and is not — is certainly the first step toward lessening its impact.