The root problem with fundamentalism is ridiculously simple, and it’s not what most people think.
We might call fundamentalism inane or insane if it weren’t so often deadly serious. Dismissing and ridiculing it won’t help us understand it. As clearly loathsome as the behavior of some fundamentalists might be, it often baffles intelligent, reasonable people. We suspect that the root causes for the fanatical acts of “fundamentalists” lie in their “fundamentalism,” but what precisely is that? Well, the good news is we don’t need PhDs to understand it.
There is a good side to fundamentalism, because it’s good to be clear about our basic beliefs. The bad side of fundamentalism? Fundamentalists close their basic beliefs–their fundamentals–to question or scrutiny. That’s all that “fundamentalism” is: a set of unquestionable basic beliefs.
That’s it. That’s the whole problem and nothing but the problem. Hope you’re not disappointed. Check out the hows and whys below. I doubt you’ll feel disappointed once you’re done.
The act of closing our basic beliefs to question, scrutiny, challenge, testing, and whatever else we can throw at them, is patently illogical and without evidential support. In other words, fundamentalists get no help from God, reason, or the universe for this arbitrary closure, which is why fundamentalists have only one resort when their basic beliefs get challenged: dismiss, invalidate, or vilify the “aggressors” and shut them down by any means necessary.
Contrary to popular opinion, the problem with fundamentalists is not that they have fundamental beliefs, nor even that they are enthusiastic about them. Enthusiasm in itself is not a bad thing. We rarely think it’s a problem unless someone gets enthusiastic about ideas that contradict our basic beliefs, and that’s a bit too close to fundamentalism for comfort. The problem with fundamentalists has nothing to do with what they have or what they are or what they believe. Those are all positive things. We need basic beliefs just to think at all about anything. We need to believe our basic beliefs in order to commit and act on them, even really good ones.
The problem with fundamentalists has nothing to do with belief or “faith.” Where fundamentalists go wrong is their refusal to think further or more deeply about their basic beliefs. This is denial, not faith. Fundamentalists don’t declare their basic beliefs “the Truth” because they believe them so deeply, but because they are so deeply and secretly afraid that their beliefs might be wrong. That’s the truth about fundamentalists. Don’t let them fool you.
I know, because I used to be one, a thoroughgoing one. Fundamentalists aren’t sure and proud and powerful. They’re scared. They can’t let anyone poke holes in the precious beliefs they designate as “sacred.” The fact that they react so strongly or even violently when someone “offends” their beliefs shows that their beliefs are vulnerable, not powerful, something that fundamentalist refuse to fess up to. If they’d just admit it, maybe we could help them. They don’t believe that their fundamentals are the truth, but that they must be the truth at all costs, whether they incur the cost or others do; and they make damned sure it gets paid. Demonizing those who challenge them or decry their “truths” is what people do when they are primally terrified and try to cover it up with bullshit.
The problem with fundamentalism is that it’s a fundamental state of denial. That’s also its Achille’s heel.
My testimony, at 58 years old (my birthday today!) is this: I HAVE NEVER MET ANYONE WHO IS NOT A FUNDAMENTALIST. I say that because I have never met anyone who holds ALL beliefs, even basic beliefs, as truly provisional. Others, maybe; but not our own. Boil it all down, and provisionality lies the heart of humility. All our other ideas about humility start there, if they involve authentic humility at all. At least, I haven’t been able to dig down further for anything more fundamental. Yet.
I am no longer a fundamentalist. I swore off years ago, and I’m still trying to keep clean. Take, for example, the previous paragraph. I originally wrote, “that is the incontrovertible, rock-bottom definition of humility.” That’s how strongly I feel about it. Then I wondered how to make that claim provisional. I couldn’t, so I deleted the “incontrovertible, rock-bottom” part and changed it to “provisionality lies the heart of humility.” You might not agree with the claim, but at least I kicked another fundamentalist monkey off my back! 😉
I have never met, heard, or read anyone else who has thoroughly rejected fundamentalism or has described what rejecting it is like, much less what an alternative would be. Ever notice that the same people who most vocally decry fundamentalism also openly admit that it makes no sense to them? Well, hopefully this little light will help change that. I don’t sound very provisional, do I? Well, I thought really hard, and I couldn’t think of a single person who rejects fundamentalism the way I’m describing it. If that offends anyone at first blush, you might see my point in a few more paragraphs. And I always maintain a standing, ultimate sense of the provisionalness of everything I say, have said, or ever will say: I could be wrong. And if I’m wrong, don’t just tell me that I’m wrong–help me see it. I’d do the same for you, a courtesy that critics are notoriously short on. Helping others see their faults, instead of just claiming that we can see them, puts “constructive” into “criticism.”
Practically everyone I know makes exceptions for fundamentalism and dishonesty. To them, certain basic beliefs are unquestionable, even if it’s that no beliefs are unquestionable or that their honesty should be seen as unquestionable while they reserve the right to lie in a pinch. I wonder if those are two sides of the same fundamentalist coin? Instead of accepting the provisionalness of ALL our beliefs, people who reject fundamentalism tend to believe more “reasonable” things that are nothing else than fundamentalism hiding under non-fundamentalist sheep’s clothing.
For example, die-hard science advocates are devoted to certain basic beliefs, such as that the only aspect of reality we can be sure about is “physical reality,” or that the only reliable way to knowledge is the scientific method. Evolutionism is the new fundamentalism, and natural selection is their basic belief. Pay attention in the media, and you’ll hear evolutionists use “thanks to the wonders of evolution” in the same ways that creationists use “thanks to the wonders of creation,” and “natural selection” like creationists use “miraculous power.” And just watch how evolutionists react if you call fundamental tenets like natural selection into question. First they think you’re uneducated for questioning, then dense for not comprehending their clarifications, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten with any of them, because after that they terminate the conversation. Apparently, going further isn’t worth their while.
I should be a little kinder to scientists. Serious scientists well know the limitations of both the scientific method and the process of science as practiced in Western societies. By and large, they are honest enough to keep themselves clear of scientific fundamentalism, at least publicly. Biologists like Richard Dawkins are either less bright or less humble. My comments apply to those who tout science and technology as the remedies for all mans’ ills and evolutionists who love to cite oodles of evidence when they have none for the most important parts of their theory, e.g., strong speciation. Try to open their minds and question their basic beliefs and they act like the suggestion, or even the suggester, is ridiculous, not unlike die-hard Bible-thumpers when someone seriously wonders if there is a God, less the condescending pity in the eyes. Such basic beliefs are not seriously questionable. They are, in effect, untouchable. Such people are fundamentalists, whether scientists or evolutionists or Christian fanatics or Islamic fanatics. They chose different basic beliefs to place in sacrosanct status, but they all elevate their basic beliefs to God-given incontrovertibilty. And we all know how testy the Laws of Nature and God can get when we disrespect their views. (sic)
Some anti-fundamentalists go so far as to reject the validity of belief itself; for example, confirmed skeptics, existentialists, and nihilists. Cynics are committed to the ridiculousness of trust. These reject belief and faith and trust on the basis of convictions so self-evident (or painful) that questioning them is out of the question; for example, the belief (alas, that’s all it is) that belief and faith and trust are irrational, or at least laughable. They, too, are fundamentalists.
Chris Hedges, in I Don’t Believe in Atheists, did a great job showing that atheists like Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) are just as fundamentalist as the religious fanatics they decry and even call for violence against. Not everyone is a Hitchens or a Harris or an abortion clinic bomber or a suicide bomber. Those are the extremes of the fundamentalist spectrum, both ends reserving themselves the time-honored last resort of every fundamentalist: just kill the SOBs.
Like many phenomena, the bell curve applies to the fundamentalist spectrum, distributing the vast majority of us into “lukewarm” territory short of either extreme, where we publicly keep our basic beliefs in the twilight zone, so you’re never really sure about us. Privately, though, even the most publicly tepid put quite a steam on when someone challenges our fundamental values or beliefs; the more credible the challenge, the more explosive our indignant reactions. Most of us amount to closet fundamentalists. That’s why religion and politics aren’t good “polite company” conversation material. Those topics tend to “out” our true feelings, sometimes rendering us quite impolite.
As long as we close anything to question, we are fundamentalists about that thing.
The “proof” of my claims comes in the form of a challenge: describe (not just claim) a workable alternative to fundamentalism as I defined it. There is at least one, because I’m living it and I can describe it; and I will, just not here. It cost me a lot to figure it out. I’m not giving it up that easily! 😛
Fundamentalists talk the talk of truth, right, and correctness. They claim that their basic beliefs are superior, true, and accurate. This implies two things.
First, it implies that we can ascertain the superiority, truth, or accuracy of basic beliefs, which is absurd. Basic beliefs are beliefs for which we have no underlying basis for believing them, neither reasons nor evidence. If we find reasons or evidence for a belief, it is not a basic belief, because we need to make assumptions in order to formulate reasons and interpret evidence. Our formulations and interpretations depend on those assumptions, making those assumptions more basic than the beliefs supported by them. If we dig below those more basic assumptions and find reasons or evidence to support them, we have to make yet other assumptions which in turn are more basic still. That’s just the way reason works.
You don’t get to basic beliefs until you run out of reasons and evidence. From a reasonable, intelligent point of view, of all the assumptions we make, basic beliefs are the one kind least qualified for untouchable status, because they are the one kind least supported by anything reasonable. They should be most suspect. Fundamentalists get it upside-down and backwards.
At some point, in order to start making claims, committing to them, and acting on them, we need to stop digging and accept certain beliefs as fundamental without reason or evidence. This is not irrationality; on the contrary, it’s the basis for all rationality. Descartes stopped with, “I think, therefore I am,” his ultimate basic belief. My ultimate basic belief is, “Something is.” We all stop somewhere. Descartes and I don’t agree on ultimate basic beliefs, but that’s OK, because they are just provisional. I like mine better. It does everything that his did and a bit more, because it’s more basic.
A basic belief is what we’re left with when we stop digging. I can only think of one good reason to stop digging: at some point, I cannot dig further. This, I believe, is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the houses built on sand and rock, respectively.
How do we know when we reached “rock” and found basic beliefs? We try to dig deeper, but we can’t. Does that guarantee that we dug deep enough? In other words, how can we be sure that our basic beliefs are reliable? Well, the answer depends on how strong a storm you want your house to withstand. In the Pacific Northwest, we have what we call hardpan. It’s a very hard, clay-sand mixture. It’s enough to build on, unless it turns out to be thin and covers an aquifer, in which case your house could become a houseboat should you get tremors strong enough to pulverize and liquefy the hardpan out from under it. If you lived in tornado or hurricane country, you’d probably want to dig at least deep enough to make a place to hide. If you lived in Norway, you’d have the reverse problem: there’s too much rock. They have to drill down and dynamite their basements out of the bedrock lying just below grade, if below at all.
One thing is certain: if your house falls, you didn’t dig deep enough. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world. I know this because I’ve done it a few times, now, figuratively speaking. Many people rebuild houses, lives, careers, and other important “buildings” that storms of life sometimes wash away. In other words, the only way we can judge reliability is by trial and error, whether ours or someone else’s. (By the way, judging reliability by someone else’s trial and error is what science is all about.)
But something else is also certain. Simply deciding to stop digging in no way implies that you dug deep enough. You, in fact, might have been able to dig a little deeper, if you’d tried a little harder or used better equipment. Maybe you used the best equipment possible, sincerely gave it your all, and this is honestly as deep as you can go at this point. Either you build here or build nothing, for now anyway. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to dig deeper in the future. Better equipment will certainly become available. You will have learned techniques by then that you don’t know now. And if you’ve kept yourself fit, you’ll be stronger, too.
Yesterday’s basic beliefs can be and should be revised; that is, as soon as we have learned and progressed sufficiently. That requires something that scares us, it seems: deconstruction. To build on a deeper footing, we need to disassemble the current structure, move it, or simply build a new one from scratch. Maybe losing their investment in “time-tested” edifices triggers the fear behind fundamentalist denial: a decision to make themselves stuck by refusing ever again to take up pick or shovel and try for deeper.
In other words, we can always examine our basic beliefs and try to find good reasons and evidence for them. We might find none and stay put. We might find some and decide we don’t like them, and stay put. Or we might grow and deepen our understanding of life, changing our basic beliefs or replacing them with beliefs that are even more basic. At this point, I can’t think of anything more basic than “something is.” Tomorrow, that might change. This kind of development–increasing the depth and not just the breadth of understanding–is something that fundamentalists try to avoid at all costs. (Which reminds me of conservatives. I guess they didn’t occur to me before, maybe because their fundamentalism is so glaring that I subconsciously assumed it would be obvious to everyone.)
Fundamentalists not only stop digging, they claim that further digging is unnecessary or even impossible. They consider attempts to dig deeper ridiculous. At their worst, they consider attempts to dig deeper as destructive acts intended to undermine the very foundations of their houses, like Putin commenting on the Pussy Riot sentences:
Wow! I didn’t realize that young girls singing could pose such a potent threat to the moral fabric and stability of the Russian nation. To fundamentalists (and psychopaths) protest constitutes an act of aggression, if not war. This is why you can draw a line from polite fundamentalists who smile condescendingly at those who ignorantly question their basic beliefs directly through the entire spectrum to abortion clinic bombers, “leaders” who send suicide bombers to their deaths, and some former KGB officials. They all share the same key characteristic: they refuse to dig deeper and deny anyone else’s right to try.
In other words, fundamentalists decided that digging deeper is invalid. A great way to notice when we consider something invalid is to watch our ridiculousness reflex. Short of our instinctive reaction to ridicule, (whether expressed or not,) we usually have some thinking behind it when we regard an idea as “invalid.” Past the point of ridiculousness, though, things seem so obviously invalid that thinking is no longer necessary, which really should give us a hint about what we’re doing. Atheists like to quip about the Invisible Pink Unicorn. It actually takes some thinking to figure out why that label is ridiculous. But consider taking some of these ideas seriously:
- Honest politician
- Transparent, accountable government
- Generous business
- Humble nationalism
- Peace-seeking military
- Nurturing, cooperative society
- Tolerant, inclusive religion
Do any of those seem ridiculously oxymoronic? If so, it’s because they take you beyond your basic beliefs.
At any point about any belief, if we’re honest, we know that we could be wrong. Even our most basic beliefs are, at any point, provisional and vulnerable to correction, revision, or even rejection due to new information or new ways of looking at old information. We live with provisionality all day long all our lives, every time we claim, commit, or act. We can’t escape or avoid or get beyond the provisional nature of everything we think and believe. The only real question is whether we’ll admit it.
Fundamentalism is a denial of this inescapable fact.
To the extent that we deny the provisional nature of ALL our beliefs, to that extent we, too, are fundamentalists.
Here are some fundamentalist tells. They might remind you of someone.
- If you claim the truth, existence, or reality of something inconsistent with their basic beliefs, fundamentalists put the burden of proof on you. If you can’t satisfy this burden of proof, (which of course, requires meeting proof criteria consistent with their fundamentals, the ones your claim just challenged,) they conclude that your claim is invalid, not worth considering. In practice, this makes their fundamentals unquestionable, even if they claim open-mindedness in principle.
- Fundamentalists don’t claim that alternatives to their basic beliefs are incorrect because they tried the alternatives and found them wanting. Fundamentalists rarely give alternatives an honest try.
- When fundamentalists have honestly tried an alternative and rejected it, as happens in religious or atheistic conversions, (opposite moves across the same fence,) they usually explain their reasons for converting using straw man caricatures of the alternative they rejected. Atheists rarely understand the gods they reject, and believers rarely understand the valuable and serious thinking of those who haven’t seen the light. This is why one observer called the evolutionist/creationist wars “dialogues of the deaf.” What fundamentalist converts cannot do is imagine a valid alternative to their basic beliefs.
- Since valid alternatives are unimaginable, the next logical step is to declare them impossible. Only rarely can fundamentalists describe a rational process by which they arrived at such a categorically limiting conclusion. They can easily relate the historical process that changed their minds and brought them to regard their basic beliefs as heaven’s one and only gift to mankind, but not the thought process. They can describe relevant events, but little if any of their reasoning. Pushed far enough to explain how they know that their claims are incontrovertible, they ultimately divulge the equivalent of “I just know” and go no deeper. That’s a basic belief, alright; but it doesn’t explain why valid alternatives are impossible.
- Fundamentalists consider those who disagree with their basic beliefs either unenlightened or darkened. Unenlightened people are victims of ignorance, deception, primal (and usually “sinful” or “destructive”) drives that affect judgment, etc. Darkened people, though, are committed to unenlightened states and either actively spread their “darkness” to others or support those who do. Because fundamentalist beliefs are unquestionable, the act of doubting or disagreeing with them is wrong by definition. What you say is irrelevant. The fact that you ask shows that you are blind, regardless.
- Fundamentalists regard anyone determined to contradict their basic beliefs as an ideological enemy, if not a moral enemy or even a mortal enemy. It rarely dawns on them that disagreement need not be adversarial, a notion incomprehensible to most of them. Instead, they pride themselves on their prowess against “enemies” and “opposers” and celebrate the glory and exaltation (two terms used almost exclusively by fundamentalists) of “victory” in violent and war-obsessed metaphors and narratives.
These thoughts were prompted by an email circular I received today. I include it below because it’s a great example of how far some of our best thinking has come: not far. The intent of the piece is to encourage action to resist fundamentalism and break the silence that enables fundamentalist psychopaths to turn their worlds into living hells. It typifies two major problems we still need to resolve.
First, the writer encourages us (or shames us, depending on how you read it,) to end our silence and, presumably, do something. But what? Say what? Do what? How do we overcome fundamentalist psychopaths without becoming like them? How do we overcome evil with good instead of fight fire with fire? The fact that those questions remain without powerful, effective answers is a testament to the psychopathological conditioning that we all labor under.
Second, the overall effect of the email aggravates the schism between Islam and the rest of the world and further demonizes Muslims. If they’re not psychopaths leading the anti-West charge, they are silent enablers whose inaction lets psycho leaders get their nefarious way in their little worlds. The fact that the writer used convincing details to build that case makes it more persuasive, but it’s the wrong case, hypocritically implying that we in the West enjoy wonderfully psychopath-free leadership. To the degree that fundamentalism is an expression of psychopathology, that just ain’t true.
If we want things to get better, we have to stop making them worse, at a bare minimum, and recognize the fundamentalist problem close to home, not at the far end of pointed finger on outstretched arm or down trajectory of a “Peacekeeper” missile. Yeah, that delightful name is fundie-speak for sure. At least they decommissioned them. Oh wait! That’s right. We had a better idea for “peace keeping.” Let’s shoot nuclear warheads from space with Minotaur IV missiles, also known as “Peacekeeper SLVs.” Such a creative, peace-loving bunch, us Yanks! It will all be really peaceful once all the SOBs are dead! Hoo-rah!
Ahem. Even if the piece below is a complete hoax, it still serves as a great talking piece. See what you think:
Nice piece from an impact point of view. I haven’t fact-checked the writer’s figures, but how many millions would be the minimum requirement to get us appalled, anyway? Regardless of its accuracy or authenticity, it makes some good points in spite of extreme bias tastefully cloaked.
Fundamentalism is dangerous, but it’s far from localized, let alone religion-specific. And as our childhood wisdom taught us, it takes one to know one.
We are all fundamentalists, recovering or otherwise. There ought to be a 12-step program for us. Maybe I’ll draft one.
 They are still scrambling to find evidence, and the evidence they celebrate is pitifully weak. Check out “Natural Selection Accelerates Speciation: More Strong Evidence For Darwin’s Theory.” As recently as 2008, their “strong evidence” supports a definition of “speciation” so narrow that you need PhDs and ultra-high tech lab equipment to detect it. This article considers “speciation” among walking-stick insects in the Santa Barbara Chaparral in southern California. After it’s all said and done, the “new species” is still a walking-stick insect. With all that “strong evidence,” it might be another 1,000 years before we can trace a walking-stick insect to the evolution of a litte-bit-different-than-a walking stick insect. In the meantime, what evidence supports already more than 150 years of fanatical devotion to a theory lacking evidence for strong speciation? (continue reading…)
 Harris suggested a preemptive nuclear strike against any “Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons,” writing (his quote from his own book):
Harris seemed to think his post would exonerate him, complaining that “Hedges’ comments seem calculated to leave the impression that I want the U.S. government to start killing Muslims by the millions.” Apparently, he thought quoting the passage above would do the trick.
I’m not sure why. (continue reading…)