Fundamentalism in Religion, Politics and Science

The word ‘fundamentalism’ has traveled a long way since it began life in California nearly a hundred years ago. At first it was a defence of what were seen as the ‘fundamental’ beliefs of American Protestants. The literal truth of the Bible, the creation of the world by God, miracles in the Old and New Testaments, and the central miracles of the Virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ had been called into question by Darwinian Evolution, by scientific naturalism more generally, and by the so-called ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible by German theologians. The last was the worst, since it came from within. Growing numbers of American Protestants were learning from foreigners to become ‘liberal’ in their beliefs. A massive propaganda campaign to bring Americans back to their senses was financed by the brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, highly successful oil tycoons who were rivals of John D. Rockefeller in more than one sense: for Rockefeller had founded the Chicago Divinity School, hot-bed of ‘liberalism’ in American religion, and was a patron of Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was forced out of the Presbyterian church for opposing fundamentalism.

So many Protestants rallied to the new movement that by the 1920s the famous journalist, H. L. Mencken could write: ‘Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today’. Most came from the Baptist churches and their offshoots, and many were ‘Pre-Millennialists’, meaning that they believed the world would shortly come to an end. Many colleges and universities were affected, and a brand-new fundamentalist university was founded in South Carolina by Bob Jones in 1927, still going strong.
In this traditional sense we may understand ‘fundamentalism’ as an attempt to protect the simple, naïve beliefs of American sectarian Protestants from the corrosive and unsettling effects of ‘modern’ theology, ‘modern’ science and ‘modern’ philosophy. In the last eighty years the movement has grown and spread all over the world.

Meanwhile, language has played its usual tricks on us, and the word has gradually come to label a great variety of other movements, most of which bear some family resemblance to the original. We hear continually of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’; also of Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and even Buddhist ‘fundamentalism’. Moreover, the term is now often applied to systems of thought and belief which have no obviously religious character. There is, for example, what we might identify as ‘scientific fundamentalism’. A recent book is called The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. As for politics, it has been common for decades to regard the devotees of certain political doctrines, Marxist-Leninism for example, as ‘fundamentalist’ in their attitude to political knowledge.

Purists prefer to confine the term to religion of some kind or other. For them, fundamentalism is ‘a proclamation of reclaimed authority over a sacred tradition which is to be reinstated as an antidote for a society that has strayed from its cultural moorings’. But I am interested in the way human beings go about thinking all of their thoughts – political, scientific, religious – so I shall deliberately be more general. I think of fundamentalism as a kind of short-cut to knowledge: an easy reliance on some book of rules which allows us to read off all the right answers without having to go through the hard work, the pain and the uncertainty of thinking for ourselves. I might define it as: Exclusive and uncritical reliance on some authoritative tradition for obtaining true knowledge of all important matters.

This is not as much of a put-down as it may seem. At the end of this essay I shall look at some ways in which fundamentalism might be a rational response to the inevitable limitations of all human knowledge.

Fundamentalism in Religion
Original, Protestant fundamentalism was based on an assumption shared by many others that the Christian Bible is our only infallible source of religious knowledge. The Christian Bible was taken to be the Hebraic Old Testament, except for those books of which only a Greek text survives, and the New Testament as gradually assembled and defined by the Catholic Church in the first few centuries of Christianity. Until quite recently the only approved text of this Bible among fundamentalists was the Anglican translation made in 1611 and authorized for public use in the Church of England by King James I. The Bible was and is regarded as ‘inerrant’: that is, totally without error, and free from all contradiction. Every word is ‘inspired’ by God.

Since God is both sovereign creator of the universe and also the author of the Bible, it follows that any seemingly scientific knowledge the latter contains must also be infallibly true. If we read our Bibles with due attention we shall discover that Heaven and Earth were created on the evening of Saturday, 22nd October, in 4004 BC. Obviously therefore, any Darwinian account of the gradual evolution of living creatures over the past three-and-a-half billion years must be completely wrong. God can only have put all those fossils in the rocks to test the faith of good, simple-hearted Protestants. The famous ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925 – the State of Tennessee versus John Scopes, charged with teaching Evolution in a public school – is now part of the folklore of American religion. All we need – in religion, science, ethics, business, politics – is our Bible.

But there is a problem. Any sequence of words in a recognised language that purports to convey some meaning, we call a text. That meaning is seldom apparent without our having to do some work. Every text has to be interpreted. We must know its language, and we must use its bits and pieces to extract what information it may contain and to construct what we call its ‘meaning’. And the way we construct meaning will depend on our knowledge of the language, what we know of the author and his circumstances, and what attitudes and preconceptions we bring to the task. There is no reason to expect that we shall always and everywhere construct the same meaning from any text. Let us open our Bibles at random.

“Thus saith the Lord God; Thou shalt drink of thy sister’s cup deep and large: thou shalt be laughed to scorn and had in derision; it containeth much. Thou shalt be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, with the cup of astonishment and desolation, with the cup of thy sister Samaria.” (Ezekiel 23: 32-33)

It is unlikely that this text has been understood in the same way by a first-century Pharisee, a fourth-century Egyptian monk, a thirteenth-century philosopher at the University of Paris, a rabbi in mediaeval Prague, and a dirt farmer in Tennessee.

Here is an example from our own time and our own city. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Winnipeg cancelled an invitation to James Loney to speak about Peace and Justice. Mr Loney is a homosexual who has publicly criticized his church’s position on sexual morality. Archbishop Weisgerber pointed out that homosexual practices are against the teachings of Christ. Now it is obvious that the Bible contains no words of Jesus which condemn or even mention homosexuality. What the Archbishop means is that his church has interpreted various sayings of Jesus and the Apostles so as to bear this meaning, and that the teaching authority of that church ought to be accepted without question by all Roman Catholics. The all-important thing here is the authority of the interpreter to create meaning.

Fundamentalist Protestants deal with the contentious matter of alcohol in somewhat the same way. The Bible contains many passages that accept, approve, even recommend the consumption of wine – ‘wine that maketh glad the heart of Man’. The first miracle of Jesus produced a large quantity of the very best wine for all his fellow-guests to enjoy. The plain, literal sense of Scripture completely contradicts the Fundamentalists’ doctrine of total abstinence. Fundamentalist pastors and teachers therefore claim the authority to interpret the Bible in a way that is opposite to its apparent meaning. They rule out liquor at all social functions, and fearlessly disobey the command of Christ to drink wine in the Eucharist. If you have enough authority you can make the Bible mean anything you choose. Lacking the convenience of an Infallible Pope however, Fundamentalist teachers have to enforce their authority in less formal ways.

Short cuts to knowledge taken by Protestant and Roman Catholic fundamentalists therefore, rely not so much on the authority of a sacred text which all can read and understand as on the authority of church-appointed – or self-appointed – teachers. Ordinary believers can get on with their lives, and let the pastor or the hierarchy do their thinking for them. What about other religions?

Jewish fundamentalism, it would appear, is largely confined to the State of Israel, and resembles American fundamentalism in its nostalgic attempt to recreate a traditional society undisturbed by modern ideas and practices. In some respects Jewish fundamentalists go further, affecting the archaic costume of the European ghettoes and holding rigidly to all traditional custom and ceremonial. Though upholding the divine origin of the Torah they also go further than Protestant fundamentalists in the authority they grant to non-biblical literature: the Talmud and the Mishnah, which are authoritative interpretations of scripture, and the Halacha, Jewish religious law that is the equivalent of the Muslim Sharia. In this respect, Jewish fundamentalism, by giving formal authority to a tradition of interpretation, is more like the Roman Catholic than the Protestant kind of fundamentalism. Like Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists are much disturbed by open expressions of homosexuality. The Halacha prescribes the penalty of stoning, and many Israeli rabbis are reported to favour the death penalty for male homosexual acts. Like most Protestant fundamentalists, technically known as ‘Premillennialists’, Jewish fundamentalists live in imminent expectation of the Messiah – though for the first, rather than the second time in their history. It may be no accident that many American Protestant fundamentalists believe that at the Second Coming, 144,000 faithful or religious Jews will be saved along with the Christian faithful; hence they use their considerable influence with the United States government to favour the State of Israel in its embattled relations with Arab and Muslim neighbours. Surveys show that 33% of all American Republicans, including the current Attorney-General, live in daily expectation of the end. When Christ comes again, true believers will be ‘raptured’ – lifted out of their clothes and carried naked up to Heaven, there to enjoy the spectacle of the rest of us writhing in agony as nuclear war in Palestine ignites Armageddon.

Since all Muslims are supposed to believe that the Koran is the unmediated Word of God and are therefore committed to a strong version of scriptural inerrancy, we might question the usefulness of the term ‘Fundamentalism’ in their case. There has been as yet very little ‘higher criticism’ in Islam, and hence no need to defend traditional interpretations. But various Muslim states have always implemented the political and judicial maxims of the Koran and the Sunna in widely differing ways, some few very rigorously, others more often with some latitude. What is usually meant by Muslim fundamentalism therefore is the attempt to make Islam work in the modern world: by removing corrupt or pro-Western governments, and by reinstating the Sharia in its full rigour. Here at any rate is one point of contact with Christian and Judaic fundamentalism: homosexuality is the great evil, and must be utterly and ruthlessly rooted out. Yet another is the Muslim prohibition of alcoholic liquor – more defensible in the Muslim than the Protestant case, since it is based on the (revised) teachings of the Prophet.

The word ‘fundamentalism’ has lately been applied to a number of other religions which make no use of the Hebrew Scriptures. In India it is now used to describe the traditionalist attempt to enforce ancient Hindu piety, which requires widows to be burned alive after their husband’s death. A famous example of this in 1987 attracted world-wide attention and was celebrated in some places as a symbol of Indian independence from cultural domination by the British, who had outlawed the practice in 1829. ‘Fundamentalism’ has also been attributed to the ‘New Religious Movements’ that originated in post-War Japan, the Sikh Akali Dal Party in the Punjab, and the Buddhist nationalist party ruling in Sri Lanka. In all these cases we are on the border between fundamentalism in religion and fundamentalism in politics, to which we should now turn.

Fundamentalism in Politics
Some of you will have read the excellent book by Faith Johnston called A Great Restlessness. It tells the story of Dorise Nielsen, English-born wife of a Saskatchewan homesteader who took up CCF politics during the great depression, became a closet Marxist-Leninist, and was elected to Parliament in 1940. One of the saddest things in that book is the tenacity with which Mrs Nielsen clung to her Marxist-Leninist – or later, Maoist – faith, despite betrayal by her male colleagues in the Communist Party, despite gradual revelations of the horror of Stalinist Russia and the Soviet empire, and despite living through the Great Cultural Revolution in China. Once having seen the light of Marx she was blinded to all other possibilities; blinded too to the glaring discrepancy between Marxian textbooks and the bleak reality of socialism in practice.

We have all known people who are psychologically incapable of voting anything but NDP. But political fundamentalism is not confined to the Left. For every bigot who automatically votes NDP there is another bigot out there who could never bring himself to do so. In politics, as in religion, fundamentalism is the taking of short cuts to knowledge, in this case political knowledge, by exclusive and uncritical reliance on some authoritative tradition. On the Left, obsolete economics supplies the sacred texts; authority to interpret is vested in the Party. There are no sacred texts on the Right in Canada, though the Charter of Rights and Freedoms may serve for the Liberal Party, with the Supreme Court as the infallible interpreter. As for Canadian ‘conservatives’, they are a mixed bag that includes many who are not conservative at all in any usual sense – though some place their faith in the writings of various American and Canadian libertarians. But most are united by a folk tradition of how Canada used to be, or ought to have been, and ought to become again. I do not mean to say that all, or even most, Canadian New Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives are fundamentalist in their party politics; only to identify the authoritative traditions of those who are.

Stronger examples of fundamentalism in politics are to be found among what one might call the ‘special interest’ coalitions: environmentalist, pro-life activists, pro-choice activists, Quebec separatists – and in former times the Lord’s Day Alliance of Canada and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. A burning conviction of the sacred right of every seal to exist can lead otherwise civilized women to throw acid at any of their sisters who dare to dress in furs. Fervent belief that abortion is always and everywhere the work of the Devil has impelled formerly respectable Americans to murder doctors. Pro-choice activists have confined themselves, for the most part, to the relatively harmless expedient of attacking pro-life demonstrators with baseball bats. And as we all know, when Quebec separatism seemed to be going somewhere, it looked a bit like the Irish Republican Army: bombs in mail-boxes, a British diplomat kidnapped, a Quebec cabinet minister murdered. In all of these cases, I suggest, the activist is fortified in his or her acts of injustice and violence by an absolute certainty of being in the right. That certainty has been achieved by taking what I have been calling ‘short cuts’ to knowledge: an exclusive and uncritical reliance on some authoritative tradition of ethical and political doctrine.

Absolute certainty combined with an irresistible desire to impose one’s vision of the right and the good upon the rest of society can lead to something that you may have expected me to mention much earlier: which is terrorism committed by fundamentalists. At least since the destruction of the World Trade Center six years ago it has become standard practice to associate many acts of terrorist violence around the world with what is called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. Unlike most earlier varieties of political terrorism, the murderer usually sacrifices his own life in order to maximize the harm to others. We must ask whether there is any necessary connexion between fundamentalism as I have defined it and a propensity to inflict acts of terror on innocent men, women and children who are not in a state of war with the murderer.

We can begin by agreeing that a person might be a fundamentalist without the least likelihood of his ever being a terrorist. Many of us, perhaps, have known such people, especially if we have any contact with sectarian Protestantism. A seventy-year old Granny who reads her Bible each day, believes every word of it to be literally true, and who enjoyed watching the late Jerry Falwell on television whilst knitting socks for her descendents is highly unlikely to crash a motor vehicle loaded with high explosive into the local police station.

Then can a person be a terrorist without being a fundamentalist? Of course that depends on what we mean by ‘terrorist’. The word was coined during the French Revolution to label those ‘who advocated and practised repression and bloodshed in the propagation of the principles of democracy and equality’ – an early example of the modern correlation between fundamentalist political activism and deliberate cruelty that we have seen in Hitler’s Blackshirts in Nazi Germany, and the Red Guards in Maoist China. But if we understand ‘terrorist’ more generally to mean ‘one who uses and favours violent and intimidating methods of coercing a government or community’ we see at once that there is no reason to suppose that the Mafia, for example, commit their hideous atrocities in the name of any dogmatically held religious or political doctrine. All they are interested in is the bottom line.

I take it, therefore, that there is no causal link between fundamentalism and terrorism. Millions of Muslims have lived and died in a most certain conviction of the absolute truth of their religious beliefs, who have never lifted their hands in violence against another creature. There are millions of Muslims alive today who hate and repudiate the actions of Al-Qaeda, and who deny any connexion between the holy religion of Islam and political terror. Whatever else we may have against fundamentalism, we ought not to blame it for that. The correlation between the two so often forced on our attention in the last few years arises from a coincidence of two quite different defects of character: first, an absolute certainty based on an authoritative tradition, which is indeed ‘fundamentalism’ and which may sometimes be an intellectual defect; secondly, a diabolical desire to intimidate, dominate and if necessary to destroy one’s fellow men and women, which is not fundamentalism at all and which is always a moral defect.

In order to inspect the intellectual costs and benefits of fundamentalism more closely, we must now turn to science.

Fundamentalism in Science
Anyone who believes and asserts that science provides our only certain knowledge of all that is or might be – and who arrives at that position not by independent reflection but by taking short cuts of the kind I have mentioned – is a ‘fundamentalist’ in pretty much the same way as a Southern Baptist or an old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist.

I must say at once that based on my own experience one is far less likely to encounter fundamentalism among scientists than among either Protestant sectaries and Roman Catholics on the one hand or among political activists of the Left, Right or Centre on the other. This is partly because absolutist knowledge-claims on behalf of science imply dogmatic atheism; whereas in fact many scientists are religious believers of some kind or another and many others are agnostic. But there is a more important reason. It is that scientific investigation, by its nature, cannot possibly produce certain knowledge of any kind. In the words of Sir Karl Popper, an eminent philosopher of science of the mid-twentieth century, all scientific knowledge is and must be ‘tentative, provisional, fallible and corrigible’.

Working scientists continually encounter what they call ‘anomalies’ in their research: observations that can not be explained by their current theory. They can only hope that they or their colleagues will develop some new and better theory that will explain the anomalies, predict all the true facts that the old theory predicted, and predict new facts lying beyond the scope of the old theory. There are big prizes for those who do.

The most dramatic example of the provisional nature of scientific knowledge appears in that branch of theoretical physics called ‘cosmology’: our theory of the physical universe. At the end of the seventeenth century Sir Isaac Newton constructed a mathematical model of a three-dimensional universe which explained just about everything astronomers could then observe, and by means of which we landed a human being on the moon in 1969. Alexander Pope celebrated this triumph of the human understanding in a couplet engraved on the plinth of Newton’s statue in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge:

Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night: God said, Let NEWTON be: and all was Light!

But early in the twentieth century, Albert Einstein argued that Newton’s theory is not generally true. It is useful as an approximation in our small corner of the universe. But time is a dimension to be reckoned with; Newton’s laws of motion break down when velocities approach that of light; and his law of gravitation fails when gravitational fields are very strong. Einstein went on to show that matter and energy are interchangeable – as we have seen with horrifying results in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is the hallmark of a genuinely ‘scientific’ theory like Newton’s that it can be shown to be false if the evidence contradicts its predictions. Philosophers have objected to the pseudo-scientific theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud because no possible evidence could ever falsify them. What we mean by ‘knowledge’ in science, therefore, is the present collection of all confirmed and mutually consistent, falsifiable theories which have not yet been shown to be false. It follows that metaphysical knowledge (if any) – knowledge of the existence and attributes of God, the relation of the human to the divine, the ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ of existence (and what ‘existence’ actually means), the nature of the Good, the True and the Beautiful – is a very different animal which we must study and appraise in a very different way.

Sophisticated religious believers have understood this for a very long time. Great theologians of the ancient church were accustomed to interpreting the Bible in what they called an ‘allegorical’ way. Fantastic stories in the Old Testament are to be read as illustrating some important truth about God and Man, not as historical accounts of anything that actually happened. One of my favourite interpreters in modern times is Richard Whately, the only economist in history to move directly from a professorial chair in political economy to an archbishopric without intervening stages. In 1831, Whately published his Oxford lectures defending the science of economics against religious attack. He explained that the Bible conveys religious knowledge, but that it does not and cannot convey scientific knowledge. I am also rather fond of the late Canon J. O Murray, Professor of Philosophy at St John’s College, Winnipeg from 1898 to 1940. In 1913 Canon Murray gave a lecture to the Church Society in which he showed that no conflict could arise between the Old Testament and the Darwinian theory of evolution. It is helpful to remember that American Protestant fundamentalism grew up – and has continued to incarcerate itself – in a water-tight world completely cut off from the mainstream of Christian thought.

Science can tell us nothing of religion. Religion can tell us nothing of science. Fundamentalists on both sides are among those who fail to understand this. Crusaders for atheist truth like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens follow exactly the same kind of intellectual strategy as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson: an exclusive and uncritical reliance on some authoritative tradition for obtaining true knowledge of all important matters. It is for that reason that fundamentalists on either side so often shoot themselves in the foot. As Anthony Kenny, an eminent British philosopher, observed in a recent review, Dawkins’s ‘crusade has done more harm to science than it has to religion’ (TLS 17 August 2007).

Whether that intellectual strategy might ever be rational we are now in a position to consider.

Is Fundamentalism Rational?

Does it make sense to rely upon the authority of others to take short cuts to knowledge? Put the question like that and the answer is obviously ‘Yes’. We all do it all the time.

Few of us now remember, even if we ever knew and understood, Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of the Elements, the Law of Mass Action, the valency of carbon atoms or the Principle of Le Chatelier – let alone such things as gravitational redshift, metastable isomers or the Schrődinger equation. On all these we unquestioningly accept the authority of the scientific community: with exactly the same rational faith as that with which good Catholics accept the authority of the Magisterium in such matters as the Virgin Birth, the dual nature of Christ, and his Real Presence in the Eucharist. Life is simply too short to try to solve such problems for ourselves. It is a more efficient use of our time and energy to let others do most of our thinking for us.

Even in politics, where the intellectual level of discourse is usually far lower than in science or theology, it often makes sense to delegate our thinking to others. Suppose I am a loyal and committed member of the Conservative Party of Canada, or of the Liberal Party, or the NDP. What policy ought my party to have on the GST? Should it be abolished? Or should we rely solely on the GST and abolish all other taxes? Or should we continue the present mix with marginal adjustments? These are highly technical questions. Better leave them to the research unit, and trust that our Party Line is properly informed by their work and that it makes economic sense.

Not only does most of our knowledge depend on the authority of others. Most, if not all, of it is based on dogma of some kind. This is most obvious in the case of science. Once again, the great Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton’s mathematical model was based on the arbitrary, metaphysical assumption of gravity. No-one has ever observed gravity or ever could, and Newton ran into a lot of flak from his fellow-scientists at the time. But if the theory constructed from this assumption makes seemingly true predictions – which it did until Einstein came along – we stay with the assumption. Modern philosophers have argued that all scientific knowledge is and must be derived from a ‘hard core’ of assumptions which are never directly questioned. What we mean by ‘falsifying’ a scientific theory is the replacement of one set of dogmatic assumptions with a different set that produces a more widely explanatory theory.

So knowledge depends on authority; and knowledge also depends on dogma. Why then have I been so hard on fundamentalists in religion, politics and science?

Not because they depend on authority for their knowledge: we all have to. Not because that knowledge is based on dogma: it has to be. To that extent they are as rational as the rest of us. My objection to fundamentalism depends upon two words I carefully inserted into my definition: the uncritical reliance on authority, and reliance on that authority to produce genuine knowledge of all important matters.

Because authorities differ in their reliability and sometimes disagree with each other about the same matters, we have to discriminate carefully in our choice of which authority to depend on. The Winnipeg Telephone Directory, though not infallible perhaps, is a generally reliable authority for our knowledge of the telephone numbers in this city. But it is useless as a guide to making an omelette or washing our socks. When a religious fundamentalist goes to the Bible to find out about geology he is like someone who goes to the Telephone Book to find out how to fry an omelette: and so were the Soviet Communists who went to dialectical materialism in the 1930s to find out about genetics; and so is a Dawkins or a Hitchens who goes to evolutionary biology to find out about God and His Creation. Authorities are essential, but we need to pick the right one, for no authority is or could be an authority on everything. We have to be critical in our inevitable dependence on authority.

Is there a moral to my story? Only this. Short cuts are a good thing, but we ought to be prudent in taking them. What looks like an easy way up, even through our binoculars, may have many hidden snares and pit-falls. Without proper care we may find ourselves hanging over a precipice, with our trousers caught in the barbed wire, and an angry bull approaching us from the rear.

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