A few thoughts on fundamentalism

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about fundamentalism in preparation for an upcoming project I’d like to do on Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. As part of the development process, I’ve been doing a series of presentations to help me workshop the material. I’ve never approached a documentary project in this way before. However, I’m finding the opportunity to “test drive” the content with various groups tremendously fruitful.

I’m keying in on the issue of fundamentalism, because I begin my presentation with a “state of the union” on religion. I note how in the mid-20th century, sociologists and other qualified observers predicted that the rise of modernity would lead to the demise of religion. They assumed that as we moved toward a more scientific “evidence-based” way of seeing the world, worldviews that took more of a magical or supernatural approach would simply fade away–or be overrun by a tsunami of evidence that revealed such worldviews to be rooted in illusion rather than fact.

Instead, 60 years later it appears like exactly the opposite has happened. Instead of going away, religion is louder, stronger and more violent than ever. Of course, everyone points to 9/11 as the wake-up call that fundamentalism isn’t going away any time soon. And one has only to think of the Boston Marathon bombing, the brutal attack on the soldier in London, the recent skirmishes in the southern Philippines or any number of other religiously motivated acts of violence that occurred over the past couple of months to realize that religion–particularly fundamentalist religion–is very much a force to be reckoned with in today’s world.

But does religious violence necessarily indicate a rise in religious affiliation? I find Rob Bell’s recent comments about evangelical Christianity especially enlightening in this regard:

I think we are witnessing the death of a particular subculture that doesn’t work. I think there is a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized, Evangelical subculture that was told “we’re gonna change the thing” and they haven’t. And they actually have turned away lots of people. And i think that when you’re in a part of a subculture that is dying, you make a lot more noise because it’s very painful.

So rather than defy predictions of religion’s demise, perhaps these violent outbursts merely confirm it. The last gasp of a dying institution. To invoke a Tolkien image, they are merely the flaming tail of a Balrog seeking to pull us down with it into the abyss.

As if to bolster this hypothesis, in North America at least, we are seeing a stampede for the exits when it comes to people’s willingness to identify with institutional forms of religion, especially Protestant Christianity. A lot was made of the recent Pew study which documented the rise of the “nones,” one-fifth of the American population who claim no religious affiliation. That’s not to say the nones don’t believe in God. Many of them do. Call them “spiritual but not religious.” But, like this guy, they are increasingly skeptical of institutionalized expressions of faith, which seems to portend that America is following the same path toward secularization that many European countries have walked.

So what does this picture tell us? Is religion on the rise or is it on its way out? At the risk of being annoying, I would say, “both.” Particular expressions of religion are certainly waning, and others are waxing. But the need to ground our identity in something that transcends our individual experience has remained constant.

Witness the trailer for the upcoming documentary The Unbelievers, for example. I find it intriguing that Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have essentially adopted the means of “the enemy” to win people over to their cause. In this trailer, you see them preaching, proselytizing, marshaling celebrity endorsements and working out strategies to communicate their message more effectively to the broader culture. Hanging over it all is an apocalyptic tone, a sense that failure to fulfill their mission could spell disaster. Swap out the names and the ideas being communicated, and this could just as easily be a trailer for the next big release from Campus Crusade for Christ. This isn’t a criticism of Dawkins so much as an observation. How could it be any other way? Dawkins is only doing what every human feels an inherent need to do–ground his identity in a narrative that makes sense of the world, and then validate that narrative by getting as many people as possible to assent to it.

The important question is how we deal with those who disagree with our chosen narrative. This is where the specter of fundamentalism rears its head.

After scouring the web for a good working definition of fundamentalism, I decided to go with “a violent reaction to modernity.” I prefer this definition, because it helps encapsulate the idea that fundamentalism isn’t so much a set of beliefs as a sense of inflexibility in terms of how those beliefs are held. This means everyone–even Richard Dawkins (even me!)–can potentially fit into the fundamentalist category.

However, I think fundamentalist atheism differs from other forms of fundamentalism in one key regard: rather than a reaction against modernity, it seems to be more of a reaction against post-modernity–the idea that there could be more than one plausible explanation for reality, and that perhaps even our perception of reality is itself a social construction, always in need of revision. (Of course, many Christians resist this idea as well.) People like Dawkins talk about moving people toward an evidence-based view of the world. But what qualifies as evidence? That determination can only be made by referencing your worldview. For example, a Christian may accept a personal revelation gained through prayer as evidence of God’s existence. Someone of Dawkins’ ilk will dismiss such “evidence” as nothing more than a psychological projection. Same phenomena, different explanation, because according to each worldview, certain lines of inquiry or explanation are necessarily excluded.

The problem is, a worldview is nothing more than a set of unprovable philosophical assumptions. We tend to believe our worldview is based on evidence, but I think it’s more accurate to say a worldview is a set of non-negotiable moral or intellectual intuitions that we have come to accept as facts. So when someone comes along and questions those assumptions or asks us to consider forms of evidence that our worldview has already excluded, it’s only natural to assume that person is cognitively or emotionally defective. How else could they dispute something so obvious?

So we attempt to educate such people, to win them over to our position. But when these dissenters refuse to surrender to the obvious supremacy of our view,  we come to suspect that perhaps these people aren’t merely defective in some way, they may actually be evil. They know we’re right; they just refuse to admit it.

This raises an important question: How can we possibly resolve such disputes, especially when we can’t even agree on what qualifies as evidence? It’s like we’re speaking completely different languages.

Pluralism is one response. Live and let live. All paths are equally valid. There’s no need to decide. However, if all paths are equally valid, then all paths are equally meaningless. And the assumption that all paths are equally valid is itself a philosophical preference rather than a scientific inference. So even according to its own rules, there’s no need to grant it privileged status.

These questions could easily lead to paralysis, but I tend to be rather pragmatic. To me, the only important questions are: Which worldview(s) are most conducive to careful and accurate observation of the universe? Which worldview(s) yield the most accurate predictions? Which worldview(s) require us to accept the fewest unprovable assumptions? Which worldview(s) yield the smallest number of unexplainable anomalies? Which worldview(s) minimize rather than exacerbate conflict? And which worldview(s) are the most receptive to change in light of new information? This doesn’t mean worldviews which fail to pass this test should be eradicated, but it is probably in the best interest of all if they are simply abandoned. (Of course, I say this fully realizing that all I’ve done here is articulate my own philosophical preference…)

However, as I think about it, perhaps this final question is the most important. It also leads to an even better definition of fundamentalism–a worldview that refuses to change in light of new information. By necessity, every worldview requires a certain degree of inflexibility. Otherwise it ceases to function as an explanatory filter. But when preservation and defense of our worldview becomes the end-all, be-all of our existence–when our worldview becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end–we can be certain we have crossed over into a fundamentalist way of viewing the world.

Whether or not that leads us to become violent, it certainly leads to an impoverished existence. And I don’t care what your philosophical preference is, no amount of evidence can dispute that.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • JC Mitchell

    Very interesting and spot on with the questions. The issue for many is they think their religion answers those questions, and perhaps they do, but not through doctrine and rules, but through something that we are grasping for we generally call Love in English.

  • Glenn Runnalls

    The blog begins: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about fundamentalism

    and then proceeds to make me wonder what the author means by “thinking”? is he thinking about a term and the history and grammar around that term? is he thinking about a set of repugnant behaviours to attach to that term? or about a supposed “worldview” that can be projected onto people less fortunate than himself?

    and so I wonder how it is that such thinking can lead someone to conclude:

    When our worldview becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end–we can be certain we have crossed over into a fundamentalist way of viewing the world.

    Come on, even arm-chair philosophers are responsible to do better than this.

    • Kevin Miller

      I’m not sure what you mean by “do better,” Glenn. Please elaborate. I think I’ve made it fairly clear that fundamentalism can be (and has been) defined in a variety of ways but that I’ve chosen a particular way of defining it for the purposes of this piece. So staking everything on defending your worldview come what may is consistent with my definition.

      • Glenn Runnalls

        at its simplest, the problem with this blog is that if one is going to stipulate a definition, then of course any conclusions about the stipulation are certain. but the blog seems to be wanting to take us somewhere more than the exploration of a tautology.

        basically the blog is saying something like, “There’s a set of practices that really bug me. There’s some religious folk who call themselves fundamentalists (or are called fundamentalists) and they really bug me. Why do they bug me? Here’s why? So anyone else who bugs me in a similar way are also fundamentalists. Let me think again about what is it that bugs me about these guys. Ah yeah, that’s its. So you can be certain that if you bug me like a fundamentalist then you are a fundamentalist. And no amount of information or reflection is going to change my mind.”

        • Kevin Miller

          I’m sorry, Glenn, but your critique is neither fair nor accurate. For one thing, you’re putting words in my mouth rather than dealing with what’s actually written in the post.

          Second, my post has nothing to do with labeling people who bug me fundamentalists. Rather, it’s my attempt to sort out how virtually anyone—including me—can fall into a rigid, non-negotiable “fundamentalist” way of thinking that can create the potential for conflict. Furthermore, I’m trying to establish common ground and figure out how to avoid that way of thinking rather than embrace it, as your comment and paraphrasing of my argument seems to suggest. To be honest, I’m kind of mystified by the latent hostility in your response.

          • Glenn Runnalls

            What in this blog would suggest to a fundamentalist (self-identified or stipulated) that there is an attempt at establishing common ground? What would common ground look like?

            Full disclosure-i would not self-identify as a fundamentalist and those who call themselves fundamentalist would not consider me one. Some folk might call me a fundamentalist for reasons other than what you have here.

            What you are perceiving to be “latent hostility” is a form of resistance. If this blog is part of the work-shop process, you are hearing someone say, “there’s way more work to be done on the subjects you seem to be wanting to talk about. if you think you are talking about fundamentalism and want to establish common ground with fundamentalists, then there are more helpful approaches. if you are wanting to talk about the significant contestation and transformations that religion(s) are experiencing in these ‘times’ then fundamentalism has to be talked about in on its own terms in relation to other orderings at play.

          • Kevin Miller

            Finally, some constructive feedback! I appreciate your thoughts, Glenn. Please note that this post isn’t called “The last word on fundamentalism,” which is why I was a little mystified at why you would depict me as entirely closed minded on this topic–of adopting the very mindset I’m attempting to deconstruct! So I’m interested to hear more from you on “the significant contestation and transformations that religion(s) are experiencing in these ‘times’ and how fundamentalism fits in.

            To answer your question, my attempt at establishing common ground with fundamentalists amounts to arguing that no one is immune to the forces and fears that compel us to fall back onto the fundamentals in a bid to preserve a privileged position that appears to be slipping away due to some internal or external threat.

            The way I see it, the attempt to regain or preserve this cultural status usually begins with an effort to purify the faith, to take things back to basics, boil them down to their essential elements or fundamentals. This is exactly the strategy employed by the Bible Institutes of Los Angeles when they published “The Fundamentals” in response to the “threat” of Higher Criticism coming out of Germany and elsewhere in the early 20th century. Naturally, heresy (and heretics) have to be rooted out as well. So it’s not just about purifying doctrines, it’s also about purifying the movement. There’s no room for the slightest compromise when the very survival of the group is at stake. When this process of purification fails (it seems inevitable that such a process will cause the group to shrink down to the diehards rather than grow), other means to regain power must be sought. This doesn’t always amount to violence, at least not physical violence, but it certainly helps to forge a hostile religious identity. I believe this is the sort of phenomenon Rob Bell is describing in the passage I quoted from him.

            Contrary to this strategy, what I’m trying to say to fundamentalists (and myself), is that it’s not the strongest who survive, it’s the ones who are most adaptive to change. When survival (of the individual or the movement) becomes the highest good, that’s when we become a threat to others and ourselves. So the common ground I’m seeking to establish is epistemological humility.

          • Michael Hardin

            I think it important to recognize that fundamentalism can be defined both theologically (worldview) and sociologically (religion). Marsden does the former, Girard the latter. Either way Kevin, your post is spot on. I would disagree with Mr. Runnalls: while in theory one might seek dialogue with fundamentalists, in practice (at least in my experience) that is virtually impossible. The problem lies in both sides of the coin, worldview and religion. The fundamentalist worldview is a neatly wrapped package where all questions have been answered by a “divinely given” textual revelation. Without a perfect textual revelation as a foundation there would be no fundamentalism in the religious sense. On the other hand the Dawkins of the world are also a mimetic twin of religious fundamentalism where the perfect text has been supplanted by a perfect worldview given by science. For these folks reasoning, as a process is ‘perfect’ and thus all answers can be found through a kind of Cartesian process.
            I often describe fundamentalists (of any sort) as those whose minds are like cement: all mixed up and permanently set. Arguing with them is pointless, one can only love them, treat them with kindness and in the long run witness prophetically to them that what they preach or teach is untruth due to the mechanism which grounds their arguments: justification of violence, exclusion and scapegoating. Whether Driscoll or Dawkins, both types of certainty have lost touch with the real world.

          • Kevin Miller

            Excellent insights, Michael. Thanks.

          • Glenn Runnalls

            In the attempt at something approaching dialogue, forgive me for pointing out the obvious. of course you can’t have dialogue with fundamentalists if you define fundamentalists as “those whose minds are like cement: all mixed up and permanently set.” that’s not two sides of the same coin, that’s a tautology,

            If we’re going to talk about the human sciences, there exists an anthropological understanding of fundamentalism. that is, there is a Christian movement that self-identifies as fundamentalist. Like any movement, its origins are over-determined but it can be understood from both an emic and an etic perspective that fundamentlaism arose in reaction to 19th cent. modernity.

            Fundamentalists were a minority Chrisitan movement that embraced their role/identity as Outsiders (at least until the 1980s, after which it became quite complicated with Falwell and co.) not just in relation to general American culture but to other Christians and as often as not to other fundamentalists. As the Cold War was drawing to a close, certain disparate Islamic groups started to be made manifest because of their militant resistance to the Western Worldview which they saw as responsible for the oppression of the people and the corruption of their leaders. For a number of reasons, reporters and commentators found it useful to call these militant groups, Muslim/Islamic Fundamentalists.

            One of the stances that both groups seemed to have in common was a strong sense of moral hygiene. This hygienic approach included a strong resistance to “infectious” ideas from the modern/western world, which can be perceived by their respective disputants as unreceptive to change or to new information.

            Over the last forty years, we have seen all sorts of huge sociological changes taking place: Reagan/Thather Conservatives; rise of Religious Right; the fall of the USSR; the culture wars; the war on terror; recognition replacing redistribution for liberal/progressives; postmodernism; poststructuralism; social constructionism . . .

            During that time, it has became convenient to politicize and psychologize fundamentalism and treat the two disparate groups (Christian and Muslim) as if they were all the same. And as Others, these folk have looked for order a midst the disorder by learning to perform the practices attributed to them: propensity for violence and close-mindedness being two of the more obvious.

            If it is true that “anyone . . . can fall into a rigid, non-negotiable . . . way of thinking that can create the potential for conflict” i would suggest that there are way more productive ways to explore this concern then in trying to come up with the best definition of fundamentalism and figuring out who fits into the category. this is basic Althusser: such a move does a kind of violence to the Other as the definition turns them into a puppet of ideology. I’m not sure why anyone under the tutelage of Girard would want to participate in such interpellation.

          • Kevin Miller

            I really appreciate the brief backgrounder, Glenn. I agree that the term “fundamentalist” has essentially been hijacked in various ways. However, I still think you misunderstand my intent. Rather than come up with a definition of “fundamentalist” and then seek to cram people into it, I’m trying to do exactly the opposite–discern what we mean on a gut level when we apply that term to someone. Hence, I’m looking for a way of describing a fundamentalist mind-set that is not linked to a particular set of beliefs but rather a stance toward belief and then how one goes about seeking to attain a platform in the culture for those beliefs. This isn’t to ignore or deny the history of Christian Fundamentalism but rather to pick up the pieces considering the way the term is used now.

  • Jeremy Vis

    Not long ago there was a guest on CBC Radio’s ‘Ideas’ who suggested that there are no ‘religious wars’, but that every war is in the pursuit of power, and that sometimes religious people pursue power like everyone. I wasn’t entirely convinced but I think he makes a good and complementary point to yours here. it is not religion itself, but inflexibility and Certainty that lead to violence… the ‘why behind the why’. Thanks for this post, Kevin.

    • Kevin Miller

      I think that’s right on the money, Jeremy. If you listen to the excellent Ideas series called “The Myth of the Secular,” you’ll hear Paul Kahn argue that modern theories of the state are essentially secularized theological ideas. So religious ways of thinking haven’t gone anywhere, they’re merely transforming into shapes we not recognize immediately.

      Speaking of power, this affirms Rene Girard’s contention that we don’t fight b/c we are different, we fight b/c we are the same–we want the same things.

  • swbarnes2

    If you start with the axiom “humans make mistakes” then it is a necessary corollary that you want a worldview that makes it easy to identify and fix mistakes.

    I think that particular axiom is pretty darn hard to argue with, so it shouldn’t be treated as an arbitrary starting point, or “just as good” as starting with an axiom that says the the Bible, or certain religious leaders don’t make mistakes. It’s actually a pretty darn solid foundation, and frankly, it’s one that even religious people really can’t deny.

    • Kevin Miller

      Lots of wisdom there.

  • Bryce Leggett

    Would you define religion the same as worldview? This reminded me of a quote from Timothy Keller. I love Google, and word find.

    “Let’s begin by asking what religion is. Some say it is a form of belief in God. But that would not fit Zen Buddhism, which does not really believe in God at all. Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing. For example, some think that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to choose to do what makes you happy and not let others impose their beliefs on you. Notice that though this is
    not an explicit, “organized” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things.Some call this a “worldview” while others call it a “narrative
    identity.” In either case it is a set of faith- assumptions about the nature of things. It is an implicit religion.”

    • Kevin Miller

      No, I would separate “worldview” and “religion.” To me, a worldview is a grid or paradigm through which you interpret experience. A religion is a set of rituals, prohibitions and myths designed to mitigate reciprocal violence–among other things. :)

  • Curt Day

    I would apply words of Ralph C. Martin, a Catholic, who observed the mixing of Christianity with other ideas syncretism. Syncretism is the joining of two or more incompatible ideas. Such a joining would be like pounding a square peg into a round hole. You might eventually hit the peg hard enough until it is inserted into the hole but not without doing significant violence to either the peg, the hole or both.

    Since fundamentalism is simply the reliance on basic tenets of the faith, if there is no trace of intolerance or violent reaction to others in the tenets, then one must look for these themes in other ideas that might have been violently joined with one’s faith.

    One basic way of life that has often been forced to be a part of the fundamentalisms of varying faiths is tribalism. As tribalism grows, a moral relativity that says what is right and wrong depends on who does what to whom is more warmly embraced. But not all Fundamentalists display intolerance and violent reactions to differences.

    Thus, you might be looking for trouble in all of the wrong places with your definition of fundamentalism. I would also refer to my blog or this article that was posted in Znet.

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks for the note, Curt. I feel like you’ve cracked open a new vein of exploration for me with your discussion of syncretism and your observation that if if there is no trace of intolerance or violent reaction to others in the basic tenets of one’s faith, then one must look for these themes in other ideas that might have been violently joined with one’s faith.

      This helps me understand why I instinctively feel the need tend to push back when people want to write off religion as nothing more than a vehicle for intolerance. It seems more accurate to say that religion isn’t really the problem. It’s the quest for cultural dominance. And if it can’t be gained through simply adhering to the tenets of one’s faith, people will seek it through other means, such as politics. Hence the fusion of republicanism and conservative evangelicalism in the United States (and Canada) for that matter. Talk about pounding a square peg into a round hole.

      • Curt Day

        I’ve been fighting against religious prejudice due to the use of comfortable stereotypes for a while. Being both a Christian Fundamentalist and a Socialist allows me to help surprise some out of bigotry but it doesn’t earn points with my fellow fundamentalists.

        You are exactly right when you said that it is about “cultural dominance.”

  • Brent

    Thanks Kevin. If you have not checked it out already, I highly recommend the work of Mark Juergensmeyer, especially “Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, From Christian Militias to Al Qaeda” and Scott Atran’s “Talking to the Enemy”.

    • Kevin Miller

      Sounds like a great read. Will look it up. Thanks!

  • Susan Gerard

    “And which worldview(s) are the most receptive to change in light of new information?” All good questions; I think this is the most important one to ask. It seems that the others are subsidiary to this. There has been a lot of good discussion below, and not much I can add.

    Am looking forward to your thoughts on Girard, As I’ve just bought “Discovering Girard”. Should be interesting and helpful! Thanks.

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks, Susan. I think you’ll really enjoy the book. Looking forward to hearing your feedback!

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana Hope

    One of the best posts I’ve seen on patheos, so good job. I am a recovering Christian fundamentalists as I often write about, and yet I’ve never been able to shake off the spiritual needs. In essence this is why I don’t turn to atheism. I am so glad you brought up pluralism. All religions are not equal. Some religions don’t even have a fundamental counterpart, they are just suppressive to the core (a tribal group in Burma cuts off people’s heads and puts them in front of the village to keep away bad spirits). If all religions are the same, it certainly takes away any distinctive qualities; I’m not sure if I would say they are therefore inherently meaningless.

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks, Lana. I would rather ask a question about how constructive or destructive certain worldviews or practices are, at least according to the goals we’ve set for ourselves (i.e. love, equality, empathy, peace).


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