How do you Solve a Problem like Fundamentalism?

This is an insightful and accurate description of the pernicious effects of fundamentalism on, well, everything.

I particularly like the last paragraph which is an antidote to the overly-optimistic bromides you often hear about how education, particularly science education, is the cure for the current plague of anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism. Baloney. Trying to stem fundamentalism with education is like trying to put out a five-alarm fire with an eyedropper. For education to succeed, there has to be some degree of receptivity, and fundamentalism is extremely effective at hermetically sealing the channels into the human brain. No, fundamentalism must be fought, not with physical violence (at least not in this country…yet), but in several ways:

1) Intellectually: The pseudo-intellectual basis of fundamentalist polemic and ideology should be systematically dismantled. It would be great if there were some one site you could consult that would carry authoritative, point-by-point, in-your-face refutations of all major fundamentalist and religious right claims. Many of these critiques already exist, for instance at Talk.Origins and other anti-creationist and anti-fundamentalist sites. It would be great to have these brought together in one convenient location. Of course, maintaining such a site and keeping it current would be a lot of work and would probably keep a team of volunteers busy, but it would be a great resource. Naturally, the site would not aim at convincing fundamentalists. It would exist to provide ammunition for people to oppose fundamentalist polemic. For instance, when I hear some fundamentalist saying that you can “pray the gay away,” I would love to have one site where I could go that would give a clear, focused rebuttal that would cite the legitimate scientific sources and take that nonsense apart piece by piece.

2) Politically: Here, actually, we have seen some real progress. In the last election fundamentalist idiots were taken to task when they said particularly stupid things, especially stupid things about women. Fundamentalist beliefs really are out of the mainstream, especially with younger people. Much of what needs to be done here is to alert people to what fundamentalists REALLY believe. They really believe that a woman should submit to the authority of her husband. They really believe that abortion should be illegal even when the pregnancy is due to rape or incest. They really believe that there is something terribly wrong with gay people. They really believe that Jesus is soon coming back in glory for a genocidal Second Coming. They REALLY believe these things. Not much could be more damaging to fundamentalism than to let people know what they really believe. When a fundamentalist is running for office, we must pressure them to admit what they really believe. Make them say that they think a raped woman should be denied an abortion. Make them say that we don’t need to do anything about climate change because Jesus is coming back soon. Make them say it.

3) Culturally: I think that Tina Fey’s wicked satire of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live probably had as much to do with the defeat of the McCain/Palin ticket in ’08 as anything else. Fey made it devastatingly clear just how clueless and fatuous Palin really is. “A single belly-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms” said H.L. Mencken. Fundamentalism and fundamentalists should be ridiculed in the media, by comedians, or wherever. You don’t have to worry about fairness, since, as Poe’s Law famously notes, no satire can possibly be more absurd than the real thing. Come on. You just can’t come up with anything more ridiculous than someone who honestly thinks that all human woes stem from an incident in which a talking snake accosted a naked woman in a primeval garden and talked her into eating a piece of fruit. Again, most ridicule would consist of pointedly drawing attention to what they really believe. Nothing could be fairer than that. As a sign admonished on The Simpsons, put the fun back in fundamentalism. Laugh it to death.

About Keith Parsons
  • JohnH2

    “(at least not in this country…yet)”

    That is not something you should ever even joke about or think. You have just shown yourself to be as bad as a fundamentalist in this regards, and justified a lot of their fears.

    Satire is not an argument. The ability to make fun of something in no way determines whether it is legitimate or true.

    • Nolan

      JohnH2, I share your aversion to violence, but I can at least
      conceive of situations where it would be justifiable. If I was part of a
      small minority, for example, that was so demonized that the group was
      being killed off systematically, then violence would be justifiable self

      I don’t think this situation is likely, or anywhere near occurring, but it is possible, and seems to be the reality in some countries run by fundamentalists. Am I as bad as a fundamentalist for simply thinking of such a situation? Should people be scared of me now? That seems like an overstatement.

      Lowder also specifically said that we should combat fundamentalism intellectually, with arguments, so your second point doesn’t make sense. Having already established the strong arguments against wrong, harmful beliefs, I don’t see anything wrong with subsequent satire.

      • JohnH2

        It is more likely than you think. My faith has been such a minority. An off-shoot of my faith was demonized so much that a known prank call led to the state of Texas seizing all of the children and desecrating their holiest places, the children were only returned after a long court case with the popular sentiment being decidedly against the parents, who were charged with no crime. Violence in this case would have turned out in the predictable manner of Ruby Ridge and Waco (or Haun’s Mill or Nauvoo or Missouri Executive Order 44 (the Extermination Order, legal to kill members of my faith until 1976 (never tested in court))).

        Further resorting to violence or the threat of violence in the face of fear of military force (Buchanan’s Blunder) also tends to lead to tragedy (Mountains Meadows) so I don’t care which side you see yourself on. Violence with those who disagree with you, even when they are threatening violence, is wrong. Even waiting for the other side to turn violent (by say, poisoning a water supply) before turning violent can lead to tragedy.

        • Nolan

          JohnH2, I feel like you keep on replacing the examples posited with ones that are more convenient to your position. I talked about systematic extermination by the government, not threats of violence/ seizure of children.

          In your examples, it does look likely that peaceful protest is/was the best route, and violent reactions would lead to larger tragedies. But are you really trying to say that one can never use violence as a means of self defense against systematic extermination? It seems to me like an obvious point.

          • JohnH2

            I have provided real world examples for our nations history. We can extend it to the Native Americans if you wish and see how well violence helped them as a means of self-defence against systematic extermination but I don’t think it improves your case much.

            Obviously it is the right, and duty, of the people to overthrow a government when it becomes destructive to the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but this should not be for light or transient causes and all attempts at redress should be made first. If this occurs the people so doing should be prepared for a long and bloody war, if not out right extermination.

          • Nolan

            Even though you are not directly answering the questions, it looks like you are actually agreeing with my “case” that there are conceivable situations where violence is justified. Yes, it may lead to extermination or long, bloody wars, and should be avoided in most situations, but I never contested these points. You seem to be arguing against a straw man.

            Finally, in my other initial point I challenged your claims that someone who shared Lowder’s view should be considered “as bad as a fundamentalist” or that fundamentalists have justified fears of people with his views. I think my comment stands.

          • JohnH2

            If you are willing and ready to go to war against those that believe differently without them first causing you real harm then you are as bad as a fundamentalist, and they are justified in fearing you.

          • Keith Parsons

            Let me try to get clear on some of the points that have emerged in this discussion between myself, Nolan, and JohnH2: We all seem to agree that, in principle, there are times when violence is rightly employed against oppression. Has anyone advocated violence merely against “those that believe differently from you without first causing you real harm”? I certainly have not advocated this, nor has Nolan. In fact, the whole point of my post was to recommend nonviolent ways of combating fundamentalism. Also, JohnH2 adverts to the words of Jefferson that revolution should not be made against “light and transient” causes and that other means of redress should be attempted first. I wholeheartedly agree. Violence should always be the last resort.

            So, we seem to agree on basic principles, but what about the practical issue? As JohnH2 notes, there are times that violence may be morally justified but is impractical because it produces an even more violent backlash that makes conditions even harsher and more oppressive. Witness the valiant but futile resistance of Native Americans. These days you have loonies of the far right talking about needing their assault rifles to fight the Federal Government. But you don’t fight the U.S. Government by taking on the Marines. You lawyer up and take them to court.

            On the other hand, there are many occasions, as we have learned to our sorrow, where asymmetric warfare is successful. I saw an interview with North Vietnamese General Giap who was asked how he defeated the U.S., given the enormous firepower of the American military. His answer was this: “When the Americans advanced, we retreated. When they stopped, we attacked. When they retreated, we followed.” Asymmetric warfare does sometimes succeed. Some revolutions are successful. The commitment to violence is the most serious decision that anyone can make, but there are times and places where it is both justified and necessary.

            I would say that one circumstance in which violence would be justified would be if the Taliban had taken over. These are people who will throw acid in a girl’s face to keep her from going to school. In this morning’s paper there was a report from Afghanistan about a suicide bomber who killed twelve children who were walking to school just so that two Americans could also be killed. There is no way to reason with such fanatics. There are no other means of redress. You have to kill them. Are there people as bad as the Taliban in the U.S. who would like to impose the Christian fundamentalist equivalent of the Sharia on us? You bet.

          • JohnH2


            I suggest you look at the comments on a recent article at Friendly Atheist (one on a student saying the Lord’s prayer at graduation). There you will find massive amounts of insults to the intelligence of the student, state, and religion and this lovely comment: “Some states just need to nuked for the good of the whole planet.”.

            Put another way a student took the opportunity afforded him of limited free speech due to his high academic achievement to express a certain world view. Because of that people are threatening violence to him and his state (nuke? seriously?) and insulting his intelligence (and that of his school and state) and the OP suggests that the school should ban all such limited free speech opportunities simply because it expressed a particular world view contrary to that of the OP.

            Are there atheists as bad as the Taliban in the US who would like to impose New Atheist fundamentalist equivalent to the Sharia on us? You bet.

          • Keith Parsons


            I took a look at the comment on Friendly Atheist. Definitely unfriendly in the extreme. I especially dislike the casual use of the term “nuke.” Those who know anything about thermonuclear weapons and the nature of multi-megaton explosions (like the Castle Bravo test, 1954, 15 megatons) would and should hesitate before calling for “nuking” anybody or anything.

            That said, I can understand ire, or at least frustration of a secular person attending such an event. I attended a graduation–at a PUBLIC high school in the Atlanta, GA area in 2000 that was turned into a fundamentalist revival service. The pastor, er, principal opened with the statement, I kid you not, that we were gathered to celebrate family, and that family was second in importance only to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior. He then proceeded to offer a copy of the Ten Commandments with every diploma. Each student speaker offered a passionately Christian prayer, in Jesus’ name. I was amazed that the service, er, ceremony did not end with an altar call.

            Well, so what? Don’t principals and students have a right to free speech? Well, sure they do, but not every time or place is appropriate for exercising that right. Politics and religion are divisive–more than anything. Graduation ceremonies are supposed to be for everyone, not just fundamentalist Christians. Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and, yes, atheists should all be able to feel like welcome participants in any such event. This is hard to feel when someone is putting a hard-boiled sectarian message in your face. It is hard to escape the impression that the whole purpose of such a vulgar display of public sanctity is to assert the dominance of the majority creed, and keep us religious minorities “in our place.”

          • JohnH2

            Being in a religious minority my self, I have been in similar situations.

            Teachers and principles mentioning religion in such a public setting as a graduation (or as part of a class(generally)) is something that should not be allowed. There may be specific times in specific classes where a teacher mentioning something as their personal belief while being clear that the mention is not part of the class instruction could theoretically be acceptable in a public school, but in practice the power dynamics and potential for abuse make such situation impractical.

            That said, what the Valedictorian and any other student that has obtained the right to speak says is and should be completely up to them (with obvious restrictions).

            I should probably be better at thanking people for engaging in civil discourse, even when I disagree with part of what they say.

            Thank you, Keith (and Nolan) for the generally respectful discourse with me. I especially appreciate that Keith understands the enormity of joking about the usage of nukes. I do not know how to effectively express the idea that one should not really joke about violence at all, and under no circumstances should nukes be joked about as being used.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Your being too incompetent at reading comprehension to understand
            accepted hyperbole and idioms is not a disadvantage for anyone but you.

            Regarding the Taliban, I’d suggest you Google “false equivalency”, but, well, that reading comprehension thing…

    • John W. Loftus

      Hi JohnH2, I endorse the use of ridicule too, as one response of many:

      It works!

    • Wbab


      It’s so interesting to look at satire even within religion itself! The trickster gods of many religions: Pan, Locki, etc. they poke fun at religion itself and remind us to not take it so seriously. They break the illusion. It’s truly fascinating.

  • Keith Parsons

    Tell me, JohnH2, if something like the Taliban took over this country, would it not be appropriate to oppose such evil in Malcolm X’s words, “by any means necessary?” John Locke, devout Christian and vigorous opponent of intolerance, argued most eloquently that violent revolution is a very apt response to tyranny. Was Locke as bad as a fundamentalist? As for satire, it is not an argument, but it can and often does tell the truth. Also, it tells the truth in a most effective way. The Satyricon revealed more about the cruelty and excess of Roman society than dozens of sociological studies could have accomplished. Gulliver’s Travels was equally effective in its day. In fact, I would say that the satirist is the deadliest enemy of all forms of extremism, hypocrisy, and cant.

    • JohnH2


      Threatening violence against those who you disagree with is wrong. I will do what is in my power to prevent violence to myself and my family but I will not seek to destroy by violent means those with whom I disagree with. If a fundamentalist political party were to gain power through legitimate elections then I would oppose them politically and through the courts. If the courts come out against me then I will still not resort to violence. If political opposition is outlawed then it is time to take the protests to the streets and let them be the first to resort to violence.

      Satire can be as much used to lie as to tell the truth. Good propaganda will always use satire and comedy.

      • SGHeathen

        That is not the point. It’s not just because of disagreement. If a party oppresses/discriminates/attacks you it is in my opinion justified to retaliate with force. If you are treated with force and you just let it be, ‘you’ becomes meaningless. You die.

  • Rogi Riverstone

    Machiavellian, elitist snob! Education leads to changing policies and intellect! You don’t waste your time on the loud mouths; you invest your time in the fence-sitters & the youth. They’re most likely to be swayed, esp. when they see the alternatives to the stifling, restrictive & toxic restraints they’re in. You’re advocating for a privileged class, where knowledge is too expensive for the rabble! Well, guess who burned down the Library of Alexandria? Not the elite. And, as Sagan said, “and when the mobs finally came, there was nobody there to stop them.” You’re a sanctimonious jerk for having the privilege of a good education and refusing to pay that forward!

    • Keith Parsons


      • JohnH2

        It appears that Rogi is working under the assumption that you are against public education?

  • Jerry Lynch

    Fundamentalists are not made by religion but by bad environments; they will pick anything to express their mental malady. Raised in a pernicious home by authoritarian abuse in whatever form (religious, political, cultural, racial, whatever), a sense of worth and need for revenge and the exorcism of pain is neatly packaged in fundamentalist belief. An education system that included mental health classes and screening from the youngest age and throughout schooling by well-qualified and trained specialists is first. Then in conjunction, basic behavior modeling classes demonstrating compassion, empathy, assertiveness, and so forth. Children are as bright as adults only less knowledgeable. Such activities would help reveal the problems in their family of origin, give them the room and means to find a different direction.

    I think it was Anias Nin who said, “Our parents are our first hypnotists.” Breaking the spell should be a central part of education. Going to war against the adults politically, with ridicule, or arms is using a lawnmower on weeds.

    I am a pacifist, like JohnH2. Trying to solve the world problems with the same consciousness that created them, such as that of violence, only perpetuates what we–in all good conscience, intent, and passion–want to resolve. Putting violence as the last possible alternative gives the impression of a reasonable and decent person but it is self-deception; Violence is often the first thought and other solutions voiced and even pursued done as milder retribution. Our only real hope is more improbable people like JohnH2.