How Not To Think About Fundamentalism

How Not To Think About Fundamentalism February 6, 2013

One of my earliest mentors in the historical profession was a former member of Students for a Democratic Society.  He was also a remarkably dynamic teacher who enjoyed pulling reversals in the classroom: before the break, Arthur Schlesinger was the wise and normative advocate of measured reform; after the break Arthur Schlesinger was a googly-eyed plutocrat.   This was a rather blunt way to introduce us to issues of master narratives, methodology, and historiography (in addition to Schlesinger), and it fostered even more quickly than usual our embrace of the grad school dance of mixed praise, which we all frantically began doing because we wanted to prove we were smart:  “I like the Marxist reading of Bewitched, but I’m surprised there’s no conversation with Elaine May on gender.”   Etc.

Anyway, about a third of the way through the semester we read a pretty well-received book about the rise of the Christian Right.  We all loved it.   Then our SDS professor said that he thought the book “pathologized” conservatism, which is to say that according to the author’s narrative the conservative activists in the book became conservative because they embraced delusional beliefs about mid-twentieth century American society.  They were conservative because they dealt poorly with the stress of their narrow postwar lives.  They were conservative because they deviated (pathologically) from the normal, which, of course in the author’s mind, was the liberalism of the New Deal consensus.

Pathologizing, of course, is a long and noble tradition in American historiography:  Richard Hofstadter pathologized pretty much everybody he disagreed with; Daniel Bell believed people voted for Barry Goldwater because they were gullible; and of course Fawn Brodie famously pathologized Joseph Smith, Richard Nixon, and just about everybody else she could get her hands on.   This is not to say speculation about the mental states of our historical subjects is completely off limits – just about every historian makes inferences about things like this.  But today Hofstadter and Brodie’s interpretations seem particularly weak, because they conclude that their subjects do what they do primarily because of mental strain – the implication being that were they mentally healthy they’d have behaved otherwise, and, thus, their political and religious choices were derived from stress rather than, say, reason.

In retrospect I think this was a rather harsh judgment on the book, but the notion’s stuck with me – particularly as I’ve seen arguments about religion rage in the media over the past few years.  Pathologizing seems endemic:  Mitt Romney’s campaign ignored Nate Silver because the Romney campaign was stupid.  Glenn Beck is a loon.  Michele Bachmann is crazy.  And so on.

I see two problems with this, from an academic perspective.  First: simply ascribing opinions that seem unreasonable to us to pathology abdicates our responsibility as students of the humanities to understand the human condition.  Naming something pathological is essentializing, reducing it to the incomprehensible, stating there Is no place for it in our civil discourse.  And that’s a dangerous position to take – particularly if we disagree with the position.  After all, understanding something truly seems a necessary predicate to effectively refuting it.

Second: it’s usually true that most things – even conservatism – are far deeper, more complicated, and thoughtful than most people understand.  Even Protestant fundamentalism has a pretty interesting and respectable intellectual genealogy.  Indeed, fundamentalism is modern in the best sense: it is deeply confident in human rationality to make sense of the world.  It thinks in terms of evidence, proof, calculation, and organization.  It is sure that all information in the universe can be assimilated into a single master narrative.  In this way, fundamentalism is not so different from the naïve scientism – idolatry in the scientific method’s perfect ability to explain the world – that surfaced in the late nineteenth century and continues unabated in the work of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Richard Feynman would likely agree on very little.  But to say that isn’t to say that Aquinas was stupid: his terribly impressive brainpower was simply channeled in directions different from Feynman’s.    Similarly, I don’t here intend to deny that there _are_ stupid fundamentalists – there’s more than a few, just like there are people like Sam Harris.  It is to say, however, that structures of thought which are evidently vastly compelling to a large number of people probably have behind them philosophies and ideologies that deserve greater intellectual respect than the internet often gives.

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