Observations on Religious Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalists — especially those of the more militant sort and virtually regardless of which faith we are talking about — share a number of traits.  I want to blog about them because they are a distinctly regressive power in many countries in today’s world, and because they represent a virtual mirror image of those of us who support the secular democratic governance institutions that emerged in in the post-Enlightenment West. When I say “us” I do not just mean secular humanists, or secular Humanistic Jews.  I can include many mainline Protestants (but not most Evangelicals), many rank-and-file Catholics, secular Muslims, and a very high percentage of at least Reform Jews if not other Jews. All of these groups value and support the secular democratic governance invented by Spinoza, Jefferson, Locke and others.  Now, the modern world with all of its secular rather than religious governance institutions is not characterized by the kinds of absolutes and certainties that characterized the pre-Enlightenment world dominated by the Church and its precepts. The post-Enlightenment world was the grandest of social experiments as people of the West searched for and experimented with inventing new structures of meaning such as democracy, patriotism, and nationalism instead of the old givens of traditional religion and faith. As a consequence — and I can go into a lot more detail on this — the modern world and its lack of givens and certainties can be a very scary place.   What the modern world does offer to combat uncertainty isn’t absolutes anymore, but rather ways of seeking truth, namely science and reason.  Not everyone is comfortable with this kind of world, especially those who feel that the modern, cosmopolitan, diverse world robbed them of  a world that used to be all about them and their kind of people — “the way it was in the good old days” — when the meaning of life came from believing in what traditions offered; whereas in modern life meaning comes from identifying with life as a journey or quest to acquire knowledge, with science and reason as your compass, but no road map that lays out what look for and how to get there.  It is the profound existential anxiety about this lack of certainty that motivates the fundamentalists of all faiths. (To be continued.)

Here are a few more points I plan to develop:

1. All fundamentalists are born in the experience of finding cosmopolitan, diverse modernity to be profoundly dislocating and destructive of their identities because it has destroyed the world of religiously-ordained absolutes and certainties that they once knew.

2. Fundamentalists of all stripes are always tribal; and militant wings of such tribal fundamentalist movements have exactly the same traits as urban gangs in modern cities. Modern cities are in fact the archetypal instances of the modern world: dislocating, diverse, experimental, cosmopolitan, and therefore destructive of traditional identities. Think for example of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, etc., in modern cities and how susceptible they become both to gang recruitment and to extremist recruitment.

3.. The most violent fundamentalists come from cultures that have a strong shame vs.honor profile. Just as they may practice “honor killings” to escape the shame and humiliation that has come to their family in the eyes of their community because a daughter has been raped. Another side of this same vulnerability to humiliation is that the humiliation that comes from dislocation and not seeing a place for oneself in the new, modern, cosmopolitan, faith-less world is rage toward that world because it has taken away the certainties of tradition and therefore the very foundations of one’s identity. (Think no farther than the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant fundamentalists who have lost the America that was once all theirs; or the Muslims who once had a Caliphate that ruled everywhere.)

4.. Fundamentalists, especially the most militant, are always naive juvenile romantics. Please focus on each of these words, because they each apply powerfully and because together they add up to movements that do profoundly evil things. Fundamentalists all have extremell  unrealistic (juvenile) views about what is wrong with the world, and equally naive idealistic views about how the world can be fiixed. Jihad or crusade is more than a wrong-headed movement to return the world to an ancient Truth, it is also a great romantic adventure,  as well as a vehicle for rage against infidels or decadents in the modern world.

5. Fundamentalists all live in — or identify with — a piece of the world’s geography that at some earlier time of which they are mightily proud was all about them and their kind of people. But their worlds aren’t any more. This is true of white Protestant American fundamentalists who romanticize a time when the U.S.was “their” almost entirely WASP country, Islamists who seek a return of the Muslim Caliphate that once extended from the Hindu Kush across the Middle East and North Africa to Spain, and of fundamentalist Jews who seek to restore Biblical Israel.

6. In the case of Muslim fundamentalists, it is interesting to look at the recent history of the larger entities which Middle Eastern Muslims have tried to belong: In the wake of World War I, England and France created new states throughout the Middle East  and North Africa by drawing lines on maps in offices in London and Paris (and Brussels, Berlin, and Lisbon) that bore no relationship to the boundaries of the tribes to which people really belonged. For about a century attempts were made to create nationalistic feelings among these indigenous peoples. These efforts mostly failed. Both the English and French helped to establish monarchies, especially throughout the Middle East. Neither the secular nation-states nor the monarchies were particularly successful in creating strong national identities to replace old tribal and clan identities. By 1960, most of the monarchies were overthrown by military coups, leading strongmen to take on the task of creating national identities. This form of secular nationalism did not succeed either. Nasser, for example, became the great Middle Eastern hero by overthrowing the dissolute King Farouk.  This helped give Nasser  immense charisma and credibility on the Muslim Arab street as he tried to build pan-Arabism, and he did create a huge following across the region. However, a series of military defeats by Israel deeply humiliated the Arab people, and attempts to keep Muslim Arabs united in the larger movement of pan-Arabism withered away. (Consider the short life of the Nasser-inspired United Arab Republic.) Given the irrelevance of the secular nation-state boundaries and the failure of first monarchies and then strongmen and pan-Arabists to generate powerful national loyalties and identities, the only remaining larger-something was the Muslim religion. It was simply inevitable that theocratic Islamic movements would take hold in the wake of the failures of these preceding movements.