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"Philosophers and theologians have yet to learn that a physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle" -- J. Louis Agassiz

Agassiz was a famous 19th century geologist who helped found earth science.

Fundamentalism is the religious expression of extremism. As such it is part of the larger picture. Neither Abraham, nor Jesus, nor Mohammed was an extremist, except perhaps in a desire to cure the ills of humanity. When their teachings are extended and distorted to fit an individualistic view we have religious extremism, otherwise known as fundamentalism.

It is fundamental irony that religious fundamentalism can and does produce terror. Fundamentalism is a global phenomenon. It infects every major religion just as secular extremism affects the arts and sciences. For science at least, fundamentalism has been an historically-significant deterrent to progress. The most powerful, loudest, or charismatic actors had their ways in matters of thought or lack of it. It has been said that theories ascend to the factual level only when their vocal opponents pass on. Fundamentalism is based on but extends a traditional religion by embracing rigid precepts for thought and behavior. Fundamentalists interpret their Torah, Bible or Qur'an literally (which varies according to sect) even if there are self-contradictions. Wahhabism has been around since the 18th Century and has now become the foremost recruiter of Islamic terrorists. Along with the Deobandis, Wahhabism is the most fundamental and rigid of Islamic sects.

Fundamentalists seem to share several traits. They:
  • are disappointed by and fear modernity;
  • experience life as a war between the forces of good and evil of cosmic proportions; this bi-modal view is a hallmark of the Authoritarian Personality;
  • adhere to their dogma while attacking science, technology and evolution;
  • have authoritarian personalities that are more sensitive than most of us to any type of change;
  • believe humanity is going to the dogs, employ cult-like recruiting practices to ensnare the ignorant and vulnerable,
  • feel embattled by secular forces and enemies; they often fear the establishment is simply out to get them, and they fight back.

If you see a certain paranoia here you are quite right. If you see this as primarily a disease of monotheism you are also right.

Some people are trying to do something about fundamentalism. For example Muslim Refusenik -- The Trouble with Islam - Irshad Manji. From her website forum we extract an interchange of general interest:

"Irshad, you are an extremist but in the opposite direction to the well-known Mullahs. You are selling yourself to the Western World and you will never know what the true teachings of Islam are. All that you say is just bullshit. Could you do something better than this to show others what Islam actually is?" -- Alia

Irshad replies: You're right, Alia. I could be doing something else -- a documentary, for example, which I hope to begin shooting shortly. I'm grateful for your encouragement!

P. S. Do you know "all that I say"? Have you read my book yet?

[The Trouble with Islam - Publisher]

For some flavor of what she is up against see:

Islamic Fundamentalism

Evangelicals are "born again" Christians, accept the full authority of the Bible in matters of faith and morals, and are committed to spreading their gospel. Some 20% of American adults embrace Evangelical core beliefs. (Roger Doyle, "Sizing up Evangelicals", Scientific American, March 2003) Evangelicals emphasize doctrine and Bible inerrancy in particular. Jerry Falwell is a leading example.In Christian doctrine the first birth destines one to die; the second birth results in life eternal, and so the term "Born Again" arose. Pentecostals are essentially fundamentalists but they accent the religious experience rather than doctrine. Jimmy Swaggart is an example. Charismatics, such as Pat Robertson, believe in spiritual gifts such as prophecy. They are nondenominational. Neo-evangelicals accept the tenets of conservative Protestantism but reject the extreme intellectualism
and sectarianism of fundamentalism. Billy Graham is best known from this group.

It is a credit to American society that a pairing of fundamentalism and democracy is even possible. Pat Robertson, when running for president proclaimed:

"After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody to practice it." The constitution makes no such distinction, nor does it countenance a religious test on governors at any level. The Constitution is all about freedom and equality - pluralism, in other words. It is pluralism that permits Pat Robertson to say whatever
he wants to.

Early in the 20th Century America discovered fundamentalist Christianity and Judaism. This experience paralleled scientific advances (and the technological explosion that followed) that began in earnest in the 19th Century. Fundamentalism arose in response to fears that science would replace God in daily life. It was a creation of theologians at Princeton University in the 19th century who wanted to preserve belief in divine origin. This was in direct response to Darwinism. Unlike the earlier Calvinism from which it grew, American Fundamentalism is unsympathetic to science. The Calvinists believe in predestination and salvation by God's grace. Science is silent about these matters. The conflict between Church and state began much earlier, of course, with Galileo. Fundamentalists in America share three beliefs that have trended over the last decade as follows:

  • Literal Correctness of the Bible (in decline)Proselytizing (in decline)
  • "Born Again" (holding steady)

Jerry Falwell is quoted as saying in response to 9/11:

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America; I point the finger in their face and say, You helped this happen..."

The above delivered by Falwell during the Sept. 13th broadcast of the Christian television program, the 700 Club, is the type of statement that is more often associated with Middle Eastern dictators than with Christian television.

Later in the same show, Falwell further blurred the lines between his beliefs and that of the Sept. 11 attackers by saying that, because of the previously mentioned groups, God had allowed 'the enemies of America' to give us probably what we deserve.

One problem with fundamentalists is that they either do not stop to think, cannot think, or do not accept the many great discoveries made by science achieved by secular endeavor or sponsorship. We can only hope that Falwell simply did not stop to think. But even that is scary, as his statements likely reflect what he really does believe.

Bin Laden might echo some of these same attitudes. In each case it is the Authoritarian mindset that is talking – each is rigid in stereotyping the problem. America is far more fundamentalist than is Europe at the present time. Islam is effectively more fundamentalist than is the US. Science is based on observation, logic, and factual information while religion addresses mankind's need for faith and morals. There is no incompatibility between the two. But the mere fact that America leads Europe in both science and fundamentalism provides another clue that fundamentalism arose in response to science, see Evolution in particular.

Fundamentalism in viewpoint is not limited to religion. Its political analogue appears at the extreme fringes on both sides of the the conservative and liberal divide. Examples appear within and among many national governances and economies. Fundamentalism seems to arise from the Authoritarian Personality that in large or small degree is present in many of us, maybe most of us. Like the Christian evangelicals, Islam demands the inerrancy of the Qur'an and has strict rules about how to propagate itself. Islam holds out heaven as an even more certain reward than most Christians or Jews do, especially for martyrs. Fundamentalist Mullahs are roughly equivalent to evangelicals.

One might say that most of Islam marches to the fundamentalist drumbeat while only a small fraction of the rest of the world does. Core evangelicals constitute only about 20% of the US population. (See Rodger Doyle, Scientific American, March 2003, p37, for more.) This 20%, of course, influences others beyond their numbers. Between modernity and fundamentalism lies a fissure in modern society that is now making itself felt the world over. America's position at the apex of world modernism was doubtless a strong motivator for the World Trade Center bombing. Fundamentalism is not a coherent movement. Rather it cuts across religions and finds expression in various ways.

As the forerunner of modernity and religious freedoms, American society is both a base for their legitimacy and a natural target for their conversion. In the latter half of the 20th century, fundamentalism found increasing expression worldwide but most especially in Islam in reaction to the developing nations and their technologies leaving the Middle East behind. It is the Princeton expression all over again, in new clothing. Fundamentalist feelings seem to be amplified in an Islamic society that is conservative, closed to ideas, narrowly or relatively poorly educated, and agrarian by heritage. Muslim fundamentalists are certainly in tune with those in other cultures the world over.

Although they may be minority or splinter groups relative to the Muslim population as a whole, they nevertheless dominate Islamic society and law.That fundamentalists of all three monotheisms are now in mortal conflict should be no surprise. The more extreme one side is perceived to be, the more extreme the other feels free to become in response. This feature is at least partly responsible for seemingly endless bloodshed in Palestine. These ills, if that is the proper word, are not short-term problems nor will they be resolved quickly. Time is needed, and it must be used wisely.

When a fundamentalist, bin Laden for example, has an aura of trying to better the plight of the common people, you have a double problem. The loyalty of the inner group and those they rely upon can be very strong indeed. We cannot just knock on his door and arrest him. He is not alone. Saudi Arabia has its Wahhabis, much of Pakistan and Afghanistan have the Taliban, and the US has its Christian Right. Kimberly Blaker, in her "The Fundamentals of Extremism," suggests James Dobson the Christian Right . To quote Blaker: "Dobson, an evangelical, a patriarch, and an advocate of corporal punishment is an opponent of reproductive choice, homosexual rights, free speech, liberal sex education, and the right to die with dignity. Yet he has a remarkable ability to manipulate unsuspecting Americans who otherwise might not agree with his views. His sly maneuvering through the political arena unseen and unheard--except by those whose chains he pulls--has been a key to his power and success."

Blaker quotes from Dobson's "Children at Risk," "Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience--what they see, hear, think, and believe--will determine the future course for the nation."

"I firmly believe in acquainting children with God's judgment and wrath while they are young. Nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to skip over the unpleasant scriptures in our teaching. The wages of sin is death, and children have the right to understand that fact." Is this democracy? Of course not. If you were a young parent, you would have no freedom of choice in the matter of your children's education--neither what they learn nor how they have to learn it would be any of your business in Dobson's world. Nor what church to go to. Neoconservatism for commentary on political extremism.

For more on the Christian Fundamentalism, see:

Warrior's World

Fundamentalism Fuels Clashes Among Civilizations.
Fundamentalism William O. Beeman, Department of Anthropology, Brown University.

In 2000, before 9/11, Karen Armstrong wrote a beautiful book on fundamentalism: The Battle For God.

Terror in the Name of God by Jessica Stern is written from a different viewpoint. Each is a must read by anyone who cares about the future of humanity.


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