2004 April 15 Thursday
Fundamentalism Is More Than A Mood About Religion

Writing over on National Review's blog The Corner Andrew Stuttaford makes the excellent point that religious fundamentalists of different religions should not all be lumped together because the basics of various religions differ in substantial and important ways.

The reality is that, while all forms of fundamentalism may share certain psychological causes, they also differ very greatly. More than that, to regard all fundamentalisms as the same is to ignore the fact that what someone believes is as important as how they believe. Fundamentalist Christianity is very different from fundamentalist Islam, and to deny that is a blind, idiotic fundamentalism all of its own.

The problem with fundamentalist Islam is not simply that it is a fundamentalism. The problem is that the base texts of Islam contain messages that make fundamentalist Muslims hostile to non-believers and to liberal democracy. Contra George W. Bush, the Islamic terrorists didn't hijack a peaceful religion. The Islamists find plenty of support for their political views in the Koran and other base texts from the early period of Islam.

There is a strain of anti-religious thinking in Western countries which holds that all religions are equally bad. This view is appealing in part because it treats all religions equally and hence is seen as a sign of belief in human equality. Some fail to discriminate properly between the different religions due to a general ignorance about how the religions differ. However, some who take the position that all religions are equally bad are motivated by a desire to make it easier to show that they are not singling out any particular group or religious belief. The only discrimination they are making is against religious beliefs in general. This more general discrimination against religious beliefs is seen by those who engage in it as preferable precisely because it makes fewer distinctions. The problem with this view, of course, is that just as secular non-religious belief systems differ from each other in important ways so do religious belief systems. There are more or less liberal (or entirely illiberal) secular ideologies and philosophies. The same is the case with religious belief systems.

The tendency by some secularists to view all religions as equal is matched by the pronouncements of ecumenically minded believers who would have us belief that spirituality is innately good regardless of what religious beliefs it is tied to. One motivation for this ecumenism in the West is that as religiosity dwindles those who are of any particular faith sense their shrunken numbers and desire to make common cause with those of other religions in order to cut a larger combined figure in politics and society.

This tendency toward ecumenism also seems to be in part a consequence of the quite laudable drive to stamp out unfair forms of discrimination against people on the basis of race. This drive has gradually transmogrified into a more general prohibition against any attempts to discern differences between people (i.e. to discriminate) whether those differences be innate or on matters of beliefs and values. The term "discriminate" has come to be used most often in its pejorative meaning where differences which are noted are considered to be inessential in judging individuals or groups. Yet the large sized Random House dictionary includes a number of non-pejorative definitions for discrimination such as (and my bold emphasis added) "to note or observe a difference; distinguish accurately: to distinguish between things". The idea that discrimination between people on any basis can be done accurately is contrary to the spirit of our times. Yet such discrimination is both possible and necessary. There are differences between people that matter and among those differences are differences in religious belief.

The liberal view that all people should be judged individually and that all should be free is colliding with religious beliefs which are quite hostile to that view. Liberals who have shrunk from the act of mental discrimination of differences between people because of their fear that the discernment of differences will lead to unfair behavior toward others have taken their reaction to unfair discrimination too far. Liberals need to do a better job of recognizing their enemies or liberalism will be defeated in the long term. This recognition of enemies can only be done if we become willing to discern threatening differences in beliefs that are inherent to specific belief systems.

An assortment of previous posts provide pieces of evidence that, in my view, support the analysis above. See these posts: Theodore Dalrymple On Muslim Immigrants In Britain, Prospect Of Democracy Breeding Ethnic Hatred In Iraq, William H. McNeill On Samuel P. Huntington, What Osama Bin Laden Doesn't Like About America, Jeffrey Goldberg on Islamic contempt and anger, Steven Waldman On 7 Myths About The Religious Right, On Christianity, Islam, Utopianism, And Tyrannies, Apologists For Islam Say Religious States Are Okay, David Klinghoffer on Islam and Non-Believers, and David Warren On The Nature Of Islam, Rise Of Islamism.

Update: Irfan Khawaja makes some excellent points in an essay about Koranic interpretation and terrorism.

Some have argued (though Pipes does not) that the Koran is irrelevant to understanding terrorism because terrorists tend to be inept interpreters of its texts. In other words, what difference does the correct interpretation of the Koran make if Islamic terrorism is being driven by heretical interpretations of the Koran like those of Ayman al Zwahiri or Osama bin Laden? They are not, after all, accredited Koranic scholars. But it makes all the difference. If the Zwahiris and bin Ladens are interpreting the Koran correctly--or even plausibly--then the Koran might very well be an important source of terrorism. That's worth knowing by itself. If they are misinterpreting it, we need to ask why their misinterpretations have come to acquire whatever legitimacy and popularity they have. And if both things are true, then both conclusions apply in different ways.

Update II: Spengler contrasts the Jewish and Christian views of prayer with those of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who, as Spengler notes, is a great hope of the Bush Administration for better government in Iraq.

"It prays to be able to pray - and this is already given to the soul in the assurance of Divine Love," wrote the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, believing that Jews and Christians are infatuated with God, and prayer is their opportunity to exchange lovers' intimacies. They never tire of talking about talking to their beloved, that is, about the nature of prayer.


Less important than the differences in content - "audience" rather than "dialogue", "submission" rather than "love" - is the difference in emphasis. With this perfunctory preface, Sistani begins a lengthy treatise on when, where, with what clothing, and in what bodily positions prayers may be said. His concern is not the spiritual experience of prayer, but establishing communal norms for prayer. Where the Christians and Jews gush with loquacity on the subject, Muslims have remarkably little to say about the experience of prayer. Reading through Muslim sources, I am at loss to find anything remotely resembling Ratzinger's quite typical discourse on prayer.

The major religions differ from each other in ways that translate into large long-term differences the kinds of political outcomes their believers produce in politics.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 April 15 02:30 PM  Religion Secular Ideologies

Tom Kertes said at October 25, 2004 4:23 PM:

I think that there are many Christian faiths, some of which are not compatible with secular society. In fact, it was not until the Reformation that Christian practice was even remotely compatible with secular governance.

While secularism calls for religious tolerance - all faiths and non-faiths are welcome citizens of civil society - it does not call for being brought into religious wars between fundamentalist factions. I think that Bush and many of his supporters are engaged in a religious war - us against them - two fundamentalist factions. We must oppose both factions - and go to the real root of the problem: fundamentalism at its core.

I think that there are extremists in the United States who understand there Christian faith as a source of absolute truth that should drive all public policy. This is not compatible with a secular civil society.

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