The Problem with Fundamentalism


I occasionally refer to “fundamentalism” in this blog because it is a feature of attitudes and beliefs that I find particularly curious (from an intellectual point of view) and dangerous (from a political point of view).

When I use the term “fundamentalism” I am referring to the general belief that there are clear and indisputable answers to questions which, on the face of it, are almost always contentious and lend themselves to widely diverging opinions. Many of these diverging opinions are held with great passion by people who believe their opinions are the correct ones, and all others are wrong.

In other words, fundamentalists – whether in religion, ethics, politics, or anything else – oversimplify things in order to accommodate their rigid beliefs. Many fundamentalists – like “some versions of conservatives – wear this as a badge of honour: “I’m loud, I know right from wrong, and I’m going to make sure you hear about it.”

The actual content of these indisputable opinions is not really the issue – although their truth or falsity is obviously important. Rather the issue is the assumption that there are simple, straightforward answers to difficult questions – mostly religious, ethical, and political questions. And that we can know these answers simply by adopting a certain set of beliefs.

These foundational or “fundamental” beliefs are usually based in religion of one kind or another. There are Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and fundamentalists adhering to many other “minor” religions, personality cults, and bizzare world views. It doesn’t seem to bother any of them that every other group is claiming the same level of undisputed truth for their views as they themselves are claiming.

The wierdness of it all

It’s downright wierd, don’t you think? Every one of these groups accepts their own fundamental beliefs without question. Usually individual adherents don’t have any particularly good reason for choosing one set of “fundamental” beliefs over another. They just know they’re true. The vast majority have been born into their cult of choice, many have been exposed to the message from early childhood, and virtually all have had their “beliefs” drilled into them by professional teachers and preachers.

“Faith” is big for fundamentalists – much more important than, say, “evidence”. They are encouraged to simply believe the truth of their convictions and not expose themselves to opinions that would challenge them. Indeed, in light of empirical evidence that would throw their beliefs into doubt they usually just ignore the evidence, or develop rationalizations to explain it away.

This is particularly apparent in the U.S. where recent surveys have shown that more than 40% of Americans believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old, that all species on earth have remained more or less unchanged since they were created, and that men roamed the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.

These are all examples of how obvious evidence has been either ignored or “reinterpreted” – fossil evidence, DNA evidence, geological evidence – you name it – and spun into a theory of “Intelligent Design” which is held up as a competitor to mainstream evolutionary theory.

Which is not to say that alternatives to mainstream theories should not be put forward or even proposed as worthy of being included in school curriculums. But the proponents of religion-based theories – whether it is in Iran, Israel, the United States or Canada – base their advocacy of these theories on contentious faith-based positions – what their holy books say, or what some prophet or charismatic leader taught. And for fundamentalists these sources of “authority” always take precedence over the empirical evidence.

This is why fundamentalism is dangerous. Because its sincere adherents are always prepared to simply disregard the opinions of others which do not correspond to their authorized version of the truth.

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