Fundamentalism and the boomerang of certainty

The When I was a kid, there was a book on our shelves entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? This was in the 1970s, and I recall thinking the premise was absurd. But we now know the author was off by only seven years. The fears that dominate our psyches, that seem so permanent, can sometimes dissipate like a passing cloud.

Last week the Boston Globe had an article called Why fundamentalism will fail. The author, Harvey Cox, is betting that the forces of moderation will be ascendant as people get tired of the relentless and uncompromising belligerence of fundamentalism. Given the shadow of terrorism that hangs over us, it would be easy to dismiss the author, a professor of Divinity at Harvard, as naive.

But I’m feeling optimistic too, although my reasoning is slightly different. Here’s the thing: there’s not much religion in fundamentalism. Eventually everyone will figure this out, and the whole phenomenon will fade.

Fundamentalism, as the theologian Edward Farley has said, isn’t about that old time religion. Fundamentalism is a very modern response to modernity itself. It wants to do battle with doubting secularism. But doubt is deeper than secularism, and you attack it at your peril.

Farley says

Religious fundamentalism itself becomes a kind of atheism in its suppression of the doubt that is part of all religion. … Fundamentalism, paradoxically, is itself a sign of a religion undergoing secularization.”

It works like this. How do you eliminate doubt? By making rules. Lots and lots of rules. What you end up with is very algorithmic, a sort of video game religion. The fundamentalist must root out uncertainty wherever he finds it. Coincidentally, this is also the aim of the scientist. Just as a fundamentalist extremist will use modern weapons, so too does he deploy modern rhetoric. But in so doing, he’s no longer playing on his home court, and this is what dooms him. The minute a creationist starts talking about missing fossils and carbon dating, he’s lost. He is in the untenable situation of pretending like data matters and knowing with certainty that it doesn’t. I say, let him talk. The noise is no great nuisance, and he will presently be gone.

The true counterpart of modern secularism is not fundamentalism but brooding unknowable mystery, of which there is no lack. The Dalai Lama has remarked that wherever Buddhism and science are in conflict, Buddhism should change. The Dalai Lama knows that Buddhism has nothing to worry about. He knows how to play on his home court.

But the fundamentalist insists on clarity and concrete, hardening myth into journalism and miracle into science. It’s like chopping the wings off a bird to make it fit in a box. You may think you have a bird in there. After a time, you will find you do not.