Friday, March 25, 2011

Fundamentalism and Liberalism

I am still reading Moojan Momen's book The Phenomenon of Religion. A Thematic Approach (Oneworld Publications, 1999), and blogging about what I find interesting in the book. Before starting to read this book, I wrote about what I read in another book about Fundamentalism and Modernism in Islam. The title of this text is taken from chapter 14 in Momen's book. It should be obvious that I am very much interested in this subject, and so will quote much of that chapter here. Momen begins by explaining the importance of the topic:

One aspect of religion that has come to general attention in recent years has been the upsurge of fundamentalism. The split between fundamentalists and liberals appears to affect almost every religious community to one extent or another, in many different countries. Almost every religious movement, other than the most narrow sects, contains individuals who tend towards either extreme. (P. 363.)

It is often thought that the term 'fundamentalism' cannot be applied to religions other than Christianity. This is due to the history of the term, as Momen notes before defining the term for wider usage:

Historically, many authorities date fundamentalism from the publication in North America of a series of pamphlets, The Fundamentals, between 1910 and 1915. Although to trace the name to this event would be correct, to date fundamentalism from it would be a very limited view of a phenomenon that has a long history in religion. Also limited is the opinion that fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. This view would restrict the occurence of fundamentalism to modern times (although it must be admitted that modernity has brought fundamentalism very much to the fore). Nor, indeed, should fundamentalism be limited to Christianity or even the Western religions. (P. 363.)

The point is that the phenomenon referred to as fundamentalism is much wider than one religion (or even religions in general), so it makes sense to define the term in a way that allows the student of religions to use it in a wider scope. Momen goes on to analyze the characteristics of both fundamentalism and liberalism, in order to show what kind of phenomenon (or phenomena) we are trying to understand. First, he looks at the attitude toward "holy" scriptures:

The fundamentalist looks to the holy scriptures of the religion as absolute and unchanging truth. [...] Even in religions that have no concept of a scripture revealed by God, Theravada Buddhism for example, a similar attitude towards scripture can exist.

As a secondary principle, fundamentalists also favour a literal interpretation of scripture. [...] [T]he fundamentalist always regards the scripture as referring to real situations and facts. What the scripture says corresponds to empirical reality. For example, even if heaven and hell are acknowledged not to be physical places above and below the earth, these two words nevertheless do refer to existent realities. Barr points out that the importance of preserving the first principle, the inerrancy of the text, will often compel the fundamentalist to relax the second principle and allow some degree of non-literal interpretation. (P. 364.)

Christian Fundamentalists claim to read their scriptures literally and without interpretation (which is really impossible, because even a literal interpretation is an interpretation). In fact, though, they do not. They actually have a set of beliefs that guides their interpretation. But this is rather well known, and besides the point. Perhaps I will write about that some other time. Momen continues to point out one of the biggest problems of fundamentalism, and then compares the fundamentalist view to the liberal:

Another characteristic fundamentalist attitude is that the whole of the scripture stands or falls together. This view maintains that since the scripture is the Word of God and therefore infallible, the inerrancy of every single sentence of the scripture must be maintained, otherwise the slightest error in any smallest part casts doubt on the whole.

By contrast, the liberal is willing to allow that the texts of the scriptures are open to more than one interpretation; parts of the scripture are more 'true' -- in the sense of being more likely to have actually occured physically -- than other parts. As well as truth relating to empirical reality, the liberal is prepared to see other types of truth -- typological, metaphorical or mythological -- in the scripture. Allegorical and symbolic interpretations may be used, particularly of passages that appear to contradict human reason, and social and contextual factors taken into account. [...] As a relative, rather than an absolute, truth, therefore, the meaning of the scripture is not considered fixed but must be reinterpreted in every age, for the concerns of that age.

The liberal is much more willing to view the holy scripture as a historical document, written down by fallible men and women sometimes many years after the events portrayed. [...] In contrast, the fundamentalist, if he or she does accept the historical nature of the scriptures, will insist that they were divinely protected from alteration or error. Certainly, no external factors such as the social conditions pertaining at the time that the scripture was written down, are considered relevant to the understanding of the texts. It is, therefore, a characteristic feature of fundamentalists that they consider that they can derive the meaning of the scriptures directly, just by reading them. No contextual, philological, or historical information beyond what is evident in the text is needed. The plain meaning of the texts is their intended meaning. In contrast, the liberal considers that the scriptures have to be read contextually, taking into consideration historical and philological information [...].
(Pp. 365 - 367.)

The attitude of the fundamentalist is clearly opposed to modern academic (historical, critical) exegetics, as is well known in that field of study. The liberals are much better equipped to accept the findings of exegetics.

Aother source of authority in religions is tradition. Momen justifiably defines two different types of fundamentalism based on their view of tradition, as follows:

When one consideres the traditions of a religion, we find that there are different types of fundamentalists, whom we may define in two major groupings.

Some fundamentalists are conservative and traditionalist. These regard tradition as an element in the religion that is as authoritative as the scriptures themselves. [...] In Islam, the concept of the Sunna (the deeds and words of Muhammad as the perfect example for ll Muslims to follow) and the doctrine of ijma' (that whatever the Muslim world holds as a consensus must be correct) act as a powerful force for maintaining traditional attitudes and positions. If any of the religion's structures or doctrines are in conflict with society, then it is society that must change to conform with what is perceived to be the Divine. [...]

The second group of fundamentalists is of teh evangelical, radical, revivalist type. These regard the traditions of the religion as the main obstacle to a return to the 'pure' original religion. [...]

Radical and traditionalist fundamentalists only differ in how they define the boundary of what they consider to be unalterable and inerrant. The radicals place the boundary aroud the scripture itself, while the traditionalists extend it to the traditions of the religion. [...] In the Christian world, Roman Catholicism holds that the traditions of the Church are of equal authority to the scripture. (This has been the official Catholic position since the Council of Trent, 1563.) The fundamentalists among the Catholics tend to be traditionalists. [...] Radical fundamentalists in the Christian world are to be found among the Protestant sects -- Protestantism being a movement that arose as a reaction to the traditionalism of Catholicism. In the Muslim world, most fundamentalists are traditionalists, since Islam is a religion in which tradition plays an important part. There are, however, a few modern radical groups -- for example the followers of Rashad Khalifa and of 'Ali Shari'ati.
(Pp. 367 - 369, emphasis added.)

Some people think that fundamentalists actually have more in common with freethinkers (non-religious atheists) than with liberals, and there may be some truth to that. The reason is emphatically not that freethinkers are equally dogmatic, as often claimed by propagandists, but the demand for clarity on the issues of religion. Liberals can have very vague ideas about religion, that defy rational criticism by simply avoiding it. This does not seem intellectually honest or sensible to either the atheist, or the fundamentalist. The freethinker wants to know what the claims of the religious person actually are, and the fundamentalist wants to know exactly what her religion teaches, so she can (dogmatically) believe it. It also seems to both of these that the liberal believers can have any number of different ideas of what their religion is all about, which makes them all seem rather baseless:

A more basic criticism levelled by fundamentalists at liberals concerns the arbitrary nature of their view of the scriptures; some parts of the scripture liberals regard as the religious core and therefore to be preserved; other parts are culturally determined and therefore can be dispensed with or interpreted liberally. What determines which parts are treated in which of these two ways? To a fundamentalist, the dividing line appears not to be defined by any discernible logical rules, but rather by whatever happens to be the current social fashion. [...] Are fashion and current secular sensibilities to be the arbiters of the standpoint of faith? If so, will the inevitable result not be eventually to jettison everything? In this sense, we can say that fundamentalism is much more of a reaction against modern, relativizing, liberal trends in religion than a reaction against modernity itself. (P. 370.)

Momen notes that in modern times there has been a linking of "xenophobic fundamentalism to a strident nationalism in many parts of the world" such as the United States (p. 371). I think that there is a similar attitude in Islamism (various forms of political Islam), but it is connected to the presently non-existent, ideal, unified Islamic nation, rather than any of the present nations.

There is marked difference in the attitudes of fundamentalists and liberals towards people of other faiths (or of none), as Momen points out:

The fundamentalist's conviction of possessing the truth leads to a strong tendency to correct the errors of unbelievers. Thus the interreligious activities of the fundamentalist are typically evangelism and missionary work. The interreligious activities of the liberal, on the other hand, tend towards ecumenism and interfaith dialigue. Fundamentalists have no time for such activities. Since their own religion already possesses the absolute truth, there is no point in looking elsewhere for it. (P. 372.)

It is very interesting how these different types of religious beliefs have influenced the political views of their adherents:

In the past, there does not appear to ahve been any characteristic political stance from either fundamentalists or liberals. If anything, both parties often tended to political quietism. [...]

Recently, much of this has changed greatly. Both sides have taken on characteristic political attitudes and fundamentalists have left their social isolation and entered social and political life in every part of the world. In recent times, fundamentalists have tended to be found at the right of the political spectrum, encouraging individual self-reliance and stressing public morality and order. Some fundamentalist groups have even reversed their previous tendency towards asceticism; they now adopt a positive, encouraging attitude towards the accumulation of wealth. These groups have become actively involved in politics. They advocate capitalism and a laissez-faire social philosophy, while raising communism to an almost mythological level of evil. The best-known example of this is the Moral Majority movement in the United States which contributed to Ronal Reagan's electoral success.

An important social and political feature of fundamentalism is the tendency to promote a traditional role for women in society within the sphere of home and children, rather than working outside the home and taking a political role. [...]

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to the political left in modern times, due to their concern with social issues. [...] Liberals have also changed their previous tendency and now incline towards asceticism. They have a negative attitude towards the accumulation of wealth and are supportive of the emancipation of women.

Fundamentalists regard existing political structures with suspicion as the products of human thinking and efforts rather than divine revelation. The extreme wing of fundamentalism would overthrow them in favour of a political structure based on the holy scripture. [...]

The fundamentalists' rejection of all doctrinal positions outside their own leads to highly demarcated, tightly knit, highly committed, socially isolated communities. Liberals, on the other hand, consider the beliefs of the rest of the world sympathetically and are much more integrated into society. The great diversity of beliefs among them, however, hinders the formation of coherent groups. It also reduces the likelihood of a high degree of commitment.
(Pp. 372 - 375.)

It is obvious why fundamentalism is a political danger all over the world. They oppose the idea of a secular state (i.e. the separation of church/temple/mosque and state), and would rather see it replaced by a theocracy. That would mean turning the proverbial clock back to middle ages, which is something humanity simply cannot afford to do. They are such a powerful force because of this commitment and hierarchical organization (not to mention being very well funded). That is why the best hope for the rest of us is to form secular, political opposition to them, and to battle their attempts to bring religion into politics every step of the way (unfortunately, in the United States things are so bad that it's actually a battle to remove religion from politics). Because of the fuzziness of the religious beliefs of the liberals, there is usually much less "friction" between freethinkers and liberals than there is between freethinkers and fundamentalists. This should make alliances in politics between liberals and freethinkers not only the prudent thing to do.

Momen returns to the issue of defining fundamentalism:

For the fundamentalist, the secular world must adapt to and come under the control of the religious world. The liberal considers that it is the job of the religious world to adapt to and become relevant in the secular world. [...]

[A]lmost all Muslims believe in the inerrancy of their scripture, the Qur'an, but this does not make them all fundamentalists. To differentiate between fundamentalists and liberals in the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim worlds, one must examine such factors as social relations and the attitude towards modernity and religious diversity. [...] Thus the arguments presented in this chapter point to a position in which fundamentalism and liberalism are not defined in any absolute terms. Rather, the definition is multi-factorial and relative to the particular religions and historical situation of the individual. In other words, fundamentalism and liberalism must be identified through a pattern that changes from one religion to another [...].
(Pp. 375 - 376.)

Momen rejects attempts to base the liberal--fundamentalist dichotomy on social or intellectual categories or factors, and seems to believe instead that it is likely that the differences between these groups are caused rather by different psychological types (pp. 276 - 378):

In psychological terms we may characterize fundamentalism and liberalism as two different ways of thinking, two cognitive styles. Cognitive style refers to the individual's characteristic and consistent manner of organizing and categorizing perceptions and concepts. [...]

The fundamentalist mentality is characteristically one that sees things in terms of black and white. [...] The liberal is more inclined to allow for 'grey areas', intermediate situations. [...] In this way, we are gradually soming to the point at which it is possible to see that the fundamentalist--liberal split is not something that affects religion alone; rather, it is one facet of a much larger phenomenon in the psycho-social life of humanity.

One of the underlying differences between fundamentalists and liberals is that the former are driven by a desre for certainty. [...] For the fundamentalist, certainty is only to be found in objectivity. The indecisive world of the liberal who is willing to see some truth in all opinions; the uncertain fields of historical and literary criticism, where different opinions abound: these are all tainted by personal opinion, and therefore by subjectivity. This is deeply unsatisfactory to the fundamentalist psyche. The only way of achieving objective truth is to take a standard that lies outside human subjectivity. [...]

The fundamentalist favours absolutes, while the liberal favours relativistic styles of thinking. [...]

It should be noted that cognitive style is not the same thing as personality. Cognitive style is a much more flexible function that can change relatively easily in a person. Although we can define fundamentalism in terms of a particular cognitive style, there is a problem as to which phenomenon causes which.
(Pp. 378 - 380.)

This hypothesis certainly seems plausible. It also points to a possible way of changing the world for the better: children should be taught more open-minded cognitive styles, and possible the same could be done to adult fundamentalists as well. This roundabout approach to the problem might prove more effective than attempts to reason with fundamentalists -- anyone who has tried that knows how pointless it is.

Momen states that "it has been the phenomenon of secularization and religious pluralism in the modern world that has brought the liberl--fundamentalist split to the fore of religious life" (p. 381). This seems obvious enough. Momen gives an abstract, "historical" perspective to the cause of the spli:

At some stage in the development of the religio, its history, doctrines and social laws are written down, thus creating the sacred text of the religion. [...] This process of writing down what then becomes regarded as sacred and unalterable is the historical crux of the fundamentalism--liberalism dichotomy. Two problems arise from this process.

The first and less important problem relates to the question of authenticity. [...]

[I]f particular religious reachings become a source of difficulty as social conditions change, the question of the authenticity of the sources may be reaised by liberals wishing to adapt the teachings to social change.

Much more important for our present concern is that the writing down of the teachings, laws and history of a religion in effect freezes them into a particular setting. Thse texts are written within the worldview -- cosmology, mythology, social concerns and intellectual debates -- of a particular time. This does not mean that the sacred scriptures are necessarily frozen in the worldview of the time of the founder of the religion. Rather, it is the worldview of the time when the scripture is written down that is important, as this is what is fronzen into the texts. [...]

This increasing divergence between the worldview of the texts and the contemporary worldview results in the fundamentalists--liberal dichotomy. The fundamentalist regards the texts as unalterable and divine and so struggles to make the contemporary worldview fit in with the worldview embodied in the texts. The liberal, on the other hand, is striving in the opposite direction, trying to make the texts fit in with the contemporary worldview. [...] We can note, in passing, that those religions in which the tradition has remained largely oral up to the present time, the primal religions, have suffered very little from this fundamentalist--liberal split. Such religions are adapting to new circumstances all the time but this change is gradual and without a written record of the past for comparison, occasions no adverse comment.
(Pp. 382 - 384.)

It remains an endless source of amazement, how some people can actually believe written word so gullibly as to believe that it is somehow of divine origin, merely because it is written, because the text itself claims to be of divine origin, or because they have been told it is of divine origin.

No comments: