Fundamentalisms

I’ve often wondered about the word “fundamentalism.” The word seems to refer less to a specific set of beliefs than to an attitude of militant certitude about one’s beliefs.  So an “Islamic fundamentalist” and a “Christian fundamentalists” can look at each other, each serene in the conviction that the other will be damned for obscene folly.

How widely can the word be applied?  We hear sometimes about “Hindu fundamentalists”; while no one can deny that there are aggressively militant Hindus, some do deny that the word “fundamentalism” can be stretched to cover a body of religious practices that are not built around a holy book or the story of a prophet.  On the other hand, there are those who argue that militant Hindu nationalists have been trying to refashion Indian religious traditions in the image of the monotheistic movements commonly known as fundamentalist.

If fundamentalism isn’t particular to any one religion or even to any one category of religions, is it even necessary to be religious to be a fundamentalist?  Or, to ask a related question, if fundamentalism isn’t about particular religious doctrines but about the believer’s attitude towards doctrines, then wouldn’t we expect fundamentalists who change only in that they have lost faith in their religious doctrines to approach disbelief in the same way they had formerly approached belief?  That is, would we not expect fundamentalist theists who ceased to believe in their God or gods to become equally fundamentalist atheists unless they had undergone some change in their approach to their beliefs?

Yesterday, Arts & Letters Daily linked to a several-week-old piece on Slate that reminded me of these questions.  The most interesting bits of that piece were quotes from Australian science blogger John Wilkins.  Wilkins has denied that “fundamentalist atheism” is a meaningful phrase, but his description of the mindset that sets the “New Atheists” apart from the agnosticism he approves does sound very similar to fundamentalism:

For now my objections to the “New” Atheists (who are a vocal subset of the Old Atheists, and who I call Affirmative Atheists) are the same as my objections to organized religion:

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

2. [The New Atheism] presumes to know what it cannot. More on this below.

3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, it tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of “weak” Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

5. But does that mean no *possible* evidence could decide it [existence or nonexistence of God]? That’s a much harder argument to make. Huxley thought it was in principle Unknowable, but that’s a side effect of too much German Romanticism in his tea. I can conceive of logically possible states of affairs in which a God is knowable, and I can conceive of cases in which it is certain that no God exists.

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