Monday, September 17, 2007

The Essence of Fundamentalism

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I maintain that the basis of fundamentalism is not a literal interpretation of Holy Scriptures. At their core all fundamentalists, regardless of their faith, are characterized by the belief that more of the avoidable suffering in the world is caused by evil intent than by ignorance. What I mean by evil intent is the specific aim to cause unnecessary misery, while the contrasting ignorance represents a lack of awareness of how to prevent it. In other words, the fundamentalists believe that beings generally know what they are doing when their actions contribute to the suffering in the world.

Fundamentalists tend to connect most of the misery in the world to a single powerful entity that is not only responsible for it, but desires it. This entity represents the personification of evil in their worldview. As such, if you believe that the primary source of avoidable suffering in the world is a particular entity that is choosing to inflict its evil on us, then you have fundamentalist tendencies. This is not to say that there is no evil in the world. It is just that only fundamentalists believe that evil intent is the primary cause of the unnecessary misery in the world.

There are numerous names for this principal evil including: Satan, Iblis, Samael, the President, the Prime Minister, the Pope, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Americans, rich people, poor people, people of color, white people, racists, terrorists, extremists, homophobes, homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, politicians, Republicans, Democrats, bureaucrats, communists, capitalists, MBAs, CEOs, HMOs, lawyers, advertisers, program directors, producers, financial backers, artists, progressives or, ironically, fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism is essentially a fear-based point of view. For example, the true litmus test for most Christian fundamentalists is not ‘do you believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ?’ but ‘do you fear Satan and the Hell to which he is luring you?’. The motivation for the extreme actions that characterize many activist fundamentalists is more often fear of this powerful malevolent force, than it is love of the complementary (encompassing?) benevolent being that most of them profess to worship.

Individuals display fewer fundamentalist tendencies as they come to believe that the primary source of unnecessary misery in the world is accidents of ignorance, not acts of evil intent. The pure progressive sees all suffering as an unavoidable consequence of our lack of awareness. To such a person, the capacity to form the intent to make someone needlessly suffer indicates that you are uninformed, not evil.

There is a continuum of positions between that of complete fundamentalist and pure progressive. Your position in this continuum is a function of how much of the avoidable suffering in your world is caused by evil intent versus ignorance.


Karen said...

When I think "fundamentalist," I do immediately jump to characterizing them as literal interpreters, so scraping below the surface is helpful. Fear is unquestionably the primary motivator, along with an inability to admit shades of grey.

It seems to me that the truth must be somewhere between the pure fundamentalist and the pure progressive. Whereas most of humanity probably is often acting out of ignorance, we still have a modicum of personal choice within a limited context. I could choose to trip my coworker the next time he walks by my cube--it would be out of malice. I don't because I can see it is wrong, but I have to admit there are times in my life when I'm in a little snit and might pick a verbal fight with someone just because I was in a bad mood even though I knew it was the wrong thing to do. So, I think that people can intentionally choose to do "evil." How do else can you account for variance of mood that affect behavior? I don't think ignorance is always the culprit; there may be such a thing as willful disobedience, even to oneself.

Rational Answers said...

I concede that people do needlessly torment each other. But in the abstract, few of us truly want to do so. Honestly, who in their right mind would want to join the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" with no trace of irony?

Our desire to not be evil does not stop us from doing evil. The fact that evil is inconsistent with most of our self-images implies that we typically do it because we did not know how to stop ourselves. This lack of knowledge is the ignorance to which I am referring.

I maintain that for any mental state, there exists knowledge of how to avoid causing unnecessary suffering. In other words, there is invariably a sequence of thoughts that, even given the wild fluctuations of my brain chemistry, would keep me from tormenting those around me. There is also a part of me that does not want to be the cause of misery. The separation between this portion of my psyche and that particular sequence of thoughts is what I am calling ignorance. My ultimate point is that non-fundamentalists see this separation as a more significant contributor to the needless suffering in the world than any "inherent evil".

Karen said...

This particular comment really hit home: "The fact that evil is inconsistent with most of our self-images implies that we typically do it because we did not know how to stop ourselves."

This is so right! If you ask people about their conception of themselves, most will say they are a good person. And the majority who believe in Heaven believe they are going to Heaven. And the majority will say that they'd make a good parent.

Our self-image *is* wildly divergent from what might be the reality of how we actually behave in the universe. Hmm. This definitely seems to be true. OK, I'm convinced.

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