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Monday, 27 January 2014

Is religious fundamentalism a problem?

It is a near-universal belief today that religious fundamentalism is a bad thing; anybody who takes their faith too seriously is certain to do terrible things.

See, for example, this meme:


It is, on the one level, slightly absurd; militancy, by definition, means the use of confrontational and (often) violent methodology. All three figures in the cartoon should - if truly 'militant' - be carrying guns.

Rather than being pedantic, though, we should probably read the word 'militant' as a synonym for 'fundamentalist' or 'serious about what they believe'.

A Christian or Muslim who uncompromisingly embraces their religion will, it is suggested, inevitably do terrible things.

An atheist who takes their view of the world equally as seriously will be no more bothersome than a quietly chilling man in a pub.

It is both a helpful and also problematic work of art.

The helpful aspect is its reminder that nobody is simply 'radical' about 'beliefs' in general. They tend to be radical about a particular set of beliefs; a specific strand of religion or non-religion.

So, if your core understanding of the world includes an affirmation that God has commanded you to subdue and dominate people by any means possible then, yes, your increased radicalism will lead to ever-greater levels of violence.


The violence, though, is not a symptom of your radicalism so much as it is the result of the thing you are being radical about. If you had been radical about something else (eg. "being nice to puppies") you might not have ended up being so violent.

This brings us to the problematic aspect of the cartoon: It raises the question of whether "Christian fundamentalism" inevitably results in unsavory and violent outcomes.

If a person reads the stories of Jesus in the four gospels and uses them - along with the remainder of the New Testament - as their guide for life and practice will they become an increasingly violent or nasty individual?


At the heart of the New Testament is the story of a man who lay his life down for enemies and told his followers to do the same thing. He reduced all of ethics down to two commands; love God and love other people.

If these 'fundamental' beliefs, which constitute the core of all strands of Christianity, were taken seriously and implemented radically, what would that look like?

Might a true "Christian fundamentalist", who took the story and teaching of Jesus extremely seriously, end up behaving like this man:


Or this woman:


Is the problem with many so-called 'fundamentalists' not that they are too Christian or too radical, but that they are not being radical about anything which remotely resembles the life or teaching of the Jesus contained in the 'fundamental' texts of the very religion they profess to embrace? 


Such people don't need to curb their 'extremism' so much as they should undergo a rediscovery of what Christianity's founding documents actually contain. This would provide them with some fundamentals worth being radical about.

It is worth noting that atheism (contrary to the meme which opened this article) has its own dirty history: Explicitly atheistic governments have a near-unbroken track record of perpetrating extreme violence. Just google "Mao", "Pol Pot" or "Stalin" to find out more. Perhaps one of these characters should have featured in the third of the panels on the cartoon?


It's probably unhelpful to throw mud at each other in this way. We should just admit that bad things have been done in the name of Christianity and atheism.

But when Christians are radical about the actual fundamentals of their own religion, the outcome is less (not more) violence.



Does the same thing happen when an atheist becomes more radically committed to a more purely atheistic view of the world? Are they inevitably more compassionate and less violent?

This is a tricky question to answer. I say that because most atheists do not embrace an ethical system which grows out of atheism. Instead - without really thinking about it - they insource their ethics from elsewhere. They often affirm things like equality, human rights, and liberty to live by ones own conscience. But none of these values emerges organically from an atheistic view of the world. They are borrowed from Christianity.


Jurgen Habermas (above), the atheist philosopher, recently admitted as much when he said:

“Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it.

Even Habermas, then, admits that the popular values embraced by most atheists are essentially Christian and Jewish. It remains questionable, therefore, whether a more undiluted and "fundamentalist" version of atheism would inevitably be more peaceful and kindly. 

Popular atheist Richard Dawkins once candidly admitted that we live in a universe which "at bottom [has] no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference".

What kind of life would issue from living as if Dawkins' words were true?


Presumably not the kind exemplified by Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. To live that kind of life, an atheist has to borrow ethics and values from elsewhere. Atheism itself simply does not provide such resources on its own.

I am thankful for the moral atheists I know. But their goodness comes partly from the fact that they don't live consistently with their own atheism.


I'm also fairly embarrassed by some of the awful things done in the name of Christianity. The meme at the start of this article is not, therefore, something which upsets me. It is, instead, a sobering reminder of what has sometimes been perpetrated by "Christians".

But, contrary to the cartoon, the solution is not to be become less Christian, more atheistic, or less radical. It is, instead, to revisit the story and teaching of Jesus and use those as the fundamentals for a different kind of life. 

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