Ah, the glorious spectre of fundamentalism! If future historians were to select one piece of “knowledge” from our era to display our particular forms of laziness and intellectual stupor, they could do little better than examine the fulminations of progressive types against “fundamentalists.” Where previous ages constructed systems of imagined knowledge about Jews, Orientals, Indians, and so forth, this age has provided a body of “knowledge” that manages to encompass in great broad strokes not only Jews, but also Christians, Muslims, and maybe even Hindus and Buddhists. Dispensing with the subtle narratives and complexities of real history and human experience, the contemporary critic can simply conjur up “fundamentalism” and thus dismiss both religious arguments and persons with whom he disagrees or wishes to marginalize. Even more wonderfully, this system of constructed knowledge is not the reserve of only the Left, or only the Right! It may be drawn upon, in differing forms to be sure, by both statist Leftists and Rightists, both sides assured in their “knowledge” of “fundamentalism.”

Today I chanced across, via Arts & Letters, this marvelous gem of “fundamentalist” critiquing: Neuroscience and Fundamentalism. Therein, the authors solemnly seek to explain the destructively anti-rational behavior of “fundamenalists.” In sum, the problem: fundamentalists aren’t firing on all cylinders, neurologically. Aha! Brain-damage! Those religious crazies are simply defective human beings! Now, it would be all too easy to discuss how labeling one’s ideological enemies as brain-damaged and otherwise defective in humanity can lead in some very troubling directions. I could also talk about how, for all the talk in the article about the evils of religious certaintity, adherance to dogma, et cetera, the authors show no signs of questioning their underlying basic materialism combined with a weak pseudo-spirituality-morality of “tolerance” and “humanity.”

Rather, what I find particularly interesting and most troubling is the inability of the authors to understand religion, and particularly fundamentalism. One paragraph in particular is very illuminating:

A common thread that may weave its way through fundamentalist extremism was perhaps aptly expressed by three so-called reformed fundamentalists during the American Public Media special, “The Power of Fundamentalism.” Representing each of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, they implied they were taught to believe as they were told, and that personal interpretation and imagination were to be marginalized. Deviation and creativity were unacceptable.

This is pretty much all we are told concretely about fundamentalists. What exactly a fundamentalist is, historically, theoretically, theologically, and so on- unimportant. We know already what a fundamentalist is, the authors imply. They are religious believers who adhere to dogma that we don’t like: this is the unspoken backround. The fundamentalist is, on a certain level, simply the religious believer whose beliefs don’t correlate with a “progressive” view of the world, someone who isn’t like us progressive people: the fundamentalist is the alien Other, updated a little. They are incapable of rational thought like us, incapable of creativity, adhering to medieval dogma- from birth, apparently. Perhaps some can change, with help no doubt, but if- as the article very strongly suggests- adherence to dogma is a matter of one’s brain capacity, such ability to change must be rather limited.

Of course, the “Fundamentalism” underlying the article’s arguments is largely made-up knowledge. True fundamentalist movements in the past couple of centuries are not simply examples of rigid, uncreative adherance to dogma, nor are they monolithic from one religion to another. In the case of Islamic Salafists, for example, “fundamentalism” arose as a response to modern developments- one of the common threads in movements usually labeled “fundamentalist.” This meant a rejection of many previous traditions and “dogmas”: hence the Salafist dislike of saints, shrines, and such, as Muslims in the movement sought a sort of return to the “fundamentals,” or sunna rather, of the Prophet and his Companions. Fundamentalism, in the modern sense, in Islam was something new, something that involved new and creative thinking (which, mind you, are neutral terms themselves- there is nothing inherently good about either newness or creativity, which should go without saying…). While it is usually forgotten in the West, Salafists in the past and in the present have been very heavily involved in developing new models of government and reform in Islamic countries, as they seek to apply their interpretation of Islamic principles to the contemporary world- which has meant everything from essentially democratic models to a jihad-supported world-wide caliphate. Any way it develops, such thought involves- gasp!- creative thinking, rationality, and so on, within the contexts of a particular approach to Koran, Hadith, and established Islamic doctrine.

Likewise, Christian Protestant Fundamentalism involved innovative new ways of dealing with Scripture and contemporary situations, which often meant internal reform and new ideas. Certainly, it involved a highly literal (but by no means exclusively literal) approach to Scripture, but in order to take such an approach new thinking and rationality were required, so as to apply the sacred text to modern situations. Hence Fundamentalism in Protestant Christianity has not remained static; for example it has over the past few decades left its posture of disengagement from politics for a stance strongly encouraging political engagement- something that involved creative and indeed critical thinking.

But let us suppose that “fundamentalism” is a monolithic sort of thing across religions, and that it sprung from the earth into a static, uncritical, non-creative force. People must still be initiated into it. The authors of the article in question seem to assume that all fundamentalists were “born that way,” that they were brought up believing this way. But somewhere along the line people would have had to be converted to this manner of thinking. Perhaps in the imaginery world of constructed fundamentalisms it is assumed that it all just sort of happened, rather like evolution. In reality, fundamentalism is not static, is not monolithic, and very significantly, is composed heavily of converts.

Returning to Salafist thought: one of the things that gave the rather obscure Arabian movement so much traction was the increasing globalization of the nineteenth century, which has only accelerated since. Muslims from all over the world, from many social stations, were able to make the hajj and thus be exposed to the new movement of thought centred on the Saudi Peninsula. Responding to these new ideas of a seemingly purified Islam, they carried them home- converted. And conversion entails changing one’s mind, modifying practices, thinking differently- all the things fundamentalists are supposed to be incapable of. A similar story could be told of other forms of “fundamentalist” religion.

Finally, when the term “fundamentalist” is used, it usually includes not only such movements as those above- the ones properly considered “fundamentalist” in the historical context- but religious believers of all sorts who still adhere to doctrine and sacred scripture as integral, authoritative parts of life- traditional religion, essentially. Thus real movements that can be labeled fundamentalist come to matter less and less in the superstructure of constructed knowledge. First all fundamentalists within a given religion are collapsed into each other- so that a Salafist working for education reform and democracy in 1960’s Morocco is collapsed into an angry iman in Pakistan urging on suicide bombers. Then this single image is collapsed across religions, so that one can merge in a single breath American Fundamentalist Bible commentators of the 1920’s with the suicide-bomber preaching Salafist circa 2007. As the image of the irrational, violent, extremist fundamentalist- generic across religions and history- takes hold as the epicentre of one’s imagination and system of knowledge, whatever reality lies behind the image recedes in importance.

This whole system of false knowledge- for that is what it is- is dangerous on several levels. For one, being able to dismiss religious believers as intolerant fundamentalists enables one to ignore the logical and rational fallacies of one’s own thought. Thus the hapless materialist is unable to see himself trapped in a severly limiting system of dogma. This in itself is tragic enough. But even more tragic is the implicit and sometimes explicit idea that fundamentalism must be “fixed” by “progressive” minded people. For just like other forms of false, constructed knowledge, this one is useful for not only marginalizing people intellectually, but can have concrete implications. The authors of this article reveal such a tendency towards the conclusion of their article:

Children raised in environments which consistently reward convergent reasoning and strict adherence but punish divergent reasoning, could conceivably grow into adults who are prone to getting stuck in various beliefs or ideologies. Might our current preoccupation with strict religious fundamentalism be creating obstacles to resolving the complex dilemmas we face in the world today? If we continue to insist that children around the world unfailingly adhere to the tenets of religious fundamentalism which promote intolerance, are we doomed to repeat the past simply because we have nurtured a world of thinkers who will not diverge from what they are told?

One can almost hear a certain Presidential candidate pledging to “do something” about all those hate-filled madrassas in Pakistan. It is not a stretch to imagine such enlightened efforts in America, and elsewhere, incorporating the whole coercive apparatus of the State in the pursuit of some new enlightened crusade. We rational, creative people must “help” our lesser kin escape their shackles- whether they want us to help them or not, perhaps. Perhaps it shall take bombs and bullets- for the greater good, which we naturally know in full! The poor fundamentalists must be educated properly, or else they pose a danger to good civilized progressive people. Never mind what a given fundamentalist might actually believe, never mind what he might actually think and feel and dream- he is mentally deficient, but we, we bold brave souls steeped in creative reason, we are nigh unto the gods, we know what is best, and may our will be done.