This paper presents some thoughts on religious fundamentalism and the danger it represents. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word fundamentalism, as the strict use of the term involves reducing a religion’s teachings to its basic fundamentals. Rather, this paper is about the dangers when a religion’s followers become convinced that their religion’s teachings represent an absolute truth.
One of the terms used to describe the followers of any religion is “faithful”. A follower can have great “faith” in the teachings of his religion, but it’s called faith for a reason. By its very nature, the ultimate nature of the universe (perhaps the “mind of God”?) is almost certainly unknowable, and the follower has faith, and faith alone, that the religion’s teachings are true. Most religions acknowledge this mystery, and part of the religious experience is coming to fully comprehend the mystery that lies behind, and ultimately strengthens, the faith.
For the faithful, part of that faith is knowing that you don’t know for certain. If you knew for certain, it wouldn’t be called faith any longer, and the mystery would cease to be so. Many strong believers will tell you that they absolutely believe in their faith, and perhaps I am mincing words here. As I am not a person of absolute faith, I’m no authority on this fine line. While they may have tremendous faith in their beliefs, some perhaps well hidden part of them acknowledges and respects the uncertainty – that there may be multiple paths to God. This respect is in turn granted to others who may have different faiths. People of faith, and who know they are of faith, do not feel threatened by, nor do they threaten, others of different faiths.
Strong, even absolute, faith is not a problem in itself. But for some, this faith turns into a correctness from where it is a short step to everybody else’s incorrectness. Needless to say, here’s where the trouble starts. Armed with this sense of superiority, the world almost inevitably divides into us and them. And some holders of this self-proclaimed truth start to feel threatened when others don’t recognize the same truth, and they start acting in “defensive” ways.
Some religions may be more forceful about their “truth” and other religions’ “lies” than others, but at bottom the problem is either part of a person’s inner demons (perhaps compensating for an inner lack of faith?), or is the result of a brainwashing education. All religions seem to have their fair share of the faithful and the beyond-faithful.
Do I have a cure? Not really. There will always be people who can’t tolerate the uncertainty of faith, who are unsure of their place in the world and fearful of their fate, who can only feel right when other people are wrong. The only way to lessen the problem is tolerance in education and by example. The only way to lessen the threat is to deprive the most violent of the societies that will shelter and support them. Do we do this with war, or do we do this with peace? That is a harder question.
December 26, 2002