Monday, May 5, 2014

Why there's nothing wrong with fundamentalism.

'Fundamentalism' is defined in two ways:

(1) strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline

or, as it's more commonly used:

(2) strict adherence to the basic principles of a religious doctrine sourced in the literal interpretation of inerrant scripture, often Islamic or Christian.

Ask yourself, has anybody ever complimented another for being a fundamentalist? It seems to me that when the word is used, it virtually always has a negative connotation suggesting inflexibility and intolerance of other viewpoints, as though that's always bad.

Surely intolerance of intolerance is good and worthy of inflexibility. Here’s a short list of other things of which we should be intolerant: hypocrisy, polio, bigotry, child abuse, nuclear proliferation, unfriendly AI, symptomatic bradycardia, and intellectual dishonesty.

I don't intend for this post to serve as a launching platform for a discussion of the virtues and potential exceptions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but suffice it to say that I strongly support its articles. If one were to say that I am a therefore a fundamentalist about that, then I’d be guilty as charged. This document is nothing if not a list of things of which to to be intolerant. Dissent is to be discouraged, not merely tolerated. Countries can impose sanctions upon other countries that violate the UDHR to try to change the unacceptable behavior. Newspaper editorials might publish cartoons that mock or ridicule the offensive government.

Intolerant? Inflexible? Good for the UDHR, I say. Good for the people who, in response to the smoky crematoria of Nazi Germany, made it happen, and good for the people who enforce it and try to obtain its global acceptance.

This is good fundamentalism. Why? Because the fundamentals of the UDHR are good.

Now, consider another example of fundamentalism from the imagination of Sam Harris. Someone else strictly adheres to the sacred scripture of his small Pacific island tribe that states, “Every third shall walk in darkness”. And so every third born child in the community has both eyes ritualistically removed shortly after birth. One third of the population is blind and celebrated for having been chosen by birth order for this special rite of passage. As they age, it is these children alone who are eligible to become the spiritual leaders of the community.

Why is this kind of fundamentalism wrong? I hope the answer is obvious: what’s wrong with this particular fundamentalism is the fundamentals of this particular religion. Similarly, what’s wrong with Islamic, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalism is, let's face it, certain fundamentals of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Since the sacred texts aren't going to change, it's critically important to change the way problematic passages are interpreted - a task that's probably best performed by moderates (people who find ways to take the literal interpretation of the problematic fundamental passages less seriously).

Of course, many non-religious ideologies also get fundamental principles wrong. In a free society, all should be open to criticism and even, when appropriate, ridicule. Reason, evidence, satire, & ridicule, all play important roles in changing incorrect and/or otherwise problematic but malleable beliefs and desires. Ridicule and mockery played an important part in the decline of the Ku Klux Klan, for example.

Here’s something to watch for: those criticized for endorsing bad principles often retort that the criticizer is an intolerant and inflexible fundamentalist. This is an all too common tu quoque that gets dragged out when religious principles are criticized. Don’t do it, and don’t fall for it. The issue isn’t whether one is a fundamentalist: there are things to be inflexibly intolerant of. It’s whether one's fundamental principles are good or bad. So if you disagree with someone, figure out precisely what principle you think they are endorsing that you disagree with and criticize that instead of calling them a fundamentalist. Because at the end of the day, there’s nothing necessarilly wrong with fundamentalism itself.

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