By Larry Imhoff, August 16, 2010
In “Why the Fundamentalist Approach to Religion Must Be Wrong,” Scott Bidstrup states that “a fundamentalist religion is a religion, any religion, that when confronted with a conflict between love, compassion and caring, and conformity to doctrine, will almost invariably choose the latter regardless of the effect it has on its followers or on the society of which it is a part.”
At its best, a religion is simply a philosophy, guidelines for sharing the world with billions of people – people with different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs. This requires tolerance, because the world will never conform to anyone’s exact expectations.
However, this action is too bland for most religions, so they add deities and demons, angels and antichrists, heaven and hell, plus a generous portion of magic (miracles). These additions do nothing for the philosophy, but they add drama for the practitioners and leverage for the hierarchy – God’ll getcha for that.
Not all religions are created equal, but the more viable teach tolerance, compassion, love of humankind and other concepts nearly everyone finds admirable. When a religion follows these primary philosophies, it may benefit society. When the tenets of faith are narrowed to a specific dogma, it can cause the philosophy to be interpreted in fundamentalist ways, making it a source of evil. For example, the Christian Bible devotes minimal ink directly to homosexuality, but look at the fundamentalist denominations’ uproar over gay and lesbian rights.
What are the main characteristics of religious fundamentalism?
Claims of absolute truth. A sure sign that a religion has gone off in the weeds is the idea of absolute truth. Everything is viewed in stark black and white, no middle ground, no need for discussion or compromise. Claims of infallibility or statements such as “the one true religion,” “the only path to salvation” or “God is on our side” all indicate serious fundamentalist distortions.
The end justifies any means. When a religion becomes so twisted that its followers are able to justify actions foreign to its basic foundations, it has strayed far afield. This thinking was Scott Roeder’s justification for killing Dr. George Tiller for performing abortions. It allows the Catholic Church to shield pedophile priests while ignoring victims’ suffering.
Blind obedience. Religions lack checks and balances so critical to a secular or reality-based life. When an authority figure (a pope, an ayatollah or a charismatic leader) makes even outlandish proclamations, there are no uniform tests to determine the message’s validity. Fundamentalism requires blind obedience. Followers are expected to and sometimes forced to do exactly what their leader (a mere human) dictates. We see examples of this in the Jonestown and Branch Davidian massacres. This leads to suicide bombings or airplanes flown into buildings. It’s Yahweh or the highway!
Literalism or inerrancy. All religions claim their holy handbooks are the word of God, even to the point that some claim literalism or inerrancy but then proceed to cherry-pick the message stressing those passages deemed important while ignoring others. The problem with this is that the handbooks also devote considerable space to God-ordered atrocities. The Bible contains instructions for mass murder, selling one’s daughter into slavery, the stoning to death of disrespectful children and of anyone caught working on the Sabbath or having committed a host of other minor offenses. While few religious groups observe these practices, they are still on the books to be used by future zealots claiming this is “God’s will.” Any religious philosophy can become twisted due to human frailties, and it is made easier when holy handbooks still reference ancient jurisprudence.
Focusing on an idealized time. Religions often select a former time when they believe the world was a better place. This backward focus makes it difficult to accept new ideas, and scientific explanations of the natural world create an immediate conflict with their dogma. The fundamentalist solution: Do away with science. Teach creationism in lieu of evolution. Ignore or destroy anything that doesn’t fit the rigid worldview.
How does one counter these distortions? Critical thinking! We must realize all religious spokespeople are self-anointed and suffer the range of human frailties: vanity, hate, fear, greed, lust, prejudices, hidden agendas, etc. Therefore, we must listen objectively, even skeptically, to their message – is it in keeping with the philosophy’s major tenets? Would it build a better world? Or would the proposed action violate someone’s human, civil or legal rights? Has the religion been convoluted to fit the speaker’s foibles? Remember, hate speech from a pulpit is still hate speech.