End of the Enlightenment

This is a 2005 piece published by NewScientist.com and authored by Debora Mackenzie is an interesting read. I have often wondered where the world is heading towards.

ACROSS the world, millions of people feel threatened. They sense a dangerous enemy at the gates, committed to values and beliefs they fear and despise, and ready to impose its alien ideology on their government, their life and their children’s futures.

Is that a threat you recognise? If so, then you know how religious fundamentalists feel. To them, the secular world of the early 21st century is a threat to all they hold most dear. In response, increasing numbers are joining militant religious groups and living, voting and battling for their beliefs. Like it or not, they already outnumber the secular rationalists whose thinking underpins today’s western urban societies. And their numbers are growing by the day. What will that mean for the world as the 21st century unfolds?

Much of the past century was characterised by a widespread belief, at least in the west, that as the world developed materially, religion would dwindle in importance – what sociologists called “secularisation theory”. But the opposite has happened.

Fundamentalist Islamic movements are gaining strength across the Muslim world and beyond. In the US, Christian fundamentalism holds more political and cultural power than ever before. Fundamentalist movements have also arisen within Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Almost everywhere you look – with the possible exception of western Europe – fundamentalist religions are on the march. The world, in short, is witnessing an explosion of movements that reject rational enquiry as the best way to explain the world, and empirical evidence as the best way to formulate policy.

On the face of it these various movements would seem to have little in common. Indeed, Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are often portrayed as being on opposite sides in a “cosmic struggle” of good against evil. But they are the same.

Fundamentalist religions are driven by a desire to get “back to basics”, to turn the clock back to a supposed golden age when their religion was untainted by secular influences. They fervently believe that they alone are in possession of the truth – usually an overtly literal interpretation of a sacred text – and an equally fervent desire to impose that truth on others. And, unlike mainstream religion, they cannot tolerate dissent. As cultural theorist Stuart Sim of the University of Sunderland in the UK puts it: “You’re either in the charmed circle of believers or you’re the enemy”.

Mortal threat

What is driving the growth of such intolerant belief systems? And what does it mean for “Enlightenment values” – reason, pluralism, democracy and freedom of thought? There is palpable unease that fundamentalism represents a mortal threat to the accomplishments of modern society; that the achievements of the Enlightenment are in danger of being rolled back. Does religious fundamentalism really pose a threat to the scientific world view?

It was in the 1990s that secular society started noticing a strange and unexpected religious phenomenon that seemed to be replacing Communism as a threat to western civilisation. In 1995, Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and dozens of collaborators completed the Fundamentalism Project, an exhaustive five-volume study of these religious movements across the world. One of its goals was to discover the root causes of fundamentalism. The conclusion was that the very force that was once expected to render religion obsolete was in fact causing it to mutate and gather strength.

That force is modernity, a mode of thinking that is exemplified by science. It focuses on change and progress, empirical evidence rather than “revealed” truth, and scepticism of traditional (including religious) authority. And it has proved enormously powerful. The success of scientific explanations has replaced religious ones in many people’s minds.

It is nothing new, of course, to assert that modernity poses a direct challenge to traditional religion. What came as a surprise was the ability of religion not only to fight back but to spawn an entirely new way of looking at the world.

What characterises traditional religions, says Karen Armstrong, a British writer on religious affairs who is an expert on fundamentalism, is that they are geared to the needs of people in traditional agrarian societies. They focus on the permanence of mythical truths behind superficial reality, and the divine will behind apparent injustice. They see life as cyclical, not progressive, and offer an understanding of the cosmos and a system of morals which provide rules, reassurance and meaning people in such societies need.

Against this background, modernity can be deeply unsettling. It “undermines all the old certainties,” writes Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion at Boston University. It also confronts people with new and alien ideas: what Malise Ruthven, a British writer on Islam, calls “the scandal of difference”. Traditional societies are culturally uniform, but as people from this background are drawn into industrialised urban life, they come up against others who believe different things. This was a widespread experience as recently as the 1950s for many in the west, especially in North America. In other parts of the world it is happening right now as millions make the leap to modernity.

What scandalises people is startlingly similar across countries and cultures: pluralism and tolerance of other faiths, non-traditional gender roles and sexual behaviour, reliance on human reason rather than divine revelation, and democracy, which grants power to people rather than God. (Even in the US, Christian fundamentalists struggle with the concept of democracy, calling, for example, for the separation of church and state to be abolished and for the constitution to declare the US a “Christian country”).

When God is dead…

Many people faced by such an assault are terrified, for themselves and their children, by what they see as the social and moral chaos that has followed the rejection of religious authority. Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, quotes Dostoyevsky: “When God is dead, anything is permissible.”

According to Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University, people from a traditional background go one of two ways when confronted with modernity: they either embrace reason and progress, or make faith the focus of their world view.

The latter reaction often entails reasserting aspects of traditional religion that modernity explicitly rejects: the infallibility of the sacred text, the superiority of one belief system (their own) over all others, the inadequacy of reason, and the subjugation of human freedom to God, or his followers. In other words, a retreat into fundamentalism. Another common reaction is to see rationalism as a competing and opposed faith. “Every individual is a person of some faith, even if that faith is secular,” says Mohler. “All persons operate out of some basic framework of beliefs and understanding of reality.”

In an uncertain world, such ideas find a steady stream of adherents. “Uncertainty is a condition that many people find very hard to bear,” Berger says. “Any movement that promises to provide or to renew certainty has a ready market.”

It is this that makes fundamentalism more than simply a return to old-time religion, Armstrong argues. To fight the secular enemy, she says, fundamentalists reduce complex faiths to streamlined ideologies and, above all, try to recast old mythical tales as modern, literal truths. In the process, they can lose the compassion Armstrong believes is the mark of balanced religion.

“It is important that we understand the dread and anxiety that lie at the heart of the fundamentalist vision,” Armstrong adds. “Only then will we begin to comprehend its passionate rage, its frantic desire to fill the void with certainty, and its conviction of ever-encroaching evil.”

Fundamentalists feel they are on the defensive, but the fear of secularism’s cultural dominance leads fundamentalist movements to go onto the attack and call for the imposition of their vision of morality and law on society at large – believer and non-believer alike. Hence, for example, Islamic fundamentalists demand the imposition of sharia law in place of secular legislation. In the US, Christian fundamentalists seek to change the abortion laws, promote sexual abstinence, ban gay marriage, force doctors to keep terminally ill people alive against their wishes and impose the teaching of creationism.

No wonder it is now secularists who feel under attack. But should those who embrace modernity really feel threatened? The answer, it seems, is both yes and no.

Not everyone who holds fundamentalist religious views can necessarily be characterised as anti-science or anti-progress. Last year the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a politically neutral think tank based in Washington DC, found nearly half of Christian fundamentalists in the US (although they would describe themselves as “evangelicals” – see “What’s in a name”) opposed banning stem cell research; what’s more, their views on abortion and homosexuality differed little from those of the general population.

But that’s not to say that those who hold to secular values have nothing to fear. In the US, evangelical Christians have successfully fostered a belief that science, is somehow anti-religious, and that this imbalance must be redressed. Only 26 per cent of Americans are evangelicals, but in a survey in November 2004, 37 per cent of Americans, fewer than half of them evangelicals, wanted creationism taught in schools – not just alongside evolution but in place of it.

Erosion of popular support for scientific research has other ramifications, for example, by making it easier to sell politically motivated denial of scientific discoveries such as global warming. George W. Bush has talked openly of running a “faith-based presidency”, and a member of his inner circle has been quoted referring disdainfully to the “reality based community” – that is, people who believe that policy should be based on empirical evidence rather than faith. One senior US politician even went as far as to say “George Bush was not elected by a majority of voters in the United States. He was appointed by God.”

What is more, as political commentator Thomas Frank has argued, by allying itself with evangelical beliefs, the US Republican party has managed to dupe poor people into voting for economic policies that damage their interests, such as tax cuts for the rich. More subtly, people conditioned to accept a religious ideology unquestioningly, and to believe the universe is founded on simple truths, lose the critical habits of thought considered indispensable for science.

Fundamentalist Islam poses no less of a threat to science. Ziauddin Sardar, a British writer on Islam, says a rise in literalist religious thinking in the 1990s devastated science in the Islamic world by promoting the idea that all knowledge could be found in the Koran. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist at Quaid-e-Islam University in Pakistan, who also writes on religion, describes a prominent Pakistani physicist who used a verse in the Koran to calculate that heaven is receding from Earth at 1 centimetre per second less than the speed of light. A similar forcing together of religious literalism and “science” underpins creationism.

Not everyone, however, sees fundamentalism as inherently damaging. Some scholars believe that, by offering psychological security and social identity to people otherwise adrift, it offers the best hope for a stable future. “A case can be made that someone with a strong, confident religious identity is better qualified to survive in a globalising world of shifting and collapsing identities,” says historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University.

Some scholars even argue that fundamentalism is religion’s last hurrah. Jenkins says the history of movements such as Calvinism suggests that fundamentalist movements eventually become secular. Fundamentalism, he suggests, may be a “necessary way station on the road to enlightenment”.

Whether or not that turns out to be true, it is clear that in the short term at least, the secular world is going to have to come to terms with fundamentalism. If fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity, then we can expect a lot more of it. “The 21st century will be religious,” says sociologist Grace Davie of the University of Exeter in the UK. In the US the process may have stabilised, and Europe seems relatively immune. But fundamentalisms of all kinds are exploding in the fast-urbanising developing world. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, fundamentalist Christian churches are enjoying explosive growth. Around 10 per cent of the traditionally Catholic population of Latin American now belong to home-grown fundamentalist Pentecostal churches, and in Chile and Guatemala the figure is as high as 25 per cent.

Even in communist-ruled China, fundamentalist movements are gaining adherents fast. “China is the one we’re all watching,” says Davie. Miikka Ruokanen, professor of dogmatics at the University of Helsinki in Finland, estimates that 2 million Chinese a year convert to evangelical Christianity. Estimates of the eventual number of Chinese Christians run to 300 million – a fifth of the population. Fundamentalist strains of Buddhism are growing too. The converts, like those throughout the developing world – the 9/11 attackers are a good examples – are mainly young, affluent, educated and urban. These people are just the kind to feel the spiritual impact of modernity most keenly.

The challenge for the secular inheritors of the Enlightenment is to remain true to their values and be tolerant and pluralistic – even in the face of an opponent that can never reciprocate. That means understanding fundamentalist mentality, and at least not adding to the alienation that inspires the more extreme among them. “We must accept seriously held public belief as a normal part of modern living,” says Davie. “The more you deny and attack it, the more defensive it gets.”

What is in a name?

Every scholarly work on fundamentalism starts out by admitting that the term itself is a problem. It can imply uniformity among vastly different movements – or, worse, be adopted simply as a pejorative word for any religious movement the user dislikes. But most authors conclude that there are “family resemblances” among beliefs labelled fundamentalist, and use the term anyway, for want of a better one.

Its origins can be traced back to 1910, when a group of Presbyterians at Princeton University decided to speak out against the modernist drift of some churches, especially efforts to understand the Bible as a historical document. They wrote a series of pamphlets called “The Fundamentals” and sent them to Christian officials worldwide. The fundamentals they espoused were the inerrancy of the Bible – that it represents the literal and infallible truth – the direct creation of the world and humanity by God from nothing, miracles, and the life of Jesus: his virgin birth, his death to atone for human sin, his resurrection and imminent return. In 1920, a US Baptist editor coined the term “fundamentalist” to describe those beliefs. Nowadays, Christians who hold such beliefs prefer the label “evangelical”.

The term was first applied to Islam in 1937, when a British official described the king of Saudi Arabia as a “fundamentalist” for condemning women who mixed with men. Then as now, it described the rejection of modern notions of progress.

From issue 2520 of New Scientist magazine, 08 October 2005, page 40

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