Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 38, June 2003

It's the fundamentalism, stupid!


At the cost of oversimplifying an overly complex situation, I propose that the major threat to modern democracies is not terrorism per se, but ideological fundamentalism, particularly of a religious nature. Political fundamentalism has now essentially disappeared, at least for now, with Fidel Castro as one of the few pathetic remnants, destined to soon disappear naturally into oblivion, like all mortals.

No, the real problem is religious fundamentalism, and in particular the one rooted in the twin monotheistic branches of Christianity and Islam (with Judaism ranking as a distant third only because it is numerically much less represented worldwide). This is not, of course, because every (or even the majority) of fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews are willing to blow themselves into pieces to achieve a political goal, or because they are all bent toward the destruction of everything and everyone that disagrees with them. Far from it. But the fact remains that fundamentalism of any sort, by definition a form of extremism and therefore ill-suited to live within a democratic and pluralistic society, easily breeds intolerance, self-righteousness, and even more extremes, of which the world has experienced the consequences all too clearly during the past few years.

Let us not make the mistake of dismissing the problem as simply a modern incarnation of the old (and certainly true) observation that political power exploits religious feelings, and that therefore the problem is with the greed for power and with people like Saddam Hussein (or George Bush) who want power and find it easy to manipulate the masses using religious appeals. There surely is part of that going on too, but George W. Bush, I think, really believes that God is on his side, and so do Tony Blair, Hussein, Bin Laden, and a host of other characters that are concurring in making a mess of the just-born 21st century.

The extremes to which Islamic fundamentalists (including Palestinians and their leader Arafat, currently as pathetic as, but much more dangerous than, Castro) can go in the name of their version of the universal truth are well known and need not be belabored here. But the New York Times has recently reported some comments by “mainstream” politicians in the US and Israel that should be chilling to the bone of every rational and truly compassionate human being. For example, Benyamin Elon, a minister with the current Israeli government, has been quoted as referring to cardinal principles of the Palestinian-Israeli accord such as the idea of land-for-peace as “clichés” to be overcome, and has essentially called for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. As an exponent of the latter has pointed out, can we imagine what would happen if somebody made the same casual suggestion about moving Jews out of their unhappy land?

On this side of the Atlantic things aren’t much better. The extremes of the Christian right are now documented in books upon books, but a recent addition is a declaration by Gary Bauer, of American Values, who said (again quoted in the NYT) that conservative Christians must accept the Abrahamic Covenant as described in Genesis, by which God personally promised the land of Israel to the Jews, and that’s that. Tom DeLay (the House majority leader) has been quoted in the same newspaper as referring to the West Bank using the biblical names of Judea and Samaria!

It is simply astounding that a species that has conquered space, split the atom, figured out the essentials of where it came from evolutionarily, and has invented democracy, is currently in the hands of a bunch of nut cases who still believe in the literal reading of a book written by ignorant people several thousand years ago! How can we vote into office, support, and take seriously a political class that on the one hand uses computers and airplanes, but on the other firmly believes in the actual existence of heaven and hell, concepts obviously invented by primitive human beings who slaughtered each other with swords and arrows? How much longer are we going to leave the future of the world in the hands of deluded minds who are so sure of their own viewpoint that they constantly affirm God is on their side (on all of their sides, of course)?

I keep hearing of the existence of a “silent majority” of moderately religious people in Western democracies and even among Muslims and Jews, who apparently have a distaste for the outrages of the nut cases that run them. Where is this silent majority? Isn’t it time to wake up and kick these guys out of office (or, if not elected, out of Mosques, Churches, and Synagogues)? The recent worldwide anti-war demonstrations may have been a signal that people are in fact waking up. But let’s keep the alarm clock ringing loud, or Bush, Bin Laden & co. will plunge us all back into the Dark Ages, real soon. And we call them “dark” for reasons other than the fact that electricity hadn’t been invented yet.


Next: Why skeptic doesn't mean cynic

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003