Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Fundamentalism and Modernity

Religious Fundamentalism and its Colonial Roots

A discussion on Facebook thread on US fundamentalist preachers led me to write this.

Mike Cushman

Dear E

You say ‘Europe is not burdened with the Bible literalism that gives life to this insane trajectory {of US susceptibility to fundamentalist preachers].’ I agree, but my question is why is this so? I will attempt some tentative answers – this takes me to areas I haven’t reflected on enough before so what follows is a preliminary intervention.

Your earlier reference to the European experience of and reaction to fascism is thought provoking but I think we need to go further and consider reactions to modernity itself.

We can see the US as le grand projet of the European enlightenment – an enterprise to build an ever more perfect society free of the destructive history of European feudalism, the divine right of kings and authoritarianism. Thus the US embrace of mystical religion is a reaction to failures of modernity in contrast to the critical and sceptical engagement of modernity that underlies the most interesting post-modern critiques. It is a retreat to pre-modern certainties of proclaimed dogma.

Europe’s interlude of fascism, and even more importantly Nazism, gave the continent a brutal experience of a pre-modern reaction to modernity and thus the wide adherence to social- and Christian democratic models of modernity and belief in the possibility of progress.

It is worth trying to do a preliminary taxonomy of the types of religious fundamentalism that are gathering force around the globe.
We can see Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to the history of colonialism and a rejection of western models of modernity that provided the ideological infrastructure for colonialism and neo-colonialism. The struggle against imperialism was initially widely articulated through communism – originally an enlightenment project for progress. The corruption of communism in the Soviet Union (and later China) resulted in these communist sponsors endorsing and enabling corrupt and repressive regimes that provided little or nothing for the mass of the population and embedded a self perpetuating cleptocracy (the actors who ruled may have changed from time to time and coup to coup but the structures of exploitation remained).

Orthodox Christian fundamentalism in Russia and its neighbours is similarly a reaction to the failures of soviet communism.

Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and supporting Jewish communities is rather different. Israel attempts to be a modern state but it has moved its foundational belief away from a need for a safe haven after the shoah in a territory that modern Jews, even the secular ones who founded the Israeli state, claim a historical link to. The notion of sanctuary remains of course but that can only be used to justify Israel within pre-1967 borders. Occupation of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria in fundamentalist jargon) can only be ‘legitimised’ by reference to a biblical promise. The perceived need to employ this ‘promise’ moves fundamentalist Judaism from a minor current to the centre of state thinking. Jewish Israeli fundamentalism incorporates a central paradox; a would be modern science based state justified through mysticism. 

Hindu fundamentalism of the BJP and the new Modi government has some similar characteristics to the Israeli version. It is an attempt to strengthen the Indian state by asserting a common identity on a highly diverse population – like Israel, significantly against both its own Muslim minority and its Muslim neighbours. The contradiction here is between Hindu mysticism (which incorporates a strong bias against consumerism) and the forceful promotion of neo-liberal economic models of market-denominated rationalities.

This brings us back to the American model. In contrast to Europe the incubus is communism rather than fascism. While Soviet communism distorted and corrupted the enlightenment project it incorporated it, not rejected it. Rejection of fascism in Europe was a rejection of pre-modern tropes; rejection of communism in the US was a rejection of modernity and opened the path to religious fundamentalist ideas. Unlike Hindu fundamentalism it did not have to confront a rejection of materialism – protestant belief co-evolved with capitalism and catholic belief embraced capitalist values many years ago; although the anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist threads of Catholicism still have some purchase and are somewhat articulated by Pope Francis.

Like Jewish Israeli fundamentalism, the American version justifies territorial seizure and in the US sanctifies it as manifest destiny. However like the Israeli version it wishes to have a productive science based economy while rejecting the basic tenets of science. The three central US battlegrounds, climate change, evolution and abortion, each have different characteristics – although the opposing alliances on each issue are very similar.

Climate change denial is economically advantageous to many of its proponents. It is not difficult to see why Exxon or the coal industry or the Koch brothers spend large sums contesting it. The link to fundamentalism is that denial of climate change requires a suspicion of science that is afforded by fundamentalist belief. At its most basic, American protestant fundamentalism asserts that humans in general, and Americans, in particular are the beneficiaries of God’s munificence and as he won’t allow us to be swept away by global warming so the science must be wrong. However, if science is so wrong here where can it be trusted?

Evolution has always been difficult for narrow believers from Soapy Sam, through William Jennings Bryan to contemporary evangelical preachers. Denial of evolution requires belief in ever more elaborate deceptions which are in conflict with Occam’s razor. It requires a belief in a god who requires ever more difficult acts of faith – accepting that a god would carefully place dinosaur bones in ever deeper strata that are most easily accounted for by evolution and a 4.5 million year old earth just so he/she can require us to reject such an explanation to keep our belief pure and accept Genesis and the rest of the bible as literal and accurate history. The US economy requires scientifically competent professionals but School Boards are requiring curricula that reject science in order to sustain their version of religious belief.

Opposition to abortion (and the associated issues around feminism and LGBT rights) is a rejection of the central tenet of the enlightenment: of the individual endowed with rights, rather lucidly proclaimed in the US declaration independence and the amendments to the US constitution. The fundamentalists who most loudly announced their patriotism do so while contradicting the founding principles of their state – unless they believe the claim that “all men are created equal” is to be narrowly interpreted as gender bounded.

A pessimistic view of the possibility of progress and therefore a reluctant renunciation of the central promise of the enlightenment does not require us to abandon the struggle for partial ameliorations of injustice and inequalities – indeed it makes individual action more pressing as we cannot rely on the immanent forces of history to solve our problems. It requires us to keep being forward looking and to maintain a critical acceptance of positivist science. While we may doubt simplistic versions of reality and truth and see reality as socially constructed and the object of interpretation we do not doubt the validity of human experience we rather seek better means of understanding it.

We have to keep making the arguments for makes rejecting the idea that, if only we would retreat to a religiously ordered fantasy past, we will find happiness on earth and contentment in paradise. Such ideas are bound up with an authoritarianism and denial of agency and creativity that will destroy us. The struggle against all varieties of religious fundamentalism, no matter what god(s) each seeks to appease must be a major part of our public and private politics: our ability to lead fulfilling lives, and indeed the future of the global eco-system, depend on it.

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