Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
The topic of this letter is fundamentalism in dogmatic religions. Everywhere you can read of people attacking religion as the source of fundamentalism, whereas others try to defend religion detaching it from its extremist deviations, as if the two were different phenomena. I call the defenders of the former view absolute secularists, and those defending the latter absolute liberals. I won’t consider the third position defending a particular religion while attacking another, because it is self-undermining.
My aim is to argue against both views, and propose a rationalist alternative.
I start with absolute secularism. To think that fundamentalism can be tracked in the Scriptures or in the predicaments of clergymen is to think of religion as something way more static than what it actually is. We have read of Christianity, Islam and Judaism accepting slavery, corruption and massacres of innocents, even if nowadays most of our religious friends are very open minded, and share the same difficulties and hopes of the rest of the population when faced with social changes. Why? Because Scriptures are subject to interpretations, so that they can adapt to the transformation of culture.
But does this mean that Scriptures are like empty shells we can fill with whatever content we like? I don’t think so, and the reason is that religion and, say, moral principles against slavery, belong to different domains. Religion can give meaning to our lives with its books and practices, and be the light against the distress of existence. Science and rationality are of no help here, because their domain is theoretical and experimental, and they can’t work as a “social glue” the way religion does, nor do they give shelter in front of the paradox of existence.
On the other hand, moral principles are principles which apply only and insofar as reason, experience and moral intuitions tell us what is the case – no “word of God” has authority over here. Being good is a matter of morals, not of observance of religion. The proof is given by saying that you can be good without being religious or morally bad and still religious, with respect to thus and such scriptural interpretation. On the contrary, you can’t be at the same time good and immoral, or bad and moral.
Religion is not intrinsically conjoined with anything bad or good. It becomes fundamentalism when people mistake it for having authority over morals, science and reason. And the same mistake is made by thinking that its “good predicaments” are good in virtue of their being religious, whereas in fact, if they are good at all, they are good only and insofar as they are moral. Absolute secularists forget that fundamentalism comes from a confusion among domains and doesn’t belong to religion itself, which is dynamic and can adapt both to good as to bad intents, thanks to interpretation.
On the other side, absolute liberals argue that fundamentalism has nothing to do with religion and is some sort of parallel phenomenon, for which religion is simply a distraction or a label. I don’t buy this position either. If I am right in arguing for the rationalist separation of domains, we shall see what sorts of domain they are.
The domain of reason obeys only to reason, but the one of religion doesn’t obey to “religion”. It obeys to the contextual interpretations one gives to the Scriptures. This allows religion to be a powerful medium to guide society and individuals instrumentally, as to follow a certain interpretation one gives to the Scriptures. And its power relies in its “meaning-giving” role and its “social-glue” role. Therefore, it is not a distraction from other intents. It is rather the necessary means for fundamentalism to gain supporters, reunite them and lead them to action.
Absolute secularists think religion is the cause of fundamentalism, when it is the means instead. Absolute liberals attribute improperly to religion the possibility of neutral isolation only reason has.
My conclusion is that both positions are false, and that we shall consider religion as different in nature from rationality, morality, etc. and much more malleable, also because it addresses a different realm of life. It is a constituent of our society that we can accept insofar as it stays within its domain. Furthermore, we should blame religious fundamentalists not for their being religious, but for their being extremists, keeping however in mind that, without religion, we wouldn’t even talk about them.