Saturday, April 20, 2013

Let's Be Rational, Even When it Comes to Fundamentalism

The calamity in Boston busted open multiple conversational floodgates. A large portion of news coverage during yesterday's manhunt for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev focused on the suspect's nationality, political beliefs and possible religious motives. Similar topics are still being discussed across the internet and in the Atheist Movement. As we continue the ever-popular discourse on religious Fundamentalism, we should try remain just as devoted to truth and reason in our analyses of this topic as we are in our assessments of other topics. There are two very important points that need to be made about religious Fundamentalism that the Atheist movement often forget:

1. Religious fundamentalism is not necessarily the most pure, most intellectually honest or the most accurate interpretation of any given religion.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an atheist say something akin to "if Christians really followed their religion, they'd all hate gays" or "if Muslims really followed the Qur'an, they'd all support terrorism", I would likely be able to retire early. Unfortunately, assertions like these are very inaccurate and demonstrate a want of historical knowledge.

Fundamentalist religious movements* are reactionary almost by definition. They are relatively recent and very different in belief and practice from the "original" sects of the religions that they stem from. Evangelical Christianity originated in the 18th century with the First Great Awakening. Fundamentalist Christianity arose later, in the 19th century in response to the popularity of religious doctrines and practices that its adherents saw to be inaccurate. If we were to look at some of the oldest surviving Christian religious traditions, many of the Orthodox Churches, we would find that they are just as annoyed by Fundamentalist Christians as we secularists are. They do not take the Bible literally and most of them are not Creationists.

The same is true in the case of Islamic Fundamentalism. The militant religious groups we see shouting and burning American flags in the Middle East have not actually existed since the founding of the religion. Wahabbism, the sect of Islam that we see put into practice in Saudi Arabia, was also a product of the 18th century and thus, relatively recent as religious traditions go. It should also be noted the Saudi extremism is the exception, not the rule, in the predominantly Muslim Arab world. Following the colonial period, most of the governments in what we call the "Muslim world" were secular nationalist governments. Some nations, Tunisia in particular, actually repressed the open practice of Islam despite the fact that most of the citizens were Muslim. These secular governments were often repressive or ineffective in other respects as well and many of the Islamist groups that we hear about on the news arose in response to the perceived ineffectiveness or repressiveness of the powers in place at the time.

In the cases of both Islam and Christianity, no one sat down, read the Bible or Qur'an from cover to cover and then proclaimed, "hey, we're doing this wrong! Let's go stone some people!". That's why it's incredibly ridiculous for us as atheists to sit down, read the holy books and then suddenly proclaim to understand the religions in question. Religious fundamentalists often claim to have the most correct interpretations of their respective religions, but their views of history and philosophy are usually quite skewed. I fail to understand why claiming to take the Bible or Qur'an literally should be considered more intellectually honest than not doing so. Some denominations of Christianity and Islam truly believe that God's word requires careful interpretation and that it contains parable and mystery. This position is actually more honest than the literalist position because, in practice, Fundamentalists pick and choose from their holy books just as much as moderates do. They have to. As atheists love to point out, the Bible and Qur'an are full of contradictions. In order to "follow" them, one must choose one command or another, contradictory command. It makes no sense to ignore this fact in order to make Fundamentalism seem like a default interpretation of a religion.

2. Religious Fundamentalism cannot be divorced from the political and social climates in which it manifests.

Because Fundamentalist religion as reactionary, we cannot pretend that it arose from the ether or even that it arose only from religious fervor. When the potential tie between the Boston bombing and Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya was suggested, people on Twitter immediately started hooting about how this 19-year-old was clearly brainwashed by the idea of Islamic jihad. While there may be a grain of truth to this assertion, the "radical Islam is what inspires this kind of violence" train of thought results in a gross oversimplification of the issues at hand. It ignores the political turmoil in the Caucuses that has created a fertile ground for radical religion. If you are under the impression that radical Islam in Saudi Arabia is the same as radical Islam in the former USSR, then you are very much in error.

One might ask why this second point matters. After all, religious extremism is undeniably bad, no matter how it originated. The problem with this objection is that it does not take into account the fact that we cannot properly address an issue without a full and accurate understanding of the issue. Sure, attacking extremism itself might help the situation a little, but if we fail to correct the underlying social and political issues that lead to the development of extremism, there's a good chance that it will crop up again. Also, if we, as outsiders, present solutions to the problems the religious extremism causes without understanding the situation at hand, our solutions will not be well received, no matter how clever they are. Take, for instance, the woman who was persecuted recently in Tunisia for her topless protest against Islamic repression. I doubt that suggesting a more secular Tunisia would go over well, considering how repressive the previous secular regime was.

None of this means that we need to cease our criticism of and fight against religious Fundamentalism. By all means, criticize Islam, criticize Christianity, hate the adherents of these faiths that use their beliefs as an excuse to kill and persecute. Just remember to do so in a reasoned manner keeping the facts in mind. These facts are often more complicated than we anticipate, but as freethinkers, nuance is not something that we should fear.

*I am talking mainly about the Abrahamic faiths here. My knowledge of the histories of other religions is too lacking for me to speak on their histories with regard to fundamentalism.