Excerpt: 'In Defense of Religious Moderation' by William Egginton


Newton, William Blake, 1795

From How Religions Become Fundamentalist:

A conclusion from what I have argued so far would seem to be that fundamentalist thinking, whether religious or otherwise, has always existed, even while it has been accompanied by ways of thinking that undermine it or criticize it from within. This conclusion, however, contradicts some recent work in the history of religions that suggests that fundamentalism, contrary to how it is often perceived in popular culture and the media, is a profoundly modern phenomenon. Karen Armstrong has made this argument by distinguishing between two kinds of knowledge, which she expresses with the Greek terms mythos and logos.

Whereas mythos refers to a holistic knowledge that is metaphoric at heart, logos designates a focused, pragmatic kind of knowledge best exemplified by specific problem solving. Whereas mythos forms the basis of our cultures and their self-understandings, their sense of right and wrong, of what is heroic or abhorrent, what to be admired and what to be ashamed of, it makes no pretension of describing physical objects and their functioning. Logos, in contrast, is the kind of knowledge that tells us a lot about the physical world we inhabit; it comes from observation and experimentation and permits us to intervene in highly successful ways in our environments.

For Armstrong, both kinds of knowledge have their respective places in any society. A society that tries to solve practical problems through the application of mythos, however, is bound to run into serious problems. Likewise, the use of logos to regulate every aspect of human cultural, spiritual, or psychic life has the potential to do great harm. In this light, she goes on to claim, modernity can be seen in some ways as the ascendancy of logos over mythos; where Western and other cultures had traditionally valued both forms of knowledge, the creative, metaphoric, all-encompassing weltanschauung of mythos and the pragmatic, problem-oriented, representational thinking of logos, modernity and the success of the scientific revolution led to an almost total suppression of mythos from the realm of “serious” intellectual endeavor. Rather than valued as another realm and way of articulating beliefs, mythos came to signify a childlike and obsolete attempt to explain the world, an endeavor now pursued to far greater effect by the scientific method.

As the Western logocentric worldview grew in power and influence during the scientific revolution, areas of social and personal life that used to be approached under the aegis of mythos were dealt with as if they were objects to be manipulated. The assumption began to dominate intellectual circles that every aspect of existence, including cultural practices and human desires and beliefs, could be explained through objectively discoverable physical laws. While this assumption did indeed lead to some breakthroughs in medicine, psychology, and economics, it also produced its own excesses. As I point out in the next chapter, a society that denies that humans have a cultural and psychical existence that is not reducible to physical causes risks alienating aspects of existence that humans cling most desperately to. Arguably some of the worst political atrocities of the last century, specifically those stemming from certain interpretations of Marxist “scientific materialism,” were direct results of this kind of thinking.

The other effect of an excess of logocentric thinking has to do with what happens to the sorts of beliefs usually contained in mythos when mythos is denied as a valid category of experience. This, according to Armstrong, is the origin of the specifically modern phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. Faced with a uniformly logocentric standard for truth claims, defenders of religious faith begin to interpret religious texts and teachings in a way that had never been normal practice before, namely, literally. Already in the seventeenth century Sir Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind before Einstein but also a religious fanatic, had become obsessed with purging Christianity of mythical doctrines. Since Newton could understand doctrines like that of the Holy Trinity only in literal terms, he could make no sense whatsoever of them, unlike the earlier Gregory of Nyssa, who found in the Trinity an image he could use to express “the unnameable and unspeakable.”

Such a backlash, in fact, is at the origin of the term fundamentalism, which was coined by U.S. Protestants in the early years of the twentieth century as a rallying call against mainstream theological tendencies such as the so-called higher criticism, which had been emphasizing a return to more nuanced and metaphorical interpretations of the liturgies since the late nineteenth century. Already in the 1880s, Dwight Moody had founded the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in an effort to defend against the higher criticism. And between 1910 and 1915, the oil millionaires Lyman and Milton Stewart funded the publication of twelve paperbacks called The Fundamentals, which sold some 3 million copies. Fundamentalism was born.

Whether Christian or of other faiths, the movements we call religious fundamentalism are always the result of a perceived attack on a given community of faith. This is one reason why the attempt to regulate or restrict religious practice, what the new atheists are in essence calling for, has always resulted in and can only result in more fervently held beliefs, often in the form of fundamentalist backlash. In other words, when secularists criticize all religion, the unintended consequence of their actions is strengthening exactly that aspect of religious belief and practice that is ultimately at odds with modern, democratic values.

This dynamic can be seen in Europe today as modern, secular states like France grapple with the Islamic practice of veiling women. Far from successfully inculcating a sense of equality between men and women of all faiths, attempts to restrict public demonstrations of religious affiliation like the veil have led to backlashes, such that many women who wear it today in Western countries like France are doing so as a sign of cultural identity and anticolonial sentiment. Likewise, we tend to view the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which was eternalized in the 1955 play and 1960 film Inherit the Wind, as having revealed the depths of belief in creation science already present in fundamentalist communities. But as Armstrong has argued, before the Scopes trial few fundamentalists actually believed in creation science or thought it particularly important to do so. Creation science became a hot-button item for the fundamentalist movement only after William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in court by Clarence Darrow was ridiculed by the journalist and essayist H. L Mencken, who wrote in an obituary for Bryan that he “lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind who write school-books.” In the face of such humiliating condescension, groups tend to close ranks around tenets and practices that define them as different from the outside world. . . As with the Christian case, Islamic fundamentalist movements have emerged largely as a backlash against enforced modernization and perceived humiliation, with the added aspect of violent political repression not present in the Christian case. . . .

For Karen Armstrong, the fundamentalist backlash in religions since the dawn of modernity has constituted a kind of perversion of the original essence of these faiths. She claims that most if not all the faiths that are widely practiced today originated in what she calls, following Karl Jaspers the axial age, the time between more or less 900 and 200 b.c.e. when the major tenets of all the world’s principal systems of thought emerged, albeit in different parts of the world. She includes in this list Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Many of the ethical insights of these different traditions are the same. They all, for example, produced some version of the golden rule, which was designed to eradicate the egotism that had brought societies at the time into crisis and which is still at the heart of just about every religious and ethical system in existence today. In their religious manifestation, axial faiths therefore all require kenosis, or the self-emptying essential to some theological interpretations of Christian love.

Another axial principle is that of the ultimate transcendence of the universe, whether conceived of in material or spiritual terms. In other words, the axial traditions agreed that, however we conceive of the world, no human can ever be understood as having the last word; knowledge is an infinite process. At their core, then, the world’s religions were never about doctrine or the literal interpretation of the divine will but about generosity and tolerance for others. When they have degenerated into dogma, they have betrayed that original purpose.

As religions have developed and evolved they have also stagnated and grown sedimented layers of dogma. In the face of social conflict they have become fortresses of group identity and been deployed to measure purity of commitment and foster intolerance for others. But despite these changes religions carry with them the core of their original purpose. I have mentioned how the Judaic and Christian theological traditions emphasize the ineffability of God’s ultimate knowledge, but the Koran too insists that God communicates through symbols because thought cannot contain him, and no revelation can be definitive. Furthermore, the Koran also holds other faiths to be authentic, and Muhammad told his followers to pray toward Jerusalem because the God they prayed to was also the Jewish and Christian God

As mentioned, popular culture and the media tend to think of religious fundamentalism as a kind of embarrassing leftover from a less-informed, less-educated past. As Nicholas Kristof, a columnist whom I deeply admire, wrote in a recent column about the increase of troops in Afghanistan, “It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists.” I certainly understand Kristof’s point, but while the Taliban are indeed misogynist extremists, there is nothing medieval about them. Prior to the onset of modernity in the sixteenth century, and especially prior to the expulsion of the Jews and later the Moors from Christian Spain, European thought benefited immeasurably from the intermingling of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian intellectual and theological traditions. While religious intolerance was no doubt also an issue during the Middle Ages, it is a gross mistake to associate religious fundamentalism with bygone times.

At the core of all fundamentalist thought is the belief that the world exists as a kind of knowledge, that it can be known as it is in itself if only we learn to read the code. While this belief has existed in many cultures at many times, one of the functions of the axial religions was to undermine that conviction, to teach people that the transcendent nature of ultimate reality was such that no human could ever, in principle, come to know the ultimate truth. What is crucial to grasp is that this core principle simultaneously sustains the existence of mythos and logos as two separate but equal domains of knowledge; for if the ultimate, all-encompassing questions are by nature infinite, if human knowledge in principle cannot grasp everything, then practical, objectifying logos is simply not relevant to such discussions, and the holistic, metaphoric standards of mythos have their place. Likewise, to the extent that modernity has allowed mythos to be pushed aside by the practical successes of the scientific method, the axial principle of the transcendence of ultimate knowledge has been weakened. But it is this principle that more than any other works to defend humanity from the dangers of its own certainty. It is for this reason that modernity’s privileging of logos over mythos, in Armstrong’s terminology, has paved the road for a specifically religious fundamentalism, namely, by weakening that aspect of religious traditions that have been the most effective critical weapon they have against the fundamentalist impulse: moderate belief.

Excerpt originally published at Arcade Creative Commons License