The events in France this past week have led me to share once again some reflections about religious fundamentalism, especially when it becomes radical fanaticism. Religious fundamentalism — whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any religion — is a problem that will not be solved this week or next. If we are going to live on this planet together, however, it has to be solved and it can be solved.

Reflections about Religious Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH.

Fundamentalists pick and choose from their scriptures, using certain texts to justify their narrow vision and actions. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on their own perceived doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice those values basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring.

In their overwhelming seriousness about their exaggerated religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social process to ensure that society is forced to conform to the values and behaviors their basically static worldview requires. For fundamentalists cultural change is the great threat to their identity.

Fundamentalists are their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons.

For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.”

For people who feel dislocated in a “foreign” culture and who see their identity threatened, fundamentalism says the foreign culture is their enemy and God’s enemy.

For people who are fearful, fundamentalist leaders say: “you can’t be saved without us…join and be saved.”

For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just agree and obey.

Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.

Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist’s worldview.

For people burdened and hopeless about their socio-economic status, fundamentalism says: “It is not your fault but the fault of the ‘foreign’ world out there. ‘They’ are the oppressors.”

Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.

Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.

What should we do about fundamentalism?

The best way to confront ignorance is not through indoctrination but through real education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills. Real education stresses the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in opposite fashion.

In all religious traditions we need to stress the importance — the absolute necessity — of an historical critical understanding of all sacred scriptures and religious teachings. And we need to help people understand that change is a fact of life…whether secular or religious.

In the Muslim world, an historical critical understand of the Quran — across the board — is essential for the survival of a healthy Islam and essential for our survival as well. Here, particularly, non-fundamentalist Muslims bear a heavy responsibility.

We need to establish channels for dialogue and institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

In our parishes and community centres, we need to establish inter-religious study sessions, discussion groups, and shared prayer. We need to combat the kind of religious arrogance that makes one religious tradition “true,” and the others “false.”

In our world with its great migration of peoples we need to study what cultural identity means today and the process of cultural assimilation and change. The great migration of people’s is not going to stop.

We in the West need to practice a genuine humility that enables us to really see the rest of the world and the rest of the world’s socio-economic needs.

We need to translate our vision-gained-from-humility into concrete and achievable socio-economic actions and strategies.

None of this will come easily……..Right now people in France are huddled in grief and fear. My thoughts and heartfelt sympathy go out to them……..A big challenge stands before us; but it is a challenge none of us can sidestep.


12 thoughts on “Religious Fundamentalism

  1. Jack, I want to preface my comments by saying how much I respect who you are and what you have accomplished. Over the years as I’ve read what you have written and done, I suspect that, on the surface, you and I have seem to have many thoughts in common. However, this particular commentary on Religious Fundamentalism struck me as being uncharacteristically short-sighted. What you have said about religious fundamentalists could be, in my opinion, aptly applied to most institutions in many places around our world. Your words seem to me to be a pretty good description of the mindset and dynamic of many governments, educators, religions, wall street, Madison Avenue, etc. It seems to me that any effort to solve problems at their root cause is often up against fundamentalists whose thinking limits or cuts off stronger and more serious attempts to get things done. We tend to cut corners or go for the quick fix because of our fear and frustration that things are out of control, which of course they are. I don’t know if this make sense but these are my thoughts after reading your comments. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

      1. Short-sighted is probably the wrong word. I was trying to say that what you said about religious fundamentalists could be aptly applied to many other segments of our society.

    1. What I should have added in my brief comment, Jerry, is that fundamentalism is hardly restricted to religions. The solution remains the same: making good information available to all, promoting real education and healthy spiritual formation in all religions, training people in the skills of critical thinking, adapting our own thinking to the realities of a world in a major cultural change, dialogue, and well-thought-out and long-term social action programs.

  2. Agree that the solution to most issues is “real education”. This is particularly problematic with many people in religious schools and madrases of one sort or another or those who confine themselves to self reinforcing information outlets. Critical thinking and questioning the status quo are always a threat to the existing cultural norm. I believe we are making progress toward a more enlightened humanity as information becomes more available through more channels. This will result in radical reactions from some individuals who feel threatened or feel a loss of identity, especially those displaced from their home culture through political or economic chaos.

    Those who rely exclusively on external words, individuals and holy texts as their foundation rather than their internally centered experience of spiritual mystery will be subject to the whims of extreme interpretations. In my opinion,once you are grounded in your deeply centered experience of spiritual unity, holy texts can confirm ultimate truths and it is more difficult to be lead astray. Acts of violence, prejudice make no sense if you see others as a reflection of the all that is, which is yourself as well.

    So, we move forward as a strange and mysterious species, doing our best to understand the mystery of being a self aware consciousness with our animal bodies and desires as we deal with the constant distractions of everyday living. This doesn’t make it any easier to suffer through the tragedies in France, Nigeria, Syria, Newtown and countless other places. Only another opportunity to extend a smile and open our hearts to someone who is different from ourselves the next time we meet them.

  3. I have found that Fundamentalists (of any ilk) are not open to any sort of dialogue. They see no need for it.

    1. Thanks Paul
      So what do we do? I think it is a slow process that begins with establishing mutual respect, helping people in very human difficulties, etc. It takes time and a lot of patience. I have worked with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists. Some of the most frustrating fundamentalists have been seminarians!
      Many kind regards

  4. Many thanks, Jack, for yet another insightful post. As I see it, religious fundamentalism seeks (claims?) a degree of certainty which will make faith not only easy but unnecessary.

    (Br) Brian Grenier CFC (Brisbane, Australia)

  5. Thanks very much, Jack. An important and timely message and well said. Re: Great migrations. This is the history of the entire human race since the first Homo sapiens. Those who try and stop humans from moving to where they can find food and shelter are, to me, shoveling shit against the tide – if you’ll excuse the expression – and adding to the slaughter and misery all around us.  Speaking of fundamentalists, I won’t even post this on katholica since it sounds even to me like I’m a nutty conspiracy theorist. But I have this nagging thought in the back of my head that the Vatican’s “reconciliation” with the SSPX is an effort to connect with their “base” in Europe i.e. France’s far right. (The pope has scheduled two trips to France in 2015.) So I’d appreciate it if you’d keep on eye on the French far right.  Thanks again for all you do.Betty  

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