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Religion, fundamentalism, and the Enlightenment

September 15, 2010

Timothy Garton Ash used and then abandoned the term Englightenment fundamentalist a few years ago when writing about such people as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. His use, and the reactions of others to his use, such as that of Thierry Chervel in his essay on the term and Pascal Bruckner’s words soon after both raise interesting issues.

The self-image of the Enlightenment is primarily one of disinterested human application pure reason and secondarily, supposedly as a result of this first trait, also one of pure neutrality. But this glorification of pure reason means that reason alone is seen as the standard of truth: outside of human reason, truth claims are foolish, misguided, childlike. Hence for an adherent to Enlightenment ideas, religious beliefs and the intellectual traditions that accumulate as superstructures upon revealed texts must be considered irrational, below the regard of fully intellectually mature human beings. They can only be studied in one of the human “sciences” where we study the childhood of the human race from the privileged position of one who now sees clearly.

This pattern of course immediately calls into question Enlightenment claims of neutrality: if–as religion and many premodern philosophies claim–reason alone is not the sole path to truth, any formulation that enshrines and validates it and only it as the one true instrument in achieving such truth a priori cannot be neutral with respect to religion. This fact lies behind Garton Ash’s use of the term “Enlightenment fundamentalism.”

Furthermore, many of the vocal atheists seem to believe that all religion is fundamentalist in its impulse. Richard Dawkins, whose understanding of religious ideas in his published writings is remarkably deficient, fits into this category. Yet fundamentalism has to have a far more specific meaning than this crude and inaccurate form of use. Generally, the term refers to an oversimplified, uninformed-with-respect-to-tradition understanding of religious ideas, with a pronounced tendency towards a simplistic literalism in the interpretation of sacred texts and sacred history. Basically, fundamentalism is a hybrid product of modernity and of the Enlightenment,  combined with traditional religion. It is not fundamentally a product of religion itself.

This said, and given that the desire for simplistic answers always features in human history and thought, there have always been those who are literalist and oversimplifying in habit; those who believe not that credal or doctrinal formulations are an attempt to arrive at the truth or truth as veiled in verbal form, but that they are instead fully adequate expressions of the truth itself. This narrowness, when cross fertilized with a reaction to modernity results in fundamentalism.

Paradoxically, the religious fundamentalist has more in common with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris than he–or she–has in common with the normative believer in revealed religion. As I’ve noted before, religion in reaction to modernity, even when it does not become fully fundamentalist, sometimes tends to reify expressions at the expense of what these expressions are meant to point towards. This fact, somewhat exaggerated, ends up in fundamentalisms of various kinds.

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