Dawkins Part 6: The Problem With Fundamentalism


We’re all fundamentalists in some way. I find it quite contradictory that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the like criticize others for being fundamentalists when they themselves are so adament about their atheistic worldviews.

Dawkins spends a fair amount of time criticizing the extremist views of some religious people. He talks about Christians that kill abortion doctors. He talks about Muslims that kill people that have converted from Islam to Christianity (or other religions). And we’re all aware of the many “fundamentalist preachers” in the US and throughout the world that discriminate against homosexuality, women and other differences that they claim somehow make people unequal.

This is one area where I’ve gotta agree with Dawkins. I agree that fundamentalist views are problematic. They divide us. They split us into factions. These divisions work against all of us. There is no community spirit in division. That being said, we’re not all going to agree on everything. Human nature doesn’t make this possible. We all ahve different opinions. We all like different things. We don’t all like the same movies, the same food, the same music or the same books.

So, why does that mean that we all have to like the same worldview?

It doesn’t.

But, does that mean that we should impose our opinions on other people? I’d argue no, but then I’m bound to be called a fundamentalist by someone that disagrees with me. And there’s the rub… we’re all fundamentalists in some way, shape or form. Does this make us wrong? No. What is right and wrong when you’re debating ideas that have competing evidence? There’s a whole lot of grey in those discussions.

For a lot of years, I loved to live in the black and white of right and wrong. I didn’t function well with shades of grey. Structure and rules provide comfort and stability. But I eventually realized that each of us look at things through different sets of eyes. I see things as a middle aged white male living in a middle class neighbourhood after growing up in a blue collar family. There are plenty of other perspectives though. Factors that influence our perspectives include gender, cultural background, colour, age, education level, geographical location, etc. All of these things will impact our views, our values, our opinions and our prejudices (whether real or perceived).

Trying to view things as others see them is a worthwhile exercise, as it allows us to understand each other better. Give it a try. Juggle some of the factors that I mentioned above. Imagine how you’d perceive the following sitatuations:

  • Money if you are rich versus poor
  • Food if you are hungry versus well fed
  • Sex if you are loved versus abused
  • etc. – the list could go on and on

So my question here is: What makes religion any different? Why can’t we all have differing worldviews? What’s wrong with understanding and connecting with God in different ways?

The problem here, as Dawkins has so articulately put it, is that some people don’t allow for freedom of religion or of expression. Some people believe that it is their duty to convince others of their perspective, even to the point of persecuting them if they don’t agree. Thus, we are faced with the problems of extreme responses that I mentioned above.

My religion tells me:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

But surely, Jesus, saying these words, didn’t mean to forcefully convert people, did he? That would be contradictory to his earlier teachings on peace. Remember, Jesus also said:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)

These two quotes are two of the “biggies” in Christianity. The first quote, Matt 28:19-20, is known as The Great Commission. The second, Matt 22:37-39, is known as The Greatest Commandment. Thus, these are primary verses for Christians to understand.

Some have had a difficult time interpreting these two and allowing them to coexist together. To some, the order to “go and make disciples” has been understood as an active, forceful directive in which coersion is to be applied to convert people. One of the greatest recorded abuses of this is by the Spanish and others that arrived in the New World only to massacre hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Native Americans. These massacres were at least partially justified through the directive to “convert or die”. Yet, this directly contradicts Jesus’ pacifist message of love, as highlighted in The Greatest Commandment.

This type of tension is present in numerous different worldviews. Religion isn’t the only place that this is present, but it is worrisome when it leads to extremism.

The media has reported numerous examples of religious extremism coming from the Muslim faith lately. As I look at the facts in the situations of suicide bombers and freedom fighters, I do understand some of the motivations behind their actions. Persecution and lack of options is high on the list of reasons for what pushes people to go to such extremes. But, when these people claim to be doing the work of the Lord by carrying out such acts, that doesn’t really jive with what others within their own faith believe. Further investigation tends to suggest that these extremists follow an extreme interpretation of their texts, in much the same way that Christian extremists distort and disregard the message that is provided in the New Testament of Christianity. Thus, there is some concern with the validity of their claims.

And really… do we really think that killing someone will make our point of view any more right? I argue no. If anything, it will distract anyone from listening to the original argument and will instead focus them on the violent action. If I need violence to defend my opinion, then I’d best re-examine my argument because it can’t be that strong of an argument if I can’t defend it by other means.

The key here is tolerance and confidence that we are following the right path for the right reason. No matter what factors play into our individual worldviews, I do believe (here goes the fundamentalist in me again!) that we are each, individually responsible for having a rational and well thought out worldview. Otherwise, why do we believe what we believe?

So yeah… I’m onside with Dawkins here. I agree that extremist views do exist and that violent coercion to convince others is the wrong way to go. If your argument isn’t convincing enough, then perhaps you need to reconsider your argument. And, if your argument doesn’t make sense, then why do you believe what you believe? And further, if you hold a religious worldview that involves Jesus or the Quran, which both preach love and peace, then why would you follow a violent path to represent that faith? Doesn’t it make you a hypocrite?

That’s my challenge for you today… take some time to examine what you really believe.

Next up: More moral discussion in “The Slippery Slope of Abortion“.

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5 comments on “Dawkins Part 6: The Problem With Fundamentalism
  1. Bad says:

    We’re all fundamentalists in some way.

    If that were true, the word would be effectively meaningless. I don’t think it’s true: some positions are based on dogma, and others are based on a commitment to reason, debate, and evidence.

    Merely strongly advocating a point of view is not fundamentalism. Fundamentalism requires an unswerving allegience to a dogma and an unwillingness to consider the possibility that you might be wrong.

  2. storbakken says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. Fundamentalism, whether it be religious or atheistic, is stagnating in that it doesn’t allow any movement to take place within the conversation. I totally embrace Christ’s teachings, but also admit that many of his followers (myself included) have, at times, been a hypocrite. That doesn’t mean Christ’s teachings are wrong, it simply means that human nature has been corrupted by sin. Thank God he forgives us and continues to redeem us when we fall. I look forward to reading more of your posts in this series.

    Every blessing in The Most High!

  3. oldspacetoby says:

    Religious fundamentalism taken to the extreme in almost any religion results in violence. If I stick with your examples of Christianity and Islam one needs only to remember the crusades and the terrorism that has occurred on their behalf. Too often religious zealots seize the thought of, “I am right. You are wrong. If that does not prove it, my weapons should.” This lack of perspective has been a major flaw throughout all of history.

    I find it interesting that you cite the cultural insensitivity of the Spanish conquistadors in your post. Truly this perfect example could spread not just to the Spanish but the majority of the French and English colonists as well. Here were people in their technological and ‘orderly’ prime. The basic of their theology was far more truthful and their technology was far advanced. What attitude resulted from it? Insensitivity. This was evident in their domination over the Native Americans. “We’re right! We have the truth! But you have to become like us in order get it!”

    Stepping out into someone else’s perspective is a must. Too often we think that people’s views and beliefs are completely ridiculous, but if we take the time to imagine, we will discover why they think the way they do. And if their views are destructive, horribly false, or theologically flawed, we will know why, and we will also know how to approach these views. The center of this method of perspective is building a relationship. True genuine relationships is what the colonists omitted in their ministry to the Natives. The desire to build true relationships is what is missing these days. Jesus did not say, “You have to be like me before I help you!” No, it was Jesus who took the form of a man in order to relate to us first. He experienced our perspective of a life so that we may trust him. I suggest we do the same.

  4. びっくり says:

    Fundamentals are the basis of belief. We have fundamentals that we accept in arithmetic, science, engineering, and so on. How many of you have revisited the fundamentals of basic math since elementary school? How many of you have revisited them ever? In most cases being a fundamentalist has little to do with being inflexible or violent.

    Unfortunately, many people like to confuse the terms radical, extreme, and fundamentalist; it certainly helps to sell a certain world view.

    As noted: a person who bombs an abortion clinic, is going against the fundamentals of Christianity. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself: he is not a fundamentalist, nor even an extremist, but he could be labeled radical. The same would apply to Buddhists, Hindus, and most other faiths.

    A key indicator here is how these religious communities and leaders respond to these acts. Overwhelmingly they will condemn the radical acts.

    There is one world faith that often gets labeled as peaceful; however, whose leaders and followers will rarely condemn extremist or radical behavior because they are supported by the fundamentals. Anyone reading their holy book from front to back would be hard-pressed to deny that fundamental belief in this faith is dangerous. I’ll leave that as an exercise for those who really want to get to the bottom of the issue.

  5. darla says:

    Christianity has turned to a fundamentalist thinking…and for some things I think it is..example-does the Bible say that? Some times everyone is guilty of listening too long to what someone thinks instead of going to the source. i have experienced lots of fundamentalists who bank more on what the commentaries interpret than what did God actually say. I will continue to call my self a Christ follower. It seems like all religions the bad has changed the meaning of the word Christianity. Religion is full of rules mostly made by man. relationship is driven by devotion, and a loving response to the love that is given. Jesus is all about relationship, and I do not feel like I have a bunch of rules to abide by, I follow HIM and his ways because i love him, and HE takes care of all my needs, and goes over and above! Ask HIM for relationship, and then check it out…HE is real!

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