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“.


Is there any difference between pacifism and nonresistance?

This past week, I received a great question from one of my readers. Thanks Mark for your question. I hope that this response is helpful. Please do drop me an email and let me know what you think.

Question: In your understanding, is there any difference between pacifism and nonresistance?

To answer this question, I think it would be best to first define the terms. From there, I’ll answer the question directly.

Pacifism – “the doctrine that all violence in unjustifiable” (source = Princeton Wordnet)
Nonresistance – “group refusal to resort to violence even in defense against violence” (source = Princeton Wordnet)
Nonviolent Resistance – “peaceful resistance to a government by fasting or refusing to cooperate” (source = Princeton Wordnet)

To me, the terms pacifism and nonresistance are quite similar but I am not sure if I would use them interchangeably. Pacifism is the term typically given to the doctrine or way of life that demands complete nonviolence under any circumstances. Nonresistance, because of the specific word, does have a sense of complete surrender to it. When I hear that term, I hear “no resistance, in any way”. Pacifism, on the other hand, while it does sound like the word “passive”, is not saying the same thing at all. Nonresistance does not necessarily imply the potential for active resistance that is discussed within pacifist situations.

Nonviolent resistance can derive from either pacifism or nonresistance, but as I mentioned above, nonresistance tends to imply that no resistance is offered, which would negate options such as nonviolent resistance. Examples of nonviolent resistance can include protests, civil disobedience and sabotage.

Wikipedia provides a great description of nonviolenct resistance:
“Nonviolent resistance (or nonviolent action) is the practice of applying power to achieve socio-political goals through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, and other methods, without using violence.” (source =

The Albert Einstein Institution provides a very thorough list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. While some of these will be more favourable to people than others, it does show the wide variety of options available outside of violent response, some of which can be extremely effective.

So, in a nutshell, I would say that I see a difference between pacifism and nonresistance and the difference is in the nature of passive versus active resistance.

I’d love to hear other opinions on this one. Please do provide your comments.

Talk soon,