Sunday, 5 December 2010

Exam Time with Dominic Rivron

On his blog, the erudite Dominic Rivron has challenged the blogosphere to write an essay answer to one of the exam questions from the paper that would-be students at All Soul's College are required to sit.

Not having written (or thought) anything of much substance of late, I thought I'd give it a go.

Dominic's post is here, where you can read his essay and also get to the list of questions.  My effort is below.

How would you explain the current strength of religious fundamentalism?

Almost daily, the media bombards us with news of some new and/or important scientific or technological advance, be it a step on the road to a cure for cancer or the invention of a new type of portable music player.

The internet allows us to access ideas, philosophies, knowledge and ways of thinking far different from our own at the simple click of a mouse.

Fashions, cultures and mores are changing quickly – the rate of change fuelled, no doubt, by the ease with which ideas can be spread around the globe, and by the sheer number of minds it is now possible to pollinate with any new idea along with the speed at which this can be accomplished.

So it's a changing world, an uncertain, unequal world and, for many people, a very threatening world. Religious fundamentalism offers certain advantages to the true believer, certain comforts.

If it were a product, it would be marketed like this:

You have a place in the grand scheme of things. You may be insignificant to your government, to your employer, to your neighbours even, in this age of dissolving communities, but there is always a place for you among the true believers, where you are valued and where you can find like minds. You are in the ultimate 'in' crowd.

Elimination of uncertainty. If you are confused by the fluid morals and ephemeral fashions and lifestyles of the modern world, you can replace them with a set of principles and codes of conduct which are unchanging, uncompromising and absolute. You need not puzzle out for yourself what to do in a given situation – it's all been worked out for you, and you can rest assured that this way is the right way.

Elimination of injustice. In this life or the next, you will be rewarded for your sufferings in this vale of tears. You may be dirt-poor and ignorant, but rest assured, those infidels who now live in the lap of luxury and decadence will pay for it later. Even if you are not poverty-stricken or uneducated, you can help out those who are, by struggling against the same forces of immorality and secularism that they do. This life is but a gateway to the next – which is the more important one.

Everybody needs an enemy. In medieval times, people feared devils and evil spirits. Witches were at one time the favoured bogey-man. Later on, we had communists and aliens. There has not been an age in our history where a society has not felt the need of a common enemy of some sort. The true believer will certainly have one as well, and it feels good to strive with your fellows against a common foe.

Is it any wonder that religious fundamentalism is so strong?

But surely, it might be argued, people are more educated these days and wouldn't 'fall for' all this kind of rigid thinking. As mentioned above, many people have access to thoughts and ideas – to knowledge - which should set their minds free from what most liberally-educated people might regard as the 'shackles' of dogmatism? Surely, no rational person would cleave to these outmoded and legalistic modes of belief and conduct?

If only people were rational beings.

They are not, as we can see from the continued popularity of such things as astrology and general superstition on the part of otherwise sensible people.

They are not, as evidenced by the prevalence of addiction to substances which harm the mind and body.

They are not, as shown by a tendency by many people to purchase a product simply because it bears someone's name at ten time the price of a similar quality item without.

Given the general level of irrational behaviour on this planet, opting for something which appears to offer certainty, significance, satisfaction and stability seems like a sensible choice.

No wonder religious fundamentalism is flourishing.


  1. You are so right about the marketing - for a certain type of person all that rigidity is VERY attractive. No thinking required!

  2. Right cracking! Thanks for having a go. Isn't it fun?

  3. Excellent!
    People really do need some stability, some certainty, and to belong to an identifiable group. A whole lot of people would really rather be told what to think and how to be. We are more educated (on average), but we are _not_ more intelligent than centuries, even millenia, ago. It's a hard thing to make all your own choices, and it's so satisfying to be right.

  4. indeed - mankind was made to hit things and grunt a lot and coping with a modern world where technology is moving at light speed often leaves us wanting a simple answer in a confusing world - so one can see the attraction of someone coming up to you and saying "i will take the confusion away - here is the answer" and surrendering oneself to this controlled world rather than face the confusion

    I don't know though - i think i'd rather have the doubt. Still, it has to be said that you've put the Fun back into Fundamentalism...


  5. I think the basic problem here is that mankind is not evolved/is not evolving quickly enough to keep pace with the changing world. When you think about it, all the massive changes we've undergone have happened within what it essentially an eyeblink in the span of existance. No wonder we're bewildered, and like infants crying in the night, we want something big and kind and powerful to comfort us. We have to grow up, though.

  6. I love the questions on that thingy. After two more posts I have ideas for, I'm going to pick another ten questions, after the ones I answered here:

    A few things, though.

    The message in which you hypothetically marketed religious fundamentalism can talk about Christianity altogether. A religious fundamentalist message would include something in there about how there's something wrong with other religious, that the endtimes are coming, and that they should be devoted to the church. Although, the "everybody needs an enemy" thing is something I think they would definitely say.

    There is access to a vast wave of ideas amongst the internet as well as from the surge of printed and electronic publishing. But just because people have information doesn't mean that they will know what to do with it, nor have the testicular fortitude to embrace things that the government and some society reject.

    Also, someone being a fundamentalist doesn't necessarily render them irrational. There are quite a few intelligent traditionalists out there. But I think it's the extreme, follow-the-leader ones that don't really know what they're doing.

  7. Samurai - you're right, I forgot about the end times bit, always a winner that one. There may well be intelligent fundamentalists out there - in fact some research into British muslim fundamentalists revealed some of them to be quite well educated and articulate. The irrationality part still stands though in my book, you might have a PhD in nuclear physics, but if you believe that there are fairies at the bottem of the garden, despite all evidence to the contrary, then you are irrational in that belief. I'll be over to yours soon.


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