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.