Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Fundamentalism by Malise Ruthven – A review

Here, Ruthven begins by explaining the original context in which the term ‘fundamentalism’ was used, that of American Protestantism, and continues to analyze a number of religious movements around the world using the same frame of reference. He explains that Fundamentalism can initially be understood as “tradition made self-aware and consequently defensive”. In this argument, the process wherein religious traditions are made self-aware, and thus defensive, is a feature of a world wherein globalization and advances in communications have made confrontation with members of other traditions inevitable. Herein lies the irony of all fundamentalisms. Ruthven quotes Marty and Appleby on this point – “the very idea behind the project revealed the distance that had already been traveled along the path to secularity: ‘Designating fundamentalisms automatically places the designator at great remove from the time when religion thrived as a whole way of life. To identify one thing or set of beliefs or practices as essential is to diminish other elements of what was once an organic whole’ Thus, fundamentalism is both a defensive reaction to, and a symptom of, secular modernity.

Using Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblance, Ruthven continues to itemize some of the features which can, but don’t uniformly have to, characterize fundamentalism in its various forms (i.e. Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, etc.). These include:

  1. A defensive reaction to otherness;
  2. A determination to preserve orthodoxy in scriptural or doctrinal interpretation;
  3. A tendency to control, and limit the social roles of women, and to suppress sexual identities other than that of the heterosexual male – in many cases, Ruthven argues, fundamentalism plays the role of a “patriarchal protest movement.”;
  4. A symbiotic relationship with nationalism – in this context, Ruthven draws on the work of other social theorists who see secular nationalism “as itself having many of the characteristics of a religion, including doctrine, myth, ethics, ritual experience, and social organization”. Both serve the “ethical function of providing an overarching framework of moral order”. Another parallel is the “ability of nationalism and religion, alone among all form of allegiance, to give moral sanction to martyrdom and violence”.

However, while he allows himself to discuss European fascism and communism along the same lines, Ruthven argues that attempts to expand the use of the term ‘fundamentalism’ into other secular contexts, for example in discussing ‘fundamentalists’ within social movements such as feminism or environmentalism, are “not analytically useful”.

Back to the relationship with nationalism, however. Fundamentalism is most likely to appear in contexts wherein a group identity is either closely linked to religion, or religious difference, or where religious and cultural differences both neatly overlap with the conflicting interests of different cultural groups. Ruthven continues – “[Donald] Swearer sees nationalism as triumphing over religion, rather than the reverse: ‘Religions thus harnessed to nationalism are often regarded as more pure and orthodox than the traditional forms they seek to supplant: in turn nationalism readily takes on the character of a fervid, absolutistic, revival of religion’”. In this analysis, fundamentalism is “not religious in the classical sense of that term but rather a variant of a secular faith couched in religious language” and the symbols of the original religious tradition are “stripped of their symbolic power to evoke a multiplicity of meanings.” This tendency within fundamentalism to reject the symbolism of religious texts means that “fundamentalism is religion materialized, the word made flesh, as it were, with the flesh rendered, all too often, into shattered body parts by the forces of holy rage”. In all of this, we see an actual secularization of religion, even by people who are seemingly opposed to secularization.

Before I start taking selective potshots at this analysis, let me say that I find 80% of its insights intuitively appealing. This book has significant explanatory power. It might also be fair for me to lay my own culturally specific biases on the table. The author of this review is an Irish ethnic Catholic who hasn’t been to church for twenty years and, weddings, baptisms and funerals aside, doesn’t envisage ever going again. Nonetheless, I am grateful for many of the values imparted by Roman Catholicism, not least work, discipline, communal solidarity and social duty. I’m Catholic in roughly the same way many of the Eurocommunists of the 1970s were Catholic. I am also grateful for having received religious instruction in school (the Irish State funds schools of different denominations, including Islam, in proportions that roughly correspond to the religious breakdown of the Irish population – a somewhat more sophisticated interpretation of pluralism than exists in, say, modern-day France). I didn’t believe a word of what they taught me, but nonetheless, the process catalyzed an intellectual curiosity on account of which I have always felt lucky. It was my first introduction to the big questions. Curiosity is a wonderful gift, and I suspect this is the real point of religious education – who knows what someone will end up believing when they’re thirty? Despite my irreligion, then, all of this has left me a little suspicious of Ruthven’s implicitly liberal biases.

In discussing religious education, Ruthven overlooks the possibility that it could actually strengthen genuinely pluralistic, as opposed to narrowly liberal, values. In order for pluralism to be possible, or even a meaningful concept, we have to realize that we are different. Different identities must exist, as opposed to a single monolithic, ill-formed non-identity. In his book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics (1972), Michael Novak (admittedly, a conservative Catholic) warned against the emergence of a hegemonic “superculture”. He also pointed out that many of the core values of secular liberalism were simply secularized versions of Judeo-Christian concepts. For example, ‘enlightenment’ was the secular equivalent of ‘salvation’, while the concept of ‘progress’ was just a secular version of the concept of the Holy Spirit from day one. Most secular liberals seem sublimely unaware that, because they and their theory also come from a particular time and place in history, they also are biased. They make the assumption that secular liberalism is some kind of value-free, neutral political mechanism which makes it possible for different traditions to peacefully coexist, that liberalism is not, of itself, a ‘tradition’. This is painfully naïve, and it leads to a situation wherein, while liberalism’s defining characteristic is the principle of toleration, it seems capable only of tolerating itself. One case in point would be the recent decision, in France, to ban from schools any articles of clothing or jewelry which could be outward signs of religious belief. Doesn’t everything we wear, buy, do and say communicate a set of values? Why, then, should we make special legal exceptions for the expression of values deemed to be ‘religious’? The Swiss philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, once said that while the constitutions of many nation-states pay some reference to “valuing all traditions equally”, what actually happens in the best possible case scenario is that everyone, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, is given equal access to the same tradition, that tradition being scientific industrialism – along with Thomas Kuhn, Feyerabend was instrumental in deconstructing the conventiona
l understanding of scientific ‘rationality’ during the 1960s. Or, alternatively, the monolith could be secular liberalism – this doesn’t sound like pluralism to me. Scientism and liberalism are both children of the original enlightenment-project, and as such, both are guilty of the enlightenment’s greatest naïvete, the idea that any understanding of anything could be ‘objective’ in the sense of ‘ahistorical’ or ‘unbiased’. I am not advocating some kind of woolly-headed relativism here, but simply suggesting that the first existential fact we must all confront is our own historical embeddedness.


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