"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Need for New Religious Terminology: Fundamentalists

The term "fundamentalist" came from theologically conservative Christian scholars who wrote a series of volumes defending the Christian faith titled "The Fundamentals."

A perusal of the volumes indicates that the use of "fundamentalist" as a derisive term has no connection to the reality of those books. They were written by real scholars with serious degrees from serious institutions.

Because the books were so widely distributed and enthusiastically received by many Christians, the word "fundamentalist" was coined to show identification with the message of the books. Over time, the word became an epitaph very much like the infamous "N-word" that contributes virtually nothing to understanding or discourse.

The abuse of the term has become even worse now that it is used to identify certain segments of Islamic extremism. More serious still has been the tendency of American progressives to cross-identify American theological conservatives with aggressive Muslim terrorists. Thus, we hear of "Texas Talibans" and the like. Such identifiers are particularly ridiculous considering the fact that an outsize proportion of our troops fighting Muslim terrorists likely identifies with the basic values of early American fundamentalism.

In response to the false (or provenance-challenged) Newsweek story about a Koran being flushed down the toilet, we have heard news of a riot among Muslims causing the deaths of several people. Such a response is unheard of in Christian circles and readily highlights the perils of cross-cultural religious comparisons. In other words, a fundamentalist is not a fundamentalist is not a fundamentalist.

10 comments:

Tlaloc said...

I find the terms "fanatic" and "zealot" to work.


"In response to the false (or provenance-challenged) Newsweek story about a Koran being flushed down the toilet, we have heard news of a riot among Muslims causing the deaths of several people. Such a response is unheard of in Christian circles and readily highlights the perils of cross-cultural religious comparisons."

Hunter you really don't want to go there. Any argument that Christianity never provokes ridiculous and fatal responses to stimuli is going to be torn to shreds.

John Huisman said...

FYI Hunter, Alvin Plantinga, on pages 244-245 of his "Warranted Christian Belief," has some insightful and quite funny things to say about the word "Fundamentalist" as used in its pejorative sense. Here's the best part:

". . . the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like 'stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'."

He goes on to say that it is a term used (in this sense) in lieu of an argument against whatever theological view to the right is found distasteful.

John Huisman said...

FYI Hunter, Alvin Plantinga, on pages 244-245 of his "Warranted Christian Belief," has some insightful and quite funny things to say about the word "Fundamentalist" as used in its pejorative sense. Here's the best part:

". . . the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like 'stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'."

He goes on to say that it is a term used (in this sense) in lieu of an argument against whatever theological view to the right is found distasteful.

jpe said...

Nowadays, we use "fundamentalist" to denote a reactionary, highly conservative form of religion.

Is it really so hard to figure that out?

James Elliott said...

"Such a response is unheard of in Christian circles..."

Because pogroms against Jews were rational.

Because burning a "witch" at the stake isn't a hysterical act.

Because the Catholic massacre of Huegenots in France was nice and peaceful.

And as the Irish have demonstrated, Protestants and Catholics behave calmly towards one another at all times.

Give me a break.

Hunter Baker said...

Elliott and Tlaloc, I think my point stands even after your volleys. All of the instances to which you point would involve much more nuance and strong reasons for action than the poor treatment of the Nth copy of a holy book.

James Elliott said...

"More nuance" and "strong reasons?" Mr. Baker, you made a blanket statement sans any kind of nuance. You claimed that Christians were nonviolent and better than Muslims in the face of equally specious stimuli ("A friend of a friend told me the Jews use the blood of Christian babies in their rituals!" ring any bells?. Your obvious belief that Western, Christian culture is superior to Muslim culture isn't what I was taking umbrage to: it was your lack of "nuance." The massacre of the Huegenots was a reaction to a Catholic princess marrying and Heugenot noble, giving excuse to the venting of decades of religious animosity. The burning of witches was no more nuanced than being a hysterical, literalist reaction to allegories in the Bible. The Inquisition was about as nuanced as a straight line: Heretics were tortured and killed because they weren't "Christian" enough. But, for the sake of argument, let's accept that there was more "nuance" to those situations.

Such a claim then cuts both ways. You ascribe other factors to the violent acts of Christians, but not those of Muslims. Did you ever stop to consider that reports of the Koran being desecrated (whether true or not) was merely the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back? For over a year now, the Muslim world has been subject to reports of Americans torturing Muslims. They have had their countries invaded, seen civilians killed, faced abusive treatment at the hands of soldiers, and seen their lives fail to improve in any material way. They have heard reports of U.S. interrogators using Muslims' religion against them in interrogation (remember the "menstrual" fluid one man had flung on him?). Could it be that this was just the last straw? Could it be that there was more to the riots than "the poort treatment of the Nth copy of a holy book?"

You cannot claim nuance for Christian violence and then refuse to consider and ascribe such to Muslim reactions. Your statement only withstands our volleys because you believe it does - which you are wont to do because you wrote it. Your belief in the superiority of a culture to which you belong is understandable, and not necessarily a bad thing. But you infantalized a culture that was far more advanced when yours was living in mud hovels. Do not confuse their current circumstances with somehow being a more primitive and reactionary culture. Such a lack of nuance is unbecoming.

JL said...

I would hesitate to use the Inquisition as a tool in my argument about the merits of Muslim versus Christian...as I'm quite certain that had Muslims not invaded and conquered Christian areas (in this instance the Iberian Peninsula...in other instances...North Africa...Lebanon...Syria...etc...) there would not have been an Inquisition. Logic would seem to dictate that in the precarious situation in which the Christian kingdoms of Spain were in after the Reconquest...that there might be some rough patches for those who were not easily proveable as Christians (poor phrasing on my part but I'm an idiot so take it easy). I am not saying that excuses the Inquisition's excesses...I am simply pointing out that by invoking them as an example of the terribleness of Christianity in relation to Muslims...that it might not be the best example as it leads directly back to the problem with the Muslim religion...namely that it has had to conquer militarily and force conversion via persecution (ie. dhimmitude...see Bat Yeor (I think I have that correct)...or just read the Koran and the Hadith...there's plenty of stuff in there about how the conquered are supposed to be treated until they convert to Islam...or submit if you will) to get to the present size of the Dar al Islam (is that right?...I know the name of the territory that Muslims are to be in jihad w/...that's the Dar al Harb). The examples using the Protestants & Catholics is more analogous to Sunni versus Shiite than it is to the treatment of inhabitants/infidels of the Dar al Harb by Islam. Anyways, great choice of examples.

I think it is pretty self evident that the fundementals of Christianity & Islam are drastically different.

JL said...

Mr. Elliot...If the Islamic civilization was so glorious and so much more advanced than that of Christian Europe (or Christian areas in general...I'm pretty sure that the big mosque in Istanbul was actually a Christian church at some point)...then why do those people still live in mud huts (as you term them)...and I live in luxury (and our poor live in luxury compared to the Islamic world as well). I personally think you're parroting what you've been taught or read w/o ever looking deeper. I've read in several books and articles that much of what was assumed by most to be examples of Islamic genius...turned out on further inspection to be the result of the reading of Greek texts & materials taken from the library in Alexandria (I could be wrong but look into it...and as I stated before...it would seem that a culture that was that much more advanced would at least maintain some level of...advancement...doesn't it?).

James Elliott said...

JL,

It's nice of you to try and refute my post without actually refuting the crux of the post - that there are other systems at work on Muslims than an inherent debasement of Muslim culture.

For example, Islam teaches that the Koran is more than a "holy book" - it is the physical embodiment of the word of God. Tossing the Koran in the toilet is like taking a dump on the Shroud of Turin, or peeing on the floor of St. Peter's. It's like taking the Pope's pointy hat and sticking it where the sun don't shine. It's like burning the works of Martin Luther and dancing among the ashes. It's one hell of a big straw to toss on to the pile of invasion, torture, and degradation Muslims have experienced.

Whatever one's view of the inherent worthiness of one culture over another, a point on which I am happy to agree to disagree with you on, since it remains nearly entirely subjective, to ignore the various systems at work and view each issue in microcosm is to do honesty a disservice.

As a more direct refutation: The Spanish Inquisition began as a purge of the Jews and those whose conversion to Christianity was questioned at the request of Queen Isabella of Spain. It had nothing to do with the influence of the Moors upon the Iberian peninsula and everything to do with Spain's prosperity being directly attributable to Jewish investors and tradesmen. Put bluntly, the Christians wanted the wealth of the Jews, exacerbated by the "blasphemous" fact that Passover fell within Holy Week for the Catholic Church and rumors of Jews celebrating this heresy. Officially, the Inquisition's purpose was to purge Spain of heretics, but it also had racist and material origins.

Further, your question about the lack of progress within Muslim nations ignores other factors, including the importance of tribal communities, constant ethnic strife, and so on. One must beggar the question, if Christians had not succeeded in converting a Roman emperor, thus having one of the greatest and wealthiest civilizations in history to build upon, how well would they have succeeded? If Christians had had to remain in the Arabian Peninsula, as Islam remained, would it have been able to succeed so spectacularly? Your sword of the works of the Greeks and Alexandrians cuts equally sharply to the Christians, who purloined the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the works and cultures of those it tried to convert (let's not forget Christmas' origins as a pagan holiday). Christianity's successes were also built upon the backs of those who came before.