Many people view fundamentalists as the real representatives of religious belief. That’s certainly what Richard Dawkins seems to think, along with some of my good New Atheist friends.
I can see the reasoning. Fundamentalists are the ones who apparently take their faith really seriously. They’re the ones with utter, dogged commitment to their beliefs, often regardless of evidence. They’re the ones who accept and follow their holy texts literally and unquestioningly, without a shadow of doubt, regardless of how abhorrent or unpalatable those texts might be in places.
Fundamentalists appear to be firm, strong, unwavering, faithful; not woolly and wishy-washy, half-assed and mealy-mouthed. You might hate what they do and stand for, but in a way you have to admire them – or so goes the argument. They’re the real deal – religion in its true colours (which of course are black and white).
And by the same token, non-fundamentalists are not really believers at all. They’re not much more than religious parasites riding on the backs of the true faithful. Indeed, they’re little better than traitors to their faith (which of course is how many fundamentalists view them).
And from a New Atheist perspective, moderates and progressives muddy the waters and prop up irrational, harmful religion by a reasonableness and niceness which are entirely inconsistent with their ridiculous beliefs and barbaric scriptures.
I understand this viewpoint, but I don’t agree with it.
Fundamentalism as a sign of weakness
It’s my firm conviction that far from fundamentalism being the strongest and surest form of faith, it is generally the weakest and least secure. Far from fundamentalism being the truest, purest, most authentic form of faith, it is on the whole the most immature version. And far from fundamentalist literalism representing the best understanding of faith’s core tenets, it tends on the contrary to be based on huge over-simplifications and often tragic misunderstandings of them.
Fundamentalism (at least in its extreme form) is the most vocal and indeed violent form of belief, precisely because it is the weakest, least secure and least mature. It shouts and fights to defend its viewpoints because it must; for to accept that it might be wrong on any point would (it fears) be its death and ruin. To the fundamentalist or extremist mind, any question of its version of truth is a deadly attack that must be resisted by counter-attack – for the sake of its own survival.
So fundamentalism will not accept the least shade of doubt, or nuance, or shade of grey, or alternative position – because it cannot; it has not the maturity or strength to. It cannot brook the least non-literal interpretation of holy writ, lest the whole edifice come crashing down about its ears.
By contrast, those who have grown up into a deeper, more mature faith can accept all manner of doubt and uncertainty, all kinds of nuance and alternative interpretation. They are free to listen to other viewpoints, from those of other faiths or none, without feeling threatened or undermined. They are free to question the tenets of their own faith, and even to question their scriptures. To the fundamentalist, and sometimes apparently to the atheist, this appears to be a sign that they have lost or compromised their faith. I believe the precise opposite to be the case.
Fundamentalism isn’t all bad
Now I should make a couple of provisos here. Firstly, I believe fundamentalism to be an important, even vital phase to go through in spiritual development. It is not the end goal and ultimate expression of religion, but it is a necessary first step. The problem is when people become stuck in it, unable to grow past it at the proper time.
Secondly, by no means all fundamentalists are violent, immature or unintelligent. Some are deeply good, kind and thoughtful people who for one reason or other are holding on to a simple (even simplistic) theology. I disagree with this theology, but many fundamentalists are far better than their theology. (I’ve written more about understanding fundamentalists here.)
More than merely moderate
But if fundamentalism is by no means the truest representation of religion, does that mean that moderate or liberal religion is then the ideal that we should be aiming for? Not necessarily.
I’ve said before that I don’t like the term ‘moderate’, and I don’t think that being or ‘nice’ or ‘reasonable’ is the pinnacle of religious faith. The best and truest religion is of course not unreasonable or irrational, but it’s much more than merely reasonable or rational. It’s not nasty or deliberately offensive, but it’s so much more than merely nice or inoffensive.
So where fundamentalism is black-and-white, merely moderate or nice religion is shades of grey. But the truest religion is the full spectrum of living colour.
Fundamentalist religion is at worst narrow, restrictive, exclusivist, controlling and directly opposed to human flourishing. Moderate religion is I think more psychologically healthy, but it can sometimes run the risk of becoming amorphous and attenuated, lacking the power to make much actual difference. The best and truest religion, I would argue, actively promotes and contributes to human freedom and flourishing. It is shown to be true by its power to change lives and so change the world.
The best and truest religion embraces and encompasses all of life and people and the world, rather than being limited to a narrow ‘religious’ sphere. It welcomes and enjoys diversity, variety, creativity, imagination. It doesn’t hide itself away in a clean safe enclave, but engages positively with the arts, sport, politics, other faiths, and indeed everything and everyone.
So what is ‘true’ religion? For me, it’s simply the way of Christ; it’s true Christlikeness. It’s hard to sum up in a neat definition, but it’s easy to recognise when we see it – as we do in different ways in the lives of people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Gandhi (though of course not himself a ‘Christian’). And of course we see it most clearly of all in Jesus Christ himself.
True, Christlike religion is beautiful and exciting, subversive and dangerous, life-affirming and liberating and humanising. It transgresses social boundaries and conventions, breaks rules that are designed to dehumanise, overturns age-old systems of oppression and control. Its goal is nothing short of an entirely renewed, redeemed cosmos and an entirely renewed, redeemed humanity – a world based on mutual love and care and self-giving and forgiveness.
So if our religion is merely safe or dull or establishmentarian then we may well be missing the mark. And if our religion seeks to label and exclude, to condemn and dismiss, to control and dominate, to set up barriers and fences rather than tearing them down, then it is not Christlike at all. And so it is arguably not true religion at all; certainly not the truest.
Crucially, true religion humanises both its followers and also those who are not part of its ‘group’. Rather than seeking to condemn or exclude or shun outsiders and unbelievers, it reaches out to all with transforming love. And rather than imposing its ‘truth’ on others, it listens to and learns from them.
Not another club
So please don’t get me wrong. I say all this not to set up another exclusive religious club, labelling it ‘true religion’ and shutting out everyone else – the fundamentalists, the moderates, the atheists, the believers in other gods.
If there were a club or a church for ‘true religion’ it would only have one member – Jesus Christ. No-one else has ever come close to fulfilling the requirements; no-one else has been able to love completely and unceasingly and faultlessly – even MLK and Mother Teresa. But fortunately Jesus doesn’t keep it as an exclusive club. He opens it wide to all of us.
‘True’ religion is not something that I and my group have, and that you and your group lack. It’s something none of us have, but that we can all seek and aspire to. It only comes with maturity, with long following in Christ’s footsteps – and it is not fully realised this side of eternity.
We all have some fundamentalist tendencies – it’s part of the human condition. And we all bring our own flawedness and brokenness, our psychological and emotional unhealthiness to our religion. All Christians and all churches and religious groups are fundamentally flawed from the very outset. Yet that need not be a cause for despair or disengagement, but rather for hope. Christ’s grace is there for all of us, calling us on from where we are to where we can be in him.
So fundamentalism is not the true essence of religion; but then neither perhaps is merely nice, moderate liberalism. True religion is something we’ve mostly only barely glimpsed. But when you do glimpse it, you probably won’t want to settle for anything else.