Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Unpublished Articles
Presented to the second annual Margaret Stevenson Memorial Dinner and Lecture, Stamford Plaza Hotel, Auckland, 3 November 2001.

Religions of the World: Divisive or Divine?:
A Look at Religious Fundamentalism

by Moojan Momen

One aspect of religion that has come to general attention in recent years has been the upsurge of fundamentalism. Although many people, on account of events of the recent past tend to link fundamentalism in their minds with the religion of Islam, it is in fact a phenomenon that can be found in almost every religion: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The split between fundamentalists and liberals appears to affect almost every religious community to one extent or another. In this presentation, we will first look at what fundamentalism means from the religious viewpoint. We will then look at sociological and psychological explanations of it, and lastly, we will examine why it is that it has come to the fore at the present time.

Many people have a stereotyped view of fundamentalists: that they take the words of their holy scripture literally and are opposed to science. This is a view that dates back to the time when Christian fundamentalists were trying to fight the implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, as with all stereotypes, it is not a sufficiently deep understanding of the phenomenon and it has become less and less valid as the years have passed. Fundamentalists have changed and adapted since then. They no longer oppose science. Indeed they take great pride in the extent that they can advance scientific proof for their positions. Nor are many of them strictly bound to a literal interpretation of their scriptures.

Religious Characteristics of Fundamentalism and Liberalism

We will here try to present the main features of fundamentalism in contrast to its opposite, liberalism. Of course. in order to show up the differences, it is necessary to depict the extremes of the two positions. The attitude of most people will fall somewhere between the two. We may characterise the differences as follows:

1. The Scriptures.

The fundamentalist looks to the holy scriptures of the religion as absolute and unchanging truth. The first concern of the fundamentalist is to establish that the holy scripture is "the Word of God" and it is impossible, therefore, that there be any error in it. All laws and commandments in these texts are to be applied inflexibly and to the letter. Even in religions that have no concept of a scripture revealed by God, Theravada Buddhism for example, a similar attitude towards scripture can exist.

As a secondary principle, fundamentalists also favour a literal interpretation of the scripture. However, the usual idea of the fundamentalist's literal interpretation of the scripture requires some degree of elaboration. In some places the text is clearly meant to be symbolic-the parables of Christ, for example. Here even the most extreme fundamentalist does not, of course, believe that these parables actually occurred physically. In addition. there are also places where there are inconsistencies in the text. The more sophisticated fundamentalist (the fundamentalist scholar, for example) is willing to allow much latitude in interpretation in such cases. The important point, however, is that the fundamentalist always regards the scripture as referring to real existent situations and facts. What the scripture says corresponds to empirical reality. For example, even if heaven and hell are acknowledged not to be physical places above and below the earth, these two words nevertheless do refer to existent realities.

The principal concern of the fundamentalist is to extract an exact meaning from the text of the scriptures. The millennialists of the mid-nineteenth century were certain that their calculations pointed to the return of Christ in 1843 or l844. Then the "Great Disappointment" occurred and there was no literal fulfilment of their expectations. One group that became the Seventh-Day Adventists resolved the problem by formulating an explanation that the prophecy had been fulfilled. On that date, Christ had entered the Most Holy of the heavenly sanctuary, and he had a work to perform there before coming to earth. This is a clearly non-literal explanation of a prophecy that most other Christian denominations expect to occur literally and on earth. The Seventh-Day Adventists do, nevertheless, have a fundamentalist approach to scripture. Their interpretation of the "Great Disappointment" has the ability to give an exact meaning to the scripture when a literal meaning has been ruled out in their history. Another instructive example relates to the question of Noah's flood. Some Christian fundamentalist scholars are willing to accept that this may have been a local flood in Mesopotamia rather than a world flood (which the literal text would imply). This explanation is less problematic scientifically. But nevertheless, the story of the flood does, for these scholars, refer to an actual physical event - they rule out any non-physical (i.e. symbolic or metaphorical) interpretation.

Much modern Christian fundamentalist literature is taken up with detailed explanations of how the events of the Bible can be explained scientifically. Scientific explanations are desirable as they are thought to provide a guarantee of certainty and of exactness of interpretation.

Another characteristic fundamentalist attitude is that the whole of the scripture stands or falls together. This view maintains that since the scripture is the Word of God and therefore infallible, the inerrancy of every single sentence of the scripture must be maintained. Otherwise, the slightest error in any smallest part casts doubt on the whole.

By contrast, the liberal is willing to allow that the texts of the scriptures are open to more than one interpretation; parts of the scripture are more "true" - in the sense of being more likely to have actually occurred physically - than other parts. As well as truth relating to empirical reality, the liberal is prepared to see other types of truth - typological, metaphorical or mythological - in the scripture. Allegorical and symbolic interpretations may be used particularly of passages that appear to contradict human reason. Social and contextual factors should be taken into account in the interpretation of the scriptures. The truth lies in the significance of the statement rather than its correspondence with any external actuality. Traditional interpretations may be examined for whatever useful insights they may present but have no binding force on the present.

The liberal looks to the holy scripture of his or her religion more as a source of guidance for how to lead one's life. The liberal accepts that the meaning, the "truth", of the scripture may change as the circumstances of the individual and society change - i.e. it is a relative, rather than an absolute, truth. Therefore the liberal believes that the meaning of the scripture is not fixed but rather the scripture must be reinterpreted in every age for the concerns of that age.

The liberal is much more willing to acknowledge that the holy scripture is a historical document. It has been written down by fallible men and women sometimes many years after the events portrayed. Therefore almost certainly, errors and myth-making have crept in, almost certainly theological ideas, current at the time of writing, have been read back into the past; there may also have been omissions, additions or errors in the course of transmission. In contrast, the fundamentalist, if he or she does accept the historical nature of the scriptures, will insist that they were divinely protected from alteration or error. Certainty no external factors, such as the social conditions pertaining at the time that the scripture was written down are relevant to the understanding of the texts.

It is therefore a characteristic feature of fundamentalists that they consider that they can derive the meaning of the scriptures directly, just by reading them. No contextual, philological or historical information beyond what is evident in the text is needed. The plain meaning of the texts is their intended meaning. In contrast, the liberal considers that the scriptures have to be read contextually, taking into consideration historical and philological information; each individual must then interpret what the scripture means for him or her in the light of individual and social circumstances. One could say that for fundamentalists the meaning of the scripture is inherent in the text. It can be apprehended directly without a need for interpretation. For the liberal, the scripture is something that must be applied to one's life; it must be interpreted according to the circumstances of one's life.

2. Mutual recriminations

Fundamentalists tend to blame liberals for allowing into the religion dubious ideas and doctrines that have no basis in the religion itself but are either accommodations to the secular world or imports from other cultures and religions. An example of this from the past is the manner in which rationalist theologians in medieval Islam were accused of introducing into Islam ideas from the unbelieving Greeks. An example from modern times is the liberation theology that originated in Latin America. Fundamentalists regard it as no more than a back-door method for introducing Marxism into Christianity. Similarly, fundamentalists tend to blame liberalism for a general moral laxity in society.

A more basic criticism levelled by fundamentalists at liberals concerns the arbitrary nature of their view of the scriptures; some parts of the scripture liberals regard as the religious core and therefore to be preserved; other parts are culturally determined and therefore can be dispensed with or interpreted liberally. What determines which parts of the scripture are treated in these two ways? To a fundamentalist, the dividing line appears not to be defined by any discernible logical rules, but rather by whatever happens to be the current social fashion. In one decade, feminism is to the fore and so the liberals dispense with those parts of the scripture that give a low status to women; the next, gay rights are fashionable and so the liberal jettisons that part of the scripture too. Are fashion and current secular sensibilities to be the arbiters of the standpoint of faith? If so, will the inevitable result not be eventually to jettison everything? In this sense, we can say that fundamentalism is much more of a reaction against modern, relativizing, liberal trends in religion than a reaction against modernity itself.

Liberals consider that the harsh intolerant attitude of the fundamentalists is contrary to the true spirit of religion and is doing religion a great deal of harm in the modern world. The liberal tends to see the traditions and structures of the religion in relation to society. For a liberal, the important question is: does the religious tradition and structure serve the needs of society? If any part of religious structure or doctrine is not relevant to society, then we must see how we can adapt it to become relevant. The traditions, doctrines and dogmas of the religion as well as the holy law are all guidelines for action. They can be interpreted according to circumstances.

3. Attitude to religious diversity within the religion

The fundamentalist is intolerant of a wide divergence of religious expression within his or her own religion. All divergence from the main orthodox tradition is suspect. There is an ever-present prospect of heresy insidiously creeping in under various, seemingly innocent guises. The religion must be protected from this at all costs. There have been many episodes in religious history in which much suffering and bloodshed has been caused by those wishing to impose a narrow interpretation of their religion on their fellow-believers. In Christianity, this was seen in the Inquisition and the many bloody suppressions of heresies. In Islam, there have been periodic persecutions of heterodox groups as well as such groups as Sufis.

The liberal will tolerate the existence within the community of a wide variety of viewpoints. As long as a viewpoint does not explicitly deny the veracity of the Prophet/Founder or the holy scripture, it can usually be accommodated within the community of believers. Even if a viewpoint is considered too extreme to be acceptable, the preferred method for trying to counter it will be argument and persuasion rather than compulsion.

4. Attitude towards other religions

The fundamentalist sees other religions as being the result of error. Since these other religions are in open competition with the true religion, the usual explanation is that they are the work of the devil. They must be strongly opposed and even persecuted if necessary. The only possible exceptions are those religions towards which the Prophet/Founder himself showed respect. These must by definition be religions that preceded the Prophet/Founder. Thus for example, fundamentalist Christians will tolerate Judaism but reject Islam; fundamentalist Muslims will tolerate Judaism and Christianity but reject the Bahá'í Faith. Even this toleration wears thin at times, however, and merges into persecution--as evidenced by past persecutions of Jews by Christians, and Jews and Christians by Muslims.

A related phenomenon in modern times is the linking of a xenophobic fundamentalism to a strident nationalism in many parts of the world. We can see this in Arya Samaj Hinduism in India, in some forms of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in Japan, in the Gush Emunim movement in Israel, and in fundamentalist Christianity in the United States and South Africa.

The liberal will look to other religions as representing other ways of looking at religious truth. Many liberals will give their own religion some form of priority. Such liberals are, nevertheless, willing to admit some legitimacy and "truth" in other religions; the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, for example, held that the truly religious persons of other religions are "anonymous Christians". Other liberals are willing to go even further and regard other religions as being of equal validity to their own, but each is, perhaps, more suited to its own culture. A liberal religious society, such as medieval Muslim Spain, allows the efflorescence of intellectual and artistic excellence from whatever quarter, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

The fundamentalist's conviction of possessing the truth leads to a strong tendency to correct the errors of the unbelievers. Thus the inter-religious activity of the fundamentalist is typically evangelism and missionary work. The inter-religious activity of the liberal, on the other hand, tends towards ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue. Fundamentalists have no time for such activities. Since their own religion already possesses the absolute truth, there is no point in looking elsewhere for it.

5. Social and political differences

It is with regard to social and political differences that we are treading on the most difficult ground in our enquiry. This is because there appears to have been some degree of change in the modern period compared to the characteristic features of these groups in former times. In the past, there does not appear to have been any characteristic political stance from either fundamentalists or liberals. If anything, both parties often tended to political quietism. Socially most fundamentalists have tended to be isolated. Some have formed separate communities, such as the Old Order Amish and Hutterites in North America. Others have minimised contact with the rest of the society through associating as much as possible only with fellow fundamentalists (fundamentalist trade and vocational associations, clubs, colleges, holiday centres, etc.). Historically, in the nineteenth century in Europe and North America, for example, personal asceticism and rejection of wealth characterised many fundamentalists. Liberal views were, on the other hand, often found among the wealthy.

Recently, much of this has changed greatly. Both sides have taken on characteristic political attitudes and fundamentalists have left their social isolation and entered social and political life in every part of the world. In recent times, fundamentalists have tended to be found at the right of the political spectrum, encouraging individual self-reliance and stressing public morality and order. Some fundamentalist groups have even reversed their previous tendency towards asceticism; they now adopt a positive. encouraging attitude towards the accumulation of wealth. These groups have become actively involved in politics. They advocate capitalism and a laissez-faire social philosophy while raising communism to an almost mythological level of evil. The best-known example of this is the Moral Majority movement in the USA which contributed to Ronald Reagan's electoral success.

An important social and political feature of fundamentalism is the tendency to promote a traditional role for women in society (i.e. confinement to home and children, rather than going out to work and taking a political role). This applies as much to Christian fundamentalism in the United States (where the Moral Majority campaigned against the Equal Rights for Women Amendment), as it does to Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to the left politically in modern times due to their concern with social issues. Some groups have even engaged in Christian-Marxist dialogue. Religious teachings such as showing love towards one's fellow human beings and social justice are emphasised. Liberals have also changed their previous tendency and now incline towards asceticism. They have a negative attitude towards the accumulation of wealth. They are supportive of the emancipation of women.

Fundamentalists regard existing political structures with suspicion; they are the products of human thinking and efforts rather than divine revelation. The extreme wing of fundamentalism would overthrow them in favour of a political structure based on scripture. Khomeini advocated such a programme and intended the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to inaugurate such a theocracy. It should not be thought, however, that it is only in Islam that such positions are being advocated. In Christianity, American groups such as the Christian Reconstructionists, led by Rousas J. Rushdoomy, advocate an overthrow of democratic institutions. They want to establish a theocracy under Biblical Law. In Israel and India, there are several extreme Jewish and Hindu religious parties that advocate a similar position.

Social and Intellectual Basis

Little research has been done on the social bases of the fundamentalist-liberal dichotomy. The work that has been done suggests that we must go beyond the old view that fundamentalism represents an anti-scientific backlash of the old rural agricultural communities against the urban, scientific culture. In the next few paragraphs, we shall see that fundamentalism is not anti-scientific and that the evidence tends to discount any significant social differences between fundamentalists and liberals.

Because science has become such an overwhelmingly important guarantor of plausibility in the modern world, everyone wants to think of themselves as being in line with it. Fundamentalist writers, therefore, often go to great lengths to show that their positions are in accordance with science. However, critics would maintain that this is a veneer of pseudo-science applied in order to increase the plausibility of the fundamentalist world-view and that fundamentalists remain inherently opposed to the inductive approach of the scientific method. Among many fundamentalists in the United States, there remains a strong advocacy of anti-evolutionary (anti-Darwinian) positions under the name of Creationism. However even this position bows to science in that it claims to use scientific method to prove its case. Indeed, religious critics of fundamentalism argue that by striving to interpret the Bible stories so that they conform to science, fundamentalists are, in effect, adopting a materialistic stance; they are placing science above God's Word. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of fundamentalist science, most fundamentalists no longer see themselves as opposed to science intellectually. Their main intellectual argument, at least as it has been reformulated in recent decades, is with historical and literary criticism as applied to the scripture.

Outside the Christian West, fundamentalism is often centred on a reaction to the intrusion of modernity into traditional societies. Even here, however, the fundamentalists are not opposed to science and technology themselves. They are quite happy to use these. Ayatollah Khomeini's success in overthrowing the Shah, for example, owed a great deal to the use by his supporters of such modern inventions as the telephone and the cassette recorder. These were used to disseminate his speeches while he was still in exile. The question that the Iranian fundamentalists have yet to answer satisfactorily is how they can import and utilise science without also importing the scientific approach, which questions and criticises everything including religion.

What fundamentalists are primarily against are the alien values and morals being imported along with the science and technology. It is not so much modernity itself that they fear as the threat that the accompanying liberal social and religious values pose to traditional religious structures and values. The following quotation from the manifesto of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a Hindu fundamentalist party, in 1951 could speak for all such reactions to modernisation and westernisation:

"... there is an atmosphere of disappointment and frustration in the country ... The ruling Congress party in its haste to make India a carbon-copy of the West is undermining the people's faith in the national values and ideals."

We may also state that there is no justification for the commonly-held view that the fundamentalist is against logic and rationality. On the contrary, the fundamentalist mentality is much predisposed to the use of precise, logical arguments. Shi'i Islam is an interesting example to consider further in this respect. Both the theology (kalam) and the jurisprudence of Shi`i Islam is built on foundations of rationalism and logic. From the ninth century onwards, Shi`i scholars have prided themselves on being able to derive their doctrine and their legal judgements from logic (as well as from the Qur'an and the Traditions). The study of logic forms an important part of the academic curriculum at the religious colleges of Qum and Najaf. This then is the intellectual background of such persons as the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Also to be questioned is the view of fundamentalism as mainly a phenomenon of poor rural areas. In fact both fundamentalists and liberals are likely to come from similar social and educational backgrounds. Many modern fundamentalists appear to arise from educated middle class backgrounds-precisely the same background from which the majority of liberals also come. This has been shown for British fundamentalist groups, and for Americans. Similar conclusions have been drawn about the Muslim world whether in Egypt, Iran or West Africa.

We thus have two pieces of evidence that point towards the fact that the fundamentalist-liberal difference is not primarily the result of social factors:

First, the fact that the socially observable features of the phenomenon vary across the different religions.

Second, the fact that fundamentalists and liberals appear to arise from much the same social strata as each other.

It is as yet premature to dismiss social factors entirely. The evidence, however, certainly does not support a blanket association of fundamentalism with any particular social category or factor. These findings, if confirmed by further research, point to the likelihood that the fundamentalist-liberal difference comes not so much from social differences as from differences in psychological types.

The Psychological Basis of Fundamentalism and Liberalism

Fundamentalism and liberalism have been described above as two extreme viewpoints. That is not to say that everyone is at one extreme or the other. There are intermediate positions and an individual can, during the course of a lifetime, alter his or her position on the spectrum. In psychological terms we may characterise fundamentalism and liberalism as two different ways of thinking, two cognitive styles. Cognitive style refers to the individual's characteristic and consistent manner of organising and categorising perceptions and concepts. It is a value-free term in that cognitive styles are not judged to be good or bad in themselves. Any particular style may, however, be more or less favourable in a given situation or for achieving a given goal.

The fundamentalist mentality is characteristically one that sees things in terms of black and white. There are clear-cut boundaries that determine what is and what is not acceptable belief, who is and who is not in the community. Any person, situation or object either belongs within the orbit of the "saved" or is outside it, there are no intermediate stations. No matter how good a life people may lead, if they are not among the "saved", then they must be among the "damned". The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn and there are no intermediate positions. The liberal is more inclined to allow for "grey areas", intermediate situations. Although some people may not be believers, if their actions are good then they cannot be totally bad. In this way, we are gradually coming to the point at which it is possible to see that the fundamentalist-liberal split is not something that affects religion alone; rather, it is one facet of a much larger phenomenon in the psycho-social life of humanity.

One of the underlying differences between fundamentalists and liberals is that the former are driven by a desire for certainty. Hofstadter has called this the "one-hundred per cent mentality". Such a person will "tolerate no ambiguities, no equivocations, no reservations, and no criticism." For the fundamentalist, certainty is only to be found in objectivity. The indecisive world of the liberal who is willing to see some truth in all opinions; the uncertain field of historical and literary criticism, where different opinions abound; these are all tainted by personal opinion, and therefore by subjectivity. This is deeply unsatisfactory to the fundamentalist psyche. The only way of achieving objective truth is to take a standard that lies outside human subjectivity. While a liberal Christian would be happy to accept just a statement of belief in Christ from an individual this is not sufficient for a fundamentalist. It is too liable to the whims of subjectivity. It might include all sorts of doctrinally objectionable positions. Acceptance of the Bible as inerrant, however, is considered by fundamentalists to lead to objectivity. For one is not forming a personal view of the Bible but rather accepting the Bible's own view of itself. This, the fundamentalist considers, gives one a standard of absolute truth and hence objectivity, and hence certainty.

This desire for certainty probably accounts for the enthusiastic adoption of science (or, as their critics would claim, pseudo-science) by fundamentalists. Scientific method acts, for the modern mind, as a guarantor of the correctness of one's conclusions, and hence of certainty. It also accounts for the fact that fundamentalists are often very keen on building up elaborate logical arguments. The mathematical certainty of logic appeals to such minds. The fundamentalist favours absolutes while the liberal favours relativist styles of thinking. Indeed we may even be starting to discern here a reversal of positions similar to what is described above in the social and political spheres. Liberals are moving away from an espousal of rationalist, scientific thought (as in the nineteenth century). They are moving towards a more holistic, intuitive way of thinking. The fundamentalists are, simultaneously, moving towards the certainties of logic and scientific proof. These changes may reflect changes that are also going on in the perceptions of society; society has moved away from a position in which scripture was seen as the guarantor of certainty to a position in which science is the guarantor.

Convergent and divergent thought are two further categories in psychology that are relevant to our consideration. There are some similarities between the convergent style of thinking and fundamentalism while divergent thinking corresponds with liberalism. Convergent thinking focuses down from the general to the particular, dissecting and analysing. It prizes rational, deductive thought. It aims towards certainty. One tends to find it among certain types of scientists, and engineers in particular. Interestingly, we find that when scientists (especially from the physical sciences) and engineers become religious, they often tend towards fundamentalism. Divergent thought, on the other hand, goes from the particular to the general, integrating the particulars into a general picture. It prizes inductive, intuitive thinking. It aims towards inclusivity rather than certainty. One tends to find it among artists and social scientists. These two modes of thinking have, in experimental psychology, been linked to the two halves of the brain. It will be sufficient here to say that analytical rational thought is associated with the dominant (usually left) hemisphere; intuitive thought is associated with the other hemisphere.

It should be noted that cognitive style is not the same thing as personality. Cognitive style is a much more flexible function that can change relatively easily in a person. Although we can define fundamentalism in terms of a particular cognitive style, there is a problem as to which phenomenon causes which. Does a particular cognitive style cause a person to be attracted to the fundamentalist world-view? Or does the ideology of fundamentalism induce a particular cognitive style? This is probably a question of the chicken-and-egg variety that has no answer.

One consequence of this psychological view of fundamentalism is that any religious group will contain people with a spectrum of cognitive styles. A small fundamentalist group, for example, will have a range of cognitive styles that is at the fundamentalist end of the spectrum. Within that range, however, some will be more "liberal" and others more extreme in their fundamentalism. The larger the religious group, the wider the range of cognitive styles that is likely to be within the group. All the world religions include people who have the full range of opinions from the most liberal to the most fundamentalist within them. A religion like the Bahá'í Faith that has deliberately sought to have a wide variety of people within its ranks will also contain, despite its reputation as a "liberal" religion, individuals with a range of liberal and fundamentalist opinions.

Fundamentalism and the Modern World

We will now consider the question of why fundamentalism has risen to such prominence at the present time.

If we go back two hundred years in almost any of the world's cultures, we find that a religion was the core of society. Religion was the cohesive force within the society and religion provided the society with its morality and its vision. Reality itself was constructed on a religious basis. For people from the Christian West and the Islamic world, for example, the cosmos consisted of an earthly plane, above which was the sky and stars and beyond that was heaven while below the earth was hell. Religion was the source for the construction of reality and so everything in the conceptual world was seen through the lens of religion. It was not just that religion was the ideology of the society - no other way of looking at the world was possible. Thus all the arts and literature could do was reflect this religious view of the cosmos because no other view was available.

This situation lasted until about two hundred years ago. Since then, beginning in the West but spreading to every part of the world, there has been a break-down in this traditional construction as other ways of seeing reality arose. Scientific discoveries, at first in the realm of astronomy and later in the areas of biology and physics, arose to challenge the way religion interpreted and explained the world. Starting with Copernicus and Galileo, astronomical findings disproved the traditional religious version of things. Then, in the 19th century, the evolutionary ideas of Darwin questioned the religious views of human development and the place of humanity in the universe - the Bible's creation of the universe in six days and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were not only questioned but denounced by science.

Religions have traditionally considered that they have access to a source of absolute truth. During this century, advances in physics have challenged the whole concept that there is any such thing as absolute truth and that all truth is relative.

These scientific discoveries taught us to also see the world from a scientific and materialistic viewpoint which brought about enormous strides in scientific and technological progress. As science began to dominate, the traditional religious viewpoint was discredited at the intellectual level and religion began to be discounted at the social level. It ceased to be relevant to society. This change away from religion and towards science spread across the world, gaining momentum as this century progressed.

While religion is still a source of personal inspiration for many, it has gradually ceased to be a source from which a society can create social policy and build its social vision. Politicians and social administrators no longer think in terms of religious principles when they formulate policy or try to find answers to the social problems they face.

Human society, however, needs something at its centre to act as a focal point and source of social vision - a vision upon which all the citizens of that society agree and which thus holds the society together. We call this central focus of a society its ideology.

In the past, religion was the ideology of each society. During the course of the 20th Century, however, it has been gradually pushed aside from this central role, leaving a vacuum at the heart of society which man has attempted to fill with ideologies of his own making such as nationalism, racism and communism. Each has trumped itself as a suitable replacement for religion, creating a vision around which people could unite and form a basis for political and social policy.

Because they took over religion's social functions, some called them pseudo-religions. In many countries where these ideologies have been rigorously applied, they have indeed tried to take the place of religion even to the point of trying to make the arts and literature subservient to the ideology. From the West, these ideologies spread to other parts of the world during the 20th Century and many have been attracted to them. In country after country, as the people have moved from being a traditional society towards entering the modern world, the same process has occurred. Religion has been displaced at the heart of society by one or other of these ideologies.

Not surprisingly, many countries adopted a nationalistic ideology after they won their independence from colonial rule. In many, after decades of nationalism produced no improvement in the situation of the ordinary people, they also tried socialism or communism. As well as the rise of these ideologies, however, we have also witnessed their fall and they have been to be the source of great human misery. In the West, for example, nationalism gave rise to the first World War that laid waste the continent of Europe and caused the Western European powers to fall from their preeminent place among the nations of the world. The racist ideology of Nazi Germany produced the second World War and caused an even more wide-spread destruction in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. And, more recently, in the last decade, we witnessed the fail of communism, leaving behind a devastated landscape of ruined economies and polluted environments in Europe and Asia.

In many other parts of the world people wonder when these ideologies will produce the improvements in the social condition of ordinary people that they promised. Thus, these man-made ideologies that looked so promising and held such sway earlier in the century have become discredited.

And so at the end of the 20th century and the start of the new millennium, we have a vacuum at the heart of many societies. Religion was discarded decades ago and the ideologies that took its place have become discredited. Without an ideology to act as a centre and a cohesive force, society is in danger of falling apart. People are desperately looking about for something to fill this vacuum and act as the source of unity.

Some have advocated that, with the failure of the modern man-made ideologies, the answer is to return to the past situation in which traditional religion was the central ideology of society.

Most of the failings of modem society (corruption, lack of sexual morality, crime, drugs, etc.) would, they assert, be solved if religious standards were more rigorously applied.

This call for a return to religious fundamentals appeals to many, particularly in those societies which had religion as their social core until recently and so many of the older members of the population can still look back with nostalgia at the certainties and securities of traditional society.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this pathway. First, it is not possible to turn the clock back and re-create the situation of two hundred years ago when religion was not just the ideology of a society - no other ideology was even conceivable. Then, the religious construction of reality was reality for all of the people. Once people have seen that there are alternative realities and that those alterative realities provide technological improvements that they rely on for their daily life, it is impossible to re-create the situation where there are no alterative realities.

Second, this option fails to address the reason that religion was rejected in the first place: the fact that it was no longer seen to be relevant to the problems of the time nor in keeping with the world-view presented by the modern world.

Third, those societies that have tried a return to a fundamentalist religious agenda, in Iran for example, have not witnessed any great improvement either in the economic fortunes of the ordinary people or even in the level of corruption in society.

I would suggest therefore that the fundamentalist project is inherently flawed and unlikely to be successful. If a return of religion to a central position in society is going to be achieved successfully, I would suggest that it needs to be a religion that is in tune with the needs and circumstances of the modern world: a religion that endorses and encourages a global perspective, that transcends differences of race, nationality, and culture, by upholding the essentiality oneness of humanity and the equality of all human beings; that helps to unify disparate peoples rather than encouraging divisiveness; and one that embraces religious differences and encourages human diversity - the exact opposite in most ways of the fundamentalist vision.
Back to:   Unpublished Articles
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .