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Sex, God, Science and Music (Part Two)

Posted by spritzophrenia on November 18, 2010

Or, Jewish Professor Writes About Fundamentalism
In my continued quest to actually write a short blog, I split this post into four. Part One of books I’ve been reading recently talks about sex. Today,

The Story of God

“A personal journey into the world of science and religion”
This is the book of a TV series by respected science populariser Prof. Robert Winston. Writing as a believing Jew he attempts an overview of religion from prehistory to the present, with significant chapters on Islam (not intrinsically violent in his view) and his own Judaism, as well as many other points of interest. His section on groups like the “New Age” and the “Heavens Gate” cult intrigued me. If anything, his focus on science and religion, which he says are quite compatible, is not as satisfactory— there are better books on this subject. Then again, this is a popular work, and a very readable one at that.

fundamentalist atheist

He makes a few minor mistakes, but overall it’s engaging and I learned a lot in areas I’m not familiar with, such as pre-historic religion. (Essentially, we know sweet frak-all; it’s conjecture based on little evidence.)

Winston writes on many other areas including a long section on fundamentalism:

There is a tendency nowadays to think of fundamentalism as being solely a reaction to the conditions of modern life. For example, when Muslim girls in French schools campaign for the right to wear the veil, we seem them as rejecting western dress in an attempt to protect their ethic identity in the melting-pot of global society. … It has also been suggested that only Judaism, Christianity and Islam can become ‘fundamentalist’ religions, because they base themselves on ancient texts, which are viewed as sacred and unchangeable, and which therefore continually clash with current thinking.

But this sort of reasoning is faulty. For a start, many fundamentalists are far from averse to the modern word— indeed, they use the internet, television, radio and newspapers as a means of spreading their beliefs. Terrorism, whether in the name of Judaism, Islam, Sikhism or any other cause, depends on the media to make its atrocities known and felt by the maximum number of people. Second, such arguments neglect the fact that fundamentalism is as old as religion itself, and not at all restricted to the ‘big three’ of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. …

Richard Dawkins cannot be alone in feeling that ‘only the wilfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, off the violent enmities of the world today’.

[Winston goes on to discuss and deplore more modern fundamentalism, violence and distress, including some of his own experiences in the field of fertility.]

Equally, there are fundamentalists pursuing science and promoting it’s ‘truth’. And they can sometimes be almost as threatening in many ways as religious fundamentalists, not least because they seem to see no limitation to their pursuits and appear to have little or no moral framework— except one that they themselves have devised.

~ pp 425, 438

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s not religion per se that is the problem in the religious violence in the world, but fundamentalism. So this confirms my biases quite nicely. In other words, I think it’s possible to have a spirituality that does not turn into crack-for-crazies. Maybe I’m too optimistic though?


What do you think? Does spirituality inevitably lead to fundamentalism? Can non-religious people be fundamentalists?
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13 Responses to “Sex, God, Science and Music (Part Two)”

  1. […] Sex, God, Science and Music (Part Two) […]

  2. Iain said

    I’ve been talking with a friend more frequently about his own religious beliefs. He is something like a mix of Chinese Buddhist and Taoist.

    My own experience is largely with Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Mormonism and other off-shoots. I’ve noticed in him something that I haven’t ever noticed before: a total lack of proselytism.

    This isn’t to say that he won’t discuss what he believes. He does and he is very wise.

    This isn’t to say he doesn’t hope that others come to realise what he believes to be the truth. He does, and he hopes others will learn and benefit from it.

    But even in a group setting where we are all discussing religion, he is extremely quiet. In fact, it’s almost like if you want his opinion then you have to explicitly ask him to comment on what you are talking about. The only exception to this is when I visited his house during a group conversation that he personally arranged on the topic of his choosing.

    But he isn’t pushy. Not in the slightest. I believe, based on what another friend told me who has spent more time with him, that it is because he believes in reincarnation. According to that logic, we’ve all got time. Some will get good karma and get closer to [nirvana/enlightenment?] while others will take more time getting there. But I believe he is a Buddhist of the school who feel it is the job of the Bodhisatva to linger and help others. Not until all people are helped will the Bodhisatva’s job be done. Not even the most “spiritual” person gets to reach the end if one remains in suffering; in fact, if you’re trying to leave others behind it probably demonstrates a flaw in your own character. That means he isn’t in a rush. That means he thinks we aren’t in a rush. His aim is to help people, living compassionately, helping others until the universal task is over. That also means he isn’t in a rush to save people from hellfire.

    It’s quite extraordinary when compared to the other examples of religion that I am used to. I know that he has firm beliefs but he is about as far from “fundamentalism” as I can imagine.

  3. Lydia said

    Iain, I’ve noticed a similar lack of proselytizing among my Taoist friends. It’s so refreshing.

    Jonathan, non-religious people can absolutely be fundamentalist _if_ we expand the definition to include non-religious topics. For example, I’ve known people with extremely fundamentalist attitudes about recycling, the “correct” number of children one should have (and how to raise them), green living, etc.

    It is almost as if these things have become a religion of sorts- and I say this as someone who agrees with many of the things these “fundamentalists” say, just not how they say it or how far it is taken.

  4. leesis said

    Like Lydia I see fundamentalism everywhere and see it not as a religious phenomena but as a psychological one. We like to think we have a grip on the fundamentals of life and this secure box we create provides us with a sense of safety. When someone else suggests something different our security is threatened and if we are unwilling to sit with this, to ponder the possibilities, the flight/fight responses set in.

    I listened to an American senator on Jon Stewarts show last night state that environmental catastrophe won’t occur because god promised with his rainbow that never would humans be wiped out again thus no action was required.

    Of course we can get very intellectual about this, challenging his particular notion of god, or even suggesting well god didn’t say he’d stop us wrecking the planet he only said he wouldn’t do it; but what struck me was not his reasoning but his emotional need to believe what he believes and, as we be social beasties, to find others to corroborate those beliefs and then to stick to it like glue.

    Perhaps Iain’s’ friend isn’t pushy on his views because he understands there is no ‘right’. Like him I accept reincarnation (though I doubt I know even one percent about it all) and within this I find no right and wrong, only experience. As such fundamentalism becomes impossible for me but equally I view others who are fundamentalists be it about religion, or scientific understandings, or education or sexuality or whatever as simply another necessary expression of life and learning on a journey to who knows where.

  5. 'Seph said

    “Does spirituality inevitably lead to fundamentalism?”
    No, but I think religosity does:

    Trust, like mistrust, is earned but not given.
    Trust leads to Faith.
    Faith without Reason leads to Blind-faith.
    Blind-faith leads to degenerative Fundamentalism.
    Degenerative Fundamentalism prohibits change and cripples education.
    Degenerative Fundamentalism leads to isolationism.
    Isolationism eventually leads to extremism.
    Extremism manifests itself as either terrorism or extinction

    “Can non-religious people be fundamentalists?”
    Think ’bout it; for those Atheists (and I know a few) who believe their position is the natural ‘default’ postion of truth (whether they will ‘tolerate’ other religious views or not) are in themselves fundamentalists, aren’t they? (I’ve found precious few Atheists who’ll even admit Atheism is even a Belief-System or ‘relgion’ onto itself. Why? Because what they hold is really, the truth! “Here, let me explain to you…”

    …you get the idea.


    • You are not the only one to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. I tend to use them interchangeably, at least, that was the sense I meant here.

      I wonder if “nice”, non-threatening, mystical spiritualities can still turn into religiosity, and then fundamentalism?

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