The term, fundamentalism, goes back to the early twentieth century when a set of books titled, The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, were published, giving essays by conservative theologians in defense of Christian doctrines against what they saw as the dangers of liberalism and higher criticism. (Links to on-line copies of the books may be found here.) What we understand today as fundamentalism was then developing political skills, as illustrated by the lessons learned from the Prohibition movement and shortly thereafter in the passage of laws in many states, Tennessee infamously among them, barring the teaching of evolution in public schools.
It is reasonable to seek for things that we can be certain about. In logic, for example, the axiom called the law of non-contradiction — something cannot simultaneously be and not be — is essential if we’re to reach valid conclusions.
But the desire for certainty is not a sufficient reason for feeling certain. That’s especially the case when what we claim to know beyond doubt is to be imposed on others. What I believe myself is my business, and while bad beliefs are harmful, the damage done to myself is often mostly that of missed opportunities, and it’s limited mostly to me.
The problem is when those beliefs take in other people. And of all the flaws of fundamentalism, the one that is the most dangerous is the cocksure attitude held by fundamentalists toward their fellow human beings.
And they’re as opposed to those who think like them as much as they are to the rest of us. It’s intolerable to them to have fundamentalisms that aren’t the right kind. One might imagine that the Islamic State crew would get along with the trolls from the Westboro Baptist Church, but nothing doing. The thinking is identical in structure and methodology, but the minor differences in details are disquieting to the obsessive mind of the fundamentalist.
The same applies within the groups. Fundamentalists are as dangerous to their own particular variety. It’s an easy joke to note that the Second Fundamentalist Church in your community was founded by someone who got agitated over the way that the First Fundamentalist Church was being run — be it the doctrine regarding the precise nature of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice or the exact shade of brown stain for the wood of the pews to be chosen. But it gets at the inherent sickness in this approach to reality. To minds suffering from this philosophical condition, any deviation from the narrow definition of “right” thinking is sin — missing the mark in the ancient conception of the concept.
By contrast, the most we free thinkers will do if you disagree with us is use unpleasant language, since we understand that ideas have to stand on their own merits. Since I’m telling jokes about church groups, consider the one about the Unitarian Klan. They burn question marks in your yard. Free thinkers, humanists, liberals — the terms are various, but they all collectively stand in opposition to the claim that anyone knows everything worth knowing and has the authority to force residence in the tiny world that fundamentalists inhabit.
Being a free thinker doesn’t mean that we must accept whatever comes along. Believe what you will, and I’ll stand for your right to do so, and feel free to share your beliefs with me. If you insist that I agree, accept, and practice as you do, however, things won’t go so well.
The chief evil of fundamentalism is its demands that we all comply. And the only rational response is to say that all fundamentalisms are wrong. Yes, I’m certain about that, and yes, I’m willing to reconsider my position if I’m presented with evidence to the contrary. As certain as I am, though, I won’t force you to agree. And that really is the point.
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