Sunday, February 2, 2014

Understanding fundamentalism's true nature

Sean McElwee and Abigail Salvatore's piece in Salon, "New Atheism's big mistake: Debating creationists solves nothing", is a fine, relatively short explanation of why, among other things, rationalists like Bill Nye shouldn't waste their time "debating" creationists, as Nye will on 4 Feb. Any debate involving creationism is taking place in the wrong context. It's a fight on the terrain fundamentalists have chosen.

The problem is the enduring streak of anti-intellectualism in American life, one that has been with us since the arrival of the first settlers from England. It's rooted in the very nature of Protestantism.

Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.
Attitudinally, then, Protestants of all stripes are predisposed to mistrust authority. Science has emerged as a domain dominated by authority figures, since the vast majority of us do not have the knowledge to understand for ourselves what they do. If your instinct is not to trust the bishop who assures you he knows what's good for you, it's not that great a leap to bring the same skepticism to a climatologist or a paleontologist or even your family doctor.

But mistaken beliefs tend to die out over time (literally, in the case of vaccination deniers). The reason American anti-intellectualism is so tenacious is that it's backed by a visceral fear.

In “Fundamentalism and American Culture,” George Marsden describes fundamentalism as “essentially the extreme and agonized defense of a dying way of life.” The American Protestant response to the Industrial Revolution was engendered by the fear that a small cabal of experts would dictate to Americans how to live their lives and that science would somehow replace their religion.
Opportunists long ago figured out how to stoke that fear and harness it for their own purposes. In doing so, they perverted the Bible, counting on their followers not to catch them at it. (It undoubtedly helps that the Bible is not internally consistent: seek and ye shall find a verse that supports your view.) To take but one example, it's obvious that denying climate change and urging us to maintain our current fuel infrastructure hugely benefits fossil-fuel companies.
The religious right’s stance on climate change, economics and evolution is not informed by their religious beliefs. Rather, these political and economic views are imposed on Scripture, which is often read without theological rigor. It is not religion that is the problem, but rather the use of religion as an ideological weapon. But to respond by using science as a weapon is equally problematic.
As McElwee and Salvatore argue, you can't take on the end results of this anti-intellectual attitude and expect to make a difference. You must
... confront the underlying political and economic concerns that are obscured by religious dogma, rather than attacking the religion directly.
By attacking religion, as McElwee and Salvatore seem to think Nye will do in his debate, Nye will simply be hardening the battle lines and not advancing the national conversation. I've never thought of Nye as a polarizing ideologue like Dawkins, but if they're right then the debate really will be pointless. In any case, the article is well worth your time. It can only help all of us to understand the reasons fundamentalism thrives, for only thus can we understand how to change the human condition such that fundamentalism no longer has mass appeal.

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