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Dangers of fundamentalism

Published February 25, 2012 12:43 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Calvin R Petersen

Islamic fundamentalism is often described as the most dangerous movement in the world today. Seldom mentioned is the growing consensus among social scientists and religious scholars that it is actually the worldwide spread of fundamentalism that presents the greatest danger.

What then, are we to make of our homegrown variety?

Fundamentalism in all its permutations is a reactionary response to modernity and rapid social change. Believers are God's elect, restoring past virtues to a world sliding toward apocalypse in sin and error. Literal, absolute truth defines a political agenda that brooks no compromise. Knowledge and critical thinking are replaced by dogma, stereotypes and conspiracy theories. More than an affiliation, it is a contagious pathology of thought.

The term "fundamentalism" is of American origin. Between 1910 and 1915, brothers Lyman and Milton Stewart, owners of Union oil, donated $300,000 for the publication and dissemination of 12 volumes setting forth the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Tenets include the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible. Catholics, Mormons, socialists, and "Darwinists" are named "enemies of Christianity." The brothers found no irony in promulgating a literal interpretation of Genesis from the sale of fossil fuels.

The coalition of the religious and financial "elects" appears rooted in the historical, Calvinist–capitalist symbiosis — particularly the perception of wealth as evidence of grace, and poverty as evidence of damnation. Tough luck to those predestined for the latter. Intervention is futile without providence.

Long witnessing Washington as the center of secular power and enforcer of modernity — from imposing the income tax to legalized abortion and gay rights — fundamentalists have also found common purpose with moneyed interests in demonizing government, the rhetoric sometimes resembling a call for destruction: Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.

Oklahoma bomber Tim McVeigh blew up the stereotype only to prove that the government is us. More recently, the brinkmanship over the debt ceiling and refusal to require the superrich to pay their fair share of taxes suggest a desire of literal minds to starve the voracious beast of government to death.

The destructive impact of fundamentalism on government is paralleled in science, as evidenced by greater organized opposition to teaching evolution in public schools. Remember, this is the beginning of the 21st century, not the 20th. Consistently, American belief in evolution (at about 39 percent) is lower than in every European nation except Turkey.

How are we to explain the intransigence of American ignorance? The answer may be surprising.

By the end of the 19th century, most mainline churches had incorporated evolution in some form into their beliefs. The number is greater today. At church-affiliated universities, like others accredited, the theory is now a cornerstone of the life sciences, including at BYU, SMU, TCU, Baylor and Notre Dame. Thus, it would seem that fundamentalists have successfully used political activism and propaganda to frame what has always been a primarily fundamentalism-versus-science agenda into a religion-or-science choice in the public mind.

That is surely why "intelligent design" continues to garner support for inclusion in public school curricula. But fundamentalists should be careful what they wish for. Not amenable to scientific investigation, ID has a history in natural theology from antiquity.

During the 18th century, the "Supreme Architect" behind the designs of nature was found to be Newton's "clockmaker" of classical mechanics, who, after setting His works in motion, left creation to run on its own without further intervention or providence. This was the assault of deism on Christianity, a movement instrumental in emptying the churches of Europe.

We, too, should be careful what fundamentalists wish for. Failure to recognize their profound continuing impact on American life puts us in peril.

Calvin R Petersen is a retired psychologist who directed development of the Defense Language Aptitude Battery for the Department of Defense. He lives in Salt Lake City.