We’ve had a few comments on fundamentalism, so I thought it would be useful to start a thread on it, kicking off with a few of my thoughts.
I think fundamentalism is best understood as a dysfunctional post-modernism – which probably requires a bit of explanation.
Fundamentalism is not a genuine following of the earliest forms of a religion, although it claims to be. if that we true, then it would take an active interest in historical inquiry so as to find out more clearly what that earliest form of religion really was. But in fact the opposite is true; fundamentalists everywhere are fanatically opposed to genuine historical inquiry.
Fundamentalism, rather, is a reaction to modernism. It stems from a fear of the changes and innovations that modern life has brought about. This ranges from the perceived (or projected) materialism, secularism, equality and human rights, and especially any divergent or critical approach to religious texts. Ideologically, it stems from the growing importance of text-critical methods of studying scripture. Such a method in Europe underlay the Protestant rebellion, which was essentially about the power of the Roman See. In validating and encouraging individual readings of the Bible, the protestants set the scene for the great diversity of Christianities we see today.
But such change and innovation is very threatening, especially to those who are emotionally insecure. There is a strong wish to retreat to the hallowed certainties. Science, facts, and reason are simply too difficult, and offer truths too partial and uncertain. The more things change, the more there is a need to cling to an imagined vision of the past.
Ironically, the individual, text-centered vision of Protestantism that enabled the fundamentalisms also proved to be its biggest threat. Bible reading not only freed people from the Roman Church, it threatened to free them from a literal belief in ‘fundamental’ dogmas. The first tract on ‘fundamentalism’ asserted the absolute truth of certain dogmas, such as the virgin birth, which are not very well supported by the Bible.
Hence the origin of fundamentalism, whether in its religious or political dimensions. It has a vision that is intrinsically anti-factual and anti-reason. Since it is not tied down to any actual institutional links with the past, it is free to use the media of modernity, propagating itself through TV, internet, or pop songs, and often leaves traditional religions flat-footed and floundering. Yet the messages it sends through those media are profoundly reactionary, denying the values and truths of modernity even as it, with blithe, unreflective hypocrisy, uses modern technology for its own ends.
Since it is anti-historical, the vision of the past that fundamentalism sells is sheer fantasy. It never happened, and never could happen. There is no point in trying to argue on the basis of reason, as they have ideologically rejected reason in order to construct their beliefs. Fundamentalists only pretend to use reason for the same purpose as they use everything else: to convince the whole world to adopt the same set of beliefs that they have. If we find an individual who is on a crusade to make everyone believe the same things he does, because a divine voice told him to, we would consider him mad, a psychopathic narcissist. If we find a group of people who do the same thing we call them a religion, and give them tax-exempt status.
So fundamentalism is a post-modernism, since it is a reaction to modernism. But it is a dysfunctional post-modernism, because rather than critiquing the worst of modernism, adopting the best, and moving on to new directions, it pretends to reject all modernism, while in fact adopting it where it is useful. The best thing one can say about fundamentalism is that, while it usually denies evolution, that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from it. It will survive or not depending on whether it’s able to adapt to its environment. The inherently anti-intelligence bias of fundamentalisms gives some hope that eventually they’ll just become too ridiculous; and delusion will find another form to manifest in…
As far as Buddhism, WPP, and fundamentalism goes, well, it’s somewhat different to the situation in the West, so inferences should be made with caution. The forest tradition, for all its claims to be ‘original Buddhism’, is a typical modernist institution. It was founded following the development of western-influenced text-critical readings of Buddhist scriptures, and the new-found status and authority of the Pali canon that this inspired in 19th century Thailand. The forest tradition was a practical instantiation of these text-critical readings, just as, say, the state of Israel was a practical instantiation of reading the Hebrew scripture literally.
While the forest tradition was one of many healthy responses to the challenges of modernity, it has proven far less successful in adapting to our post-modern age. One thing the forest tradition shares in common with fundamentalisms is its anti-intellectual bias. This is, of course, ironic, since it means that most forest tradition monks are not aware that their own tradition was only made possible through text criticism.
This doctrine, which is central to the forest tradition, has its positive and negative sides. In a classic example of the pre/trans fallacy, the ‘no-thought’ teaching both encourages a genuine transcendence to higher levels of awareness, and serves as a political tool to discourage inquiry and reason.
The test of which is actually happening in practice is this: what happens in a situation when meditation cannot solve the problems, but only dialogue, historical research, and reason can? If the culture is genuinely operating at a level of higher awareness, then it can use reason and inquiry when it’s needed. But if it reacts with anger and dismissal to attempts at reason, then we are in the realm of the fundamentalists.
I think it’s pretty obvious which is the case in the context of WPP and bhikkhuni ordinations. This is something that no amount of meditation can ever solve. It is a social and historical question that requires historical research, dialogue, and inquiry. For many years, any attempt at reasoned dialogue has been met only with denial, prohibition, and expulsion. It is clear that the culture of WPP is not capable of reasoned, factual inquiry into this important matter, but reacts with power strikes, just like any fundamentalism would.
This is not to say that some monks within WPP are not speaking from a place of genuine awareness – of course there are. But the culture as a whole usually drifts down to the lowest common denominator. And in that common culture, the anti-intellectual bias has become not a doorway to higher consciousness, but a fear of reason.