ON POSTMODERNITY AND AMBIGUITY: Tracing the Origins of Fundamentalism

One of the reasons why I decided to enter the academic field of philosophy was the belief that it would help me make sense of a profoundly bewildering postmodern world. I didn’t enter it with the hope that it would provide answers—rather, I joined it with the expectation that it would train me to formulate them.

Of the many things that puzzled me about contemporary life, the crisis in religion was the most personally perplexing. It has been said that religion today—contrary to most secular expectations—is actually experiencing a global revival. It has also been said that the “litmus test” of a religion is its ability to inspire compassion.[1] What I could not account for was how the recent rise in religious fervor has been paradoxically accompanied by a rise in religious fundamentalism. In short, how could piety rise, on the one hand, and compassion wane, on the other?

When I first began my explorations of the world of fundamentalism, my initial assumption was that the phenomenon is an unfortunate by-product of the emphasis of certain strains of thought inherent in a given religious tradition. In other words, my hypothesis was that any tradition that emphasized the exclusive, elitist and divinely-revealed aspect of religion would betray a tendency to devolve into fundamentalism. (In particular, the traditions I had in mind were the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with their shared conceptions of a God who is historical, personal, self-revelatory and other.)

However, the research I subsequently undertook indicated that I had the causality reversed. It is not the emphasis on certain aspects of thought in religion that leads to fundamentalism. Rather, fundamentalism itself is a response to a contemporary malaise that then requires the emphasis on certain doctrines and practices in religion.

Briefly, fundamentalism, especially in how the religious writer Karen Armstrong conceives it, is a radically defensive mechanism that seeks to preserve religion in an aggressively secular world. In her definitive book on the subject, she talks at length about how the different fundamentalisms have attempted—and still attempt—to achieve their goal of restoring the sacred in a largely desacralized world.[2]

However, certain ideas contained in Ms. Armstrong’s work indicate another possible root for fundamentalism—and one which goes beyond simply bringing back the sacred into a secular society. This other possible root appears to me to be the uniquely contemporary difficulty of finding ultimate value and meaning in an aggressively pluralistic and postmodern society.

My hypothesis is this: fundamentalism is simply one of several responses to the thoroughly contemporary dilemma of finding ultimate value and meaning in a world that offers a plethora of competing value systems and frameworks of meaning—most of which cannot be said to be demonstrably superior to the others. The intractable difficulty posed by having to choose amongst such systems (when in the past, culture and heritage dictated one’s choice) can lead easily to nihilism, relativism—or in the case of fundamentalism—absolutism.  (I use absolutism here, as represented by the phenomenon of fundamentalism, to refer to the rigid adherence to a system of doctrines and/or practices that provides rules for how one is to live and what one is to live for.)

This pluralism of postmodern society is a uniquely contemporary phenomenon, not because diversity never existed in the past, but because the extent of the contemporary individual’s awareness of and exposure to diversity as a result of globalization is unprecedented in history. This diversity brings with it a multiplicity of choices, not just in terms of material goods but even in nonmaterial ends, i.e., those ends represented by religion. As writers like Alvin Toffler and Barry Schwartz have observed, the sheer number of choices that confront the contemporary individual are approaching—or perhaps have already even exceeded—the level of the individual’s psychological capacity to handle.[3] In other words, fundamentalism may be seen as the collective expression of individuals’ psychological reaction to existential overchoice.

The value of fundamentalism as a defensive mechanism in the face of postmodern pluralism lies in the fact that it obviates the need for deliberation in the act of making choices. It provides a comprehensive system of answers to whatever questions about value and meaning its adherents can ever raise. Once the initial assent to the system is made, no other form of deliberation need ever take place.

At the same time, however, the validity of an absolutist/fundamentalist system is directly proportional to the extent that it can denigrate the claims of other competing systems. Absolutist/fundamentalist systems are necessarily intolerant, because to concede the validity of other systems would mean that it has failed in its attempt to provide a superior and comprehensive system of answers and solutions for its adherents. 

So far, what has been described here is a hypothesis that seeks to account for fundamentalism in a manner different from (though not at all contradictory to) the account provided by Ms. Armstrong. At first glance, it appears to be a superficial hypothesis: how can something as apparently trivial as a bewildering array of choices lead to irrational dogmatism? My response here, based not just on research but also on personal experience, is that the absence of a defining anchor such as the one provided by religion can be a fundamentally agonizing and disorienting experience, and hence, there can be tremendous psychological relief to be found in adhering devotedly to a system that offers to give “all the answers.”  

Having described the problem, the question now is whether there are any solutions. At this point, the only one that comes to mind for me as a potential starting point is Hannah Arendt’s admonition for people “to think”.[4] I merely say starting point—and it’s a problematic starting point at that—for the simple reason that the problem seems to preclude the solution. In other words, how can one blithely tell people to think, when their inability or incapacity to think is the very origin of the problem in the first place?

[1] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 347.

[2] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).

[3] Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004); Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).

[4] Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 159-189.


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