February 13th, 2016
FUNDAMENTALISM in its most basic form can be characterized as the practice of holding a belief (any belief) as infallible. Understanding this simple fact about fundamentalism, i.e., that its root is epistemological, is the first step for mounting a successful philosophical argument against it. It is a common mistake to think that certain beliefs are fundamental by virtue of their content alone which implies that what one needs to do to fight fundamentalism is to convince fundamentalists to replace their hideous set of beliefs by our enlightened set. The problem with this strategy is that it reduces the fight against fundamentalism to an intractable conflict between opposing worldviews—it becomes a fight between the good guys and the bad guys—and in this process violence ensues.
People are not fundamentalist because they believe in a certain religion, or because they believe human nature is a certain way, or because they believe a particular race is superior; they are fundamentalists because of the way in which they hold these beliefs: they hold them as absolute and infallible. It is the manner in which we fix and sustain our beliefs and the lack of sound epistemological practices of justification and reason exchange that turns us into fundamentalists. In a hypothetical society in which every belief held is regarded as potentially falsifiable there is no room for fundamentalism. People could still hold opposing beliefs in many issues but disagreements would be reasonable by design in the sense that compelling reasons will need to be provided to justify one’s position. Disagreements amongst individuals who regard their beliefs as potentially falsifiable are nothing else but a clear sign that further inquiry in the matter is needed. Grasping truth is important of course, but since we can never settle once and for all that what we are justified in believing today will remain so forever, we should be prudent enough to leave the road to inquiry open, prudent enough to keep the conversation going.
There is no coincidence that at present fundamentalism is rising to a point where we have seemed to lose the capacity to converse with anyone that holds beliefs alien to ours. Contrary to the hypothetical society I described above, epistemological disagreement does not spur further inquiry; quite contrary, clashing beliefs are nothing but red flags indicating that our interlocutor ought to be ignored or persecuted. This unfortunate fact of our present condition comes as a result of the toxic blend between a sociopolitical organization whose stability relies on individuals keeping their worldviews private and the rise of the hyper-connected society that leaves no room for private concealment. If twitter had existed during the Reformation, the privatization of religion and morality would have not lasted for long. Toleration, despite all its good intentions, is still a conversation-stopper. I like to think that Christians and Protestants would have kept tweeting their differences away.
There is no denying that sweeping secularism expanded freedom of thought and liberated politics from sectarianism. But there is also no denying that we have outgrown this separation. Centuries of belief-concealment left us pathetically unprepared for the rise of global social media as evidenced by our inability to engage in levelheaded reason-exchanges involving our most priced moral and religious beliefs. In a world where autonomy meant private self-imposition of beliefs, unaccountability ran wild. But as the private is dragged out into the global spotlight, the rise of fundamentalism is a sad reminder that we should have kept the conversation going in the first place.