Somebodies and Nobodies

Dignity for all.

Beyond Fundamentalism and Relativism

This is the eigth in the series "Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship".

The public…demands certainties… But there are no certainties.
– H. L. Mencken, American journalist

When we hear the word fundamentalist, images of fanatical proselytizers, religious extremists, and suicide bombers leap to mind. But I shall use the word more broadly to refer to any true believers and even to that part of ourselves that might be closed-minded about one thing or another. By generalizing in this way, we include those who reflexively dismiss anything contrary to their own views, whether religious, scientific, artistic, or ideological. Such closed-mindedness is the antithesis of the modeling perspective.

Though the popular stereotype is that all fundamentalists are intolerant zealots, there are people who call themselves fundamentalists who hold that their beliefs are for themselves only, and who make no effort to convert anyone else. It may be that the fixity of their beliefs handicaps them—by keeping them ignorant of advances in scientific, political, or religious thought—but they’re hardly alone in that regard.

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Fundamentalism of the imperious sort comes in a variety of disguises: moral righteousness, technological arrogance, intellectual condescension, and artistic snobbery, to name a few. Such domineering forms of fundamentalism tend to be magisterial, overbearing, strident, elitist, and supercilious.

In a world without absolutes, fundamentalists’ claims to represent higher authority would not be given special credence. In such a setting, inerrancy is out, fallibility is in. Questioning the current consensus is not only permitted, it’s encouraged. The one thing that tolerance does not extend to is aggressive intolerance—that is, to coercive suppression of other points of view. Societies that do not protect freedom of speech and thought hamstring themselves and consign themselves to the backwaters of history.

Examples of fundamentalist close-mindedness include the traditional Confucianism that protects teachers in rural China against accusations of sexual abuse; the Taliban’s opposition to education for women and girls; the heedlessness of NASA officials who overruled the engineers on the doomed Challenger space shuttle mission; the “commissars” on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who arbitrarily substituted their own judgment for that of hands-on operators at the near meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island; and, with catastrophic consequences, Japan’s nuclear regulators who ignored warnings of the vulnerability of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant to earthquakes and tsunamis.

We all know that there are religious fundamentalists who would impose their beliefs on others and revile or excommunicate those who disagree with them. But, when scientists demean true believers they’re indulging in one-upmanship not unlike that employed by the targets of their disdain. Religious fundamentalists, cocksure ideologues, crusading atheists, and smug scientists should not be surprised when derision and contempt for their opponents fail to change minds.

When adherents to any fundamentalist creed demonize dissenters as immoral or evil, they’re treading a path that leads to dehumanization, oppression, and sometimes, in the extreme, to genocide. When nonbelievers derogate fundamentalists, they’re taking a step down that same treacherous path.

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to Man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden
his brother,
By saying that there is no God.

    –Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel-laureate in Literature

Living Without Absolutes

Modern art writ large presents one cultural expression of a larger political gamble on the human possibility of living in change and without absolutes.
    – Kirk Varnedoe (1946–2003), museum curator

Living without absolutes takes some getting used to. It requires breaking our dependency on intoxicating certitudes, resisting the temptation to stifle debate by invoking authority, and, instead, marshaling the evidence for the best models we’ve got.

When our models can’t change, behavior patterns become frozen, and some of them are apt to be abusive and unjust. The peace and prosperity of the world depend on attitudes about the evolution of models and our degree of comfort in allowing this process to unfold.

One reason it can be so hard to accept the notion of changing models is that they are composed of interlocking sets of fondly held beliefs. Nothing dies harder than one’s own cherished opinions. Many people are so identified with their beliefs that they react to the idea of revising them as they would to the prospect of losing an arm or a leg. Institutions are usually even more resistant to change.

 Avoiding the violence this breeds requires that we learn to hold our beliefs not as immutable absolutes but rather as working assumptions which, taken together, function as a pragmatic model. As we’ve seen, this is how scientists are taught to hold their theories. Adopting this posture is equally important to artists, chefs, dancers, or anyone seeking to develop their craft. Indeed, it is how people who are really good at what they do conduct themselves before going public with their finished product. Typically, a great deal of prior improvisation and experimentation occurs behind the scenes.

Creative people in every line of endeavor adopt beliefs provisionally for their usefulness and elegance and consider new ones with open minds to see if they are improvements over those they currently hold. They hold beliefs not unto death, but until they find more accurate, comprehensive, useful replacements that prove their worth by leading to more precise predictions, better pies, or more beautiful dances or paintings. Welcome to the post-fundamentalist era!

Detachment from our beliefs does not imply indifference, let alone resignation. The instinct to defend our beliefs serves a higher purpose. Usually disagreements have a legitimate basis and the only way to advance toward a reconciling model is to advocate for our views as effectively as we can while others do the same for theirs. We fail to serve the search for an improved model if we don’t mount the strongest possible defense of our present ideas. Each of us helps discover the new model by holding out until our individual perspective can be absorbed into a broader public synthesis stripped of personal idiosyncrasies.

The duty to defend our beliefs to the best of our ability is one of the main themes in the Hindu holy book, The Bhagavad Gita. In a key passage, Lord Krishna counsels Prince Arjuna to do battle with his foes—even though they include relatives and former allies—impersonally, dispassionately, and unreservedly. The adversarial method, while intense, need not be personally antagonistic, even in those especially awkward situations in which we know our opponents intimately. Once we accept the inherent fallibility of beliefs, it’s easier to allow for ideas that differ from our own. From there, it’s but a small step to recognizing the individuals who hold opposing views as valid interlocutors, undeserving of contempt.

If, in the end, it’s ourown case that crumbles, we can simply admit our error without loss of face and join in welcoming the discovery of something new and better. When our beliefs go to battle and lose, we ourselves live to argue another day, just as lawyers do when a judgment goes against one of their clients. Though all models eventually come up short that doesn’t mean that, in the interim, some models are not more useful than others. The alternative to fundamentalism is not relativism, it’s model building.

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Robert W. Fuller, Ph.D., former president of Oberlin College, is an authority on rankism and dignity.

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