Wednesday, November 15, 2006
the excesses of fundamentalsim
The critique of “fundamentalist” atheism which I excerpted yesterday (which I would extend to any form of fundamentalism) begs the question of what exactly is meant by the term fundamentalist. A comment even questioned the applicability of the term outside the realm of religion. Is anyone committed to an ideology a fundamentalist? Were that the case, the term would be meaningless, as we are all fundamentalists with respect to certain issues/beliefs. It seems to me that what defines a fundamentalist (as the term has come to be used) is the inability to step outside one’s own perspective and see things from the "others" point of view, the inability to recognize that being committed to a position does not demand deprecating and dismissing the other side's arguments as completely without merit or validity, or denying that one’s own position might suffer deficiencies that require refinement and better explication. A fundamentalist looks down from the pinnacle of having arrived at the TRUTH, and truth brooks no compromise and requires no nuance. No matter what the argument or evidence to the contrary, the fundamentalist has a response that affirms the superiority of his/her position - there is no such thing as an unresolved dilemma, a challenge that cannot be met, or even a weakness in an argument, for to acknowledge any of these is to surrender debating points to the other side. The religion/atheism debate is a classic case in point. I want to focus on the side of religion because I am admittedly biased in favor of belief, and therefore the excesses here trouble me more than the excesses of the likes of Richard Dawkins. Much written in defense of religion bothers me as failing to be honest in recognizing the weak as well as strong points in arguments for belief. When learning a sugya a lamdan worthy of that title can distinguish a chiluk that has the ring of emes, and an answer which b’dochak may solve a problem but is unsatisfying, and a kashe that remains b’tzarich iyun because no answer has been discovered. Religious fundamentalism of the Torah variety has lost sensitivity to these gradations in the zeal to defeat the opposition and “defend the faith”. There is no sense of humility, no recognition that sometimes the challenge is stronger than the teirutzim proposed, no acknowledgement that sometimes it is OK to say tzarich iyun or recognize a position as a dochak, and worst of all, there is a cavalier dismissal even of objective evidence that poses a challenge, replacing ‘ain l’dayan elah mah she’einav ro’os’ with a solipsistic denial of what is before one’s own eyes. Yes, when R’ Akiva Eiger said tzarich iyun he did not have someone waiting in the wings to pounce and say “Aha! If you can’t solve that it proves your religion is defective”, which is very much the case in the charged debates on religion and atheism. But in the long run, the extremism of the opposition does not excuse tone deafness to what constitutes a reasoned argument and what constitutes intellectual gymnastics, hair splitting, or worse. Tzarich iyun is not surrender, but a recognition that the struggle for answers is an ongoing process of learning. The same holds true in the debate of science vs. Torah - sacrificing mesorah to the god of science is not the best approach, but neither is glibly asserting truisms that contradict reason or evidence. What is the answer? It is the claim by anyone to know THE answer which troubles me - perhaps for many individuals there is an answer of one sort or another, but that is not the same as a total resolution of the issue with no nettlesome details that need to be worked out (at least I haven't discovered one yet, which will inevitably draw the critique that I have either not read enough science or my emunah is lacking otherwise I would see the truth.) The argument for religion is not that faith provides neat and simple answers to all life's questions, but that in spite of lacking answers to a great many questions, a life of religious faith is a far better choice than a life of disbelief.