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Fundamentalists threaten secular society

By Elaine Bolitho

Religious fundamentalism is a powerful force that threatens peace and harmony within nations and globally. Professor Lloyd Geering made this observation in a recent series of lectures at St Andrews on the Terrace Church in Wellington.

Lloyd told Touchstone that Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists oppose the modern secular world and its pattern of change, knowledge explosion, and view of truth as relative. Instead fundamentalists seek to hold onto the worldview they see in their respective holy scriptures.

Fundamentalists are a new phenomenon, Lloyd says. They do not seek a radical return to traditional roots as urged by reformers over the centuries. Rather, using a narrowly selected range of scriptures, they react against the present and try to make it conform to selected values from the past. This gives them a sense of security.

“In the old world, people felt they had a certain security. In the modern world we don’t have security, either of understanding where we are going, or where we have come from – everything is relative. Even language is changing and developing. Our ideas are changing and developing. We just happen to live at a certain point in the process.

“Christian and Muslim fundamentalists are very much tied to a two-world view of reality which, in the secular world we are not. In the secular world there is only one world and this is it. This worldview is opposed by Jewish, Muslim and Christian fundamentalists alike because it undermines the absolutes they want to affirm. But in the process, they distort the faiths they set out to champion.”

Devaluing this world and affirming the world to come explains the readiness of Islamic fundamentalists to become suicide bombers. They believe this gives them immediate access to the glories of the next world.

“They had the same problem in Christianity back in the second and third centuries. There were people who rather wanted to be persecuted, who wanted to become martyrs, because it seemed a much better thing to do. They had to be restrained.”

As well as the potential for martyrdom, belief in being guardians of absolute truth also directly opposes the values of tolerance and equality. Such opposition can deteriorate into fanaticism, tribal nationalism, terrorism and willingness to wage war.

Dangers to humanity

It is easy for us to see Islamic fundamentalism as a danger to humanity. Less obvious is the danger of Christian fundamentalism in the world's most powerful nation. An estimated 30 percent of Americans hold Christian fundamentalist views, and their leaders influence President Bush. Christian fundamentalists do not need to resort to terrorism, their nation wages war for them.

Well-funded televangelists – mouthpieces of American Christian fundamentalism – preach messages that support Zionism and strongly emphasise Christ's second coming. These messages meet in the belief that the more Jews are settled in Israel, the sooner Christ will come again. Western support for Israel causes a major clash in relationships with Islamic nations.

In the light of September 11, the war in Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian relationships, Lloyd no longer considers fundamentalism "harmless but misguided beliefs."

He says a fundamentalist reaction began in New Zealand in the 1920s. New Zealand, the churches were reasonably liberal at that stage and did not want to upset the fundamentalists. They were free to be themselves, and confrontation was avoided at all costs."

Moving on from this approach, Lloyd now sees fundamentalism as bad for the individual because it encourages the individual to live in a false world. Fundamentalism is also bad for society, because it polarises people. Liberal thought always tries to develop cohesion in society, of a rich and varied kind, whereas fundamentalism wants society to be exactly like it.

Although Lloyd says tolerance is always commendable, he adds "the time has come, and is indeed overdue, for the liberal voice to heard loud and clear in the churches."

The text of Lloyd’s lectures is available in the 60-page booklet "Fundamentalism – the challenge to the secular world". This can be ordered for $14.50 from the St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, PO Box 5203, Wellington.