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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/28/09

Tools for Countering Fanaticism and Promoting Enlightened Reasoning

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There can be fanatics for just about any movement, but for the time being I am principally concerned with Christianity in America--mainly because it's close to home--and maybe secondly Islam in the Middle East. This helps me focus my discussion to something specific, but I would hope to develop principals that would be useful in combating fanaticism in general.


It seems to me that there is no shortage of evidence or rational argumentation against, say, Christianity. And yet 1/3 of the world believes in it enough to call themselves Christians. I think for the most part, freethinkers are happy to take a live-and-let-live approach to this sort of thing, but when fundamentalists express a thirst for national and world dominance, it becomes clear that these types of errors can no longer be laughed off as harmless.


So what can be done? High minded discussions in academia are not reaching the masses. Accurate and impartial systematic inquiry are, for the great majority, of no concern. Such people are left as fodder for the advertising genius and emotional manipulation of groups that wish to mobilize them for purposes that seldom have their best interests at heart. Why are they winning? It is not that we make arguments that are less relevant to the truth--it is that we make arguments in ways that appear threatening or irrelevant to the general populace.


I sincerely doubt that arguing against these movements intellectually, while vitally important, will ever be enough. We need practical solutions. I have three suggestions, and I am asking for more.


1. Economic and Social Support

As Sam Harris points out, not all fundamentalists are economically or educationally deprived. But while this is true, it doesn't change the fact that even brilliant and wealthy fundamentalists are part of movements which have their foothold, their economic and emotional base, in the downtrodden and desperate. I would argue that the reason Canada and Europe are immune from the degree of religious fanaticism that seems to be consuming the U.S. is because they provide their citizens with social welfare networks that allow them to function in the real world. If you want to strike a major blow against fundamentalism, taking care of the poor should be your top priority. Chris Hedges does an excellent job presenting the realities of this situation and how desperation leads to dangerous ideologies:



2. Education

When you argue against someone's religion directly, it often results in nothing more than making them defensive and more determined than ever to spread their belief system. We can learn from the martial arts: don't push against your opponent directly, use minimal directed force to use their own size and strength against them. We need to promote the study of philosophy (specifically logic), mainstream biblical scholarship, and science and scientific principals. We need to develop people's ability as critical thinkers so that they can tell good arguments from bad arguments and see through the chicanery of dogmatic institutions for themselves. The study of mainstream biblical scholarship is particularly important. What religious group could possibly oppose a call for serious bible study? And yet, in reading mainstream biblical scholarship, people will come to know the facts about these traditions: they show every indication of being constructed, pieced together, and modified by human beings for human purposes and no indication whatsoever of having fallen out of heaven or being accurate accounts of real spiritual encounters. The average person should be able to read C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, or Josh MacDowell and understand why they are wrong.



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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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