By Vexen Crabtree 2012
Fundamentalism is an approach to a religion's doctrine where its beliefs are enforced so strictly and literally that they are no longer compatible with the real-world as it is today. Some religions are more prone to fundamentalism than others1. The uncompromising attitude is a psychological boost, and fundamentalists will happily seek out areas of conflict between their own values and the values of those around them in order to publically highlight their own superior discipline. Also fundamentalists can be accidentally intolerant of others because by sticking so sternly to their own interpretation of the rules, they cannot make room for the diversity of real-life. It can descend into violent extremism but note, please, that some fundamentalist groups (such as the Amish and Jehovah's Witnesses) exist for very long periods with no sign of extremism. It often seems futile arguing with fundamentalists because most arguments against them merely prompt them to re-state doctrine.
Fundamentalist groups seem especially prone to schism and organisational instability, with most such groups being originally part of larger movements. Because personal beliefs are raised to the level of ultimate importance, every possible interpretation of (vague) doctrine will result in two sides who stake their entire religious outlook on the fact that their interpretation is correct2 and often "true believers are obligated to fight against corrupting influences from the broader culture"3 and to fight against any sign of 'false belief' from within their own ranks too, often leading to schism4. Many people push for increased rights for their own religion and for theocracy, 'out of an emotional attachment to their religion'5 but some people take it too far. The declining strength of religion in the face of secularisation means there are fewer middle-ground religionists to rein in fundamentalists. Fundamentalist branches of religion across various religions tend to share certain traits and features6, in particular scriptural literalism, active resistance against multiculturalism and the rejection of human rights.
Fundamentalism is the approach to religion that sees believers embrace an early form of their religion, to consider it beyond criticism and worthy enough to be enforced upon oneself (or others) without having to accommodate modern evidence or logical arguments against it7. Sociologist of religion David Lehman describes "fundamentalist religious globalization" as the way fundamentalists establish themselves in a new culture "without acknowledging this new culture"8. This contrasts against other religious migrants who normally change and adapt to a new culture. Richard T. Antoun adds the phrase totalism to the picture: "the religious orientation that views religion as relevant to all important domains of culture and society"9. Steve Bruce divides fundamentalism into two distinct types: (1) communal (giving Middle-Eastern Islam as an example) and (2) individual (giving strict Protestant conservativism as an example)10.
Fundamentalists of text-based traditions treat a core holy text as infallible and inerrant11,12 - for example in Islam the scribes who eventually wrote down Muhammad's recitations wrote that it was not Muhammad who wrote the Qur'an. They said that he merely recited the copy of it that Allah created in Heaven. Aside from Abrahamic religions other textual traditions encompass communities that fall into the same traps - "conservative Sikhs share the same abhorrence of modern textual interpretation and exegesis as Protestant Christian fundamentalists", writes one sociologist13. Fundamentalism is often sectarian and intolerant14 - because precise values are adopted so strictly every possibly interpretation of (vague) original ideas will result in two sides who stake their entire religious outlook on the fact that their interpretation is correct15. So fundamentalism is often seen as violent, intolerant, stubbornly backwards and inhuman. Such religions often try to control ideas and restrict free speech through blasphemy laws - Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "prohibition against blasphemy" as one of the three most dangerous manifestations of organized religion16. Religious extremism often involves an obsession with controlling female sexuality17. These traits all arise because the 'fundamentals' of a religion are held to be those morals, behaviours and beliefs held by the earliest followers, hence, fundamentalist ideas clash with modern society, clash with modern evidence and knowledge, and clash with modern tolerant morality.18
For a longer discussion of this, see: What is Religious Fundamentalism?
Full page on this topic: "Why Question Beliefs? Dangers of Placing Ideas Beyond Doubt, and Advantages of Freethought" by Vexen Crabtree (2009)
There is a constant need for us to question our own beliefs, and the beliefs of those around us. It creates a healthy atmosphere of skepticism and intelligence, and prevents people from coming to unreasonable conclusions. The way our brains work mean that we frequently misinterpret events and data, and in particular, we always think there is more rationality and evidence for our beliefs than there is. One of Friedrich Nietzsche's longest-lasting declarations was that "we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions... are the most indispensable to us"20. This all matters because when beliefs become unquestioned, a community can become increasingly divorced from reality.
This is dangerous when individual leaders or belief-based authorities claim to be acting in accord with a divine principle, such as God's will. When it comes to disputes, religionists can come to deny any chance of compromise. In the adult world of democratic politics, compromise in disputes is what keeps things from breaking down: you give a little in one area, but have to give up in another. However, arguments based on differences in religion or belief often contain parties that believe the issue has universal, absolute and cosmic significance. They will not compromise on their position, and many ordinary believers state that they think that religious beliefs should be somehow beyond question21. Malise Ruthven in his book on fundamentalism warns that this is particularly dangerous22. It is how religious cults are formed. In extreme cases this leads to complete social rejection and the possibility of suicide cults, as has been seen many times in history for example with Charles Manson's followers and the 900 who died when the People's Temple suicided. These groups always start out with borderline, but common, beliefs and slowly become more delusional over time. In all cases followers lacked an instinct to ask questions about the beliefs. It is religion that gains most when people cease asking deep questions about beliefs, and it is truth that suffers most. Thomas Paine famously remarked that "it is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry"23. In the name of truth and common sense, do not let even trivial-seeming beliefs take hold without double-checking them, because once beliefs are trivialised, a slippery slope can take you down into madness!
Full page on apostasy: "Apostasy: Thought Crime in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" by Vexen Crabtree (2013).
Take the very concept of apostasy, for example, which is an idea entertained only by those who have rejected any honest approach to truth, and compare it to the secular concept of freedom of belief.
Apostasy is the act of leaving a religion. It is deconversion. Normally it involves taking up another religion and sometimes it involves the taking up of a stance skeptical of all religions. If deconversion is the result of no longer believing that gods exist, then, the result is atheism. "Heresy" is the holding of beliefs that central religious authorities (or mobs) deem to be unacceptable. Religions often engage in a lot of internal suppression in these matters, subjecting their own followers to careful scrutiny to make sure that they are not merely believers, but, that they believe precisely the correct things. Dominant monotheistic religions often consider heresy to be the same as apostasy because they reject the concept of diversity or freedom of thought. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "the willingness to implement violent sanctions against those who leave the fold"" as one of religion's most dangerous attributes (out of three)16. They have often made deconversion and heresy punishable by death, especially in historical Judaism and Christianity, and it still continues in present-day Islam.
Freedom of religion and belief is a basic human right. It features in the "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948)24 as Article 18 and in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, Article 10. It is essential that in order to govern well, you cannot discriminate against non-sanctioned religions, even if the majority of the population don't like the beliefs of the minority religions. Anything else is undemocratic. It is only religion and totalitarian states that even have the concept of heresy; in all other disciplines, a variance of belief is seen as good and healthy because it fosters debate, truth-seeking and diversity. The concept of thought crime can have no basis in moral law, so, traditional religions are often in conflict with modernity, human rights, moral goodness, democracy and liberty.
Starting from cave walls, carvings, stone constructions, trinkets and hieroglyphs, the usefulness of the written word has pushed Human development onwards. Now the written word is almost ubiquitous with Human existence, and our massive databases of information and linked hypertext documents online are its current epitaphs. But although its practical utility in industry and technology speeds up change, the written word also has a tendency to slow down cultural change. Once something is codified in writing, it becomes "set in stone": the longer it persists, and the more people who read it out, the more it defines cultural truths. The result is the creation of a romanticized golden age: the point at which a religious tradition codifies its beliefs into writing becomes the point of moral development at which adherents aspire to. Richard Antoun describes it as "the centering of the mythic past in the present"25. The more often it is written down, the harder it is to challenge. From this point of view, literalism and fundamentalism are clearly linked.
Superstition, religion and belief may have been the first things we as a species attempted to encode into displayable records. Or a very close second, after stories of hunting and practical life. The general trend is that religious texts have become more solid and interpreted more literally as time goes on. All religions have experienced, over time, increased literalism and legalism, even Buddhism and Hinduism. But it is Christianity and Islam that have taken to literalism most whole heartedly.
As we know from the Reformation, the ability to read and write allowed the believing masses to come to better terms with the tenets of their religion. Text is (literally) black and white. Correct beliefs can be underlined and highlighted. Incorrect ones can be thrown out. There is something more compelling and demanding in the written word. As soon as people start writing down official statements and creeds, then, it is more possible to oust people if their statements differ from the group's official norm.
The very word "fundamentalism" was once wholly synonymous with "religious literalism" and is still used that way today by many26. Therefore it seems that increasing fundamentalism is a sign of increased literary competence; the cause isn't that more people are obnoxious, but simply that more people are able to get very precise with the beliefs of their religions. This precision, combined with modern individualism and other forces in society, can produce vitriolic and committed fundamentalists who have no lateral ties to society around them.
The solution is to avoid codifying beliefs that can't be questioned, and to actively seek new evidence, permit argumentation, and endorse a genuine and continual search for improvement in theory. Texts must be open to amendment as new evidence comes in. Such safe approaches to truth did of course become known by another name: science and the scientific method. As our understanding of the truths of the world improve over time, those traditionalists for whom the written word became set in stone, have become increasingly at odds with society at large especially as modern multiculturalism requires greater tolerance of others' beliefs and appearances.
Judaism arose from pre-history in a culture where tribal and village religion was spread by word of mouth and down the families, in an era that predated organised religion. This represents the least literalist form of religion possible and is a feature of nearly all ancient civilisations. But, as the power of the written word spread it came with related side-effects: centralisation and organisation of ideas, often because those who could devote themselves to learning to read and write were often the rich and powerful or those employed by them.
“The publication of the book of Deuteronomy was nothing less than a providence in the development of Hebrew religion. It was accompanied, of course, by incidental and perhaps inevitable evils. By its centralization of worship at the Jerusalem temple, it tended to rob life in other parts of the country of those religious interests and sanctions which had received their satisfaction from the local sanctuaries; and by its attempt to regulate by written statute the religious life of the people, it probably contributed indirectly to the decline of prophecy, and started Israel upon that fatal path by which she ultimately became "the people of the book."”
The trend towards textualism continued to spread with monotheism, almost becoming a defining feature. But literalism and centralisation led to fundamentalism and intolerance of diverse beliefs, as religious purists can use the texts to justify and expound very narrow definitions of what is acceptable.
The literature of Jewish Christianity was often of a highly symbolic kind, with much wordplay and hidden meanings to be found in texts. Gnosticism and Roman Mystery religions, and then Gnostic Christianity, used an intensely non-literal and symbolic form of writing. Text was two-tier. The outer religion was the kind seen by the populace. It was a simple story, a myth, often a rewriting of existing myths in to a more modern form or using updated characters. The inner religion was revealed to initiates. They were told the true meaning of the story and what each character, event, word and object in it represents and means. The illusion of the story of a literal event was revealed to be meaningless and ahistorical. Gnostic Christianity, closer to these, was suppressed by the fledgling roman Christian church, and the oppressor was naturally more literalistic and legalistic. Pauline Christianity - the type that prevailed - accepts Christian texts purely on the basis of the outer religion, the outer meaning: the literal text.
With the Council of Nicea, and onwards, an authoritive collection of texts was compiled (canonized), and as was already customary, competing texts were burnt, suppressed, and heretics who stood by them were killed and vanquished. This is a continuation of the process of literalisation -- a final complete authorized version is inherently a more legalistic formation than a loose and open canon. From the 4th century, the literalist written word in Christianity grew to be utterly dominant and had paved the way for fundamentalists ever since.
I've already written of the deleterious effects of such literalism on science and knowledge:
The stubborn stance against science and real-world knowledge in Christianity stems from the very founders of that religion. Take Tertullian, one of the great and powerful Christian speakers of very early Christianity, who in 200CE was defending Christianity against its critics. 'Before he closes his defense, Tertullian renews an assertion which, carried into practice, as it subsequently was, affected the intellectual development of all Europe. He declares that the Holy Scriptures are a treasure from which all the true wisdom in the world has been drawn; that every philosopher and every poet is indebted to them. He labors to show that they are the standard and measure of all truth, and that whatever is inconsistent with them must necessarily be false'29. And what a terrible legacy became of that mode of thought: it is only true if it says so in the Bible. The hallmark of ignorant, dangerous barbarianism and fundamentalism.
Thankfully for the study of truth, the process of secularisation has diminished the strength of religion across the West, and since the Enlightenment, when religious institutions started to lose control of public life, education continues to act as an anti-religion force in the world: the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be religious. Education is the key to leading successful, happy and above all, a meaningful life devoid of nonsense. The future looks bright for many. Although Europe excels (in a patchy way) in all-faiths education where religions cannot stamp their particular dogmas over science education, this is not the case in much of the rest of the world, so there is much work yet to do in combatting anti-science religiosity.”
In Islam, the formation of the Qur'an followed a similar path. Muhammad instructed his followers not to write down his teachings, but to pass them on. However it became necessary to write them down because during war, many of the caliphs who had memorized the Suras were killed, and people feared that the Koran would be lost for good, so it was written down. Previously leaders kept their own collections according to their own will, hence the religion was less legalistic as a whole, but after time official collections of Suras came to dominate all others. In brief, Islam rapidly became literalistic, and once there it seems the way back is permanently blocked. Those official words became unarguable doctrine, debatable only under pain of death. In Christianity fundamentalist literalism is extreme. In Islam, it is the norm almost everywhere30.
The Muslim world has never (apparently!) produced any critical analysis of the texts of the Qur'an and the Hadiths, in the manner of serious academic investigation to its sources and generation - what is called "Higher Criticism". There is lots of Arabic commentary on the sources, oral transmission, and respectability of individual verses and hadiths and this is invaluable, but, all of them are from the point of view that the canon is holy. Their starting point is literalist and accepting, rather than neutral. Because of their conclusions, all of the scholars that we know about who ventured forth with impartial analysis have been shunned, punished, silenced and even when they have fled their countries of origin, have found themselves harassed even in Western countries. It sometimes feels as if Western scholars are going to have to do the entire historical analysis themselves, but relying on the most fragmentary historical data (as most of the evidence is lost).
“Higher Critical scholarship of the Koran, using methodologies adapted from biblical criticism, is still largely confined to scholars working in Western universities. So sensitive is this area for Muslims that 'Ibn Warraq', a Muslim-born writer trained in Arabic who accepts the findings of radical Western scholarship, has felt it necessary to publish his work under a pseudonym. [...] The Egyptian academic Nasr Abu Zaid, who ventured to use modern literary critical methodology in his approach to the Koran, was forced into exile. Higher criticism of the Koran, where the text is deconstructed in accordance with methods developed by biblical scholars since the 18th century, is still very largely confined to scholars who are not Muslims. Examples include the work of John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and Gerald Hawting, Western scholars of Islam who do not accept the traditional view of its origins as related in the earliest texts.”
Luther, Calvin and the Reformation in general, which saw the rise of Protestantism as a reaction against the widespread abuse of power by the Catholic Church, allowed Christians to go back in search of their moral roots. However the result was not a strengthened body of Christianity. Local languages came to be spoken in sermons rather than the Latin that the churchgoers did not understand. Bibles were produced and consumed in English and in common languages. People could read the scriptures for themselves! It was a disaster for the centralized church.
“The legacy of the religious innovations of Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers strengthened and hastened a variety of social changes which we can understand under the general heading of individualism and which we can see in changes to styles of worship and religious music. [...] Power shifted from religious professionals to the laity ... because it removed the institution of the Church as a source of authority between God and man.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)32
New problems arose. People could now disagree strongly, and both argue from scripture that their side was correct. Literalism was made possible. Beliefs became debatable. Steve Bruce shows us that now, in the Western history of Christianity, "Believing in the right things came to be more important than making the right ritual actions"32.
The de-centralisation of the Reformation allowed fundamentalism. The emphasis of evangelical groups on local church autonomy and individual correct belief was not possible while central officers asserted what was right and wrong. Richard T. Antoun in "Understanding Fundamentalism"33 says the response to this loss of central control left believers on their own to engage in "the quest for purity, the search for authenticity, totalism and activism, the necessity of certainty (scripturalism)"25, the result being an explosion in schismatic fundamentalist groups, frequently fracturing into yet more groups over variant interpretations of scripture. The ground was left wide open for extremism in the defence on one's own views.
“Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”
This section is about fundamentalists who consider their religious text of choice to be completely free of error, human invention or fantasy (i.e., inerrant). In particular I have in mind Christian fundamentalists who consider the Bible to be inerrant, and Muslims who consider the Koran to be inerrant. How do such people arrive at the decision that their text is infallible, and what logical problems does this incur? Do they take the text more or less seriously than liberals?
Fundamentalists largely hold that their scripture is the only authority we have as regards to the truth: It is an absolute truth. However, in order to select which text they consider inerrant there must first be non-scriptural basis for this selection. Before a person considers a text inerrant, they are in a position where their position in the world dictate their knowledge of religious texts and their approach to them. These secular and coincidental factors determine whether a person comes to decide that a text is inerrant.
“Koran, n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.”
The philosopher Immanuel Kant made the same argument in 1785 with regards to believers choosing that the God of the Bible is indeed a being of moral perfection: "Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognise Him as such"35. It is an illogical situation that once a fundamentalist has chosen a text, they then deny that they have no other source of authority: If there is no source of authority other than the text they've chosen, then their reason for selecting the text has become invalid. Beyond this point of self-contradiction it can be seen that the reasons are complex psychological ones.
Fundamentalists have been unable to arrive at a logical criterion for how a secular living person should select which text is true out of all the religious texts available in the world, all of which have adherents who claim their chosen books are inerrant.
Through Prophecy? All claim that correct prophecies validate their text, and all claim that all the other texts don't really have correct prophecies. It is impossible to investigate all such claims yourself, in one lifetime, so it appears that a logical intellectual choice based on prophecy is impossible. Or it is ignorant: A choice can't be made without ignorance until a person has actively investigated all claims of prophecy by all religious texts. Until the individual has done this, they're merely guessing which one can be judged, by criteria of its prophecies, to be "more" divine than other texts.
Sensible possibility: That God has inspired multiple correct prophecies in multiple religious texts or that magic operates as part of the natural laws of the universe, and supernatural prophecy-making is possible whether or not God has a part in it. Of all the prophecies that have not come true (such as the thousands made about the end of the world, etc), you could very sensibly infer that any true prophecies are only true by coincidence and luck, not by supernatural means. In all cases, it can be seen that judging religious texts by their prophecies is a poor method.
Through Faith? Decisions by "faith" are determined in 99% of cases by cultural and societal factors, by psychology, and not by virtue of which text is true. Faith is a cultural and psychological phenomenon. Or, of course there is the chance that a God does actually support multiple (even contradictory) religions, and therefore that it doesn't really matter which one you pick.
Through Morals? It is circular logic to claim that a text is an absolute authority on morals, and then to claim that you can judge a text by the morals contained in it, before knowing which text is true. If you assume particular morals, then look at religious texts, you will end up selecting the text that most matches your own morals. If you select a text then claim that its morals are absolutely correct, you could have drawn exactly the same conclusion no matter which religious text you'd selected. The factors which determine which one you select in the first place are therefore purely cultural and psychological - not moral. We have no rational basis for claims of what morals God considers best. Selection by morals is a fundamentally flawed selection criteria, requiring either genuine stupidity, ignorance or doublethink.
By Popularity? If you judged by popularity you would conclude that at the moment the Christian text is 'absolute' and correct. But, in previous centuries, Roman paganism was absolute and correct, and before that, the animist worship of multiple simple spirits was the correct set of beliefs. It makes no sense that to say that now, at the moment, a particular religion is true merely because it is popular. Especially given that within a religion such as Christianity, there are many varied beliefs. To base claims on popularity is to undermine the idea that one particular religion has correct beliefs.
Despite what some religious folk claim, especially Christians and Muslims, it simply isn't possible to have a "Book of Truth" that can be read objectively, with a shared meaning agreed upon by everyone, especially when it comes to moral instruction and ethics. It is impossible to derive "absolute morals" from holy books like The Bible and The Qur'an. Unfortunately, because many religionists think that correct interpretation is of extreme importance, then, all these different possible conclusions lead to schism and the formation of competing denominations, often violently opposed to others who haven't come to the same conclusions.
Language: When we read, our brains interpret the words according to our understanding of language. Prof. Loughlin warns about this when it comes to lawmaking. He says "language has an open-textured quality", "there is an inherent vagueness in the ordinary use of language [...] and, because of this, rules - even if we accept that they have a core of settled meaning - are often surrounded by a penumbra of uncertainty [... and] often acquire meaning within particular contexts"36.
Subjectivism: Our own wild experiences in life, our own flawed understandings, both conspire continually to colour everything we see in the world. In epistemology, this basic fact is called subjectivism and the subjective nature of our perception of reality is one of the oldest topics in human philosophy, going back thousands of years37.
“Subjectivism is a problem of epistemology (theory of knowledge). The word describes the fact that we can only understand the world through our own senses and our own rational deliberations, in conjunction with our own limited experience in life. Our brains are imperfect organic machines, not a mystical repository of truth. Our senses are imperfect, our point of view limited, and the reality we experience is never the total picture. Our divergent contexts result in each of us interpreting, understanding and perceiving the world differently to one another even when looking at the same stimulus. Human thought is infused with systematic thinking errors. Our knowledge of absolute reality is hampered by our limited insights and imperfect brains, and we can never truly escape from the shackles of our own minds. Our total take on reality is a mix of guesses and patchwork. These problems have been debated by the most ancient philosophers, thousands of years ago, and no practical answers have yet been forthcoming.37.”
Personal Bias: When people approach a religious text or any large book from which they intend to derive ethical teachings, nearly without exception the person will pick up the book and pay very particular attention to all the morals they already agree with. The philosopher George Smith says that "Christian theologians have a strong tendency to read their own moral convictions into the ethics of Jesus. Jesus is made to say what theologians think he should have said"38. A homophobe will pick up the Christian Bible and realise that homosexuality is an evil sin. A misogynist will pick up the Bible or Qur'an and realise that after all this time he's right: Women are inferior, and he can quote the Bible or Qur'an to prove it. A fluffy liberal will read it and find all the hippy love-thy-neighbour bits and therefore will be able to prove that all those homophobes and misogynists have it wrong. In arguing against extremism, Neil J. Kressel39 points out that "everyone picks and chooses, at least a little. Everyone interprets"40.
Complexity and Contradictions: Long texts that dance with moral issues suffer from the problem that some morals in one place step on the toes of other morals in other parts. The debates over which verses have precedence over others is a major symptom of this issue. In addition because of the volume of text and its frequent obscurity and complexity, there is plenty of scope for the imagination, and for personal bias, to find a way to interpret lines in a way that beat to the drum of the reader. Because of the kaleidoscope of different plotlines and levels of possible interpretation, one's subconscious and imagination is given accidental freedom to invent all kinds of morals.
Most Holy Books' Texts is Not About Morals: Most stories in holy books are about personalities - tales about what people are said to have done what. Most of them also involve war and cultural struggles between different peoples, and are often written from within one particular geographical area. It is possible to read these stories and take out of them a wide range of morals, and therefore, to think that these indirect lessons have divine mandate. The same occurs with all long texts. Take Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - it is very much like the Bible (in style), and it is clear to see that you could spend your entire life analyzing it for morals. Many people who undertook such a task would come to different conclusions, just as with Holy Books. The simple fact remains that the parts of the text that say "Here follows a moral rule, to be obeyed by all people for all time" are very infrequent indeed. The Qur'an is much more frank than the Bible, but is still mostly about the retelling of events.
See if you can work out if the following questions are being raised with regards to The Lord of the Rings, The Bible, or the Qur'an:
The people in the book all have their own aims, which are relevant to the topic of the book and the life circumstances of that person. Most people's actions are simply not centered around any wish to provide universal instruction on behaviour - it's all about their problems at that time.
Using characters from within this book we would find many seemingly contradictory morals. For example, for the side of Good, there is much killing to be done, yet part of the morals is that the bad guys kill people.
People interpret the "real meanings" behind various stories in hugely varying ways, and volumes of books have been written on such interpretations based on political and moral undertones.
The answer is that this describes all large books written by Humans. Attempts to read them as places for moral instruction is itself the problem, and the cause of schism, violent disagreements and fundamentalism.
Cultural Context: As time passes, the original cultural assumptions and cultural understanding of phrases and words will all change, making it impossible for many things to be understood by future audiences in the same way that the original authors meant them. The longer ago something was written, the less the context is clear to us today, and this opens the way for much culturally subjective opinion. "Love thy neighbour as thyself" has meant various things at various times: A land of barbarians may feel quite free to brutalize others just as they brutalize themselves41, whereas band of 1970s hippies spread love in a much more physical way. Over time, morals are simply read into texts differently, hence why religious prohibitions change over time too. We read text literally, chronologically and philosophically, but both The Koran and much of The Bible was written in prose, in poetry, using many symbolic aspects and word games. Shifts in time and place mean that there are unknown cultural references that we cannot possibly understand now, even if text that we think we are reading correctly.
Translations: All of the above problems come together when translations of holy texts are made. One thing that fundamentalists do get right is their determined and enviable attempts to read scripture in its original language (which is easier for Muslim Arabs who still speak the same language the Koran was written in). But we have very few of the original texts of our major religions. We rely on copies-of-copies-of-copies, which at some point, have often been translated - quotations changed from Aramaic to Greek, entire texts from Latin to English, based on Greek translations. We know that even from very early on numerous mistranslations have been introduced42, such as the mistaken usage of the word "virgin" to describe the prophecy of Jesus' birth since the major Septuagint translation.
It is surprising that anyone thinks a god would attempt to communicate with us in any particular language, let alone ancient ones. If I was god, I would transmit my message directly into everyone's brain. That way problems with translation and subjectivism would be removed and people could make informed decisions and moral choices based on the full facts, rather than miscommunicated ideals. This would end all translation and transmission problems too.
Clearly, no gods have imparted such a universal moral message into the minds of mankind. If there is a supreme and omniscient creator god then it is responsible for creating the way that our brains work. Such a being knows that we can only interpret life subjectively, and that no text will mean the same thing for any two people. Therefore by design, any sacred text must only be designed by God for the specific culture into which the text arose.
This section is taken from Bible-Based Absolute Morals are Impossible Because All Scripture is Interpreted Subjectively. Click for an expanded version of this text.
Religious scholars who interpret their own scripture have always claimed to value the correct understanding of religious texts44. But modern liberal academics have a host of new techniques available for analysing the meaning, context and authorship of those texts. These include methodical statistical analysis and careful computer-aided comparison of variants of ancient texts. Also, stories are best understood in their original context and address debates that were being had at the time of authorship. Very few can simply be read at face value. Without having entrenched opinions over what texts should mean, these scientific and critical approaches often result in conclusions that are incompatible with traditional interpretations. Academics have thusly faced very strongly-worded attacks upon their techniques and conclusions by traditionalists. Some adopt a defensive combatitive stance of their own; Robert M. Price45 states starkly that "we will show the superiority of our approach, not in destroying the Bible, but in better understanding the beloved text"44. It is ironic that by sticking to historical assumptions and traditional understandings, fundamentalists and literalists are not taking scripture as seriously as modern liberal academics.”
Fundamentalism is the core of extremist movements. See:
There is a better side to religion, and some religions and new religious movements have avoided developing fundamentalist streaks, by starting out with principles and morals that do not lend themselves to literalist extremism. Zen Buddhism specifically distances itself from other branches of Buddhism, claiming that Buddhist scholars are wasting their time while deliberating over the specific phrases and words used within Buddhist scripture.
“As the finger has no brightness whatever, so the Scripture has no holiness whatever. [...] Those who spend most of their lives in the study of the Scriptures, arguing and explaining with hair-splitting reasonings, and attain no higher plane in spirituality, are religious flies good for nothing but their buzzing about the nonsensical technicalities. [...]
Buddhist denominations, like non-Buddhist religions, lay stress on scriptural authority; but Zen denounces it on the ground that words or characters can never adequately express religious truth, which can only be realized by mind [...]. It is an isolated instance in the whole history of the world's religions that holy scriptures are declared to be 'no more than waste paper'.”
Many powerful religions become oppressive, monstrous brutes. They annex schools and subvert national education to their own ends, they enforce strict moral codes in accordance with their beliefs, and sometimes even such as during the Christian Dark Ages, they violently and bloodily suppress dissent. During such times, minor religious groups have no choice but to argue for religious tolerance as a matter of self-survival. But even during less stressful centuries, it tends to be the tolerant small religions that become national celebrities whereas intolerant religions tend to whither away. Those who argue for religious freedom (whether they mean it or not) will become both popular and officially recognized, and all the new recruits will stand by the doctrine of toleration. So even if the original authorities really wanted religions to be considered equal, their followers will embrace such an idea. Therefore, the history of developing societies has been that growing religious movements are generally tolerant and existing institutionalized religions were normally oppressive. All of this occurs no matter if the underlying beliefs of the religion are open or closed to others' beliefs. This general trend can emerge even from exclusivist beliefs. The sociologist of religion Steve Bruce describes the example of the Secession and the Free Church:
“Despite having begun as firm believers in religious coercion, the Secession and the Free Church gradually came to argue for religious freedom, in defence first of their own rights, and then of the rights of dissenters generally; finally they came to see the value of the general principal of religious toleration. But the evolution was a slow and painful process, often scarred by the expulsion of those clergymen who promoted the cause of toleration ten years too early. [...]
There is no mystery about the circumstance which led to the reluctant acceptance of pluralism: their own failure to win over the majority of the Church of Scotland. Only when each wave of dissent realized that it could not succeed in taking over the instruments of state coercion did it begin to find the use of such instruments offensive.
Fission created a plurality of organizations and the divisions of the people of God meant that the price of enforcing conformity was too high for a modern democratic state. The consequence, quite undesired by most of those who brought it about, was religious toleration and the rise of the secular state.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)49
So although some types of religion, such as polytheism, are naturally tolerant towards others' beliefs, and others such as Abrahamic monotheism (e.g. Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are largely hostile to 'heathens', the existence of different beliefs side-by-side has had the effect of eventually convincing everyone responsible of the benefits of peaceful pluralism. Although many religionists wish no such thing as to have others' beliefs made equal to their own, their voices are only heard in the first place because of the very secular principal of equality. When a singular religion becomes entrenched, and encroaches upon the arenas of public education and politics, though, a very dangerous possibility emerges: That its leaders, comfortable in power, will decreasingly see the need for tolerance. Secular government needs to always be cautious of a possible new dark age.
Most forms of Paganism and the New Age are accepting, tolerant and respectful towards other's beliefs and practices50. There is very little in the way of an impulse towards correcting others, telling them they're wrong and criticizing their beliefs. Even if two believers' theories about important aspects of their crafts are contradictory and impossibly conflicting, there is rarely much in the way of hatred, or even dislike, between them.
“Pagans believe that no one belief system is correct and that each person should have the freedom to come themselves to the path of their choice. [...] For all Pagans there is no place for either dogma or proselytising.”
Academic researchers have been pleased to note that although some of the these new religious movements emerged from within an anti-Christian milieu many groups simply never took up an aggressive stance, or, if they did, they mostly quickly moved on (within a few decades) to a neutral and tolerant stance. Pearson (2002) puts it like this: "Wiccans and Pagans have been, and are at present, involved in the development of interfaith meetings with members of other religions, and [...] no longer requires legitimization through false histories or hatred of the Christian Church"52.
It seems natural and ascendant that modern religions such as the various forms of Paganism and New Age-style belief systems should abandon strict claims about their exclusive access to truth. In a world where fundamentalism seems forever on the rise many new religious movements represent a better side of religion, free from powermongering and free from the urge to enforce its doctrines on people for their own good.
The text in this section is taken from "Modern Paganism (Neopaganism)" by Vexen Crabtree (2015).
So here is a simple scale proceeding then from the religions and institutions that have represented the most tolerant and moral approaches to religious diversity, to those who have historically been oppressive, against human rights, genocidal and intolerant of people with diverse beliefs:
Secular ideas of tolerance and individual human rights assure the greatest amount of freedom of religion, and secular ideals such as separation of church and state ensure that no religion is given undue prominence, and is therefore the most democratic and peaceable approach to religious tolerance. Embodying these ideas are pseudo-religions like Humanism.
Atheist religions such as Buddhism and morality-based philosophies of the East have by far the best record as far as human rights and tolerance go. Scientific pantheism and other modern ethical movements have the same potential as the secular approach.
Monotheistic religions such as Islam and Christianity are the undisputed champions of historical evil, and their class of religion smashes the bloodiest and most barbaric records throughout history. Theirs is a history of wars, genocides, internal witch hunts, oppression, lack of freedom of thought and lack of freedom of religion. Large denominations of monotheistic religions have eradicated smaller denominations for simply believing the wrong things. No other class of religion compares with monotheism in its tendency for intolerant violence.
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