William Egginton


On his book In Defense of Religious Moderation

Cover Interview of July 10, 2011


I am of the opinion that fundamentalism is seldom beneficial, no matter what form it takes.

While a religious fanatic can channel his fervor into good works—and many certainly have—I do not believe that fundamentalist thinking is necessarily or even directly linked with such passion and commitment.

As I discuss in relation to the neuroscience of belief, the way of believing that makes one a fundamentalist has more to do with those brain functions that seek closure and resist uncertainty than with the kind of passion and creativity that leads to positive change or great discoveries. Likewise, scientific progress is far more profoundly linked to creativity than to belief in the ultimate nature of the reality one is busy discovering.

We are fundamentalists whenever we treat our knowledge not as a model or version of reality, but as reality itself. While today we tend to associate this sort of impulse with religion, one of the primary tendencies of the theological traditions that accompanied the development of western culture was to undermine human claims to total knowledge of the world.

Many scholars have noted that religious fundamentalism is really a modern phenomenon, the term itself dating to the early 20th century. But in some ways a more general fundamentalism defined as adherence to the code of codes is itself coterminous with the modern age—with western culture since the dawn of the scientific revolution.

The idea here is that the relative success of one particular model of reality—in which reality is pictured as an independent objective realm gradually revealed by human observation and experimentation—created the expectation that this model should apply equally in all domains of knowledge.

And it is for this reason that the sort of biblical literalism consistent with what we now call Christian fundamentalism could only take hold in a thoroughly modern society like our own.

© 2011 William Egginton