The current debate around religion in America has been dominated by fundamentalists and atheists.
The fundamentalists have managed to set a tone for political discourse in America in which no one can be elected without advertising his personal relation to God. The atheists, in turn, have disparaged religious belief in general as the root of all evil.
Neither of these positions adequately represents the beliefs of the majority of Americans: people who identify themselves as Christians, Jews, or Muslims without for a moment believing that those who believe differently are for that reason wrong.
Indeed, fundamentalists and atheists do not even represent truly opposing positions—unlike the moderately religious they are unified by their implicit belief in the code of codes.
Whether one is a fundamentalist does not depend on one’s commitment to a particular religious creed or, in fact, to any religion at all. Rather, fundamentalist thinking stems from an unconscious belief that the various codes we use to understand the world are all versions of a single, underlying master code, a code of codes that contains the ultimate truth of everything.
Given this understanding of how fundamentalism works, the best way to counter it is not to attack its religious manifestations with anti-religious doctrine. Instead, the most effective remedy for today’s rash of fundamentalist thinking is religious moderation.
That is because moderate religious beliefs question the very idea of the code of codes as a possibility of human knowledge.
It is the moderately religious with their inherent skepticism of any single master code, in other words, who are best suited to protect science, politics, and all other individual codes of knowledge from being commandeered by the fundamentalist logic of the code of codes. By learning to break the code of codes, religious moderates can take a decisive step toward leaving behind the destructive fundamentalist tendencies that have plagued our times.
“Fundamentalists and atheists do not even represent truly opposing positions—unlike the moderately religious they are unified by their implicit belief in the code of codes.”
I come to the question of religious belief as a scholar of literature and philosophy. And the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges is a great influence for this work.
As I discuss in several passages in the book, I have found in the writings of Borges a consistent cautionary tale about the excesses of certainty, and an uncanny ability to undermine the pretensions or even hopes of perfect knowledge.
What I’ve learned from Borges, to put it in the simplest way possible, is that human knowledge is essentially, rather than accidentally, imperfect. What this means is that while our desire to know orients itself toward ever-greater accuracy, the goal of perfect or ultimate knowledge is self-contradictory. The fact that our brains and sensory apparatuses must synthesize impressions across space and over time, for instance, implies the necessity of a minimal difference from our objects of cognition as a condition of possibility for knowing them.
But what Borges also stresses in his stories is how the very imperfectability of our knowledge endows us with a kind of will to believe. Like it or not, Borges seems to tell us, this will finds expression, and if we seek to deny it outlets in the imagination, it will find its way into our social and political life, and often at great cost.
Another area of inquiry that is of importance to the book’s thesis is that of neuroscience. Many secular polemicists have cited recent work in the neuroscience of religion as the final evidence undermining the tenability of any religious belief whatsoever. If the phenomena of different beliefs can be shown to have distinct correlates in the electrochemistry of the brain, the argument goes, then so much for God.
In fact what recent research has demonstrated is how untenable anything but a model-dependent realism is for understanding how humans interact with the world. The dependence of the brain on narrative reconstructions, values, and emotional responses for even the most neutral description and perception of reality utterly undermines the pretensions of either secularist absolutists or religious fundamentalists to having the ultimate take on what reality is.
I would hope your casual reader would first happen upon some of the pages in which I discuss how moderates and fundamentalists believe in very different ways.
Religious moderation is a kind of religious belief that refuses the logic of the code of codes. Moderate believers find comfort, solace, community, and pleasure in their belief systems and the practices that accompany them—without assuming that these beliefs represent a direct, unfettered, or in some way absolute knowledge of the world.
Moderate believers are thus perfectly capable of reciting the tenets of their own faiths without ever feeling that they are in irresolvable contradiction with other, perhaps more practical ways of understanding the world. For this very reason, not only are such forms of belief entirely compatible with scientific knowledge, they are also inherently tolerant, since moderate believers make a constant practice of reconciling apparently incompatible versions of reality.
This implicit commitment to tolerance along with its suspicion of claims to ultimate knowledge make religious moderation one of the best possible defenses against fundamentalisms of all kinds—in particular the religious fundamentalisms that are so openly threatening the modern, democratic world view.
“The dependence of the brain on narrative reconstructions, values, and emotional responses for even the most neutral description and perception of reality utterly undermines the pretensions of either secularist absolutists or religious fundamentalists to having the ultimate take on what reality is.”
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.
William Egginton is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and chair of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage, Perversity and Ethics, A Wrinkle in History, The Philosopher’s Desire, and The Theater of Truth and In Defense of Religious Moderation, featured in Rorotoko interviews. He is also coeditor of Thinking with Borges and The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy, and translator of Lisa Block de Behar’s Borges: The Passion of an Endless Quotation.