The Magazine

Fundamentalists & Other Fun People

To know them is not to despise them.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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However, one can be intolerant and hypocritical--and also correct. The most important thing about these fulminations is that they are utterly, flat out, dead wrong.

Take the vacuous term "fundamentalist." Despite academic efforts to give it content, in practice the word signifies only "someone firmly committed to religious views I do not like." It's an epithet depicting people as abject objects to be labeled rather than listened to, dismissed rather than engaged in discussion.

It originated as a description of a series of Christian booklets called "The Fundamentals" published between 1910 and 1915 and focused on the nature of biblical criticism. They did not spring from the American South. Canadians, usually Episcopalians, wrote many of them, with additional contributors from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and England. The first, on "The History of the Higher Criticism," was by Canon Dyson Hague, lecturer in liturgics and ecclesiology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, and examining chaplain to the (Anglican) bishop of Huron. It was followed by "The Bible and Modern Criticism" by F. Bettex, D.D., professor emeritus, Stuttgart, Germany.

The author of "Christ and Criticism" was Sir Robert Anderson, KCB, LLD. As a Knight Commander of the Bath (the third-highest British order of chivalry), he seems a far cry from the fundamentalists H.L. Mencken vilified in the 1920s as "halfwits," "yokels," "rustic ignoramuses," "anthropoid rabble," and "gaping primates of the upland valleys," or even the people the Washington Post maligned 70 years later as "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command."

MY WORK monitoring religious freedom and religious persecution around the world often brings me into contact with "fundamentalists" and "religious extremists." Some of them are indeed the monsters that secularists portray: I have seen enough prisons, killing fields, and bodies, lost enough friends, colleagues, and cases, and fallen asleep in tears on enough silent nights, to have few illusions about the terrors produced by perverted religion (or, for that matter, perverted secularism, which in the last century piled up vastly more corpses than did religious extremism).

But there are also "religious extremists" I remember fondly. One I had the privilege of meeting believes he is the reincarnation of generations of religious leaders and was destined to lead his people. I don't share his views, but I find him wise, with a delightful sense of humor. He is the Dalai Lama.

Jehovah's Witnesses annoy many people by ringing our doorbells while we're having dinner. But the growth of religious freedom in almost every Western country owes much to the Witnesses' peaceful quest to be allowed to be conscientious objectors to military service.

There were Trappist nuns in Java, committed to a life of silence on the slopes of a volcano. It surprised me that they were a major source of information about what really goes on in Indonesia, that land of shadows. But, as the mother superior, a New Yorker, explained, "We can't speak, but we can sure read, watch, and listen. If you don't speak, you'd be amazed how much you can learn." No wonder she left Manhattan.

The Dervishes in Turkey, Sufi Muslims, combine their strange, ecstatic, whirling dance with ecumenical spirituality and uncommon grace at being treated as a tourist attraction. Some of their neighbors, Turkish Christians, are reviving the ascetic practice of living, like Simon Stylites, on top of poles. Not my cup of tea, but they're not hurting anyone.

The Amish are as "fanatical" about their religion as Americans get. They use no electricity, no cars, no colorful clothing, and are fierce pacifists, as are many other "fundamentalists." I'm still tempted to go back with them.

Then there are the practitioners of Falun Gong, the Hindu Shankaracharya of Puri, the Hasidim, and so many others with views that would drive American secularists up the wall. All are resolutely peaceful. I disagree with most, and have spent many happy, and frequently frustrating, hours with them discussing life, the universe, and everything. But I have never felt the slightest need to attack them, nor they me.

In the face of this range of beliefs, it is well nigh meaningless to define bin Laden and his ilk as "fundamentalists" or "religious extremists." He may be both, but so are billions of peaceful and gentle people.

The difference is obvious: The key is not bin Laden's conviction or certitude, but the content of his creed. We are opposed not to "religious extremists" per se, but only to the type of religious extremists who believe in flying planes into buildings and beheading "infidels."