Against Fundamentalism

Ecological Economics highlights an essay about the ongoing battle against fundamentalism:

There are too many false prophets in our profession—the kind who like to assert policy opinions in black-and-white terms, such as 'there is only one right way' and 'no other way will do'. This is what I like to call 'economic fundamentalism'. And I believe it is wrong on all counts.

For one thing, economics does not lend itself to doctrinaire policy assertions. The technical complexities are too great, the behavioural reaction of human beings too changeable and unpredictable, and the market subject to many imperfections. … [Many economic] questions do not lend themselves to definitive answers. The honest economist can make an 'on balance' judgment, but should also acknowledge the uncertainties and the merits of alternative positions.

Smith and Friedman are not quite Jesus and Muhammed, but blind fundamentalism is always bad, whether it be religious or not.

I've started reading my review copy of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, and you can consider that point a preview of my basic reaction to the book. But I'm only a chapter in so far.

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Why is it "fundamentalist" to reject beliefs for which there is zero evidence? Does this mean I'm a fundamentalist because I think religion just plain doesn't work? It doesn't explain anything about our existence or the natuaral world, and it doesn't make people less violent.
Harris' point is that basing morality on beliefs about imaginary sky-gods is dangerous, especially now. Consider that Gen. Peter Pace, head of the joint chiefs, just said that "the Lord" talks to Rumsfeld. That's scary, and that's what has Harris worried.
I don't know what Harris said about nukes, but there are a lot of religious fundies who have called for their use. I'd rather have his finger on the button than theirs.

By Karl Griffin (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink

Well. Ya know...humans are not as rational as they'd like to think. Good thing we have techniques such as The Scientific Method to steer us towards some kind of objective reality.

It might also help if we had an educational system that encouraged students to embrace uncertainty (look for the best answer, for now) instead of looking for The One True Answer. I recall a middle school aged child of a friend who asked me "Science is about getting the right answer, isn't it?" It was an opportunity to explain The Scientific Method, but I could see that she didn't believe me; it didn't jive with her experience in school.

On the other hand, I might just be another naive idealist. I'm sure there are plenty of people who want Teacher (or Mommy or Daddy) to just tell them the Right Answer, no thought or effort required. After all, while The Scientific Method may be very effective, but it's a lot of work.

Karl, my point about fundamentalism is less that Harris is a fundamentalist (I've not reached a conclusion on that point yet) than than he stretches to attribute things to religion that are clearly the result of non-religious fundamentalism.

For instance, he reduces the entire conflict between Pakistan and India to a religious dispute, ignoring the fact that India has the largest Muslim population of any country. The idea that the civil war in Sri Lanka is an "explicit" consequence of religious differences is equally false (as he admits in his first endnote).

He acts as if religion is the only reason that people die in attempts to kill other people, but that's simply false. I could point to World War II, or to suicide raids by the Vietcong, or even to Pickett's Charge. There is a thread that joins those, a sort of fundamentalism perhaps. But it isn't always religious fundamentalism.

Good points about fundamentalism. I am also aware, coming from southern family on my fathers side, that religion is about culture, and reflects those national, regional, and tribal world views. And I had first hand experience with the VC.
I had a Russian aquaintance once that said the difference between the communist party and the orthodox church was the communists had the power, and the church wanted it back. They were both competing for control. Stalin understood this well. Witness how many former party members started showing up at church after the collapse of the SU, looking for a new "network". I doubt southern babtists and northern universalists feel the same way about what god wants for society. Maybe our "beliefs" just give some of us a reason to do what we want to do, anyway, which is be in control.

By karl griffin (not verified) on 05 Nov 2006 #permalink