Aug 21, 2006

Fundamentalism and Triumphalism

We hear a lot about religious fundamentalism these days. I suppose we are stuck with the term, but it is actually used imprecisely. Fundamentalism, according to one dictionary definition is "strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology." This in itself may not necessarily be a negative thing. Fidelity to a tradition and it's teachings is one legitimate approach to religion. It may be thought by some to be narrow, by others to demonstrate an integrity and clarity of thought.

However, what is often called "fundamentalism" these days is probably better called "triumphalism." This is the view that one's religion is absolutely right, all others are wrong, and usually leads to the conclusion that force is justified to promote one's beliefs. The Buddha condemned this kind of thinking; "this is right, all else is wrong" as leading to disputation and conflict. We can certainly see that today.

The triumphalist imperative pollutes any religion it touches. While it seems more natural to arise in mono-theistic religions ("my god is bigger than your god") sadly even Buddhism doesn't escape. We had the sorry story this week of fundamentalist monks in Sri Lanka breaking up a peace rally with fist-fighting. How anyone can defend this behaviour as consistent with the Buddha's teaching is beyond me.

There is also a Hindu fundamentalism, whose deeds included the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the wrecking of the historic Babri mosque in 1992 (which sparked bloody communal riots.) These type of actions are hardly compatible with the Hindu ideal of ahimsa. (harmlessness)

We hear a lot about Islamic fundamentalism (or Islamo-fascism in the fanciful neo-con lexicon.) Often the discussion simplifies complex and contradictory movements within modern Islam, which seems to be in a period of ferment and renewal not unlike the Protestant Reformation of 16th Europe. That period too, had it's "mad mullahs," it's iconclasm and it's struggle to come to terms with a changing world.

Certainly groups like the Taliban, with their ultra-strict moral codes violently enforced, and their wanton destruction of imagery like the Bamiyan Buddhas, and their valorization of war and conflict, qualify as "triumphalist." Some among the Shiites also have a dangerous fascination with apocalyptic thinking; awaiting the end of this world and the coming of the twelfth imam.

The Christians also have a powerful fundamentalist (or triumphalist) wing, especially in the United States. Like their Muslim shadow-selves, they have a very strong belief in the imminent "end of days." It's kind of scary when people who think the end of the world is a good thing are close to the policy making apparatus of major powers.

There is also a Jewish fundamentalism that complicate the Middle-East problem by seeing a religious sanction for occupation of the whole of Palestine to the Jordan. Some of them even want to re-construct the Temple of Solomon, which would involve destroying the Al-Aqsa mosque. To them, a minor detail. To the rest of the world, a major conflagration.

(I'm not aware of Taoist or Jain fundamentalism - maybe I'm just not informed)

These fundamentalisms feed off each other; they need each other to thrive. Where would the Christian Right in the US be without the "evil axis" of "Islamo-fascism" to rant against? Where would the Islamic hard-core get their juice without the "Great Satan" or the "Zionist entity?"
The Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka are largely a response to the very aggressive and unethical proselytizing of Christian fundamentalist missionaries.

Too bad we can't all just get along.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I was worry when I did not see your weekl blog. I am from Houston, Tx.

Anonymous said...

Yes, unfortunately some Christian missionaries do a great disservice to Christianity and negate much of the work carried out by some extremely useful and beneficial Christian charitable organizations.

Here we come up against two different aspects, one being to convert as many people as possible through whatever means possible, and the other being to act as a Christian.

Part of the problem stems in the government policies of the US, which, unknown to most of its citizens, means that any country that requires aid or any form of assistance must allow unlimited access and easy visas to Christian missionaries. This, for example, makes it much easier for a US missionary to get a visa in Thailand than a foreign Buddhist monk. Plus, as most missionaries are aware of this, when they do arrive they do so with an attitude.

As I used to live in Calcutta many years ago, I was also aware of who was doing what in that city. Unfortunately, due to a staged publicity documentary, Mother Teresa (MT) became the focal point of missionary work in India. Whenever there was a disaster in India you would find MT visiting some local hospital consoling the injured (at least as long as the cameras rolled), and she became known, not too unkindly, as a religious ambulance chaser.

The real truth behind MT was that she actually did nothing, except collect money. She had no large school, no large hospital, and the gates to her establishment were perpetually chained and locked, she received no one.

While she did generate interest in the charitable work she never carried out, many people would arrive in Calcutta, visit her center, and then be directed to assist at hospitals run by charitable organizations that did actually help people.

These charitable organizations, some Indian and some from the US, never got a mention and never received any funds donated to MT. In fact, even funds donated to the starving in Africa never found their way to Africa, and in all some $2.6 billion donated by gullible people throughout the world just ended up in the Vatican bank. MT did however succeed in enlarging her own personal retinue through this subterfuge.

In India, on one occasion where MT just turned up out of the blue, attended a crisis meeting and added her own quite meaningless comments, she was almost lynched by the crowd. This may seem strange to many Westerners who have a completely different view of MT, but she was not a very honest person, and she used the media like a conman uses a mark.

Thus, you have many people believing in the virtue of MT, and who after all goes to visit Calcutta to check it all out?

The real Christian organizations in Calcutta, who have continued their work regardless, have never been named or shown on Western media. It just goes to show, they actually do a great job, yet the impostor becomes a saint.

Such experiences certainly influence the way that people perceive missionaries. In Sri Lanka, CNN joined in the support for a US missionary who wanted some $400k to replace the perhaps $20k in damages he actually suffered. The clincher here being that he ran a tiny orphanage for 7 children. When the wave actually came this guy stood up in his boat and said "Stop in the name of god." I pity the kids that have to stay with him.

As for orphanages, these are basically a Christian invention, as people in Asia look after orphans themselves, irrespective of religion, and who, after all, would ever think that staying in an orphanage would be better than having your own family, even if it is a brand new one.

While there is one Asian country selling babies to Westerners through an orphanage, in Asia people see no problems in adopting orphans. Therefore, they tend to see some Christian missionary arriving to set up an orphanage as someone arriving to build a children's torture chamber. The real reason behind such a practice is simply to convert the local population to Christianity at the expense of the child's welfare and happiness.

This, unfortunately, is not the only example, and many missionaries need to concentrate on being a good Christian rather than collecting money and making conversions.

As for Buddhist missionaries, my own religious advisors tell me that in truth they could not care less, as they have enough problems getting Buddhists to be Buddhists.

James said...

Yes, there are many varieties of fundamentalism. Currently, the Islamic variety is getting a very bad rap. In many ways that's too bad. I have two very dear friends from Iran who are both practicing muslims. Being from a culture that emphasizes hospitality, you cannot imaging two nicer folks than they. Sadly, their mosque has been vandalized, their Iman arrested and deported and they have been personally assaulted.

One of them almost became a hit and run case (she is easily identifiable-- or so the assailant thought-- because of her veil). Their son, a US citizen, had a bottle broken over his head in a parking lot.

Always seems to me as if Christian fundamentalists want the right to exist and evangelize, but refuse to allow it to others. American fundamentalism results in an "America Right or Wrong attitude." While Islamic fundamentalism is dangerous and narrow-minded, it is no less most other variants of the phenomenon.

I have recently began a blog concerning the nature of Christian fundamentalism and my exit from its ranks. I only have a few postings up, but, please, take a look. I believe this is a serious issue.