About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Paradox of Fundamentalism


There is a worldwide trend of fundamentalist sects growing in secular power. 

You see this in the religious litmus tests in American politics.  No candidate in America would be elected to high office without referring to God and working in the phrase, "God Bless America."  This is one of the few truly bipartisan movements in the United States; it does not matter whether the candidate is  a Democrat or a Republican, both sides constantly invoke God.  (And God forbid any President dare skip the National Prayer Breakfast.  I think they would be immediately impeached for that.)

You see this growth in the power of the Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.  Countries that overthrew their dictators are willingly handing power over to religious dominance.  It is likely that Sharia Law will become the foundation of the constitutions in most of these new democracies.  (Which leads to the question, will democracy turn out to be like free will, where it only exists long enough to give all power over to God?)

 You see this in the growing influence of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.  This group is bending Israeli society to their strict interpretation of the Torah, where the sexes cannot mingle in any way and women are treated like second class citizens.  (There was an incident recently where a woman refused to move to the back of the bus when an Ultra-Orthodox man demanded she do so, because, according to Leviticus, no man may sit behind a woman.  The police were called because of the near riot her refusal provoked.  I should note, she finished her bus ride sitting in the front.  Score one for equality.)

But why is there this trend?  Why, after decades of movement toward a secular society are we seeing this return to fundamentalist interpretations of religion?  And why, after enshrining secular democracy as the pinnacle of governmental development are we seeing a return to a modified form of the Divine Right? 

On a side note, how many candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are running because they claim God told them to?  It is certainly more than one, which then leads to a disturbing set of questions: does God like fighting, so He tells multiple people to run, just to see the brawl; is God fickle, and changes his mind on who He wants to run the way normal people change their socks; or most theologically disturbing, are different Gods telling Their candidates to run and we are having a proxy battle between a diverse pantheon?

But back to the main point, why is there this rush back to fundamentalist religious views?

I think the most likely answer is that we live in uncertain times, and God provides a certainty.  God also provides cover for a denial of progress and justifies reactionary urges in a way that cannot be argued with.

This has happened before.  One of the outgrowths of the Black Plague was the Inquisition, and that was a logical development given the situation. 

The plague overturned the social order in Europe; had it never occurred Serfdom and Feudalism would have continued on for a significant length of time.  But with the mass deaths of the 1400's, labor became a scare commodity, which lead to the rise of a merchant class, the guilds and the idea of "employment."  It broke the back of the Feudal society and led to the Renaissance and the Reformation.  In a relatively short time society transformed completely.  Short is relative here, given the lack of speedy transference of ideas without electronic communications.

A natural outgrowth of this transformation was the rise of the Inquisition, which became a last ditch reactionary movement to slow or halt the transformation.  (It also had other "benefits," including consolidation of power, etc.)  But at it's heart, the Inquisition was a way to try to take society back to a more "Godly" way and root out ideas that questioned the way things were.

We are in that sort of a transformation again.  Society is changing in ways that many people don't like.  Some don't like the changes because they are altering the normatives, others don't like them because they are threatening the entrenched power structure.  So the best way to combat the changes is to claim that these changes go against God.  It is the ultimate trump card, because fear of God is at it's root fear of ourselves.

I would like to note that this dislike of societal transformation is similar to the Fear-anger-hate chain that I discussed at length in previous blog posts, but there are differences as well.  The fear-anger-hate chain is the result of a certain amount of powerlessness to stop the inexorable tide of change.  The insertion of God's Will into the discussion is an attempt to actually turn the tide.  (Which is a very fitting Moses reference)

It becomes the ultimate firewall to try to invoke a Fundamentalist view of God to reverse a societies course.  And, sometimes it works, at least on the short term scale.   Had it not been for the invasion of Afghanistan the Taliban would have likely continued in power for decades, keeping that country locked in a medieval world.  (An no, I am not going to address whether I think the invasion was right or wrong, I am merely pointing out that the Taliban's fundamentalist view of Islam cemented a stagnation in that country, and would have continued for quite a while)

In the end, the Inquisition failed to stop the Enlightenment, but it did slow it down.  It applied a braking mechanism on the change, but ironically it made the change stronger when it came.  It did this because it forced the great thinkers of the day, who were driving the transformation, to solidly construct their arguments and force them to have a strong ontology and epistemology.   Since they developed better arguments, in the long run, it became harder for the church to rally support against them.

This leads to the paradox of fundamentalism; in the short term, fundamentalism strengthens religion, but in the long term it sows the seeds of the destruction of religion.  Today, in the West at least, we would never accept the Divine Right of Kings to rule over us.  This refusal to accept a Godly dictator came from people like Thomas Jefferson having to construct irrefutable arguments as to why democracy was essential.   His arguments would never have been as eloquent if he did not have to fight against the weight of God's Will. 

Even though we want our candidates to be inspired by God to run, we still demand the right to approve God's choice, in essence giving us veto power over God.  This leads to other disturbing questions of omnipotence that I am not going to address right now.
A modern example can be found in the issue of gay marriage.  The fundamentalist arguments against it forced the supporters to be better at presenting their case.  The result of this is, for the first time, gay marriage supporters are a slight majority in the country.  This is the paradox at work, the louder and more viciously opponents argue against it, the tide is inexorably flowing toward marriage equality.

In the end, Fundamentalism is another self-defeating process, because it forces the opponents that narrow view to create irrefutable arguments on their side as well.  And given that the only constant is change, eventually the Fundamentalist must bow to defeat.   

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