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Zealots who want to force others to conform to their beliefs often exhibit a fundamentalist mindset. That is to say, they are utterly certain of the rectitude of their beliefs on the basis of some unchallengeable text, either sacred or secular. They assert what they believe to be true rather than engage in rational argument. And if anyone should disagree, they respond with some sort of ad hominem attack against the opponent, not by trying to understand why he objects and whether he might have good reasons for his position.
Fundamentalist thinking is an atavism, a throwback to the ancient tribal nature of mankind. It obstructs the acquisition of knowledge because the minds of fundamentalists are closed off to any information that doesn’t confirm their existing beliefs. When fundamentalists clash with rationalists, they resort to coercion if they possibly can, since the skeptics must be wrong and are probably evil. And when fundamentalists clash with other fundamentalists, the result is usually violence.
Fortunately, over the last 700 years or so, fundamentalism has been receding. Human beings have become more willing to listen to new ideas and evaluate them on the strength or weakness of the evidence and logic behind them. We have become less inclined to think that some inerrant text has all the answers and more inclined to consider different points of view.
Intolerance in America
Unfortunately, that beneficial trend seems to be changing. Our political divisions are increasingly vicious and intractable. Tolerance for those “on the other side” is waning. Families are torn and friendships severed over the discovery that someone holds the wrong set of views. Listening and civil discussion have largely been replaced by angry, reflexive denunciation. Ad hominem attacks have become the norm.
Two authors who are worried about this are Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. The former is a professor of arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the latter the president of that institution. They have written a book entitled Minds Wide Shut (Princeton University Press, 2021) that’s meant to shed light on the rising acrimony in America.
The authors argue that our trouble stems from fundamentalist thinking that makes people unable to see any merit in opposing points of view or to consider weaknesses in their own. “That fundamentalism,” they write,
has infected not only our politics, but also many other areas of thought. Not so long ago, it seemed as if ‘grand narratives,’ … as Jean-Francois Lyotard observed, was over. No longer would people rush to adopt theories that explain everything…. Also, not so long ago, it was an unchallenged commonplace that cultures are undergoing a far-reaching secularization that, in spite of occasional resistance, is unstoppable. The rise of militant Islam, and what some have termed ‘fundamentalist Hinduism’ have called the ‘secularization thesis’ into question. Where are the inevitabilities of yesteryear?
As Morson and Schapiro view matters, people are increasingly prone to categorical thinking that explains everything in terms of some essential text or belief system. They only see confirming evidence for their opinions and treat those who disagree as evil persons who must be squelched.
Nor is that cast of mind limited to supposedly backward segments of society. Bear in mind that the authors are at one of our prestigious, extremely selective educational institutions. Here’s what they say.
In our classes, we have seen students who adopt fundamentalist ways of thinking almost by default: not as a choice, but because they imagine that is just what thinking is. These students seem genuinely surprised that there are situations where one cannot find a uniquely correct answer, where one needs to make choices under uncertainty, and where those who recommend a different course of action might turn out to be right.
In short, many of the “best and brightest” young Americans exhibit fundamentalist habits of mind.
The academic world, the authors lament, has been falling more and more into fundamentalist thinking. There, it is often a “negative fundamentalism,” where the possibility of knowledge is dismissed and those who claim to have some are treated with disdain. “There is such a thing a missionary nihilism,” they write, “and the humanities have seen it.” Just so, and that’s a big reason why enrollments in the humanities have been dropping.
What are the indicators of fundamentalist thinking? Morson and Schapiro point to several.
First, there is some canonical writing that is regarded as inerrant, such as the Bible, the Koran, Das Kapital, or some tract proclaiming imminent environmental apocalypse. The answers to all questions can be found in them, provided you look long enough. Second, the true believers dismiss any counter-arguments as the result of evil motives, mental illness, “false consciousness,” or some other defect. That protects the believers against any doubts about their belief system. Third, fundamentalists engage in assertion and avoid dialogue. They declare that certain things must be regarded as true, rather than arguing from evidence and logic. When fundamentalist perspectives clash, the result almost inevitably is violence.
So far, so good. Fundamentalist systems are atavistic. If humans hadn’t largely broken free of fundamentalism over the last 500 years or so, our lives would still be, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, solitary, brutish, and short.” Peace and progress depend on rationalism; fundamentalism gets in the way. An attack on it is much needed.
Part of the problem?
Sadly, there’s a gigantic mistake in Minds Wide Shut — its condemnation of “market fundamentalism” as one of the causes of our growing antagonism. Morson and Schapiro write,
There are those whose faith in free markets is absolute and unwavering. To them, the role of government should be as small as possible, limited to such things as establishing and protecting property rights, which a market needs to function, and to providing “public” goods and internalizing externalities, called for by market theory itself.
Of course, there are people who argue for that position, myself included. They do not, however, base their conclusions on fundamentalist beliefs, but instead on carefully devised and well-supported arguments. The authors point to no instances at all where a pro-market or government-skeptic economist asserted that some policy must be changed because it was inconsistent with his or her “faith” in markets. Advocates of free trade, for example, do not stake their position on the mere fact that Adam Smith favored it.
This article was originally published in the August 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.