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The fundamental flaw of fundamentalist reasoning

Summary

Fundamentalist reasoning is based on interpretation of texts perceived as holy and directly derived from God or a source equivalent in being exempt from criticism or doubt.

However, it is possible to show that the basic fundamentalist habit of justifying acts by referring to these texts or revelations is itself fundamentally flawed. The fundamentalist reasoning that condemns non-fundamentalist (“heretic”) actions can itself be condemned (or, in this context, better named “invalidated”) based on exactly the same reasoning. So either the non-fundamentalistic reasoning, or the fundamentalistic reasoning itself, leads to the same result when rigorously applied. Both lead to invalidation of the fundamentalistic approach. This is called the fundamental flaw in fundamentalist reasoning.

Of course this does not invalidate fundamentalistic actions as such. Terrorist attacks, murders, sabotages, will not be invalidated by the exposure of this flaw. These actions can however no longer be attributed to fundamentalistic ideology, not by the perpetrators themselves, but, more importantly, neither by the victims or opponents. The sole incentive for these actions can then be correctly perceived as coming from fear, collective anger, injustice, poverty, misuse of power, or other socio-political factors. Thus it can be seen as “illness” instead of “evil”. The “war against terrorism” can be unmasked as an ideology as “fundamentalist” as the enemy they appear to be fighting against.

Most texts dealing with what is perceived as the “fundamentalist problem” employ a different line of reasoning. Their arguments, as can be found in many articles, are based on a different mindset than the fundamentalist one. It cannot be used in debate with so-called fundamentalists, because it is based on exactly the same axioms the fundamentalist approach denounces. In this text we do not employ this reasoning technique but we use the reasoning used by fundamentalists themselves to expose the fundamental flaw.

This is not to say that we expect any discussion between a non-fundamentalist and a fundamentalist to lead to results when the non-fundamentalist uses the arguments presented here. Instead, this article aims to help the non-fundamentalist show where the path lies that will lead to results. It is not in the arguments of the believer based on his or hers holy texts and we should not try to decipher these arguments or counter them. This article only aims to help clear the view, and avoid useless discussions.

There is no evil. There is no enemy. If we are bent on identifying an enemy, it will be a shock to see that when the veil has been torn from the enemy’s face, the face is our own.

The fundamentalist sources

There are three world faiths that lay a strong emphasis on written texts that are strongly equivalent. These are the Jewish, Christian and Moslem faiths. For the Jews it is the Torah, for the Christians the Bible, and for the Moslems the Quran. These texts have much in common. This is not to say that only these faiths have such texts, and are therefore more susceptible to fundamentalism, but they are merely mentioned here as an example.

These texts are considered “holy” in the sense that they are a “direct” representation of the words of God. It is as if these texts are spoken by the god itself. In that sense these texts are treated with the same devotion and respect as the holy being itself.

These texts themselves are an interesting subject of research. The texts show the spirit of the times and it has been categorically proven that they have changed over time. Taken solely for their historical value, these texts provide an interesting subject for research. However, due to the claims that they have been derived from the holy source makes their analysis through scientific approach limited.

The story of how the written Torah has come to be can serve as an illustration. In general we claim it can be proved that it is physically impossible for any text to be completely uncorrupted. On the other hand, if argued that the holy being itself took responsibility or action to ensure this purity, it can be proved that the actions based in these texts are not valid themselves, by the very admittance that this holy being is capable or willing to take action directly in the world (as is necessary to create these texts in the first place, and for protecting these texts from corruption).

The Torah is a text based on centuries of exclusively oral tradition. In fact, there was a strong belief among orthodox Jews that it was “wrong” to fix the oral tradition into written text. Whole generations of rabbis were trained to learn the Torah by heart, using techniques of mnemonics well-known at the time, to ensure that the texts were propagated without changes. We do not claim that oral tradition in any way would be less trustworthy than written tradition because we are aware of the efficiency of the memory techniques employed (see The Art of Memory).

The decision to entrust this tradition to written text was not made lightly. It was the wish of Alexander the Great, imposed on the Jews, allegedly against their will. The story goes he appointed a group of seventy (hence the name “Septuagint”) rabbis. For the Jewish religion, this work was of seminal importance. It is generally believed that without this Greek translation of an until-then oral tradition, the Jewish religion would have perished like most of the other beliefs of Semitic tribes. This originating region of the Middle East is sometimes even referred to as a breeding ground of monotheist sects.

However, it is important to realise that this “translation” came to light under highly suspicious circumstances.

In the first place, it is unclear who really wanted this translation. It seems clear that the translation was requested by the Macedonian rulers of Alexandria who spoke Greek, and that they wanted this translation for their famous Alexandrian Library. There is also a theory that many Jews were Greek-ised and wanted to use the holy texts in the Greek language. This has always struck me as a rather bizarre theory, because one of the main characteristics of Jews throughout the ages has been their fervent adherence to the Hebrew language, and I find it rather improbable that the Alexandrian Jews allowed intimate knowledge of their language to wither.

The fact remains, however, that a large number of translators, employed by the Greek rulers and based in Egypt, were set to a task that to many Jewish people was anathema: the fixture of oral tradition. Many scholars agree that the resulting text was not unscathed in the process. The role of Egypt in the history of the Jews was censored, for example. Whether the translation was really done by seventy-two translators representing the tribes of the Jews, in seventy-two days, or whether many more translators have worked on it over a much longer period, does not refute the conclusion that the text cannot possibly have survived the translation without flaws, if only because it was not a transcription of the text in Hebrew, but a translation. And even more shocking is the fact that the translation, not the original (oral) Hebrew, was the source for the books known as the Torah today, and responsible for the perishing of the oral tradition. The Torah as we know it today is nothing more than another translation of the Greek into Hebrew. Even more conspicuous is the fact that this translation has been handicapped from the beginning by the fact that the translation omitted to add the vowels in the language. It is an attribute of all Semitic languages that they are built upon a foundation of consonants only. For example a English word written as “ns” could be interpreted as meaning “nice”, “niece”, “nose” etc.

Now, none of these arguments are meant to discredit the Torah or the Jewish tradition itself. These arguments are sometimes used with this purpose, for example by the Muslim pundits to “prove” that the Islam faith is “better” than the Jewish faith.

Such a debate is pointless. One side will never reconcile themselves to the arguments of the other. The basic truth that both sides try to avoid in these discussions is that both are prone to corruption. Neither the Hebrew texts, nor the Arabic texts of the Quran, can possibly be uncorrupted by the scribes or translators in the process. Also the origin of the Quran is increasingly shown to have been as susceptible to political shaping as the other texts, and we have recently seen a resurgence of publications on this matter.

Once this fact is accepted by the parties involved, we can take the next step in understanding, which follows later in this treatise.

Direct divine intervention

It has often been debated by fundamentalist readers of the holy texts that the holy being itself took direct action to ensure that the text could not possibly have become corrupted. In fact many of the stories surrounding the coming into existence of these texts contain extensive “proofs” of this. For example the sheets on which the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith were made of indestructible material. The Quran was directly dictated by the archangel Gabriel.

This argument seems perfectly reasonable. However, it creates a fundamental conflict which is not easily resolved. The issue of direct divine intervention has been discussed throughout the ages in several of the world faiths, and continues to be so.

Let us see if we can shed some light on this issue. The starting point seems to be in the divine being taking direct action in the world. Is this something that is as simple as it seems? After all, the creation of the holy texts themselves cannot be anything but an example of this direct intervention.

Direct intervention in the creation of the holy texts themselves is however seldom what we are being told. Always there seems to be an “intermediate”, a messenger, or a series of messengers. Even the so-called direct conversations with God (Abraham and the blackberry bush, Mohammed in the wilderness near Mecca) are argued to be held not with the supreme being itself, but with an intermediate, an angel or its equivalent.

Direct intervention creates a problematic tension with “free will” or the problem of choice and conscience. All faiths emphasise the necessity for human beings to be “good”, however defined by their canon of faith. Since it seems obvious that the choice for good does often not lead to visible rewards in this life, most faiths have declared that, yes, there will be a reward (and conversely, punishment for the deviants) but in the “life hereafter” or any equivalent state which cannot possibly be linked by us mortals to the current condition.

A strange and somewhat symptomatic tension exists also between the innate desire to do or be “good”, and the doing of “good” as a result of fear for punishment in whatever form. Most faiths acknowledge the existence of both as a drive for good. They do not often see its coexistence as a basic incompatibility or source of conflict however. This issue is important, but will not be explored in this article.

So we have these two basic facts upon which agreement can be established:

  1. direct intervention is possible, however rare
  2. if intervention is deduced, there is a reluctance to ascribe it to the supreme being itself, but instead to invoke an intermediate being.

Good and “evil”

The previous chapter concluded with the observation of a general reluctance to accept direct intervention from the supremely divine. This is very interesting.

Why is it that all faiths have such reluctance? The problem is that there is no way to distinguish genuinely divine intervention from “fake” intervention, or even “evil” intervention. It is possible to show that there is no rational difference, for the sake of this argument, between “good” or “evil” intervention, so let us focus on the “good” and the “fake”. What incentive do we have to believe that the revelations given to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel are indeed what they claim to be? What possible justification can we find for this? Why can it not be that Mohammed was an inspired and gifted individual, faced with seemingly daunting problems of Arabic tribes fruitlessly fighting each other, so that any improvement of the quality of life (let alone the accumulation of wealth or power in a select group…) was impossible to achieve? To take this a step further: how is it that some of these individuals ended up being proclaimed “prophets” and others as “lunatics”?

For the Jews there is no discussion about this. Jesus may be seen as a prophet both by the Jews and the Muslims, but certainly the Jews are not willing to accept that Mohammed was a prophet, and most certainly not that he was the last and definitive one, as the Muslims believe. Can this be because the Jews have no direct profit from the Muslim faith and the Arab’s have? But let us not bow to cheap arguments, but try to stay focussed on an impartial and sound investigation of the problem.

What incentive do we have to accept any claim for a divine source as genuine?

If we are willing to face this question with an open mind, not daunted by fear of corruption of our faith but instead sure that we will be enlightened if driven by honesty and good will, the answer will appear to be very simple indeed.

The answer is:

We have no incentive at all to accept any source as divine. Nor is this acceptance in any way a requirement for the propagation of “good”. There is no need for this incentive.

This is a deceptively simple statement, but one, we believe, with profound implications. It can pave the way for ecumenical dialogue between any of the world faiths, or in fact with any belief system that includes some state of divinity or spiritual aspects of reality. The fact is that these belief systems have, for the individual or group employing them, a tremendous power. This power is so immense, we believe, that it can topple the powers that be, that it can change the future in a fundamental way, that it can literally perform miracles. To underestimate this power is fatal, to deny its existence even more. What is needed, to enter the future with confidence, is the willingness to employ this power to the full, to accept the need for human beings to be filled with its “holy fire”, and forge it into a tool to unite mankind instead of divide it.

The conclusion formulated here does not mean to be a justification of some nihilistic belief system, in which any belief or statement can be incorporated because “it does not matter if it is true or not”. It only states that for any act to be classified as “good” there is no need for justification based on holy texts or any “blessing” by officially appointed religious authorities. Or, in other words, that the very existence of such justification does in no way guarantee that the belief or statement is “good”.

Footnote

The method of reasoning I attempt to apply in this article is derived from General Semantics. There are various books that I would like to refer to if you are interested in this. The use of language is one of the subjects General Semantics tries to address.

Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (International Non-Aristotelian Library)

Using Language

Language in Thought and Action

Finally a book I considered to be a real find. In The Art of Memory British anthropologist Frances Yates re-discovered the ancient art of memory, which sheds a interesting light upon the role of mnemonics in the dispersion of religions and cultures. Please also read my article on The Importance of Metaphors. For some reason this commonly known technique has perished relatively recently, making us more and more dependent from devices (from the printed book to the computer) to aid our memory.

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