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Morality and Fundamentalism

July 27, 2014

On my morning walk, I found myself thinking about morality and fundamentalism.  I was wondering why we do certain things and refrain from other things, as well as how this related to fundamentalist movements.  Usually, I’m watching birds, rabbits, and squirrels, but this was different.  A few months ago, I had read Karen Armstrong‘s book The Battle for God.  Its subtitle was Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Perhaps that was the reason.

Morality is important to all of us.  All religious texts contain rules of morality.  An obvious example is the Hebrew bible, known as the Christian old testament.  It includes the ten commandments of Moses, beginning with “Thou shalt not kill”.  The Christian bible, the new testament, likewise provides moral instructions in the sermon on the mount and many other places.

Morality is simply a set of rules for getting along with other people.  This includes your family, your tribe, and your society.  It may not extend to other societies, enemies, or groups that are deemed evil, terrorist, or immoral.  Morality is something that all of us learned while we grew up.  To reinforce it, we might be praised or denounced by our family or honoured or punished by our society.  If I beat up my little brother, my mother would be angry with me.  I’d get the message pretty quickly.  I’d be unlikely to kill someone in my family, but I likely heard about somebody in my society who killed another person.  Society would exact punishment.  I’d get that message pretty quickly too.

While we were growing up and learning morality, we also developed concepts of right and wrong, or good and evil, based on following the rules of morality or violating them.  These concepts, as well as morality itself, were generally the same as in the scriptures.  Of course, they do change with time; moral behavior of 2000 years ago is not the same as moral behavior today.  There is also a trend to expand morality to include more groups of people, even those traditionally considered as enemies.

There’s also a complicating factor:  all religious texts contain contradictions.  The Hebrew bible, for example, contains both the ten commandments and a set of instruction on how to attack an enemy city.  It tells you to kill all the men, rape all the women, steal all the gold, and enslave all the children.  The two sections are clearly in conflict.  Likewise, there are two different and contradictory creation myths in Genesis.  The conflicting accounts may have been written in completely different circumstances, have a different scope, or may have been written by different authors.  These conflicts are one reason why religious texts always require interpretation.

Therefore, it’s important to heed religious scholars.  They are the ones who know how to interpret scriptures.  Their accumulated knowledge and experience may be called scholarship, received wisdom, or the teachings of the church.  In any case, it’s valuable and worth considering.

Religious fundamentalism implies a return to the original principles of a religion.  The leaders are looking to scriptures for moral guidance.  Karen Armstrong’s book shows that when a group is suppressed, it can become a fundamentalist group.  Recent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, have read their religious text in jail, making their own interpretation of it.  Of course, this interpretation is one that’s appropriate for people who are under threat by the government.  Fundamentalists also ignore the religious scholars or rebel against them.  When they are opposed by moderates, they feel even more threatened, and can become militants.  They can even find moral permission to force religious conversions and to kill non-believers.  Are you thinking of Islamic militants now?  Remember that Christians did this too.  That was the whole purpose of the Spanish Inquisition.

Still, I enjoyed my morning walk.  Like a dream, my thoughts seemed more clear and complete than they do now.  I hope I at least recalled the gist of it.


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