The Plank

Atheism, Religion, And Fundamentalism

In reviewing a new collection of essays by Timothy Garton Ash, John Gray writes:

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the
biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the
parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was
secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an
Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And
yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine
faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever
committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure,
unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty
much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the
world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.

Gray's piece, from The New Statesman, is critical of Garton Ash for a number of reasons, but this particular criticism seems, er, particularly wrong-headed. Whether or not Lenin and Mao (and it is of interest that Gray deploys Lenin rather than Stalin here) were "avowed" disciples of an Enlightenment ideology is beside the point. The real question is whether they practiced what Gray calls "Enlightenment values." And the clear answer to that question is no. But Gray makes the leap from one to the other--while admitting that perhaps they "misapplied" the values of the Enlightenment--without seeming to realize that this renders his argument moot. (Also, the opposite of religious fundamentalism in this case is not
secularism, but atheism. Mao was not a early version of Richard Dawkins. And more importantly, Mao did not kill in the name of atheism). Gray also writes:

Although they are often intolerant, today’s evangelists for secular
humanism do not preach or practise violence. As [Garton Ash] puts it, “there are
no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north
Oxford”.

But he concludes by saying:

If Garton Ash is reluctant to talk of Enlightenment fundamentalism,
this may be in part because it suggests that we are at risk of drifting
into an intractable conflict. Yet clearly the danger of clashing
fundamentalisms is real.

It is unfortunate that Gray does not allow his telling confession about "al-Darwinia brigades"  to preclude this final thought. Until the moment arrives when we actually do begin to fear "Al-Darwini" brigades, it is premature to talk about a clash of fundamentalisms. 

--Isaac Chotiner

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