Fundamentalism & Science

It always struck me as weird that the Grace Brethren fundamentalists among whom I grew up tried so hard to make science serve religion. Even as as sixteen-year-old, it seemed to me that the preacher & the Sunday School teacher were covertly admitting defeat when they tried to square various scientific discoveries with a "literal" reading of the Christian Bible. That was before I had gone to college & discovered cultural relativism, that concept the Right loves to hate. This note concerning the flexibility of gender & sexual orientation advances the point. The two views of the world are incompatible & an honest fundamentalist should eschew all such failures of faith. I've got a lot more respect for the moral fiber of young earth creationists than I do for those who advance "intelligent design" theories of human origins. That said, all fundamentalisms, it seems to me, are what anthropologists like Janes C. Scott have called "weapons of the weak." Sabotage, malingering, humor directed against powerful bosses, but also various forms of language: slang, elaborate forms of vilification, double meanings in popular songs (blues, early rock), but also folk religions such as the Ghost Dance & the Cargo Cult. Many of these tools of resistance -- the blues developing from work songs & other sources -- are profoundly creative; but the same process can tip over into elaborate fantasies of explanation in the form of conspiracy theories. Such fantasies "explain everything" within a certain domain. Modern fundamentalist religions are elaborate, ritualized conspiracy theories that seek to explain everything within all domains. As a pragmatist, I don't actually believe that there is any especially privileged access to "objective reality": there are only more & less effective systems of language in the face of experience. (Western science is a particularly effective system of meaning, but it does not have a monopoly on human understanding.) Conspiracy theories (& fundamentalist religions) spring from a creative human source that seeks to create meaning in the face of chaos & suffering, but unlike the blues, for example, such systems of language abandon ambiguity, irony, & humor in a misplaced search for certainty. Apparently, based on the post above, Black talk radio in the US is congenial ground for such systems of language. This is not anything I know about first hand & I'd just observe that once such systems are established, they become easy tools of exploitation. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh stroke the conspiracy theories of his listeners. A weapon of the weak is turned into a weapon of the strong. What ought to unite the arts & the sciences in the modern world is a recognition of contingency.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

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