How Do We Address Fundamentalism?

I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in the last week about a bunch of apparently disparate topics that have a single common denominator.

Last Tuesday, while Rachael and I were coping with the inconvenience that comes from an ice storm in Georgia that knocks out your power for most of the day, I came across a great article discussing the state of mind of contemporary evangelicalism and making a case that the movement has a lot in common with nineteenth century liberalism (this is a school of theological thought, not a contemporary political ideology), and I was particularly struck by an idea that it offered that evangelicals exist within a mindset that they are fighting against modernist thought through their theological positions while being unaware that they can’t possibly escape their inherent modernism resulting from the peculiarity of when and where they are living in time and culture.  It’s a good article, and you should go read it.

Then on Friday, Fred Clark at Slacktivist began a three post series discussing a point of contention he has with the otherwise excellent longform article by Graeme Wood at The Atlantic about the theological motivations of the Islamic State (these are all excellent reads, and you should read them as well if you have the time and inclination).  Clark’s primary point is that the Islamic State is fundamentalist in relation to the rest of Islam in a manner similar to how adherents of the eschatology presented in the Left Behind series of books are fundamentalist in relation to the rest of Christianity (I’m more educated about varieties of Christianity than I am about varieties of Islam, so I apologize to anyone for whom I’m oversimplifying the relationship between the Islamic State and the rest of Islam or undersimplifying the relationship between one particular kind of Christian fundamentalism with the rest of Christianity).  The most salient point to take from the comparison is that any kind of fundamentalism will claim stronger legitimacy than its related, more moderate, ideologies, but the rest of us are making a mistake in judgment if we allow that claim to stand unchallenged (let alone for now the problem that more moderate ideologies will tend to not jump in on the “No True Scotsman” action, and thereby lose the rhetorical advantage of a really stupid fallacy).

After reading all that, I then began thinking about GamerGate, because it’s a topic of frequent derision in my Twitter feed (and rightfully so), and it occurred to me that GamerGaters are falling into the same intellectual patterns as religious fundamentalists.  I regret that I’ve lost the link to an article that made a pretty compelling argument that GamerGate is a manifestation of current politically conservative ideology, but given the strong connection that conservatism in America has with Christian fundamentalism, that idea seems like an apropos one.  More recently, in a similar vein, there was this article from VG24/7 discussing the fact that some game developers have started actively trying to shame gaming news outlets for discussing all the horribleness surrounding GamerGate; there’s something in the way this insistence that problematic elements of the community be downplayed that resonates with the idea of fundamentalists being given legitimacy simply because they say they’re more legitimate than everyone else speaking a different vision than them.

I’ve been pondering all these threads and wondering what connects them, and I think it goes to something that Cara Ellison, a writer on sex and video games (sometimes even at the same time!), tweeted this week in response to the Mark Kern story:

Replace the phrase “videogame” with Christian or Muslim and you get a similar vibe.

The thing I’m trying to get at is that fundamentalist groups have a tendency to be obsessed with exclusivity to the point of saying that no one outside of their purview can claim a similar identity.  The Islamic State engages in takfir (excommunication) of Muslims who disagree with them, Christian fundamentalists are fond of saying that only they have a claim on Real True Christianity (to borrow a phrase from Fred Clark), and GamerGaters (along with many others in gaming) obsess over the difference between a “hardcore” gamer and everyone else.  These distinctions are largely pointless and fail to acknowledge the much broader spectrum of opinions contained within any of the larger identities of Muslim, Christian, or gamer.

So how do we deal with the fundamentalists?  Often these people represent an extreme portion of the community, and their extremism is built on the self-concept that they are infallibly right in their opinion.  Very often, arguing with any of these people directly is pointless, and in many situations can actually end up being harmful.

I think the ultimate solution is more about educating people outside of fundamentalism rather than trying to persuade people within fundamentalism.  We have to address others who don’t understand that fundamentalists really are an extreme group within a larger community, and they really have no greater claim to legitimacy than any other group.  If we can teach people about that important difference, then fundamentalists will gradually lose their grip on the popular narrative of what it means to belong to a given group.  People of faith do not have to be antiquarians who want to return to an imagined golden era and are willing to enforce barbaric rules in order to achieve that end, and gamers do not have to be misogynist manchildren who throw temper tantrums when people who don’t look like them want to engage with their hobby as well.

What about you?  Do you have any other thoughts on how people can reduce the influence of fundamentalist narratives on popular thought?

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