Once upon a time, in the land of the pure, I was a religious fundamentalist

Published: May 1, 2014
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The more you are exposed to a diversity of people, the more you broaden your mind and cease thinking in absolutes.

I have a mantra on life which I wish to share with all of you – ignorance restricts and breeds hatred and extremism, while knowledge liberates and breeds compassion and understanding. Fundamentalism stems from ignorance and thus, only breeds negativity. It is a venomous disease that kills positivity and growth. It needs to be identified and cured, on a very personal level.

As a Muslim, who had adopted a fundamentalist approach in his earlier days, I have come a long way by internalising a basic yet painful truth – I do not have all the answers, hence different points of view are not only necessary for my own growth and evolution, being the prime purpose of life, but respecting diversity is the only solution for progress and coexistence. I have come to realise that only those who hold a shallow outlook are afraid of diversity in thought, for it threatens ungrounded and un-researched prejudices and beliefs.

Bertrand Russell, puts it wisely as,

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts”.

So here are four factors that fuel religious fundamentalism:

1. Lack of independent study and exposure to different schools of thought

In my opinion, the biggest factor of fundamentalism and dogmatism is that most people do not critically examine the philosophy of life they profess to accept and believe in. Naively believing whatever is told to them by their family, friends and scholars, they lack the exposure to different schools of thought that have the tendency of humbling one’s self.

So, when their blind faith is threatened by an opposing point of view, such people, unable to prove their point by reasoning, resort to insults and bad language or in extreme cases, to violence in order to protect that belief and gain a feeling of supremacy and self-worth. This, in medical terms, is also known as cognitive dissonance.

2. Inconsistency in approach

Whether it be theism or atheism, dogmatism and fundamentalism exists on both sides of the coin. This is the bitter truth that I’ve observed over the years. One would expect atheists and ‘progressive religionists’ to be more open-minded towards those whose perspective differs from theirs, but unfortunately, this is not the case with all of them. Ironically, they become what they detest the most – hardliner preachers of their ‘religion’, looking down upon anyone and everyone who differs. Of course, I do not mean to imply that every atheist or theist behaves like that, which brings me to my next point of generalisations.

3. Generalisations and thinking in absolutes

Generalisations play a key role in fundamentalism and dogmatism – all Muslims are terrorists; all atheists are proud and arrogant; every black person is a thug; every white person a racist. Fundamentalists perceive everything in a black and white manner, refusing, or simply uninterested, to observe the many shades of grey within.

This, again, brings me back to my previous factor regarding exposure. The more you are exposed to a diversity of people, their way of living, their way of thinking, their way of worshiping (or the lack thereof), the more you broaden your mind and cease thinking in absolutes.

4. Possessing the key to ‘the sole truth’

Religionists are brought up believing that their path to God is the ‘only’ rightful path worthy of salvation, and hence, this brainwashing turns some, if not most, of them into bigots. For example, Atheists believe that atheism is the ‘only’ rational approach and such perspective turns some of them into bigots.

What needs to be eliminated is the personal belief of having a monopoly over the truth, even the idea of there being a sole truth out there. But it’s challenging because having a monopoly over truth and looking down upon others is a great boost for the ego and a major source of self-worth for some. In addition, this feeling of superiority, due to having the key to ‘the truth’, may well be the defining part of their personality, making it even harder for them to abolish this self-centred belief.

However, sincere people in all walks of life eventually realise the need for pluralism and tolerance. A sincere person analyses the contradictions in his own approach and works on continually reforming himself, instead of always finding faults with others. Such a person strives for consistency in approach. If he detests something in others, he makes it incumbent upon himself that that negative trait is not a part of his own personality. And when he does so, he automatically becomes more tolerant, more compassionate, more humble, and above all, he is able to acquire peace within himself which ultimately is the prime purpose of any philosophy of life. All in all, he is more interested in his own evolution instead of proving others wrong.

As Gandhi said,

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Rohail Waseem

Ro Waseem

The author is a Muslim who writes about Progressive Islam. He runs a weekly blog on Patheos (www.patheos.com/blogs/quranalyzeit) and has contributed some of his articles to Huffington Post, Onfaith, & Tikkun, among others. He tweets as @Quranalyzeit (twitter.com/quranalyzeit)

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