Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

You made it all up ! "Fundamentalism vs liberalism" part 1

In my first entry in this series, You made it all up ! "Original sin", I explained how belief systems rely on a skewed vision of human nature in order to make people believe in the imaginary need they fulfill. The typical case of this is "original sin", which states that humans are inherently evil and worthy of eternal torment, and thus need Christianity. But this fundamental concept applies to any belief system.

In this entry I want to look at the issue of how belief systems condition the believer to deal with competing beliefs. This is not an issue for rational positions such as science, in which theoretically any proposition can be accepted as long as it is demonstrated by a rigorous empirical process. There is a specific kind of process to be followed to prove that something corresponds to an objective reality, and anything that does not follow this kind of process is not "doing science".

For belief systems, this is a problem, since there is no objective reality. It's all made up (hence the title). This is most eloquently demonstrated by the fact that while science unifies, religion divides - and sects keep multiplying under normal circumstances. So belief systems evolve mechanisms by which competing belief systems are rejected or absorbed, dealt with in some way.

There are two general categories of such mechanisms :

* The quality of "intolerence", which I prefer to call fidelity - more specifically, the rejection of beliefs which do not fit a rigidly-defined set of constraints. The typical example of fidelity defense is fundamentalist Christianity, where any belief which does not fit the person's strict model of Christianity is attacked.

Note that I don't deny that fundamentalist Christianity also evolves in time, like any other meme system, but I'm looking here specifically at the defenses that a belief system deploys at a given point in time.

* The quality of "tolerence", which I call framework-building - which neutralizes other belief systems by portraying them as being on equal footing under a bigger framework. This may seem complex, so here's an easy example : liberal Christians do not attack Islam, Judaism or Buddhism, because they see all other religions as being on an equal footing under the bigger framework of "god-belief" (Buddhists don't really believe in gods, but no one knows that anyway). The liberal strands of these religions do not see each other as competitors, therefore they are no longer competing beliefs. They in fact reinforce each other under the "god-belief" tent, further legitimizing religious oppression.

So fidelity and framework-building are both ways to preserve the belief system, the former by rejecting all other belief systems, and the latter by accepting them in a larger framework. Each has its advantages and inconvenients. Fidelity preserves the individual memes better, framework-building ensures adaptability of the system as a whole. They are not exclusive, although obviously a fundamentalist Christian would be less likely to participate in framework-building, and a liberal Christian would be less likely to be dogmatic. A belief system needs both approaches to survive - a belief system which varies wildly would be unrecognizable quickly, and a belief system which is not adaptable at all would quickly die after any social change.

They obviously don't work all the time. People do deconvert from belief systems. And while it is very difficult to live in a dogmatic society, I think it is also difficult to get out of a system where you don't really care about right or wrong. Insofar as liberal Christians have a less defined sense of truth or morality, it is probably harder for someone coming from that perspective to take a stance against the fundamental evils of religion. Of course, such an attitude requires doctrine-belief independence, which is an essential element for religion to be adaptable.

Go to part 2.

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