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How the West leads the fight against itself

How the West leads the fight against itself

by John Carroll

Sydney Morning Herald
March 28, 2005

Fundamentalism, secular or religious, is a creation of the modern, humanist world, writes John Carroll.

The principal motive for the rise of fundamentalisms in recent decades - Islamic, Christian and Jewish - is a reaction against modernity. That is Western modernity, which combines the material progress that has been generated by capitalist industrialisation and the humanist culture that framed it.

The provocation has been the nihilistic consequences of humanism. A movement that started in the Renaissance with the ambition of founding a human-centred view of existence, to replace the religious one that had preceded it, failed to find its own answer to the great metaphysical questions that confront all humans: where do I come from, what should I do with my life, and what happens to me at death. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that with the "death of God" the truth about existence has become that life is either absurd or horrible. He satirised the modern individual as the "last man", whose only interest in life is his digestion; that is, comfort.

Nietzsche's bleak view has been projected ever since in countless works of literature, art and music, depicting the human condition as meaningless and depressive - Hamlet's "sterile promontory". The theme also emerged that if death has no sense - merely a biological event ending in rot and stink - then neither does life.

Nihilism - the belief that there is nothing - is the inevitable end point of the humanist cultural experiment. Needless to say, humans cannot live with the ultimate conclusion that this is all there is. So humanist modernity has generated a range of reactions against itself. Fundamentalism is one.

From believing in nothing there is a leap to the opposite - fanatical attachment to a body of doctrine that is claimed to be absolute and universal, the word of God himself, spoken directly through one or other of his chosen prophets. Sigmund Freud would have included this reaction under his psychological category of "negation" - where fear that I believe nothing surfaces as its opposite, dogmatic assertiveness that I know the one Truth. And it is the case that people who deeply know what they know are usually relaxed in themselves, feeling no need to assert their faith. The need to convince others cloaks a need to convince oneself. It is insecurity about belief that triggers intolerant dogma, as defence. Fundamentalism is a symptom of fragile faith.

To generalise the point - all churches that take to creeds and doctrine, as is their inner tendency, are themselves defending against their own lack of trust in their foundations. Fundamentalism is merely the general church orientation magnified. And, the argument concludes, the more aggressive the assertion of belief, the more insecure the foundation.

There is plausibility to the sociological caricature of anomic life in the modern city. The lonely, anonymous individual lost in the metropolis, with a job that brings little fulfilment, intimacies that tend to be half-hearted and fleeting, finds his or her endemic anxiety anaesthetised by a cornucopia of consumption. The restless mind may be distracted in luxury apartments furnished from Ikea, and ever-new gadgets; in orgiastic sport, nightclubs and a permanent banquet of foods, drinks and drugs; in a wealth of intellectual fads supplied in the new-age supermarket. In this context, the most tempting of antidotes is certainty. In particular, what beckons is the certainty provided by belonging to a strong community with fixed boundaries, and the certainty of dogmatic, unquestioned belief.

The mainstream Christian churches with their liberal attitudes, their tolerance of just about anybody and anything, seem like pale and ineffectual offshoots of nihilist humanism. It is little wonder that it is Pentecostalist churches that are growing, with their combination of vital contemporary music and fundamentalist views on scripture and morals. Likewise, liberal and secular Judaism has spawned a fundamentalist reaction.

Fundamentalist Islam brings with it an additional, potent ingredient - power envy. As the foremost Western scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, put it in his book What Went Wrong? the Muslim world spent 500 years in economic and social stagnation, watching the West remorselessly increasing in wealth and global power. Napoleon conquered Egypt; the Ottoman Empire collapsed; tiny Israel defeated much larger Arab powers; and Western taste and values pervade the Middle East.

Osama bin Laden combines fundamentalist belief with a mania for destruction. His motivation is revealed in his lack of any inclination to rebuild Muslim societies - his focus is single-mindedly on damaging the West. His targets on September 11, 2001, were not religious sites, but the centres of American power. He has Western counterparts. In literature, the charismatic leader in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and his reworking in the film Fight Club, both find their last pleasure in an orgy of destruction. The same was true for Hitler and Stalin, both products of nihilist Western modernity, who took to two secular fundamentalisms: fascism and communism.

Lewis argues that the fatal flaw in Islam has been its xenophobia, its refusal to open itself to the benefits of humanism. It has closed its mind to modern science, and the entire spirit of inquiry that has driven Western progress. It has likewise closed itself off from the one cultural achievement of humanism, its positive, the Enlightenment belief in universal human rights, and the practical implementation of this belief in liberal-democratic political orders.

Fundamentalisms, in general, are illiberal. In flight from humanist nihilism, they also reject humanist tolerance.

The West continues itself to generate a range of secular fundamentalisms, ones without the horror effects of 20th-century totalitarianism. There are fanatical greenies who believe that to damage one tree is to poison the Garden of Eden. There is a virulent new anti-Americanism. There is self-righteous hatred of one political leader or another, imagining they will bring on social corruption, even the end of the world, if they remain in power.

Fundamentalism today is one of humanism's pathologies. It is a creation of the West and will continue as long as we fail to rediscover from within our own culture persuasive answers to the central metaphysical questions. Without such answers we humans cannot live.

John Carroll is professor of sociology at La Trobe University. This article was originally published in the Griffith Review: The Lure of Fundamentalism (ABC Books).


Morals compel us to favour life over death

By Edward Spence

March 28, 2005

The Schiavo case is not clear cut, writes Edward Spence.

Should Terri Schiavo live or die? Since she is unable to make that decision herself, the courts have finally decided to let her die by removing her feeding tube. Ironically, had she been able to make that request herself, it might have been denied on the grounds that euthanasia in the United States, as in most countries, is illegal.

Underlying the two opposing positions in the debate are two metaphysical systems that we inherited from the Greek philosophers Plato and Epicurus, and that subsequently found expression in the scientific method of the 16th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes.

On the one hand, the materialist perspective claims that a person, as defined by their individual thoughts and emotions, is reducible to their brain, so that when the brain is irrevocably damaged, so is the person. On the other hand, the dualistic Platonic, and now religious and Christian, view is that people are more than just their brains.

According to this perspective, a person has an immaterial mind or soul that cannot simply be reduced to the activity of their brain or their body. Being immaterial, the mind or soul, according to this metaphysical perspective, can survive not only complete brain damage but even death itself. Thus when the brain is damaged, as in Schiavo's case, the core personality can stay intact.

Somewhere between these two extreme positions lies a third, moderate position. For convenience of reference, I will refer to it as the Spinozian perspective, after the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza.

This position essentially claims that although the brain's function is necessary to account for personality, it is not sufficient. Although some, if not most, of a person's personality can be accounted for and explained through brain activity alone, not all of it can. There persists a qualitative conscious remainder that brain and bodily activity alone cannot account for.

This qualitative conscious remainder is what each of us subjectively feels in being the unique person we are. It is a personal consciousness that cannot be reduced to, or explained by, mere neurological and other material functionings of the brain - at least not yet.

According to this perspective, given that Schiavo is not brain dead but in a wakeful vegetative state, there is at least a possibility, albeit small, that she is still functioning as a person. That possibility cannot be excluded merely on the basis that her brain is severely damaged. Since there is no conclusive or even compelling evidence for either the materialist or Platonic positions, Schiavo's case is not as clear-cut as the combatants have been arguing.

This should give us pause to consider the wisdom of the moderate Spinozian position; namely, that personality is not and cannot be completely exhausted by a mere account of brain activity.

Evidence within the personal experience of the conscious perspective of each person refuses this crude reduction. Thus, if there is a slight possibility that Schiavo is still minimally functioning as a conscious person (since she is not brain dead), and given that she is not suffering by being kept alive, she should, on the balance of probability, be kept alive.

In life and death situations such as this, we should err on the side of life over death, at least until more conclusive evidence concerning the irreversibility of her condition becomes known. We are not able to know, as she cannot tell us, if Schiavo would prefer to live or die. As she cannot inform us, we do not know if her condition is undermining her dignity to such a degree that she would rather die than live.

If she could tell us, Schiavo might well choose to stay alive in the hope that she might recover. This is speculative, but so is the opposing materialist view which insists that her case is so physically irrevocable that none of her personality worth saving is present, and therefore she is better off dead. What we do know for certain is that if she were allowed to die from medically induced starvation, she would suffer harm through death. If in doubt, as we ought to be in the Schiavo case, we should remain sceptical and err on the side of life.

Dr Edward Spence is a moral philosopher at the School of Communication and Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University.

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