[Paleopsych] TLS: Review of Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism

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The Times Literary Supplement, 4.7.9

    Bernice Martin

    FUNDAMENTALISM. The search for meaning. Malise Ruthven. 246pp. Oxford
    University Press. £12.99 (US $21). - 0 19 284091 6.

    Malise Ruthven's new book offers a popular overview of the debate
    about fundamentalism as "the major threat to world peace today". The
    author acknowledges the incoherence of the concept but conjures
    Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" to justify a disparate ragbag of
    "examples". He notes the origin of the term in rural and small-town
    American Protestantism's rejection of biblical criticism and Darwinian
    science in the 1920s and cites its recent (often politicized) use to
    label so-called revival movements in Islam and Judaism and, by ever
    more strained extension, in Buddhism, Hinduism and even the post-1960s
    new religious movements. Substantive chapters cover the effect of
    globalism in relativizing world views; the difficulty of reconciling
    literal readings with the principle of inerrancy in interpreting
    sacred texts; the fundamentalist desire to control women; and the
    relations between fundamentalism and nationalism. The author uses a
    narrow selection of sources and veers uncertainly between texts and
    social-scientific approaches.

    Certain hypotheses emerge. Fundamentalism is a doomed attempt to
    reinstate conditions in which faith is a "given", not undermined by
    "the scandal of difference". Fundamentalism collapses myth into
    history through a quasiscientific tendency to factualize and even
    enact eschatology. Fundamentalism's urge to control women is the
    rearguard action of a patriarchal order undermined by modernity.
    Paradoxes also abound. Women frequently welcome and benefit from
    fundamentalist movements. Equally serious scholars regard
    fundamentalism and nationalism both as incompatible and inseparable.
    Fundamentalism rejects modern values but welcomes modern technology.
    With the partial exception of the gender issue, these paradoxes fail
    to stir the author to deeper exploration.

    The real problem is the book's implicit premiss that all
    fundamentalisms are equally dangerous. Ruthven does not distinguish
    between movements on any systematic criteria or isolate the factors
    particularly associated with violence.

    The key is Ruthven's keenness to put the American religious Right in
    the dock alongside al-Qaeda and to represent Third World
    Pentecostalism and the "reactionary" wing of Catholicism as inherently
    "fascist", despite acknowledging that Christian fundamentalists have
    no ambition to impose a legal code comparable to sharia on democratic
    politics or proselytize by global terror. An author who truly wanted
    to know what turns faith murderous would have been more critical of
    his governing concept and methods of inquiry.

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