By John M. Vella Chronicles
by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro
Princeton University Press
336 pp., $29.95
Fundamentalism has long been considered a religious phenomenon, a narrowmindedness that only afflicts Bible-thumping extremists. Yet fundamentalist thinking is everywhere today, and leads naturally to the authoritarian mind and the one-party state.
Despite the use of fundamentalism as a derisive term, Morson and Schapiro avoid tearing into religious conservatives in their new book. The real danger, they think, resides elsewhere, particularly in left-wing political parties and movements that seek power through violence and intimidation. They describe a society wracked by polarization, unwilling to compromise over civil disagreement. Anyone who does not follow a party line is thought to be “willfully stupid or deliberately malicious.” If legitimate disagreement is not allowed and learning from each other is impermissible, “there is no reason not to have a one-party state.”
According to Morson and Schapiro, a fundamentalist believes in his infallibility. “Positive fundamentalism” purports to know all the answers, while “negative fundamentalism” confidently denies the possibility of answers. The latter dominates university English departments. The result is a “radical simplification of complex questions and the inability to learn … from experience.”
Where the fundamentalist mind takes hold, the authors write, there can be no principled middle ground. Undoubtedly fundamentalists accuse moderates of being lukewarm, yet there are times when moderation is not a suitable response to serious threats to vital institutions. While the authors rightly believe moral certainty can lead to crying injustice, it can also rally people of good will against injustice.
Minds Wide Shut issues a devastating indictment of the ideological extremism so characteristic of fundamentalism. Ideologues are not open to correction: “The more extreme the theory, the less is disconfirmation possible.” Extreme ideas cause extreme outcomes. Moreover, policy failures justify more of the same, for those who consider themselves infallible will never admit failure. They believe their ideology is scientific but, in truth, it is only one of many modern pseudosciences.
Religious fundamentalists thought their arguments against German higher criticism of the Bible were scientific when they were not. Marxists, Freudians, and social Darwinists also mistook ideology for science in the early part of the 20th century.
The authors understand pseudoscience as a God substitute. Essentially, the pseudoscience advances moral values under the guise of facts. It seeks to displace religion by doing what genuine science cannot: answer questions of meaning. The root fallacy, according to our authors, is imagining that one system answers all questions.