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Faith-Based Fascism Persists

Essay by Frank Zahn

The problem of religious or faith-based fascism persists. It is defined as attempts by theists to impose the dictates of their faith-based beliefs on others, including theists who hold alternative faith-based beliefs, atheists who reject all faith-based beliefs, and agnostics who neither accept nor reject but question faith-based beliefs. In order to understand the problem, it is helpful to clearly understand the distinctions between scientific or evidence-based knowledge and faith-based knowledge as well as the problem with the assumption of absolute certainty by culprit theists. Only then can people fully appreciate the importance of religious freedom, coupled with tolerance of diversity, as a solution to the problem.

To begin, there are two types of explanations: scientific and religious. Scientific explanations are called theories. By definition, theories are capable of falsification or disproof, that is, they are capable of being shown false or untrue. As such, theories are accepted on the basis of supporting evidence or rejected when the evidence is not supporting.

That said, however, theories are never accepted or rejected with absolute certainty. Doubt is always a factor because there is always some probability that evidence discovered today will no longer permit acceptance or rejection of a theory tomorrow. The history of science is one in which scientific theories are displaced by others over time. For example, the theory that the earth is the center of the solar system has been displaced the theory that the sun is the center.

Religious explanations are often called beliefs to distinguish them from theories. Unlike theories, beliefs are by definition not capable of falsification or disproof, that is, they are incapable of being shown false or untrue. As such, they are accepted by theists or rejected by atheists on the basis of faith. Some theists argue that beliefs are accepted on the basis of faith and confirmed by reason, but if the latter were possible, there would be no need for faith.

Although people who accept or reject religious explanations are prone to do so with claims of absolute certainty, doubt is a factor in religious investigation, acknowledged or not, just as it is in scientific investigation. Like the history of science, the history of religion is one in which religious beliefs are displaced by others over time. For example, the belief in multiple gods has been displaced by the belief in one God (with rare exceptions). Doubt is both the religion of science and the science of religion, regardless of personal or subjective claims to the contrary.

Irrational exuberance often motivates people to claim absolute certainty in both scientific and religious investigations. However, the criterion of evidence as a basis of support for theories in scientific investigation provides the discipline necessary to see that irrational exuberance does not prevail in spite of the tendency of theories once entrenched in the minds of the scientific community to linger.

The same cannot be said in religious investigation. Theists who claim absolute certainty are prone to let irrational exuberance get the best of them. They become so convinced their faith-based knowledge is God’s word that they insist it is as objective as evidence-based knowledge. And in cases of conflict between the two bodies of knowledge, these theists also insist that because they have absolute certainty or no doubt, their faith-based knowledge is superior to evidence-based knowledge where there is always doubt.

And so, it is not surprising that under the claim of absolute certainty, theists are prone to become religious fascists. Examples abound. The behavior of Roman Catholics in Medieval Europe toward Jews, atheists, or anyone else who believed differently than them is a classic historical example of religious fascism.

Muslim fascism is often cited. Extremist or fundamentalist Muslims continue to impose the will of God by way of arguable interpretations of the Koran on people in Middle Eastern countries. In so doing, they deny people in those countries their basic human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Afghanistan under the Taliban and today’s Iran are classic examples.

Based on selective teachings of the Bible, extremist or fundamentalist Christians in the United States continue to exploit the political and court systems in attempts to deny other people of faith, homosexuals, women, and people of color civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In addition, they attempt to include their faith-based beliefs about the origin of the universe in the evidence-based science curriculums of the public school system.

Another example of a contemporary and long-standing group of religious fascists is the Brahmin or master caste of India. For thousands of years, Brahmins have used religious beliefs (the caste system, karma, and reincarnation) as a mean of perpetuating their privileged social, economic, and political positions. To this day, they claim that their caste—their birthright—issued from the mouth of Brahma (God a Creator) at the moment of creation. Those beliefs have kept the people in the lower castes uneducated, steeped in poverty and ignorance, and subservient.

It is worth injecting here that a first cousin of religious fascism is antireligious fascism, which is objectionable on similar grounds because the arguments of atheists are as faith-based as those of the theists. As previously stated, faith is the basis for rejection as well as acceptance of religious beliefs because such beliefs are neither capable of proof nor disproof. Examples of antireligious fascism also abound. The classic historical example is that of the communists in control of the former Soviet Union. A contemporary example is that of the communists-turned-capitalists in control of China.

The ranting of the rabid atheists in the United States, including, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, qualify as contemporary examples of antireligious fascism. Sam Harris personifies the movement when he argues in his book, The End of Faith, that people do not, and should not, have a right to support their religious beliefs on anything other than scientific evidence. That said, however, it is worth noting that these latter-day atheists are not as menacing as their theistic counterparts because they have little or no political clout and tend to content themselves with writing books and pamphlets, making speeches, and holding conferences.

There is no question that scientific or evidence-based knowledge has the advantage of being easier to assess because it is just that—evidence-based or objective. In contrast, faith-based or religious knowledge is just that—faith-based or subjective. As a result of this distinction, two solutions come to mind:

One is that of the logical positivists (atheists as well as agnostics), who advocate promotion of their assertion that all legitimate knowledge is scientific or evidence-based. The other is promotion of the acceptance or rejection of scientific knowledge on the basis of evidence, and the acceptance or rejection of religious knowledge on the basis of faith where the latter requires freedom of religion coupled with tolerance of diversity.

The first solution is unlikely to succeed because it lacks appreciation of the spiritual dimension of humankind’s evolutionary process. However, the second solution has enjoyed some success, for example, in the United States and Western Europe. In the pursuit of enlightened self-interest, inclusive of selfless as well as selfish pursuits, people in those countries have embraced the principles of freedom of religion and tolerance of diversity in matters of faith, which suggest the rest of humanity is capable of eventually embracing those principles as well, and thereby, diminishing, or perhaps one day eradicating, religious fascism.

Short of exterminating the culprits, the key to success is education, that is, educating people to understand that just as doubt is the religion of science, it is also the science of religion. This means absolute certainty in matters of faith is as much a myth as it is in matters of science. Humankind simply does not know anything for sure. And it is the element of uncertainty that makes religious or faith-based fascism indefensible.

Moreover, absolute certainty is not a necessary condition for accepting faith-based knowledge. Some measure of certainty with some degree of doubt or simply a high degree of certainty is both necessary and sufficient for acceptance or rejection of religious or faith-based knowledge as well as scientific or evidence-based knowledge. Granted, the assumption of absolute certainty is more comforting, but that does not make it realistic, the criterion by which all assumptions are judged.

 

Copyright © March 2011 Frank Zahn. Published in The Writings of a Curious Mind: A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories, Vancouver Books (Smashwords and Kindle Editions) 2017.

 

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