Pedants and partisans
Pedants and partisansTerry Eagleton - Sat, Feb 22, 2003, The GuardianThere are two things desirable for fighting fundamentalists. The first is not to be one yourself. The US government's war on the movement is somewhat compromised by the fact that it is run by scripture-spouting fanatics for whom the sanctity of human life ends at the moment of birth. This is rather like using the British National party to run ex-Nazis to earth, or hiring Henry Kissinger to investigate mass murder, as George Bush recently did by nominating him to inquire into the background to September 11. Fundamentalists of the Texan stripe are not best placed to hunt down the Taliban variety.
Pedants and partisans - argues that fundamentalism is characterised by a dangerous reverence for words
The second desirable thing is to know what fundamentalism is. The answer to this is less obvious than it might seem. Fundamentalism doesn't just mean people with fundamental beliefs, since that covers everyone. Being a person means being constituted by certain basic convictions, even if they are largely unconscious. What you are, in the end, is what you cannot walk away from. These convictions do not need to be burning or eye-catching or even true; they just have to go all the way down, like believing that Caracas is in Venezuela or that torturing babies is wrong. They are the kind of beliefs that choose us more than we choose them. Sceptics who doubt you can know anything for sure have at least one fundamental conviction. "Fundamental" doesn't necessarily mean "worth dying for". You may be passionately convinced that the quality of life in San Francisco is superior to that in Strabane, but reluctant to go to the gallows for it.
Fundamentalists are not always the type who seize you by the throat with one fist while thumping the table with the other. There are plenty of soft-spoken, self-effacing examples of the species. It isn't a question of style. Nor is the opposite of fundamentalism lukewarmness, or the tiresome liberal prejudice that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. Tolerance and partisanship are not incompatible. Anti-fundamentalists are not people without passionate beliefs; they are people who number among their passionate beliefs the conviction that you have as much right to your opinion as they have. And for this, some of them are certainly prepared to die. The historian AJP Taylor was once asked at an interview for an Oxford fellowship whether it was true that he held extreme political beliefs, to which he replied that it was, but that he held them moderately. He may have been hinting that he was a secret sceptic, but he probably just meant that he did not agree with forcing his beliefs on others.
The word "fundamentalism" was first used in the early years of the last century by anti-liberal US Christians, who singled out seven supposed fundamentals of their faith. The word, then, is not one of those derogatory terms that only other people use about you, like "fatso". It began life as a proud self-description. The first of the seven fundamentals was a belief in the literal truth of the Bible; and this is probably the best definition of fundamentalism there is. It is basically a textual affair.
Fundamentalists are those who believe that our linguistic currency is trustworthy only if it is backed by the gold standard of the Word of Words. They see God as copperfastening human meaning. Fundamentalism means sticking strictly to the script, which in turn means being deeply fearful of the improvised, ambiguous or indeterminate.
Fundamentalists, however, fail to realise that the phrase "sacred text" is self-contradictory. Since writing is meaning that can be handled by anybody, any time, it is always profane and promiscuous. Meaning that has been written down is bound to be unhygienic. Words that could only ever mean one thing would not be words. Fundamentalism is the paranoid condition of those who do not see that roughness is not a defect of human existence, but what makes it work. For them, it is as though we have to measure Everest down to the last millimetre if we are not to be completely stumped about how high it is. It is not surprising that fundamentalism abhors sexuality and the body, since in one sense all flesh is rough, and all sex is rough trade.
The New Testament author known as Luke is presumably aware that Jesus was actually born in Galilee. But he needs to have him born in Judea, since the Messiah is to spring from the Judea-based house of David. A Messiah born in bumpkinish Galilee would be like one born in Gary, Indiana. So Luke coolly invents a Roman census, for which there is no independent evidence, which requires everyone to return to their place of birth to be registered. Since Jesus's father Joseph comes from Bethlehem in Judea, he and his wife Mary obediently trudge off to the town, where Jesus is conveniently born.
It would be hard to think up a more ludicrous way of registering the population of the entire Roman empire than having them all return to their birthplaces. Why not just register them on the spot? The result of such a madcap scheme would have been total chaos. The traffic jams would have made Ken Livingstone's job look positively cushy. And we would almost certainly have heard about this international gridlocking from rather more disinterested witnesses than Luke. Yet fundamentalists must take Luke at his word.
Fundamentalists are really necrophiliacs, in love with a dead letter. The letter of the sacred text must be rigidly embalmed if it is to imbue life with the certitude and finality of death. Matthew's gospel, in a moment of carelessness, presents Jesus as riding into Jerusalem on both a colt and an ass - in which case, for the fundamentalist, the Son of God must indeed have had one leg thrown over each.
The fundamentalist is a more diseased version of the argument-from-the-floodgates type of conservative. Once you allow one motorist to throw up out of the car window without imposing a lengthy prison sentence, then before you know where you are, every motorist will be throwing up out of the window all the time, and the roads will become impassable. It is this kind of pathological anxiety, pressed to an extreme, which drove the religious police in Mecca early last year to send fleeing schoolgirls back into their burning school because they were not wearing their robes and head dresses, and which inspires family-loving US pro-lifers eager to incinerate Iraq to gun down doctors who terminate pregnancies. To read the world literally is a kind of insanity.