CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558
COMMON PASSIONS FUEL RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM
STANFORD -- There has been a resurgence of religious militance around the globe that, like the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not predicted and is still underestimated by most university scholars, says Gabriel Almond, recognized as the father of comparative politics.
"Everyone thought when Clarence Darrow won the verdict in the Scopes trial, that was the last peep out of religious orthodoxy and tradition," said the 82-year-old Almond, Stanford University professor emeritus of political science.
Today, Christian fundamentalists have substantial influence in the Republican Party, Islamic fundamentalists won the last election in Algeria, Iran has undergone an Islamic revolution, fundamentalist Jewish settlers on the West Bank are a political force in Israel, and Hindu religious militants have threatened the authority of the secular Indian state.
What these movements share in common, Almond said, is that they are "reactions against the modern secular world and its twin engines of modernization - technology and science."
The ratio of church-goers to non-church-goers hasn't changed much in the United States over the last 30 years.
"While the mainline denominations like Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist are in decline, the more militant, evangelical and Pentecostal denominations have sharply increased in numbers, Almond said.
"It's the intensity of feeling that counts, rather than the numbers of people who have certain kinds of beliefs. You have more people now who are ready to fight for religious causes in the streets."
Almond works from his campus home as one of 200 scholars around the world engaged in a six-year, six-volume study of religious fundamentalism on five continents. Directed by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby of the University of Chicago, the project already has produced three of these volumes, published by the University of Chicago Press. Almond's own work involves collaboration with other scholars in the project, partly by electronic mail.
"There is particular irony in the fact that electronic mail and modern medicine allow me to work on a project that is really a study of the rejection of the modern," Almond said one afternoon recently as he took a break from his computer.
Having survived heart bypass surgery in 1978, Almond is part of a new phenomenon on campuses: scholars who are active for decades beyond their teaching years.
"I am lucky I took typing in high school, and my last graduate student got me equipped and moving with a computer in 1986. I don't really need to travel to collaborate," Almond said.
He will travel, however, to Jerusalem in September for a meeting of three scholars who are writing the final chapter in the mammoth project - a comparison of 18 fundamentalist groups that were studied in detail. At a March meeting in Chicago, project researchers gave him a chair with a plaque that said in Sanskrit, "Lord of the Umbrella."
"I think I was asked to join this project because of my work in comparative politics," he said. "My job is to try to get the other scholars who are studying various groups to draw inferences, make comparisons and ask questions like, 'why here and not there?' "
Shocks such as recessions and unemployment, strikes and the introduction of foreign workers can sharpen the grievances of those who least benefited from modernization, Almond said. They are susceptible to a variety of protest movements, including religious ones.
Major migrations - such as Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States and Israel, Algerian workers to France, and Italian workers from the rural south to the industrial north - also create needs for people to affiliate with a fundamentalist group in order to maintain or reestablish their identity, he said.
The term fundamentalism comes from U.S. religious history, Almond said, specifically from an early 20th-century publication, The Fundamentals. It printed the ideas of Eastern Seaboard Protestants who believed their churches had strayed too far from belief in the literal truth of the Bible.
"Today," Almond said, "the term has come to mean any religious group whose leaders reach back to presumed fundamentals in order to fight against modernity, relativism and pluralism."
The researchers have found a "family of resemblances" across religious traditions, but they distinguish "Abrahamic" fundamentalism from other kinds. "Judaism, Christianity and Islam with a common historic tradition, each have holy books and explicitly codified beliefs," he said.
"Where there are explicitly authoritative texts, it is easier for fundamentalist movements to separate themselves from the religious establishment," Almond said. "Hinduism doesn't really have a codified doctrine. It's got tens of thousands of pages of sacred literature, and the Hindu traditionalists of recent decades have created a synthetic doctrine largely in imitation of the Abrahamic tradition."
Buddhist militants in South Asia also have taken this approach. Sikhs are the only non-Abrahamic group with a codified doctrine, he said.
Catholics who reacted against the reforms of the Vatican II Council also can be considered fundamentalists.
"They have more of a problem resisting modernization and secularization than Protestants because of their church's hierarchical organization," Almond said. " As a Catholic, you risk your salvation if you break away, whereas Protestants can take a whole congregation with them, or create a new one."
While he is looking for similarities in movements, Almond also is quick to point out that "no two fundamentalist movements are alike."
"When you cross the lines of religious tradition, they become very unlike," he said, "and then you must add to that the different kinds of historical experiences people have had."
For example, "Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism reacts against modernization in part because they see it as an aspect of Western imperialism," he said. "In India, the Hindus have been pressed by the secular state to accept Muslims and Christians, and their reaction can be seen as a kind of Bosnian phenomenon - based on long, historical hates between ethno-religious communities."
Where ethnic nationalism seems to be the driving force, Almond prefers to refer to groups as "fundamentalist-like." Such groups exist among Ulster's Protestants, India's Hindus, Sinhalese Buddhists and in the Israeli Kach movement, he said.
"The affirmation of religious tradition against secularization in these groups is a secondary theme," he said.
Almond grew up Jewish, the son and grandson of rabbis. He was steeped in Bible studies and says, "I have empathy for people who are religious, without being religious myself."
At first, he said, he had doubts about the value of the research project, which is sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Now, he's concluded that university social science departments generally pay too little attention to religious phenomena. Religion in some form is here to stay, the research group concluded at its March meeting, he said.
"Some of the participants in the project also argued that fundamentalists are making a positive contribution in the form of an effective, constructive criticism of what's going on in modern society," Almond said. "Fundamentalism is not something that's going to pass quickly. It is a powerful historical reaction to modernization and westernization."
Speaking of the earlier Western view of an unproblematic progressive future, he said, "I grew up in Chicago, where we played on clean sand beaches that were at the head of every street ending in Lake Michigan. Then, in the late '20s and early '30s, we saw this floating slag of ashes arriving from the steel mills in South Chicago and Gary. As kids, we thought that was progress," he said, smiling, shaking his head.
"We believed there was an historical trend in the direction of eliminating ignorance, of enhancing man's understanding of himself and his environment so that he could control its direction in positive and constructive ways."
Environmentalism and fundamentalism are not the same phenomenon, but both, he argues, have thrived in a new "moral space" created by a "loss of confidence on the part of the scientific and technological establishments."
"Nobody has figured out what to do with nuclear waste or about the holes in the ozone layer, or about the population explosion, so there is a kind of ambivalence about technology that's spreading," he said.
"And when you look at what science is discovering about man and nature, what can you do with the big bang theory?" he asks. "I mean, if you had a choice between the big bang as your ultimate cosmology or the creation of Adam and Eve, you might say, 'Gosh, this Adam-and-Eve stuff is more user-friendly.'"
Still, that does not mean science and technology have reached their limits. "Even though technology has gotten us into a lot of problems, getting out of them is going to take more and better technology," he said.
"Given the population of the world and the standard of living we have and that other people aspire to, technology, science and universities are here to stay. They simply will not have the same unambiguous claim on resources they have had in the past."
This is an archived release.
This release is not available in any other form.
Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.