The Clash of Fundamentalisms

As I see it, there are two very large megatrends that are crossing in the 21st century: the decline of religion (in terms of credibility and the number of serious practitioners it attracts) and the urbanization of humanity.

Demographers tell us that, by the end of this century, only 10% of of humanity will live in rural/agricultural areas, and 90% will live in cities. 150 years ago, of course, these numbers were reversed. The traditional religions evolved out of the logic of patriarchal and agricultural low-tech societies. The feminist, urbanized, high-tech world is a shock to the traditional systems of meaning. It results in religious fundamentalism as reaction.

Fundamentalism is to religion what Trump is to politics: a simplifier in the midst of crisis.

The irony is that, in their emotional and intellectual narrowness and fear, religious fundamentalists don’t find solidarity with one another, but clash. The clash between fundamentalist forms of Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is a product of urbanization and globalization. They are ill-adapted to their new environments, and so they are eating one another in a zero-sum game, defaming and imploding their credibility even as the secular trends progress.

The broken wheels squeak loudest. That’s why I say there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the fundamentalist religions; that their fighting is a product of the narcissism of small differences. On the same grounds of irrationality and tribalism, they’ll go on demonizing, fighting, and cannibalizing each other. The rest of the world, meanwhile, will continue to evolve toward a more science-oriented, urban, and multiculturally tolerant future.



About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, david hume, donald trump, feminism, Politics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Clash of Fundamentalisms

  1. Mary says:

    While I agree with you perhaps for the long term, I think the fundamentalists are growing in all countries and I find this very ominous. I think we are in for some dangerous times and a throwback to the dark ages. Science and critical thinking are hated by these people, as is inclusiveness for all humanity. Their desire to feel “right” and superior overshadow all their meager thinking.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree, and feel that Brexit is, oddly, an alternative to religious fundamentalism as well (nationalism as a substitute for fundamentalism). It’s a nostalgia for divorcing one’s fate from the rest of humanity and standing alone–which is ultimately folly in our integrated, globally urbanizing, world.

  2. Arkenaten says:

    It is interesting though how the UK has reacted to perceived fundamentalism – and this is in part due to genuine concerns..
    As Christianity is now not the ”official” religion and the Brits are more cultural Christians these days perhaps they are struggling to come to terms with the rise of hard core Islam from within as well as without?

    I wonder if the fear of having to deal with this rise in Islamic fundamentalism, and not really knowing how to, was part of the underlying fear that caused the knee jerk reaction?
    Yes, economics and European stability etc will be the ticket the politicians will tout, but people’s baser fears ever lurk close to the surface, like highly flammable tinder under more sensible ”logs” just ready to ignite at the merest hint of a ‘match.’

    And will France and others react in a similar fashion in the not too distant future, I wonder?

    The next five years are likely to be very interesting.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Wow, that’s a really astute observation! My wife is British, and curiously (so she tells me from being in almost daily phone contact with her relatives), it’s not just Muslim immigrants, but Poles and Romanians, etc., that nerve out some Brits.

      But your point is well-taken. The British are generally not at all inclined to fundamentalism in religion in the way that so many Americans are in the United States, so maybe the reaction to globalization and Islam, if the religious component is largely absent, is to hunker down into nationalism. It feels more comprehensible. It gives an illusion of greater control. (Tellingly, the slogan of the Leave supporters was something like, “Take back control.”)

      • Arkenaten says:

        I have lived outside the UK for over 30 years, so maybe my perspective is negatively coloured somewhat. But my folks tell me, ”I wouldn’t recognise the place” and they live up in Chester, a fairly typical British middle class area.

        If economics are the major reason, and concern over undercutting British jobs with cheap ”work for anything” labour from former eastern bloc immigrants being paramount in some circles, one wonders what were the problems during the late sixties/seventies when it seemed everyone and his mum went on strike for one reason or another and at times unemployment was rampant and the average British worker had one of the worst reputations in Europe. Look at the steel industry and car manufacture – British Leyland.

        There are of course massive amounts of Chinese imports which must surely affect local manufacturing industry?
        My BIL says Portugal is ”full” of Chinese goods and I expect it is a similar picture across much of Europe.
        It certainly impacted over here in South Africa where the local clothes manufacturing industry literally imploded and suffered almost total collapse under the onslaught of trade agreements with China and the sudden deluge of Chinese/Asian clothes.The government was then obliged to step in and try to patch up the cock-up it had implemented.
        In the main they have failed.

        In the UK if you couple this type of scenario with the religious aspect it is no wonder the Brits had a ”fanny wobble” and opted out.

        As an aside, It always amuses me when the ”Man in the Street” in Europe, be they French German Dutch etc is interviewed by Brit TV. The respondents, all too often respond in English, yet when one sees ”foreign” journos interview the Brits in England they always ask the questions in English.
        What was it James May from the old Top Gear once called the French? ”Lamb burning Communists.”
        You can’t expect to conquer the ‘known world” , shoot natives, make them play cricket, drink tea, create havoc with their countries, even creating countries with new borders etc, call everyone ”wogs” and not expect payback at some point.

        God help us?


  3. Staffan says:

    This theory begs the question why so many nations went through urbanization and modernization without facing any problems with religious fundamentalism. Japan, South-Korea have not faced any such issues. China and Europe has not had problems with religious fundamentalism other than that from Muslim minorities, and Europe was fully modernized before that.

    Besides that, you’re essentially saying that what used to be human nature since the dawn of our species is now just a handful of individuals who fail to adapt to modernity. I’m curious as to how you can explain that process without re-introducing the firmly disproven Tabula Rasa.

  4. Staffan says:

    Another little anomaly: Swedish nationalist party, SD, started out among rural people with low education but has over the years gradually gained more and more support among the urban elites.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Staffan:

      Urbanites devoted to the Swedish nationalist party are nostalgia driven. Like Trump supporters, they’re all hat and no cattle.

      It’s not that your counter observations aren’t good ones, but I wonder if nationalism and religion are essentially two ways to play the same game. When you say religion isn’t playing a role, what if nationalism is a religion (secular religion; what’s left of religion after religion is discredited)?

      In this sense, Japanese imperialism and European nationalism of the 19th and early-20th century varieties were forms of reactionary religious tribalism (blood, culture, soil, conquest). They were the movements that dominated life and thinking up until their reductio ad absurdum in Adolf Hitler. By the end of World War II, the general carnage and waste, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima finally gave everyone serious, serious pause about the value of hyper-nationalism.

      Then we landed on the moon, and saw the Earth from space.

      So religion was intellectually discredited in the 19th century; nationalism in the 20th; and the possibility of a world civilization was given a concrete visual symbol when humanity first saw the Earth from the moon.

      In the 20th century, it was the Russian revolution and international communism that played the anxiety-provoking excuse for hunkering down in conservative nationalism. In the 21st century, it’s 9/11 and fundamentalist Islam. Militant forms of Islam, and the tip-to-toe covering of women, spur the sorts of anxieties that make Western people want to hunker down in suspicion as opposed to trust. Hitler would have never reached power save for fear of Communism, and likewise, Trump and Brexit are fueled by fear of Islam–and globalization generally.

      But what I’m hoping is that Brexit brings to the fore just how preferable to protectionist nationalism globalization, trade, and multiculturalism are–despite the stress of incorporating Islam into this mix.

      Now that a country has pulled the populist and Murdoch media-driven trigger, and tried to actually exit the EU, its utter folly can be seen in real time–and so this is likely to have good effects. It will probably sober up the American electorate about Trump, and solidify and strengthen the EU (long-term). I’m going to say that Brexit will never actually happen, and that the vote itself represents the high-water mark for this sort of politics.

      Young people don’t want to blow up the evolving global civilization. Urban-dwellers have far more in common with their urban peers across the globe than they do with, say, those living in rural areas, divorced from technology, and devoted to traditional forms of life.

      So while you’re right that human nature doesn’t change quickly from an evolutionary point of view, it is nevertheless also true that the notion of “tribe” is being imaginatively transformed into the planet inhabitants as a whole. Against the noisy reactionaries, the circle of empathy is widening every day. People see that our human fate is a collective one; we’re all in the same boat. We sink or swim together.

      The global collective threat of poisoning the commons, and the problem of rising sea levels, helps this along. What might also help this along is if SETI discovers a signal from an alien civilization over the next couple of decades. Then it can be “us” over here on this tiny planet, and “them” out there in the very far (and fortunately, unreachable) distance.

      The Sesame Street kid’s song, Big Blue Marble, has far more good sense in it than any Trump speech or Brexit politician, and pretty much explicates the megatrend that will swamp in due course all contemporary efforts at revived nationalism and fundamentalism:

      The earth’s a Big Blue Marble
      When you see it from out there
      The sun and moon declare
      Our beauty’s very rare

      Folks are folks and kids are kids
      We share a common name
      We speak a different way
      But work and play the same

      We sing pretty much alike
      Enjoy spring pretty much alike
      Peace and love we all understand
      And laughter, we use the very same brand

      Our differences, our problems
      From out there there’s not much trace
      Our friendships they can place
      While looking at the face
      Of the Big Blue Marble in space

      Notice that last stanza. Who is the “they” in that third line? Aliens. The logic of aliens seeing the Earth from space is that those living on our planet share a rare and beautiful place, and that, obviously, if there is a civilization on it, it is evolving toward an ethos consisting of: (1) not wrecking Earth; (2) recognizing the shared fate of its inhabitants; and (3) valuing integration and friendship.

  5. Staffan says:

    Some nostalgia is inevitable given the sharp rise in murder and rape brought on by multiculturalism here. That seems more situational than personal though. Keep in mind that West European nationalism is mostly LGBT friendly. Swedish nationalists have their own pride event – since the regular pride organizers refuse to include them. This is just one example of our tribal nature and how the people who pretend to rise above it fall right back. I’m sure you’re aware of the SJW movement at the universities, people who are offended by dissent, who will bring air horns to silence it. Or recently in your state of California, stab people to shut them up.

    This is not to point the finger at anyone particular but to illustrate how deep tribalism & clannishness is rooted in us. It doesn’t transmogrify to a universalistic Earth-dweller identity because it has always been about distinguishing yourself from other groups and fighting those outgroups. Only in Northwestern Europe and its descendants has this nature weakened somewhat, and my guess is that immigration is now partially reversing the process. It was always this way and the effects of nationalism, if you want to think of it as religion, was mainly a matter of technological progress enabling people to do more damage. Now we are interdependent in trade, and I agree that’s a good thing. But multiculturalism will always pit groups against each other and it isn’t necessary for trade or progress. Countries like Japan, South-Korea, Finland have rejected it while being very advanced at the same time. They are ranked as world leaders in research and development.

    But universalism? I call it northwesternalism until I get some solid evidence to the contrary.

  6. Staffan says:

    By the way, I wrote a longer comment recently that hasn’t shown up. Perhaps it’s stuck in the filter due to links I made to sources. (The sources are legit sites like US Census, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and Transparency International.)

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