Fundamentalism

Yongho Kim
November 12, 2003
Anthropology (248) of Religion

Pascal Boyer tells us that fundamentalism is neither religion in excess nor politics in disguise. According to Boyer, what IS fundamentalism? According to YOU, what is fundamentalism–on what points do you agree with Boyer and on what points do you disagree?

In a sense, fundamentalism can be said to be a contemporary device performing a role similar to the one literacy performed: that of securing the survival of institutionalized religion. On the other hand, fundamentalism complements a brand in that while a brand attracts people with it stability, fundamentalism retains those who joined with its dynamism.

Boyer sets the stage for his discussion of fundamentalism by contrasting localist and universalist religions. In local religions such as that of the Fang, religious specialists are conceived as naturally possessing those abilities that others do not possess (271), having an effectiveness guaranteed by the locale (272), and being qualitatively different from specialist to specialist even when sharing the same religious belief. (273)

In universalist religions, specialists are understood as that who is formed through special training, an effectiveness guaranteed by the organization, and being qualitatively uniform. (273). These differences point to the one overarching characteristic of an universalist religion, that of being constitutive of institutionalization. Institution is important, because it is institutions that form doctrine, and not the other way around (273). Exclusionary doctrines are what constitute fundamentalism. Thus to understand fundamentalism it is helpful to ask what are the factors that push religious institutions to formulate certain exclusionary doctrines.

Boyer conceives religious institutions as akin to commercial guilds.

First, both religious institutions and guilds alike had their origins with the birth of literacy and uprising of bureaucratic, large states. (274). Literacy had a double impact on society: that of expressing complex, long arguments adequate to the needs of large and bureaucratic administrations (be it political, economic or religious) and it created a minority literate group that seized power by their access to such media critical for administration of centralized power. From the religious point of view, literacy “spawned… stable associations of religious specialists” (275). Additionally, literacy modified cognitive operations and enabled abstract thinking, which opened the way to universal, abstract, specificity-less deities. (281)

Second, religious institutions were a creation of necessity against the menace of free competition in the “market for… ritual services” (274). Unlike trades, religious ceremonies could be imitated by anyone, without much material evidence of fraud, since religious practices seldom left tangible “religious” marks in the material world. While a correct positioning of a bridge or the proper mix of hay and clay in bricks are critical in the sustainability of such constructions and consequently the credibility of artisans (besides the demanding physical work), a religious “blessing” consisted of dancing around the afflicted, following a rhythm and steps whose secrets only the specialist was aware of (or lacked them thereof). (274) Because barriers to enter the market were so low, religious associations needed to somehow build a frame of credibility within which specialists could charge an amount enough to sustain the individual and his association for performed services, in the same way guilds accredit and refer to each other in establishing a minimal share of the market. (275)

While literacy had been successful for a period of time in keeping the stakes high for regular folksmen to join the religious market, it could not be a permanent situation as education becomes widespread and print media arises. Upon threats of competing belief systems and branching syncretisms, religious institutions developed a brand, which attracted people because of its stability, while also deterring others from joining non-brand religions by clearly distinguishing itself from them. (277)

However, a stable religion is marked for demise. In a phenomenon called the “tedium-based decay function”, believers lose interest in the religion it stays the same throughout, and institutions become “more vulnerable … to periodic outbursts of imagistic dissent” (284). However, the very device that drives religion into an eventual meltdown, namely the brand, is the tool used to recruit believers under the guise of a stable, institutionalized religion. Thus institutionalized religion is faced with the dilemma that in either choice it is doomed to give way to smaller religions with a shot life span.

Fundamentalism, according to Boyer, steps in where literacy is no longer effective and brand alone is not enough to sustain an institutionalized religion. Fundamentalism consists of two parts. On the one hand, it assumes an essentialist character shared amongst its members, which is often a result of a pre-existing belief of (often racial) homogeneity and not the cause of it. (290). On the other, it is concerned with preventing the defection of those who are already members of the religion, by raising the prices of defection so high that the benefits of bargaining in the market for a less expensive religious service becomes meaningless in the face of reprisal. This is why, Boyer argues, that fundamentalist outbursts are often charged against members from within the group who are most likely to defect, and are often carried out in a public and spectacular manner. (295)

I find Boyer’s reasoning impeccable except in one small link of his argument. He argues that religious affiliations are basically strategic economic choices, where benefits and disadvantages are carefully weighted against and then the optimal decision is made. I disagree with this simplistic view of human behavior. While it is quite easy to neglect Taylorian observations of each individual practitioner and reinterpret every statement under the discourse of cost-benefit efficiency, I would argue that more gainful analysis can be done by embedding each particular belief system into this general proposed theoretical framework and studying the local manifestations of such structures.

Moreover, I am apprehensive on his claim that such strategic decisions are “unconscious”, which people are never aware of (288). If peoples’ decisions are based in such unconscious reasoning that they are unaware of, there is no way of proving such hypothesis except by observing behavior and matching it with predicted outcomes. History to the very recent times has shown that given an unexplained phenomenon, there always exists a series of competing theories, all logically sound and deductively consistent with outcomes, but that exclude each other on the theoretical basis (such as commonsense theories that Boyer refutes, and Boyer’s own, such as assuming that fundamentalism is an excess of religious zeal). Isn’t Boyer’s insistence in explaining what does not exist in over discourse in terms of the unconscious, an evidence that his own explanation of fundamentalism is a fundamentalist one?

Thus I believe that while Boyer’s account of fundamentalism has a high potential of gaining followers because of its argumentative force and the novelty of bringing evolutionary psychology and religion together, standard mechanisms for defending institutionalized explanations of fundamentalism would be quickly deployed to prevent the market of social theory from becoming too efficient and thus ungainful for the established association of scholars.