Fundamentalism as a Response to Rationalism

Fredric Jameson has pointed out that the original topic of a narrative, the narrative “as such,” is the narrative of a Fall, of how things went wrong, of how the old harmony was destroyed (in the case of Hamlet, how the evil uncle overthrew the good father-king). This narrative is the elementary form of ideology, and as such the key step in the critique of ideology should be to invert it— which brings us back to Hegel: the story he is telling in his account of a dialectical process is not the story of how an original organic unity alienates itself from itself, but the story of how this organic unity never existed in the first place, of how its status is by definition that of a retroactive fantasy— the Fall itself generates the mirage of what it is the Fall from. The same paradox holds for belief: viewing the present as an era of cynical non-belief, we tend to imagine the past as a time when people “really believed”— but was there ever an era when people “really believed”? As Robert Pfaller demonstrated in his Illusionen der Anderen, 65 the direct belief in a truth which is subjectively fully assumed (“ Here I stand!”) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-at-a-distance, such as underpin conventions of politeness or other rituals. Premodern societies did not believe directly, but at a distance, which explains the misreading inherent in, for example, the Enlightenment critique of “primitive” myths— faced with a notion such as a tribe having originated from a fish or a bird, the critics first take it as a literal belief, then reject it as naïve and “fetishistic.” They thereby impose their own notion of belief on the “primitivized” Other. We can see how the idea of an earlier age of naïve belief also follows the logic of the Fall: what it obfuscates is the fact that such belief is a retroactive fantasy generated by the “enlightened” present. In reality, people never “really believed”: in premodern times, belief was not “literal,” it included a distance which was lost with the passage to modernity.

Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (p. 953). Norton.


A similar discrepancy can be observed even today between the ‘certainty’ of ‘modern’ belief  and the totalization that certainty implies in the United States, for instance, and the ‘at a distance’, comparatively lighthearted mode of Central and South American cultures.  That those countries are primarily Catholic rather than Protestant allowed the local pre-Christian style of belief to continue in a manner that Protestants in the U.S. find horrifying, since Catholicism rarely tried to do away with older beliefs, but simply incorporated them into its way of being Christian.

The origin of the ‘certainty’ that distinguishes the style of fundamentalist belief, though, is precisely the ‘modern’ science that views religion as a whole, never mind fundamentalist religion, as its enemy.  Fundamentalism took root in the U.S. precisely as a reaction to the totalizing certainty of the western scientific worldview, and is still less than a century old.  Similarly, Islamic fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, not really taking hold until the 1970s, after many Islamic countries experienced an extended period of exposure to the western liberal scientific outlook.

That rationalism itself relies on an irrationally certain set of core assumptions that are theological in nature is problematic enough, but the fundamentalist style of belief is entirely dependent on the same certainty.

The ‘madness’ of fundamentalism is a response to the style of belief that originated in modern science and rationalism, precisely in that style.  Attributing that style of belief to premodern beliefs is pure revisionism.


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