Patrick Part II – the secular fundamentalist

What this!?

In my last column I introduced you to my friend Patrick* who, by the way, is a real person and not a figment of my attempt to create an interesting preface to this second part. Now, in this piece, I want to discuss the existence of what specifically Patrick represented: secular fundamentalism.

“Fundamentalism” is, in and of itself, a contentious term which has come to take on completely negative connotations extending to all religions. For the sake of argument and brevity, I will adopt the term in its modern construction and with such connotations. Today, we relate zealousness, close-mindedness and religion to the term: a fundamentalist is a religious zealot who has medieval and unwavering ideas regarding religion and its role in society. My problem with this popular understanding of fundamentalism is not with the inclusion of religion, but rather the definition’s exclusiveness. Fundamentalism, as we take it to mean in the popular sense, should not be confined solely to religious zealots.

Religious fundamentalists strictly adhere to certain ideas based on an eschatological foundation. Their ideas about the public and private realms are political and social ideas based on a greater ideal and good they see as the salvation force of society and humanity.

Regardless of anyone’s personal convictions against religious fundamentalists, and regardless of “right” versus “wrong” and other moral epithets we can throw, their ideas are legitimate as they define a certain way of living; they form a certain worldview which is as legitimate, in and of itself, as any other worldview. “In and of itself” is important because it stresses not the fundamentalist beliefs, but that the ability to have such a worldview is objectively valid. That being said, if fundamentalism relates to strict and unwavering adherence to certain social and political ideas, based on a greater utilitarian good, then why should it be limited to religious zealots?

Secularism, broadly defined and understood, consists of certain ideas regarding the public and private life based on a particular idea of the role and the understanding of religion. It differs in both theory and practice.

American secularism, as established by the forefathers, serves to protect religion from the political realm, while French secularism aims to protect the French citizenry from the evils of religion. These two examples right away show us the vast differences in understanding what secularism is and/or what it should be.

We do, however, see the latter understanding of secularism, in which religion – with no differentiation made – becomes a negative force in society that needs to be controlled; religion creates a life contrary to the aims of the secular ideology. Religious fundamentalists see other forms of life, secularist or from other religions, as contrary to the aims of their ideology.

Political and academic rhetoric in France, Turkey, northern Europe and North America, in particular, shows the rise of secular fundamentalism in which religion – seen as a unified and stagnant force – is swiped away from the Enlightenment-rooted ideals of rationalism; it is made incompatible, a joke. The enemies of secularism fundamentalists are not religious fundamentalists, but rather anyone who adheres to religion. Religion is a brainwashing force that chains minds to lofty fairytales and fruity promises; it cannot be upheld by those with a hint of rationality. This line of thinking ironically makes religious and secular fundamentalists brethren. Religious fundamentalists see those who adhere to other religions, or to nothing at all, as lost, brainwashed by false prophets into believing in lofty fairytales and fruity promises. Salvation and destruction become parallel terms – both see their salvation in what the other sees to be destruction.

Secularism is not the problem in our society, nor is religion; both can co-exist peacefully, and both have proven to be positive forces in the governance and function of society – as well as negative thanks to their uses by individuals and groups. What we see increasingly today, however, is this “fundamentalism” penetrating all ideologies and belief-systems. Feminist fundamentalists, Buddhist fundamentalists, libertarian fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists, who share an intellectual relationship with the secular fundamentalists, exist – they’re not griffins. Intellectual essentialism becomes practical fundamentalism, and this practical fundamentalism affects the portrayal of other worldviews, especially religion, which is again seen in a singular and stagnant lens.

Christianity, in particular, has had to bear the burden of social contempt given the negative role it has played in many Western societies that now bear the mark of secular fundamentalism. Thus, like religious fundamentalism, which is largely reactionary, as embodied in the works of individuals such as Syed Qutib, secular fundamentalism follows the same route – reacting to a long history of a negative relationship with a particular belief system by extending that reaction towards not just a religion but toward religion..

The solution? I’ll write about that after I learn to type secularism without first typing sexularism.

*Patrick is real, but this name isn’t.

Patrick, the Ideological Rationalist

Take it back! (Timbaland style!)

This is the first of a two part-piece looking at secularism. This first part acts as a loose introduction to a discussion on the negative approach secularism has taken toward fundamentalism, ideology, and essentialism. If we consider secularism to be the governing ideal of the future and the modern state, then we must reconsider the popular form it has taken within the past decade.

Meet Patrick*, a young 22-year-old living and attending school in Alberta. Patrick’s your stereotypical college guy. He’s intelligent, good-looking, well-liked, laid-back, politically active, well-read, and knowledgeable about current affairs. The ladies love him and the guys want to be him. That kind of guy. But behind his bright I-want-to-knock-his-teeth-out kind of smile, there lies a deafening darkness. See, Patrick’s a conservative. Not usually a big deal, but having known Patrick for almost six years, his evolution into his current manifestation of neo-conservatism has shown me the dangers of ideology. I had always believed that ideology, no matter where on that sham of a spectrum it fell, was inherently poisonous and conducive to loss of rationality, even if that ideology was rationalism.

Patrick wasn’t always a huge ideologue. He used to be cool. Like “Whoa! Even though you’re from, like, hick-chuck Alberta, you’re still so awesome!” sort of cool. We met through our love for political discourse and international affairs six years ago. I was sarcastically dabbling in Communism, a result of my high school teacher who was the former head of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and, unapologetically, really NDP. Patrick was dabbling in green politics, holding favour toward the Green Party while still grasping onto the prepubescent beginnings of conservatism. I thought Karl Marx had a sick beard; he thought John Locke was a saviour. Juxtaposed properly, we fit. We met through mutual friends, and formed a good platonic relationship, filled with enlightening conversation and music-file sharing. Our common thirst for knowledge despite dissimilar views, allowed us to have civil conversations and grow together intellectually.

But things began to change by the time I hit university. Patrick had already been in university for about a year by the time I made my historical entrance into McGill in 2005. His views had become more refined and his MSN citations were also more impressive. He had also begun to get heavily involved with local prominent conservatives in Alberta – something that concerned me as he had always said he felt the only party decent in the Canadian system was the Green Party. Slowly but surely, classes with leading conservative scholars in a conservative university and close relations with prominent Conservative politicians led to a hardening of Patrick’s prepubescent conservatism. He had hit political puberty.

While he became conservative, but not Conservative, in most aspects, his greatest concentration took the form of the superiority of the West. Seriously. During the next four years, I would see the radicalization of Patrick; from a moderate young guy with conservative tendencies to an ideological rationalist. Don’t get me wrong – I love rationalism, it’s great and whatever, but to be such a proponent of it so as to believe that it’s inherent to the so-called West and lacking in “other” cultures? That’s enough to get Edward Said to bust a cap in his own, now deceased, ass. But this extremely erroneous line of thinking did not stop Patrick from fighting against what he thought was the antithesis of Western rationalism. The major part of this antithesis was “Islam” – a religion he believes needs a Protestant revolution, but with a “Mohammadan” twist of course.

After a while, I just came to the conclusion that he had become reactionary to cultural globalization. After all, he had begun seeking what “Western culture” really entailed. To him, it was a given (albeit a fallacious one) that the Ancient Greeks were the forefathers of Western awesomeness. He felt, however, that there must be more to being Western other than the suffocatingly brilliant works of Hegel, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and Dershowitz. Patrick found this awesomeness in the American South and secularism.

Patrick started asserting that the real heart of the West, everything it stood for, was found in the South, in the form of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll, he said, encapsulated the very essence of everything associated with the West, including freedom. Aside from the geographical misnomer, I didn’t have the heart to tell the only person I know who identifies so strongly with his hemisphere, that even rock ‘n’ roll, his emblem of the West, was rooted deeply in African music traditions brought over on the slave ships and into the cotton fields. And while he claimed he was an internally religious person, his rhetoric claimed religion to be the most destructive of forces, unless it was liberalized – in other words, regardless of origin and belief, religions needed to conform to his Western ideals of liberalism. The implications of such a line of thinking are tremendous and reflective of a growing trend within popular ideas of secularism, all of with which Patrick has been acquainted.

During the past year, especially more recently, Patrick has become unbearable. He has become rabid about the West, which excludes Russia, but includes Israel and Turkey. He quietly refuses all opposing perspectives, and when debate is ended with frustration by his opponents, he claims they are against dialogue and thus against the core of sweet, sweet Western values. Secularism, rationalism, and the so-called West have been rolled into one massive and ticking package of ideology. All three of these components are fine in and of themselves as ideas and practices, to a large extent. However, as soon as we turn these into a cohesive unwavering ideology, which we have seen happen in the past decade, we begin to see a sort of fundamentalism arise. In my next column, I will address the fundamentalism of secularism from which, I will argue, rationalism and the idea of the “West” cannot be separated.

*name has been changed