Time to Declare War on Fundamentalism

W.P. Hall (AKA Son of Darwin),

PhD Biology (Evolution), January 1973, Harvard University

28 September 2001 - http://forums.about.com/ab-christianity/messages?msg=8666.1


Recent events have shown that obviously intelligent people can be convinced to meticulously plan and train for more than a year to end their own lives to many thousands of completely innocent bystanders (see http://abcnews.go.com/sections/living/DailyNews/terrormind010920.html).

It is time for rational people to declare war on the philosophical and epistemological roots of thinking processes that can lead to such an end. (Epistemology is the philosophical discipline concerned with the theory of knowledge.) The take home message from the abominations is that rational people in open societies have stood by while a fundamentalist irrationalism has turned intelligent and seemingly sane humans into weapons of mass destruction. Not only is it the time to fight terrorism, but it is also time to declare war on the fundamentalist thinking that nourishes this kind of terrorism. What do we need to fight?

What follows is an essay on how the epistemology (theory of knowledge) underlying religious fundamentalism has contributed to the abominable attachs on the World Trade Centre and Washington DC, and some thoughts on what rational and caring people can do to minimise the probablity that such acts of mass murder of innocent people will be perpetrated in the future.

To introduce myself: I am now an Australian citizen due to my employment in the Australian defense industry, but I am an American by birth. I was born two years befoer Pearl Harbour and trace my intellectual heritage from Charles Darwin. Raised in an agnostic household, as a child I was somewhat spiritual, and joined the Student Church on entering college to learn more about Christianity. I began my undergraduate education majoring in Physics, and earned my BS in Zoology after 7-1/2 years. I worked for 15 months on the Nevada Test Site (where nuclear weapons were tested) in a project sponsored by the Civilian Effects Testo Operations ofice, studying the effects of nuclear radiation on desert ecosystems. I completed my doctorate in Evolutionary Biology at a top East Coast university, and for five years followed a reasonably typical university teaching career in the disciplines of genetics, evolution, comparative anatomy, vertebrate biology and systematics. After four years of teaching, I spent two years in Austrlia on a prestigous research fellowship studying epistemology and how scientific theories are developed, tested and changed. When I saw how fast computers were evolving, I reinvented myself as a content management specialist. I am currently working as a knowledge manager for a large Austalian defence contractor. Darwinia, who frequently posts to the About forums, is my wife.


The Abominations

First, some observations on the outrages themselves and what we can surmise about the internal mental and external social conditions that turn people into guided weapons of mass destruction.


Mass destruction / mass murder

Claims have been made that the bin Laden group had been trying to purchase nuclear weapons. They didn't need them. Their human weapons achieved similar effects.

Having seen classified films and follow-up studies of many nuclear weapons tests, I believe the devastation in lower Manhattan is comparable to what would be expected from a low kiloton nuclear bomb - without the extended effects from the heat flash, nuclear radiation and a supersonic shock wave. The prodigious gravitational potential energy released in the collapse of millions of tons of steel and concrete (and people and the threads of their businesses and lives), added to nearly full plane loads of burning fuel, probably was equivalent in destructive power to a small nuclear bomb.


Guided weapons of mass destruction

The available evidence seems to be fairly certain that four separate teams of people hijacked the airliners, three comprised of five people and one of four. Each team included two or more people who had trained for up to a year or more to be pilots, and who had apparently been programmed and focussed for at least that length of time to perpetrate the kinds of acts that took place.


Though guided, the plan was only partially successful

Apparently intelligent people were guided to meticulously plan and train to sacrifice themselves in a political statement by killing thousands of innocent people going about their ordinary daily business. Only because the two WTC towers were marvellously over-engineered did each remain standing for over an hour after to allow evacuation after the planes were crashed into them (http://www.newscientist.com/hottopics/usterror/usterror.jsp?id=ns99991281). Had the buildings collapsed immediately before any evacuation could take place, the death toll probably would have been 50,000. Had the towers fallen sideways (with most of the jet fuel yet unburned immediately on being hit) - rather than imploding - the death toll may have been closer to 100,000. From the evidence published so far, that seems to be exactly what the terrorists and their mentors coldly planned to achieve by slamming the nearly fully fuelled planes into the towers. Through good fortune, the overall toll of innocents belonging to was probably only around 7,000 (New York, airliners and Pentagon). Still, families from more than 80 countries lost spouses, parents and children in the abomination.


Not insane, but coldly committed (following is quoted from the WWW.ABC.COM article cited above):

While their acts were horrendous, experts agree the terrorists were not "crazy" or insane. Insanity would imply they did not understand the wrongfulness of their acts or the death and destruction that would result.

'It is unlikely that any of the terrorists suffered from a serious mental illness,' says Dr. Park Dietz, the head psychiatric consultant for the FBI and the founder of the Threat Assessment Group Inc., a private forensic consulting firm in Newport Beach, Calif.

In fact, quite the opposite may have been true because 'in order to be chosen for such a mission, [the terrorists] would need to prove themselves trustworthy, reliable, and dedicated to a cause', he says.

Commitment to that cause, experts say, can be borne of personal experience with terror or violence, or a feeling of being persecuted."


Guided human weapons of mass destruction are not limited to Islam, and they are not even unusual.

The recent outrage is only that - the most recent.

Looking at the 20th Century, with some oversimplification where the world wars are concerned, often suicidally committed perpetrators can be guided to commit massive outrages initially comparatively peaceful populations by one or a few charismatic leaders:


Guided human destruction is also well known on a smaller scale

Unfortunately for humanity, mentor-guided murder and suicide is all too common. It is often associated with suicide of the perpetrators. I believe these perversions also involve some of the same kind of thinking that was behind the recent abominations.

Examples in the last generation I can list more-or-less off the top of my head include:

To the above events, I would also add the various holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms, crusades, and ethnic cleansings that have been perpetrated with various forms of religious justification on completely ordinary and predominantly innocent people over the centuries.


"Leaderless" terrorism in the US

Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/nation/specials/aroundthenation/okbomb/) probably does not fit with the above examples. Although McVeigh had co-conspirators, there is little credible evidence that he and the other conspirators were "guided" by anything more than generalised "constitutionalist" militia and "Christian patriot" rhetoric to commit their outrage. However, the mode of fundamentalist thinking is the same as for other cases listed, and is worth study because it is a purely endemic case of mass terrorism. (Following is a tiny sample of the more than 2,800 links [McVeigh "Oklahoma City bombing" militia] on via Google relating to this event): http://nwcitizen.com/publicgood/reports/leadless.htm; http://www.constitution.org/okc/okc.htm; http://www.adl.org/mcveigh/default.htm; http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/2001/06/11/p1s1.htm)


The Evil Sources Behind Mass Murder

How do individual people become weapons of mass destruction? 

What kind of mental processes could convince at least 19 people to unflinchingly and deterministically end their lives in the largely successful attempts to kill the maximum number of innocent people possible. What leads seemingly ordinary people to follow charismatic cult leaders into death? Obviously, the mental processes at the time of action must be radically different from those of most people who have been raised in an open society and taught to think for themselves.


Evil leaders

Here, I am not particularly concerned with the megalomania of the charismatic leader himself. History tells us that such leaders can arise by many paths, which may or may not involve a mental illness. However, I note in passing that many of the lethally charismatic leaders have grown up in a religious or other authoritarian background. (I claim no authority on history or psychology, but like Darwinia, beginning long before we knew one another, I was reading "holy" books, the history of ancient and modern religions and biographies of most leaders - good and bad - that shaped the 20th Century. (e.g., re Hitler: Speer, Albert (1970). Inside the Third Reich; Sereny, Gitta (1995). Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth; Bullock, Alan (1991). Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives; Kershaw, Ian (1998). Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris. etc. etc.)).


Charisma defined

The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines charismatic as "of various groups within the Christian Church who believe that God gives people special powers, such as the ability to heal others and to speak to him in a special language", or a special authority. See also the Catholic Encyclopaedia's definition of charisma - "...in its narrowest sense, charisma is the theological term for denoting extraordinary graces given to individual Christians for the good of others. These, or most of these, are enumerated by St. Paul (I Cor., xii, 4, 9, 28, 30, 31), and form the subject matter of the present article. They are: "The word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, the grace of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discerning of spirits, diverse kinds of tongues, interpretation of speeches" (I Cor., xii, 8-10). To these are added the charismata of apostles, prophets, doctors, helps, governments (ibid., 28)." http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03588e.htm .


Monotheistic fundamentalism

Much more important than what motivates the charismatic leader is the kind of kind of thinking that makes it possible for otherwise ordinary people to be turned (or even worse - to turn themselves) into willing weapons of mass destruction against other ordinary people. Here, I believe that the basic evil is fundamentalism - especially of the kind that has so often been espoused by the various  schisms, sects and cults that have evolved over several millennia from the Middle Eastern groups claiming allegiance to the "god" Y*W*H - i.e., the so-called god of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Mormons. I call these the Sons of Yahweh. I include some references on Mormon fundamentalist violence, because this is less well known than that relating to the three major religions:  http://www.mormons.org/response/history/Mountain_Meadows_EOM.htm; http://www.cesnur.org/testi/David_001.htm; http://www.exmormon.org/violence.htm).

I do not include the Baha'i or Unitarian Universalist faiths as Sons of Yahweh. They are monotheistic, but I have no evidence that either of the latter faiths has been involved in fundamentalist outrages like those listed above. In fact, their structures and history would seem to be antithetical to the kind of fundamentalism discussed here(http://www.vanderbilt.edu/bahai/cult.htm; http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/uua.html). Their only dogma is that they have no dogmas.

Although they are Sons of Yahweh, trinitarian Christian groups which also need to be excluded because their dogmatic pacifism prevents them from perpetrating outrages are the Quakers (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/quak.html), Mennonites (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/mennonites.html) and Amish (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/amish.html).


Fundamentalism defined

As abstracted from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Fundamentalism Project in the Religious Movements Homepage section on fundamentalism: http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/fund.html), the various kinds of fundamentalist sects have a number of common features:

"...family resemblances include:


"The Fundamentalism Project" enumerates several more of these 'family resemblances' but most are represented in this abbreviated list.

The last several chapters of the final volume, Fundamentalisms Comprehended, attempt to delineate several properties of Fundamentalism with the research of the previous 7,500 pages in mind. Appleby, Emmanuel Sivan, and Gabriel Almond list five ideological characteristics and four organizational characteristics of fundamentalism. The Five ideological characteristics are:

"The organizational characteristics include:


To have faith is the first mistake.

One of the things I remember from my Student Church days at college, when I was having difficulty swallowing some nonsensical dogma like the concept of the Trinity, was being told that a fundamental tenant even of mainstream Christianity was that I should aspire to accept God's word "on faith and faith alone". I now understand that all of Yahweh's religions, schisms, sects and cults except for the Baha'i and Unitarian Universalist traditions have as a common teaching that the holy Word of God as revealed to the Church must be accepted on faith (see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05089a.htm for an authoritative definition of dogma).

Unfortunately this Word is most often conveyed by the sect leader's word of mouth or writings. Occasionally the Word is revealed to a person individually in ways that would simply be termed psychotic were they not associated with religious claims. However, once an individual surrenders his/her personal obligation to criticise all claims from whatever source to know something (whether or not the supposed "knowledge" is claimed to be the holy Word), the person is readily guided by those who claim some privileged channel to Truth. Unfortunately many people are mentally lazy. Once they have been conned into the faith, they find it even easier to leave the responsibility for thinking to their leader.


Preaching faith is the fundamental evil

Where people combine credulity and willingness to accept dogma on faith and faith alone, and are sufficiently alienated from the mainstream of humanity that they see their fellow humans as "others", charismatic leaders with an axe to grind can create martyrs (see the Catholic Encyclopedia's discussion on martyr - http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09736b.htm and similar discussions from Al-Serat, a Journal of Islamic Studies - http://www.al-islam.org/al-serat/; and Birzeit University's 1996 Memorial page - http://www.birzeit.edu/martyrs/september96/society.html). All of the major monotheistic religions teach their followers to be "faithful" towards their religion. Fundamentalist schisms, sects and cult leaders easily turn one dogma into many and provide fertile reasons for defining heretics and removing them from the community of believers. Where the Word of Yahweh promises a happy afterlife for those who die fighting for the faith, and where the charismatic leaders preaching the Word of Yahweh have a grudge - no matter how irrational that grudge may be - it is not difficult to program even quite intelligent people to a dedicated and calculated martyrdom as guided weapons of mass destruction.

What we need to do to make the world a better and safer place to live is to break the nexus between the evil leader and the faithful follower.


What is our war against and what weapons do we use?

My subject heading says that it is time to declare war on fundamentalism. I am not proposing an attack on any religion, sect, cult or even any charismatic leader (although where specific crimes have been committed, I totally agree the criminals need to be brought to justice and accept some kind of war may be necessary if this is what is required to achieve this end). However, on the broader front, what we need to do is to fight the pathological thinking that makes it possible for the evil charismatic leader to guide intelligent people to their martyrdom as guided weapons of terrorism and mass destruction.

As noted above, the enabling factor behind the charismatic leader's power is people's willingness to accept on faith the claims to have certain knowledge. Twentieth Century philosophy of science gives us the weapons to combat fundamentalist claims with rational argument.


Truth, reason and criticism

There are philosophically and logically justifiable ways people can use to determine the quality of anyone's claims to know about the real world. Philosophically, it is quite possible that people may know the truth. In other words, I accept that there is an external reality and that what people know about it is true.

However Karl Popper in his books (e.g., Conjectures and Refutations and Objective Knowledge - An Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge) and others have shown that it is logically impossible to ever prove that what you claim to know as truth is actually true. On the other hand, if you are studying a deterministic theory, a single refutation of a deterministic prediction will prove the theory to be untrue. With non-deterministic (note that non-deterministic does not imply complete randomness) phenomena like heredity and evolution, you can never absolutely disprove a theory. However, there are still ways to rationally tell the difference between a scientific theory and rational claims to knowledge, and a fantasy or unsubstantiated dogma. Basically, following Popper, rational knowledge is an explanation that has survived repeated and robust attempts to attack and refute its logical connections with external reality. Charismatically expressed "truths" one is expressly prohibited from criticising certainly cannot be considered to be knowledge about the real world. The blind faith and wishful thinking that refuses to expose an idea to stringent criticism and tests against reality is unscientific myth and fantasy. Rationally developed knowledge is a good guide to the way the real world may behave in the future. That which is accepted on faith may lead into lethal error when the world behaves in ways that haven't been anticipated by the wishful thinking.

The above epistemology is very highly summarised and abbreviated. Ideally the comparison between scientific rationality and myth/fantasy should be covered in a semester or a year course at the university level. However, as noted above, the basic ideas are fairly simple and can be expressed in a few sentences without too much violence to the underlying logic.


Teach people to think for themselves

In an open society, leaders and educators must remain vigilant against lazy acceptance of authority on faith. Thinking people must always encourage others to think for themselves. Even where people lack scientific training themselves, they can still critically assess the likelihood that a self-proclaimed authority's claims to know the truth are rationally based or are likely to be founded on claims that would be impossible to substantiate. Thinking people must help their fellows to understand how to be practically critical.

When I was in my early 20's - long before I had even heard of the word epistemology - I worked part time and summers in a medical research laboratory alongside a master machinist and tool maker of Scottish German ancestry. Norm was an acute critic and observer of humanity. Although the only books he had ever read were Shakespeare's plays, I loved discussing all kinds of my callow ideas with him. We talked a lot together.

Then - out of the blue, over a week or so - Norm taught an essential lesson in epistemology in a way I will never forget. I would be in full flight presenting some great idea of mine, and suddenly he would refuse to respond - going completely dumb on me - until I was about to explode with frustration. After several days of this treatment, I finally gave up and begged him to explain what was going on. 

Norm explained that the words "I believe" were not in his vocabulary and that he would not respond whenever I used the phrase. The words he understood were "I think", and Norm proceeded to explain the difference between an unsubstantiated belief and the rational development of an idea. He continued the lesson until I could genuinely say "I think". This was probably the single most important lesson I learned in the process of becoming a true scientist. More pithily, Norm phrased his lesson as, "the person who assumes, zooms" - thinking of the pratfall following on from stepping on a banana peel. Norm rubbed my nose in the object lesson and gave me the catch phrase that made it easy to remember. From then on I also started listening to how people were telling me things they thought I should believe in.


Fight creationism in schools

Terrorism is not the most dangerous weapon the fundamentalists wield. When it occurs, it is obvious and it can be fought. Fundamentalists are trying to win our children to trust in faith by having the teaching of evolution outlawed - or at least having it repudiated by forcing schools to put the dogmatically based creationism on an equal footing with evolution. There are vast epistemological differences between the ways the science of evolutionary biology is formulated and how creationism is constructed. By presenting creationist mythology as "science", and giving creationism equal time with real sciences leaves children confused and easy prey for fundamentalist thinking. It is easier for many to accept the dogma than it is to learn how to remain vigilantly critical of people's claims to know the truth. On the other hand, if teachers and parents can be educated to know and understand the differences between the credulous assertions of creationism and the critical thinking behind the theory of evolution, the dichotomy can readily be used to teach children and youth how to think critically.


Avoid supporting fundamentalist sects

Don't join them, don't finance them, don't give their rubbish airtime. Ridicule their dogmatic premises and lack of rationality whenever you have the chance.


Don't accept racism and bigotry

One of my evolutionary biology professors - Ernst Mayr, a German - repeatedly emphasised the dangers of essentialism when dealing with populations of organisms (or humans for that matter). Every species is comprised of a population of individuals. Saving the special case of genetically identical twins, no two individuals of a sexually reproducing species are identical, and no one individual represents the "essence" of a species. Equally as no one member of a Christian faith can automatically be assumed to be a fanatic, no one member of an Islamic faith can be considered to be a fanatic. Whether Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Sunni, Shiite, Reform or Hassidic schisms are considered, many members are reasonable and moderate people. However, some can be led by their willingness to accept other people's words on faith, and twisted by charismatic leaders with a mission to become terrorists. We need to focus on what specific processes enable the individuals to become guided weapons of mass destruction, and not on sweeping generalisations about races and religions.


Beware of preachers

In my personal view, history tells us that religion has been unhealthy to humanity. However, I recognise that many religions - and particularly many of the mainstream ones offer social and community benefits to many individuals that may outweigh the possible harm they can do. However, if you feel you must belong to a religion, seek moderation in professions of faith and remain critical of any people claim special privileges to know the TRUTH in contradiction to the evidence around you.


Ridicule and boycott "Touched by an Angel"

Ridicule travesties such as the highly popular program "Touched by an Angel" (http://www.touched.com/). From 1997-2000 this was CBS TV's top rating "drama" series (http://www.angelfire.com/ny2/televisioncity/9500.html). Discourage people from watching it. To placidly accept the blatant irrationality and "faith" of such shows as entertainment is wrong. Even in Australia, I know many people who "know" that angels exist and believe this TV hogwash is actually a realistic depiction of angles work. Don't let such rubbish pass you by unchallenged. When you see bad thinking, speak out! Web forums such as this one can actually be quite powerful if they stay focussed on separating reason from fantasy.


Ridicule and boycott televangelists and radical mullahs

Those who ask for you to have faith in them will usually take it. The televangelists are in business for money and power. Look at the huge edifices they build after their egos. What do they continually ask for - your prayers, faith and MONEY, MONEY and more MONEY. Moreover, even if it isn't a desire for something as crass as money, power over others lives can be quite aphrodisiacal. Jim Jones must have gotten a real buzz out of conning hundreds of people into following him to their death.


Above all, teach children to be rationally sceptical of anyone who claims that they are an ultimate authority on what is true.


What more can I say: be sceptical and wary of anyone who claims to have the ultimate truth. A rigorous epistemology shows that no one can logically prove that what he or she claim to know is in fact true - even if it happens to be so. Only by sceptically testing all of your beliefs to know the truth can you improve the quality of your knowledge into something that at least forms a reliable body of working knowledge.

This is why genuine scientists have real problems when arguing with fundamentalists. The scientist always accepts and admits that his knowledge is provisional - subject to change if sufficient evidence shows that the claims to knowledge can be refuted by showing that the knowledge fails to describe the world. The fundamentalist's faith in his dogma is unshakable. The faithful simply refuse to look at any factual evidence that may contradict their dogma, or will twist and lie about the evidence in order to save the dogma. Criticism takes mental effort, blind adherence to dogma takes no effort at all except stubbornness.



Yes, I am an atheist. I grew up in an agnostic household but had a strong streak of spirituality as I was growing up. When I went away to a college that had a strong student church, I joined it, and had my nose rubbed in the great differences between its members' public professions of Christian good works, and the great individual selfishness that was often cloaked by the claims to godliness. In my 20's I began to read and think very seriously about the subject of religion. I came to the conclusion that if God existed, and had allowed all the various holy wars, massacres, pogroms, crusades, and individual religiously motivated murders to take place that were conducted in his name, that he must be fundamentally evil, and I wanted no part. If one must have a god, there is ample evidence that Satan exists. I see no evidence for a wise, loving and caring God. Also, as a scientist with substantial training in both the physical and life sciences, except for a metaphysical possibility that the first cause conceivably could involve a "creator", I see no need to invoke any kind of god to explain anything that science has learned about the functioning of the universe subsequent to the first microseconds following its origin.