Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Fundamentalism & Terror

Here’s a review of Timothy Garton Ash’s new book by the distinguished British philosopher John Gray. The following  passages, in particular, caught my attention:

The reception of Garton Ash’s writings on Muslim fundamentalism is instructive in this regard. He provoked a firestorm by suggesting that Muslims in Europe would have to face up to an Enlightenment version of fundamentalism which demanded – as a condition of Muslims being accepted as Europeans – that they renounce their religion in favour of secular humanism. Such a demand was not only patently unrealistic, as Garton Ash himself pointed out, it also smacked of intolerance. Yet these are debates in which anything that looks like – or can be misrepresented as – an assertion of moral equivalence provokes immediate and intense condemnation. In a footnote to the original article, he writes that he has “long since abandoned the term ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’, since it gives rise to the misunderstanding that some symmetry is suggested with ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ – a label now used almost synonymously with ‘terrorist’”.

As far as current discourse is concerned, Garton Ash has a point. Although they are often intolerant, today’s evangelists for secular humanism do not preach or practise violence. As he puts it, “there are no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north Oxford”. On the other hand, the conflation of fundamentalism with terrorism is not supported by the facts. Fundamentalists are by nature illiberal, and most are more than happy to repress the freedom of others, but it is silly to portray them all as terrorists. Very few fundamentalist Christians support the murder of doctors who perform abortions – a type of terrorism that is fortunately rare, but terrorism nonetheless. Again, many Muslim fundamentalists support abhorrent policies against women and gay people, but that does not make them potential recruits to al-Qaeda.

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking…

This at least partly misses the point. It is of course true that the vast majority of fundamentalists are not terrorists in the narrow, going-to-work-for-al-Qaeda definition, but that surely is not the end of the matter. Terror can also be a tool of the state. To take the example of one notorious fundamentalist, Stalin used terrorist tactics when he fought against the Czar, but he was no less a terrorist when he was in power. When therefore we ask how fair it is to equate fundamentalism with terrorism, it’s necessary to ask not only how fundamentalists behave in opposition, but also how they would act in government.

On the question of Stalin’s ideological kin, Gray has this to say:


Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.


To suggest that Lenin and Mao were  “disciples of an Enlightenment ideology” may be a familiar line of attack, but that doesn’t make it correct. In fact, their ideology (such as it was) was drenched in religious tradition, Messianic fervor and simple bloodlust. It is better seen not as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but as a romantic, irrational reaction against it. As for being “secular”, well, yes and no. Traditional gods were merely replaced by a mystical belief in historical determinism and cults of state and ‘the people’. These may have come with a (sometimes only nominal) rejection of the supernatural, but they are difficult to describe as truly secular – at least in any meaningful sense.

H/t: The Daily Dish


  • ppnl · July 26, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Bravo! Somebody gets it.

  • Big "AL" McCormick · July 26, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    “Traditional gods were merely replaced by a mystical belief in historical determinism and cults of state and ‘the people”(AS)

    This is an excellent observation that can be applied to the cult of equality that we see in the West today. The “original sin” has been replaced by the new sin of “racism,” which if one reads Multicult doctrine, is something all people (especially European derived) are inflicted with. The Saints and Prophets of the church and Bible have been replaced by MLK and Rosa Parks. The High Priests of the Multicult can be found in every social science and humanities department across the West, as were their historical equivalents in the churches and cathedrals. Instructors of sensitivity training take on the role of the Jesuits as they “correct” impure thinking and any sort of dissent to the Multicult can result in actual prison time in most European counties. Diversity is the Highest sacrament of the Multicult and any geographic area seen as “too white” can only be corrected by importing non-European derived people.

    To best understand the Multicult I suggested going to the Daily Kos website and reading the posts relating to the arrest of High Priest Gates from Harvard. No amount of facts can change these people’s perception of this incident. This is why we must conclude that the Multicult is indeed a faith system. In fact, I will go as far to say that these people are just as, if not more “fundamentalist” than most Evangelicals. I’ve never been told to “die” by an Evengelcal but have many times been told to die by members of the multicult for disagreeing with them.

  • Rich Rostrom · July 26, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    “mystical belief in historical determinism”? Marxism was as elaborately _reasoned_ body of thought as the world has ever seen. Its votaries insisted, from Marx himself down to the Marxists who _still_ infest academia, that Marxist conclusions were logically proven. No mysticism involved whatever.

    “Cults of the state and the people” are secular. Sorry. Tapdance as much as you like, but Communism was atheistic and secular. One may argue that instutional Communism adopted much of the form of religion, but form is not content.

    Man up and get past it. Otherwise you sound like a neo-Confederate insisting that Robert E. Lee was anti-slavery.

    And incidentally, there have been people who were “fundamentalist” in their attitudes in this area. For instance, Manuel Azaña, the last President of the Spanish Republic. He was not a Red, but he was reflexively “anti-clerical”‘. He regarded the “Christian Democrat” element of the Spanish right as politically illegitimate, but welcomed the overt Leninists of the Socialist and Communist left into the government – which went a long way toward provoking the Nationalist rebellion of 1936.

  • Ploni · July 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    The author points thus:

    As for being “secular”, well, yes and no. Traditional gods were merely replaced by a mystical belief in historical determinism and cults of state and ‘the people’. These may have come with a (sometimes only nominal) rejection of the supernatural, but they are difficult to describe as truly secular – at least in any meaningful sense.

    If so, then you guys aren’t secular either.

  • Washington Planner » Monday required reading · July 27, 2009 at 6:06 am

    […] points to a review condemning the linkage of fundamentalism and terrorism. Secular Right responds, defending linking the […]

  • j mct · July 27, 2009 at 6:16 am

    That would be all be fine, but the one Mr. Stuttaford’s views on ‘Enlightenment’ thought is more than a bit off. I remember Mr. Stuttaford writing Rousseau out of the Enlightment in some post, which is sort of like a Biblical literalist saying that every word of the Bible is literally true, except for all those epistles written by that Paul fellow. Stalinist thought has an impeccable Enlightenment pedigree, and not thinking so is indicative of not knowing all that much about the Enlightenment. Robespierre and Napoleon were fully paid up, card carrying ‘Enlightenment’ types.

    First of all, the Enlightenment isn’t a ‘philosphy’ at all, it’s a set of dates, narrowly construed as say 1715-1789, broadly from 1688 to 1815, and ‘Enlightenment thought’, is whatever was fashionable to think between those dates.

    The one thing they do have in common is that they had an overweening amount of intellectual confidence though, the term ‘Enlightenment’ didn’t come from people in the 1840’s looking back and labelling it thus, like say the Renaissance, it was a term that the ones at the time applied to themselves. They thought they were the smartest people who ever lived, and that nobody before them had ever strung two thoughts together coherently, kind of like that the quip from some English poet whose name escapes me about the Baby Boomers thinking that noone ever had fun in bed before them, or that sex was invented in 1960 or thereabouts. A modern day social engineer who thinks that they can use their great big Harvard educated brains to completely design a top down health care system better than the private sector is perfectly ‘Enlightened’ in his thinking, as was Marx, who thought History could be reduced to a science like chemistry.

  • Andrew Stuttaford · July 27, 2009 at 9:02 am

    j mct, the Rousseau question is an interesting one. There is a substantial school of thought, with which (FWIW) I would agree, that Rousseau was, in fact, the first leading figure of the ‘counter-enlightenment’. Yes, he was undoubtedly one of the ‘philosophes’, but that was not necessarily the same as being a fully paid-up member of the enlightenment, a term (“Aufklaerung”) incidentally, in circulation in Germany in the later part of the eighteenth century, but less widely used elsewhere until some time later. Quite what we may mean by the enlightenment is, of course, a matter of genuine debate, but it was certainly more than just a matter of whatever it was fashionable to think between two given dates. A starting point might be the primacy that it put on ‘Reason’ (with a capital R), something that Rousseau, no atheist by the way, eventually came to reject. To use a biblical simile of a type not found so often on this blog, Rousseau may once have been an angel of the enlightenment, but he was, by the end, a fallen angel.

  • j mct · July 27, 2009 at 10:55 am

    I don’t think Rousseau’s rejection of reason with a capital ‘R’ was something he thought up himself. In order to think that human little ‘r’ reason is capital ‘R’ Reason, it is necessary that one be a certain sort of theist. David Hume thought that human reason being Reason was more than a bit daft, though I think Hume’s ‘critique’ was a pretty awful one, that wasn’t original to Rousseau, that’s all there in Hume, though Hume never really ‘ran with the ball’ like Rousseau did with his thoughts on Reason. Also, Hume’s thoughts on religion, and that it cannot be based on reason, are pretty much the same as Rousseau’s. Lastly, and I think that this is very important to note, Hume’s conclusions on reason weren’t in the least bit original to him, his conclusion is exactly the same as Calvin’s, i.e., the ordinary views of the typical Scottish Presbyterian of Hume’s day, though how he might have gotten there was a bit different from how Calvin or Knox got there, thus he was controversial.

    I’d agree that Rousseau doesn’t lead to Stalin, Rousseau’s thoughts on politics point to nationalism, i.e fascism. Marx was definitely not a follower of Rousseau, he was definitely a believer in the power of Reason type of guy, and imputing some sort of romanticism to Marx, Lenin or Stalin is off the mark, they were about as anti romantic as one could possibly be.

  • Chris · July 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    If Enlightenment ideology is based on willingness to critically and rationally examine any belief and discard the ones that don’t measure up, and fundamentalism is defined by uncritical adherence to doctrine and possibly violent and/or state-enforced suppression of dissent, then “Enlightenment fundamentalism” is dry water. “Death to anyone who questions the idea that all ideas should be questioned!” doesn’t quite work as a rallying cry.

    No wonder it’s so hard to find examples of it, no matter how often false equivalence demands that you avoid “unfairly” piling criticism on religions.

    Once you realize that Stalinism was really a form of fascism that falls *outside* the Enlightenment tradition rather than within it, then he’s on the same side of the scales with the Inquisition and 9/11 – making it even harder to pretend it is in balance.

  • John · July 27, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    I’m with Rich Rostrum. Communism was an explicitly atheist movement. Just as a Christian can say, “I agree with Osama bin Laden that there is a God, but I think he is evil.”, atheists should be able to say, “I agree with Stalin that there is no God, but I think he is evil.” For a belief to qualify as religious, there has to be belief in a God. It is a simple fact of history that the two nastiest ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism, were not in any way religious, and in fact were hostile to religion, just as it is a simple fact of history that terrorists today are religious fanatics. As Rich put it, form != content.

  • Anthony · July 27, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Just because Communism was atheist doesn’t mean it wasn’t religious. (Some variants of) Buddhism is a religion without god(s), but it’s still a religion. Communism has most of the trappings of a religion, except that it explicitly believes that there is no supernatural. But it has its High Priests, its scriptures, its ritual obesiances, and all the rest.

  • matoko_chan · July 28, 2009 at 5:17 am


    it is all just memetic tribalism. A religious CSS is no different than a non-religious CSS in either form or function.

  • Caledonian · July 28, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Communism has most of the trappings of a religion, except that it explicitly believes that there is no supernatural.

    And it still has prophesy and divine leaders – who merely are not called ‘divine’.

    Holding your own rationality as a tenet doesn’t make you so.

  • OFT · July 28, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Lenin and Mao drenched in religious tradition? Communism and rationalism appear devoid of religion:

    “There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.”
    -Communist Manifesto

    Interesting, that Marx, and Engels were somewhat on the same side as Locke, and Hobbes, on forming ideas, although the latter called themselves Christians, and the Scriptures appear to reject a posteriori knowledge in favor of Original Sin, and Natural Law.

  • kurt9 · July 28, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Leninism and Stalinism were secular collectivist ideologies. Christianity and Islam are religious collectivist ideologies. It is the nature of collectivist ideologies to want to persecute and, in some cases, kill those who want nothing to do with them. The issue of religious vs. secular is a meaningless red herring. It is the fact that all of these are collectivist ideologies that makes them evil. What is there not to understand about this?

  • kurt9 · July 28, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    You know, I was a high school kid when I figured all of this out. I came to the conclusion that Christianity and communism (I grew up at the tail end of the cold war) were conceptually identical in that they both are based on a hierarchical pyramid of vertical relationships, that everyone is expected to plug into. The only difference is who sits at the top of that pyramid. In the case of communism, it is the State. In the case of Christianity, it is the God. In every other respect, they are identical. I rejected the pyramid completely. I believed (as I do now) that individuals are fundamentally autonomous and that the proper interaction is as horizontal networking relationships between fundamental “equals”. I used to talk about this with many of my friends, some of whom who actually understood what I was talking about.

    It was several years later, while in college that I talked about this with some guys while on a climbing trip. They told me that this world-view had already been thought of and that it was called “libertarianism”. One of them also told me that there was this novelist, named “Ayn Rand”, who wrote several novels based on this concept. That was literally the first time I had ever heard of “libertarianism” or “Ayn Rand”.

    In other words, through my own empirical observations and own reasoning, I was able to independently come up with the libertarian worldview completely independent of anyone else.

    Am I a genius or what? I’m the intellectual equivalent to the alpha male stud in this world.

    I have thought about it many time and have come to the conclusion that there is no way that I could have independently derived any of the major religions, such as Christianity or Islam, by this same means. That’s why I remain 100% an atheistic libertarian. Because it is the only worldview that makes a lick of sense to me.

    You see, in order for something to be real, it has to be independently discoverable or derivable. The fact that I was able to do this with libertarianism makes it clear that it is real. This is called real world testing. All of the religions that I know of flunk this basic test.

    There is another conclusion that I have come to over the years (and having lived on two continents and several cultures). All non-libertarian philosophies, ideologies, and religions exist for the purpose of increasing the power of one person or persons over others. They are all rationalizations of the power game. Regardless of whatever flowery rhetoric they spew out, the real world and therefor observable effect (remember all reality is based on observation, everything else is mental masturbation) is that they award benefit to one person or group, often at the expense of others. There is no underlying reality to these worldviews. Its all about the power game.

    Same thing is true about all philosophers, ideologues, religious sages, and anyone else I have not identified. These are all crazy people. Their purpose in life is to convince everyone else that they are even more crazy than they and that, therefor, they should play “follow the leader”.

    That’s it. There is nothing else.

  • Lorenzo · July 28, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    In his “From Plato to Nato“, Gress provides a useful distinction between the sceptical Enlightenment (which applies reason to human circumstances based on the notion that there is an enduring human nature) and the radical Enlightenment (which assumes that human nature itself is plastic to the proper application of reason).

    The former was relatively comfortable with religious belief, depending on its effect on public policy, the latter saw religion as a dead-weight from the past and a competitor.

    So Marx et al are products of the Enlightenment, just a very different Enlightenment than produced, for example, the American Revolution.

  • John · July 28, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Sorry guys, but Communism is a secular philosophy. It may have some things in common with religion, but that doesn’t make it religious. You can’t simply define any philosophy you don’t like as “religious”. That’s the equivalent of a religious person calling anyone they don’t like a “Devil worshiper”.

    kurt9, my experience was similar to yours. I remember as a young teen, my dad said, “You know who I think has your philosophy: Ayn Rand.” I has never heard of her or libertarianism. I’m not a strict Objectivist, but I did become a libertarian.

  • matoko_chan · July 28, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    ” You can’t simply define any philosophy you don’t like as “religious”.”

    But you CAN define any philosophy as a CSS, a culturally stable strategy, a memetic tribe.
    Read this book.
    Stay out of the appendices though….I can tell the commenters here are math-challenged.

  • kurt9 · July 28, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Sorry guys, but Communism is a secular philosophy. It may have some things in common with religion, but that doesn’t make it religious.

    Whether a particular ideology is secular or religious is completely irrelevant. This is a very tedious and meaningless debate.

    Of course communism was secular and it was used as justification to persecute a great many people. Likewise, Christianity and Islam are religion and they have been used to persecute people as well. The fact is that both kinds are collectivist and are used to persecute people. Why should I favor any ideology over any other just because it happens to be religious or secular?

  • kurt9 · July 28, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Sorry guys, but Communism is a secular philosophy. It may have some things in common with religion, but that doesn’t make it religious.

    I’m not sure I agree with this either. Communism had the same psychological effect on its true believers as Christianity and Islam has on theirs. All ideologies occupy the same “meme niche” or psychological space in the human mind. Thus, for all practical purposes there is no meaningful distinction between a religious ideology and a secular one. This is just another example of how the “secular vs. religious” distinction is meaningless.

  • Lenin, Mao, and the Enlightenment « Camels With Hammers · July 28, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    […] Mao, and the Enlightenment Andrew Stuttaford debunks John Gray’s charges that Mao and Lenin were “disciples of an Enlightenment […]

  • OFT · July 30, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    It is the nature of collectivist ideologies to want to persecute and, in some cases, kill those who want nothing to do with them.>

    You would have to reject Madison and the framers attributing Luther and the Reformation for Natural Rights.

    Likewise, Christianity and Islam are religion and they have been used to persecute people as well.>

    Whoever kills in the name of Christianity, is obviously not Christian, unless you can provide examples of it in the N.T.

  • matoko_chan · July 31, 2009 at 7:35 am

    well….in cog anthro, fundamentalism is pretty much always bad for a CSS.
    it signifies a lack of flexibilty in the structure of core memes, and that leads to inability to adapt, which becomes in turn a failure of competitive fitness for the core memes.
    This results in turn in inabaility to attract converts (except for the marginal fringe that find fundamentalism appealling), and also, heresy and apostacy, where the CSS loses reps.

  • Snippet · July 31, 2009 at 9:00 am


    I’m with you, Communism is secular, its borrowing of many of religion’s pathologies notwithstanding.

    I have not found the attempt to “religious-ize” communism convincing.

    To a certain degree, any belief system can go nuts in ways that resemble the way various religions have gone nuts, but that doesn’t mean the belief system isn’t secular at its core.

  • Chris · August 3, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Regardless of whether you classify communism as religious or non-religious, there’s clearly something that it has in common with religions that they don’t have in common with science. (And contra kurt9, it’s not collectivism, either; you can have just as irrational a faith-based belief in the benevolence of the Invisible Hand.)

    Religious vs. atheist is the wrong division, but there *is* an important difference between worldviews or ideologies that is being approached here.

    I’m surprised that philosophers haven’t already discovered what these schools of thought have in common and given it a name (or maybe they have, and I just don’t know it).



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