‘Truth and Science’ has won the US presidential election; will America win the world through it?
Posted on November 11th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

America is the most religious and the most nationalistic country in the world, in addition to being the only global superpower. When the Democrats who fought the election on a platform of ‘Truth and Science’ defeated the Republicans who were guided or misguided by a person/a cult figure (instead of a coherent policy) whom many popular polls described as mendacious and ignorant on top of being an indecent narcissistic exemplar of religious and nationalistic extremism, racism and misogyny, it is natural for a world, persecuted by America’s hegemonic political economic and military power, to breathe a sigh of relief. Democratic Party’s Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been declared President and Vice-President elects respectively, beating Republican Party’s Donald Trump, incumbent President, and his Vice-President and running mate Mike Pence. Sri Lanka is, no doubt, currently sharing that universal sense of consolation. Though some anti-national, NGO-dominated social media are trying in vain to turn that hopeful feeling to gloomy apprehension by drumming up a certain unfounded ‘Kamala Harris’ phobia, signs are that, probably, average Sri Lankans cannot wish a better person to be in that post to channel America’s influence in their region in a universally beneficent direction. My purpose here is to take a look at hypocritical religiosity and nationalism-turned-racism (versions of fundamentalist religion and racist jingoism, respectively), both at the service of despicable value-free politics, that Truth and Science successfully challenged at the recent US presidential election. 

Religion is about human ‘spirituality’. Spirituality is ‘the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things’, in other words, with the mind as distinct from the body. So it is appropriate to approach the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological point of view. Some psychologists assume religious fundamentalism to be ‘a collection of infallible beliefs or principles that provide guidance regarding how to obtain salvation. Religious fundamentalists believe in the superiority of their religious teachings, and in a strict division between righteous people and evildoers…… This belief system regulates religious thoughts, but also all conceptions regarding the self, others, and the world’ (frontiers.org). Isn’t every religion fundamentalist by nature in this sense? But there are two kinds of religious fundamentalism in my opinion, harmless and harmful. What should concern us is the latter. The more a religion tends towards harmful religious fundamentalism, the more it resembles a cult that thrives on unhinged minds. A cult, we know, is ‘a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object’. (Both dictionary definitions given in this paragraph are from google.com)

The rise of Christian fundamentalism in America in the 19th century as a Protestant movement to counter theological liberalism and cultural modernism can be described as the advocacy of a return to the basic ‘infallible beliefs or principles…..’ of the Christian faith. That was harmless fundamentalism and was viewed as something positive. Actually, the term fundamentalism as originally applied to Christianity in America had non-violent, ‘you mind your own business, we mind ours’ connotations; the word acquired the current pejorative meaning in the media when it began to be connected with violent Islamic movements in the Middle East in the 1970s decade, a most conspicuous event among which was the 1979 Iran Revolution, that toppled the US-backed Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, during President Jimmy Carter’s last year in office. The latter, now 96, congratulated president elect Joe Biden and vice-president elect Kamala Harris as the media reported November 8.  

Religious fundamentalism becomes a problem when any religion claims monopoly over  

Truth (whatever that is), superiority over other faiths regardless of whether they also make similar claims about themselves, seeks to rescue the ‘misguided’ adherents of those faiths from allegedly false and evil beliefs and practices through coercion where conversion through conviction doesn’t work, or even resorts to violence to have its way with people, evoking divine authority to justify it. Religions are intrinsically political, but rarely democratically so. Religion and politics make a violently explosive mixture. (‘Politics has killed its thousands, but religion has slain its tens of thousands’. – Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey, ‘Religion kills’ ‘Religion poisons everything’ – British intellectual and socio-cultural and political critic Christopher Hitchens) The Founding Fathers of the USA including Thomas Jefferson sought to establish a ‘wall of separation between the State and the Church’ in order to keep civil government free from the interferences of the Catholic clergy. The concept was termed ‘secularism’ only in the 19th century by British reformer George Jacob Holyoake.

Religious interference in what should come within exclusive state purview, for example public education, has persisted even into the third millennium, in America. A survey conducted in 2006 by Zogby International for the Discovery Institute found that approximately 70% of Americans approved of the view that biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also ‘the scientific evidence against it’ in contrast to 21% who held the opinion that only evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it must be taught in schools. This is the result of benighted ignorance – inexcusable in those who claim to be the greatest democracy and the only superpower in the world – that is at the root of religious fundamentalism. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says that ‘the theory of evolution is actually a fact – as incontrovertible a fact as any in science’. There isn’t any scientific evidence against it. Prof. Dawkins makes ‘a personal summary of the evidence’ available to support this factual reality in his fascinating  book ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, Bantam Press, GB, 2009. The plain but profound final sentence of the book is worth quoting: ‘We are surrounded by endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful, and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random natural selection – the only game in town, the greatest show on Earth’. 

In his book ‘Against Religion’ (Scribe Publications, Brunswick, VIC, Australia, 2007), Dr Tamas Pataki of the University of Melbourne makes a philosophical critique of religion, which goes beyond the neighbourhood of what, according to him, may be called psychology of religion. Pataki adopts religious scholar and philosopher John Haldane’s brief characterization of religion: ‘religion is best characterised as a system of beliefs and practices directed towards a transcendent reality in relation to which persons seek solutions to the observed facts of moral and physical evil, limitation and vulnerability, particularly and especially death.’ 

Scottish philosopher and academic John Haldane was a papal advisor to the Vatican. Obviously, he is not anti-religion; he is pro-religion. He believes in the necessity of religion as a foundational political principle that fosters values like respect for others’ rights, and support for their well-being in multicultural multi-religious societies which are the global norm today for most countries; religion, according to him, is the best, and indeed, the only source of such ideas. Critics of religion argue that religions differ on what they consider to be moral and good, and instead of promoting goodwill and compassion towards people of other religions, sow feelings of mutual alienation, suspicion, and disunity, and egoistic self-absorption. Religious fundamentalism of both the benign and the malign kinds aggravate such attitudes.   

According to Pataki, criticising religion is a complicated matter because there is so much diversity within religions. He writes: ‘The historical denominational differences are bad enough, but recent developments have completely erased any hope of perspicuous demarcation. Today the ineluctable longing for group identity drives even those who divest religion of its defining doctrinal content to religious affiliation. The denial of the Resurrection and the Deity is no bar to identifying as a Christian. Iris Murdoch (Irish British novelist and philosopher deeply concerned about good and evil) enjoined a Christianity without God or divine Jesus, a kind of Christian Buddhism. Unbelief has become belief.’

Pataki’s critical discussion is predicated on people that he describes as ‘religiose’, who include most of the groups currently identified as fundamentalist, among others. Another factor that forms an obstacle to criticism of religion is that it, like politics, cuts across a range of absolutely different fields: ideology/doctrine, practices, rituals, institutions, movements, attitudes, votaries, and priests. The evils of religion examined in the book are conspicuous in the three well known Abrahamic monotheisms, according to Pataki’s thinking.

Religion is not all bad, though, as already suggested. To many people religion is invaluable as the deepest expression of human worth and moral well-being. It is also an inexhaustible source of consolation for them in personally and socially distressful, emotionally draining situations such as bereavement and natural catastrophes. However, Pataki adds reservations to this: ‘There is no metric for religion at its best, but it is not hard to measure it at its worst, in the tenebrous collapse of reason and in corpses. Besides, it is obviously more important today to confront religion at its worst and most dangerous. The good takes care of itself.’ The further a religion is from blind irrationality and intrinsic violence, the greater is its potential as a socio-cultural institution for the general good of the community concerned.

Pataki describes ten characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which I will set down here – with my own elaborations given in parentheses, in some cases, as I understand them (Some of these were accidentally revealed during the US election): Religious fundamentalists are counter-modernists; they advocate religious, cultural and political isolationism; they are assertive, clamorous, and often violent, (but they play the victim card when confronted); fundamentalists believe that they are the Elect of their god, the Chosen people, the Saved, etc; they display public marks of distinction, which they think are necessary to maintain their superiority and distinctive identity (so, they may wear special body marks, adopt a special dress code, and use names that reveal their specific religious identity); religious fundamentalists believe that (as theirs is the one true religion and the one exclusively blameless way of life) these must not allow any inroads to be made into their domain from other religions (or secularist institutions, religious pluralism is unthinkable for them). A sixth characteristic belief that fundamentalists commonly share is that there is only one inerrant holy book, and one inerrant prophet or charismatic leader (both of which they have been divinely favoured with). They also believe that law and authority come from God and that God’s law surpasses human law. Yet another fundamentalist characteristic is the preoccupation with controlling female sexuality; unbreachable segregation must be established between men and women. Pataki identifies the ninth characteristic of fundamentalists as their major concern with the sexual behaviour of individuals; the fear of and opposition to homosexuality. The tenth characteristic of fundamentalists is that their religious fundamentalism is inseparable from their nationalism (nationalism of the evil kind, racism, the ‘all for ourselves and nothing for other people’ doctrine usually adopted by Americans that Noam Chomsky criticises in in his book ‘Who Rules the World’, 2016).  Most of these characteristics are close to the conspicuous symptoms of persons suffering from what is known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Quite unexpectedly, we have a well known Buddhist monk who displays these qualities in abundance these days. The morbidity of religious fundamentalism need hardly be stressed.

For me, evidence for the last point mentioned came from the tail end of Donald Trump’s election campaign. The nationalism slogan was loudly chanted on the stages of both camps, Democratic and Republican. There is nothing wrong with that. Good nationalism should be commended. Racism that passes for nationalism is what is bad. On the Republican side, the identity between the wrong kind of nationalism (white racism) and what can be described as religious fundamentalism in terms of the characteristics given above, was particularly conspicuous. Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser, held a number of prayer services invoking divine blessings for his victory even as his defeat had become a certainty by the final stages of the counting process which was still in progress in the wake of the just concluded presidential election. She, apparently, engaged in battle with the ‘demonic confederacies’ that were allegedly trying to steal Trump’s victory (cf. ‘a strict division between righteous people and evildoers’ in the second paragraph from the beginning of this essay). She loudly chanted: ‘Strike Strike…. I Strike the ground……..until you have Victory…..I hear a sound of Victory…I hear an overabundance of Rain and Victory in the Quarters of Heaven…..I hear Shouting and Singing…. Angels are being released……are being despatched…’ etc. Then she broke into speaking in tongues (directly communicating with God), something with profound religious significance for the faithful: ‘Amanda, Atha, Rasa, Baka, Ambo, Rike, Eka, Anda, Anda, Manda… I hear the sound of Victory, etc’.  Trump lost in spite of all this. The Democrat Joe Biden, who, on his part, presumably, made as passionate a supplication for divine intervention for his victory, won the election. But his no nonsense main campaign slogan ‘Battle for the Soul of the Nation Our Best Days Still Lie Ahead No Malarkey! Build Back Better Unite for a Better America’ had little to do with religion. 

When all is said and done, it is upto the American people, as Americans, to choose their ruler/s for the next four years; they are doing that now. On the face of it, especially to us outsiders, the winning margin of four million votes according to estimates at the time of writing (Biden’s 74 to Trump’s 70 million) is a bit disappointing; the gap should have been wider, we feel, given the  unpopularity of the latter, deepened by the anti-Trump stance of the media and Trump’s own apparent personal perverseness, his unconcealed white supremacist bravado and his sexist prejudice displayed against his own near and dear ones. However, only his 70 million or more supporters know what endeared him to them. Outsiders cannot decide for Americans. The best we may expect from the incoming US administration is that they appreciate this reality in respect of Sri Lanka when considering whether or not to continue or modify the established tradition of intervention and interference in its affairs in pursuit of their geopolitical ends in our region as an essential part of their grand scheme of serving their own national interest back home. 

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