Fundamentalism and Freedom

A reader writes:

I read almost all of your debate with Sam. As a Christian turned atheist I have to say that I resonated mostly with Sam’s arguments. It was a very interesting discussion, but I think that in the end you lent support to one of his main assertions.

His case is that moderates lend comfort to fundamentalists by not challenging "silly beliefs". In some ways I think this lending comfort argument is a bit silly, since I don’t believe for a second that religious moderates can talk fundamentalists out of whatever beliefs are undesirable, so in one sense it does not matter what you believe or how you defend it.

However, I do believe that your ultimate defense of your faith, which was to say I believe it because I have never doubted it, and since I did not gain it by rational debate, I cannot lose it by rational debate, completely eliminates any credible ability to criticize the beliefs of dangerous fundamentalists on rational grounds. That little formulation that you use to extend a protective bubble around your belief in God can, in principle be extended around any set of beliefs that go with belief in God.

Unlike Harris, I do not believe this makes you in any way responsible or complicit with dangerous fundamentalism, but I do think it is a fair point for Sam to make that the urge to defend a belief in that way really is a part of the problem.

As a religious experience, I respect fundamentalism, as I hope is clear from my book. This may frustrate or enrage many secularists, but the point about spiritual humility is precisely not to dismiss others' sincere religious journeys. I am therefore deeply resistant to Sam's project to remove religious discourse from what he regards as rational debate, because he may be removing the truth from rational debate. I can no more dismiss the fundamentalist's faith than I can dismiss Sam's reason, with respect to the ultimate truth about the universe.

But it's not as if we don't already have a solution to the political and cultural problem Sam is rightly concerned with. The solution to the problem of fundamentalism as a political issue is classical liberalism. No one will succeed or should succeed in banishing faith from the face of the earth. What we can do is construct political orders that keep the totalist claims of fundamentalism at bay, bracketing them in the private sphere. We can and have built and maintained polities that strongly defend religious liberty while just as strongly keeping the government religiously-neutral, which is another word for secular. In my view, Sam's response to a real political threat is both politically utopian and cosmically too cramped. Spinoza and Hobbes and Locke and the founders saw a better way. The American constitution is the solution, which is why the battle to insulate it from the fundamentalist forces unleashed by Bush and company is so vital. And we need believers to defend secularism, if it is to survive.