Comments on “Fundamentalism is countercultural modernism”

Highly religious?

Malenkiy Scot 2016-10-08

Hi David,

Can you please explain what you mean when you say that you are highly religious, although you do not believe in God? Is “religious” the right term here?

Does Buddhism count?

David Chapman 2016-10-08

Hi Malenkiy,

I am a Buddhist. People sometimes argue about whether or not Buddhism “is a religion.” There’s no agreed-upon definition for what counts as a religion, so I don’t think that debate is helpful. It may be useful to understand how Buddhism is like, and unlike, other things called religions, though.

Not trying to start a debate,

Malenkiy Scot 2016-10-08

Not trying to start a debate, just to understand what you mean. I read your other sites and do know that you are a Buddhist.

Let me rephrase the question a bit then: As a highly religious person … I share your concern. The atomization of meaning could result in complete cultural and social collapse.

What being religious has to do with “sharing the concern”? Again, not trying to debate, just understand.

Sharing the concern

David Chapman 2016-10-08

I meant: I agree with fundamentalists (and other non-fundamentalist religious people) that secular postmodernity has a nihilism problem.

It is probably possible to be a secular person in the postmodern world without falling into nihilism pretty frequently—but I think it’s difficult, and not many people succeed.

Religion also doesn’t guarantee that one won’t fall into nihilism at times—in fact, I doubt anyone can entirely avoid it—but it helps.

There are many sources of meaning besides religion; some people use politics as, in effect, a substitute, for instance. The problem with these is that (like most religions) they tend to promote eternalism.

(Not sure I’m answering your question, but I’m not sure what you are asking.)

Traditional etc.

Pobop 2016-10-11

Nearly everything under “Fundamentalism is anti-traditional” sounds like, and could equally well describe Protestant Reformation. In fact I think this trick of going back to how it was in the old days is as old as history (of course pre-historic peoples had ancestor worship so they were doing it too). The whole of Old testament shows this pattern of retroactively interpreting, selecting and re-writing the texts to fit the latest solution to the last catastrophe.

But I think fundamentalism uses the same tricks that reformation did. Like specifically the same damn trick and not just the general pattern of “returning to the roots”. It’s not just that they re-interpret history, but there’s the same tendency to take the word of god as given and not needing any extensive interpretation. Martin Luther thought he was returning the church to earliest (true) forms of congregational life and worship. Fundamentalism is incredibly blind to the fact that they are in fact doing a very specific, complex and historically positioned interpretation of whatever scripture they use. And THEN they believe it’s a general, simple and eternal truth that they have.

I probably should check the Ritual and its consequences book again, I know they point out the connection between reformation and the rise of sincerity.

So I agree with that part, but now I’m confused.
What do you mean with traditional then? Cause when I hear that word I keep thinking of tribal life and the choiceless mode. Your gigantic chart says quite broadly that it was “over by 1700”.
But then there’s “early renaissance” and “early humanism”, like in Florence in the 1400s, which was quite individualistic to the upper classes. And there’s the medieval period which was in many ways choiceless, but also very unlike tribal life.

I know this isn’t a general history project and I know you have to abstract away some details to get to the point. Tradition? Choiceless mode? What’s the difference.

(Also, thanks. I wish I’d read something like this about 10-15 years ago. At it’s worst this book is like good popular philosophy/history/science. At it’s best I get a feeling of having found the explanation for things I didn’t know I was thinking.)

Nothing new under the sun

David Chapman 2016-10-11

Nearly everything under “Fundamentalism is anti-traditional” sounds like, and could equally well describe the Protestant Reformation.

Yes; as I said in footnote 1, one can always find antecedents for any intellectual movement, and trace them back as far as you like. All scholars agree (so far as I know) that fundamentalism was a distinctive and new movement around the beginning of the 20th century though. It was distinctive in being anti-modern, which the Protestant Reformation was not. (The Catholic Counter-Enlightenment was anti-modern too, but it was not based on sola scriptura.)

this trick of going back to how it was in the old days is as old as history

Yes; I started to appreciate how important and common this is when I studied the history of Buddhism is some depth. It’s been faking its own history, with invented traditions, as far back as I can trace it.

a very specific, complex and historically positioned interpretation of scripture

Yup! (In Buddhism, too, where every generation explained what the scriptures “really meant,” and it meant something different each time.)

Your gigantic chart says quite broadly that [tradition] was “over by 1700”. But then there’s “early renaissance” and “early humanism”, like in Florence in the 1400s

Yes; the modes overlap. I dated the beginning of the systematic mode to the Florentine Renaissance; it took three centuries to mostly displace the traditional/choiceless mode. But these are all nebulous categories. There’s been some degree of systematicity in every urban civilization going back many thousands of years; and much of the population in rich Western countries in 2016 are “traditional people in a modern [now postmodern] world,” to quote Kegan.

Tradition? Choiceless mode? What’s the difference.

Well, the problem with “traditional” as a term is that it’s used to mean very different things by different people (as I said in the page on choicelessness). I invented the term “choiceless mode” to isolate one of those meanings.

At it’s worst this book is like good popular philosophy/history/science. At it’s best I get a feeling of having found the explanation for things I didn’t know I was thinking.


It’s a mystery to me how I wound up writing pop history. I have no qualifications for it, or particular interest in it. Somehow it seems necessary as background to things I do particularly want to say!


Nate Graham 2016-12-17

Did you mean Yuppies?


David Chapman 2016-12-17

That’s quite funny… I suppose they’ve passed out of historical awareness entirely by now. They were before my time, but still pretty well-known-about when I was in my teens and twenties.

The Yippies were a memetic-warfare branch of the student radical movement of the 1960s. Rather similar to current Frog Twitter, except on the left, and using then-current media tech.


Nate Graham 2016-12-17

Hah, I had no idea. I see you made the word a link, which should help clear things up for millennials like me (I assume this was obvious given my unfamiliarity with the group).

Amazing stuff, by the way. You make history come alive.

Memetic warfare & progress

Toby 2017-06-19

Since ISIS is pretty much the worst thing in the world now, understanding how this works may be important to fighting it. I’ll suggest strategies for memetic warfare.

Any chance of writing this memetic warfare page any time soon? As a Brit, the Islamist terrorist situation is getting pretty scary. (Amongst all the other things that seem to be disintegrating by the day.) So I’d really appreciate your ideas along these lines. It’s no longer just an interesting sideline on a philosophical/spiritual investigation of meaning. The question of “how ISIS works” is immediate and practical.

One other thought. I’m sceptical about human progress in the social & political sphere. Yes, science & technology develops in leaps and bounds. But all the basic human problems never really go away. I can’t help feeling that after seventy years of peace in the West there’s now some primitive urge to maximise conflict everywhere… and God knows where it’s all heading.

Perhaps I’m misreading you, but your overall scheme seems pretty optimistic. In other words the realities of modern life (no overarching systems, fragments of meaning everywhere) will eventually force everyone to become more relaxed (‘fluid’) about competing points of view. But what if that isn’t the case, and millions of people actually find solace in some kind of rigid system of belief again? Given Kegan’s view that a huge proportion of people find problems living in a systematic world – let alone a ‘post-systematic’ one – what’s to prevent that happening? Maybe, for many people, it would be a relief.

The answer (I assume) is that we can’t un-know what we already know. But human beings are pretty contrary creatures. Interested to hear your take on that.

Memetic warfare

David Chapman 2017-06-19

As a Brit, the Islamist terrorist situation is getting pretty scary. (Amongst all the other things that seem to be disintegrating by the day.)

Yes… I am a Brit according to my passport, although I’ve never actually lived there. I know London pretty well, though, and love it, and have friends there, and yeah things look pretty grim.

Any chance of writing this memetic warfare page any time soon?

Uh… no, I’m afraid not.

I’d suggest Scott Atran’s work, for instance.

Some relevant links I’ve collected, probably of varying quality:

I’ve collected a ton more like that… I don’t have any expertise on Islamism, so I’m just playing catch-up, and probably can’t really contribute. Although I may have some insights about atomization in the West, which might cast some little light on ISIS’s effectiveness.

your overall scheme seems pretty optimistic.

Mmm… no, not really. It’s anti-pessimistic, which isn’t the same. We can’t know the future, but we can contribute to shaping it. It doesn’t have to be awful—although it very well may be.

I don’t think a transition to fluidity is at all guaranteed, or perhaps even likely. I do think it’s possible.

Danger, violence, self-sacrifice

Toby 2017-06-20

Thanks for the links, David. Just read the first Atran piece - very insightful.

This makes a whole lot of sense:

“what inspires the most lethal assailants in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings but rather a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends.”

And then there’s the quote from Orwell:

“Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene … and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”

Yeah, exactly. Danger and real sacrifice… with, in Isis’s case, the added allure of violence, sex and horror. Under a black flag. That’s a lot of power. It’s like all the bad guys of Mad Max come to life. What do we have, on such a primaeval level, to compete with all of that? Young guys are just itching to fight, and to have something worth fighting for.

Brief anecdotal connection… Even as a well-educated, middle-class guy, it was partly this impulse (though obviously far less extreme) that got me into karate and the Buddhist group I joined, in my early twenties. Key attractions were the hard physical training and fighting (i.e. being properly ‘tested’), the sense of being in a hardcore group compared to a ‘soft’ society around us, having access to the ‘true teachings’, and being on a mission. Much of that self-identity was delusional. But there were enough elements of truth for it be intensely fulfilling, and to keep it going for years. Of course it all ended in a big crash eventually - both personally, and the group.

Aside from ISIS, the whole tone of society seems to have become very much more aggressive, quite quickly (I’m thinking of the US and UK). So I hope something can emerge that gives a constructive framework for these kind of violent impulses, especially for young guys.


Sasha 2017-08-20

“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” How about shrimp?

How about other humans?
What happened to “thou shalt not kill”?

On Traditionalism

A Student of Religion 2018-09-11

Your article was very fascinating, and I agree with it almost entirely. But there is a footnote where your statements are on a somewhat shaky ground.

Capital-T Traditionalism is almost perfectly parallel to fundamentalism,

René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy had no attempt to give becauses but to revive the traditional understandings to replace modernist and fundamentalist interpretations.

…and Traditionalism manages to combine some of the worst features of both the American countercultures. Perhaps because it’s bizarre and repellent at first glance, Traditionalism has had limited success.

It has had a limited ‘success’ because it has never tried to become a movement. It has succeeded very well in what it has tried to achieve – to reveal the authentic esoterism that modern esotericism have tossed aside, and criticise the modern re-interpretations of religious traditions.

What are these ‘worst features’ of the Traditionalist School, and what is so ‘repellent’ in it – in the attempt to read the religions as they were meant to read before modernism ruined them? Bizarre it might be, as spiritual things might be for modern secular people.

Your are probably aware that the Traditionalist School had nothing to do with American countercultures. It was born in Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia from the esoteric searching of Guénon and scholarly and spiritual interest of Schuon and Coomaraswamy somewhat around 1930s.

However, Sedgewick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century argues that it has significantly influenced Islamic extremism. Currently, it is also influential in new Russian and Eastern European far-right movements.

Sedgewick’s attempts to connect Traditionalism and Fascism are far-fetched and debunked. I hope his book will not be the only source you use about Traditionalism.

Religion stripped to ethics

Michael Cavanaugh 2023-04-16

Protestant modernists “stressed ethics rather than eschatology; social reform rather than confessional debate; symbolic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible rather than more literal readings . . . they had eliminated nearly everything from religion except ethics, and then adopted mainstream secular ethics, and so had nothing distinctive to offer anyone.”
Nails it. Brings to mind H Richard Niebuhr’s satire in The Kingdom of God in America: these folk ended up proclaiming that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Even if one does not agree with the fundamentalists (as you do not, nor do I) one can see the point of their objecting.
The other satire comes from Saul Bellow’s Mr Sammler. “Beating swords into plowshares? No, rather converting dog collars into gee strings. But this was neither here nor there.”

TraditionalISM, an infantile disorder?

Michael Cavanaugh 2023-04-16

“Genuine traditions have no defense against modernity. Modernity asks ‘Why should anyone believe this? Why should anyone do that?’ and tradition has no answer. (Beyond, perhaps, “we always have.) . . . fundamentalism, by taking up modernity’s weapons, transforms a traditional culture into a modern one.”

Spot on.

Actual traditions do not have ideologies; once one gets an ideology one has left tradition, ipso facto. This point has been made by Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition; also Ernest Gellner, Legitimation of Belief (p. 147), who quotes al Ghazali to this effect: “There is no hope of returning to a traditional faith after it has once been abandoned, since the essential condition in the holder of a traditional faith is that he should not know he is a traditionalist.” TraditionalISM is thus self-refuting.

Interesting observation about al Qutb, also “Sophisticated urban Muslims reject their grandparents’ traditional religion as a jumble of pointless, outmoded village customs with no basis in the Koran.” Mere tradition is not Islamic enough; True Islam must be universal and ideological.

Tradition is a jumble (“muddling”) and systematic unjumbling is a hallmark of having departed tradition. Unjumbling into a universal story, an orthodoxy, is also a form of destruction. Max Weber takes this up, under the heading of “rationalization,” and one of the most interesting things about his account is how long this has been going on – not just the Enlightenment, not just the Renaissance/Reformation, but the Hebrew prophets and the pre-Socratics. (Peter Berger takes this up too – when Nathan the prophet confronts King David, the divine right of kings starts downhill.) So, yes, religions themselves – as you depict fundamentalism – may very well eat themselves.

But I think your general point is very important: fundamentalism is not an atavism but a modernism. (Fundamentalists think otherwise, their political opponents agree, and some scholarly opinion does too. But they are wrong.)

I discovered this bit of your writing in the midst of telling my own tale about the scientific creationists – I characterize them as “Doubting Thomists,” simultaneously merchandising doubt (as part of a sixties counterculture: Question Authority), while maintaining and pursuing an old scholastic tradition about reason and revelation (“Thomism,” in a loose sense).

It is very important to recognize, as you do, the countercultural side of fundamentalism. I would quarrel with your claim that “Fundamentalisms are all anti-rational.” There is much to be said for fundamentalism as a kind of counter-intellectualism; creationists included. (George Marsden’s works are useful in this regard.) But I would quarrel with you, in part, because I agree with you in another part: I adopt a broadly functionalist definition of “fundamentalism” as any movement back to basics – including, for example, the Protestant Reformation which (new atheists aside perhaps) pretty much no one would define as outright anti-rationalism.

Situation, pacifist warfare and a possible typo

Danyl Strype 2024-01-22

In Buddhism, too, where every generation explained what the scriptures “really meant,” and it meant something different each time

If we can replace “really meant” with “means for us in our situation”, that strips the unavoidable interpretive work of its universalism and eternalism. I’ve mentioned the situationists in other comments on you work, and I suspect this is why they coined that name for their theory and practice. I could have said, it was what they “really meant”, but that would be situationism, not a situationist interpretation ; )

So I hope something can emerge that gives a constructive framework for these kind of violent impulses, especially for young guys.

Some would argue this is what contact sports are good for. The novel The Gate to Women’s Country is about a matriarchal society that comes up with its own solution to this problem.

In Aotearoa there is a network of “funists” - including partisans of ALF’s imperial Army and the Clan McGillicuddy - who proposed a practice of “pacifist warfare” to fill this gap. Since the late 70s they’ve experimented with this by staging “battles”, a kind of improvised street theatre where groups would take sides in a fictional conflict, “fighting” with paper swords and flour bombs.

Sadly, although this is great fun in its own right (I’ve been in a number of such “battles”), it hasn’t really filled the gap. More aggressive forms of medieval reenactment, involving fighting with actual weapons made from rattan or even blunt metal, might. But some of these seem to have become recruitment grounds for fundamentalists, in the same way as some video game and other fandoms. Not sure what the solution is for any of this.

FYI I think your text has a missing comma been “sex” and “violence”, distorting your intended meaning in the phrase;

sex violence and nasty noises in music


David Chapman 2024-01-23

Thanks, all interesting.

I have corrected the grammatical issue; thanks for pointing it out!