I fashion myself a pretty tolerant and accepting guy, but there is one “religion,” I must admit, that I simply can’t stand. Its doctrines and practices make my blood boil. Its champions bug me, its devotees test my patience.
So its not surprising that a recent attempt to dialogue with one of them left me feeling like I’d just spent time acquainting my head
with a brick wall.
Last week, my program at the university hosted a book reading,
featuring guest speaker Radhanath Swami, reading from his autobiography
The Journey Home. On the afternoon of the event, while preparing the room, I ran into a first-year student I’d met a few times before.
“Wow, what’s going on here?” he asked, noticing the set-up of the room and me running around making last minute adjustments to it.
having this great event this evening,” I said, handing him one of the
last few fliers advertising the program. “Please try to make it if you
His eyes scanned the flier, hit the picture of our guest speaker in his saffron robes, and then rolled up. “Oh yes, this event. I’m fundamentally opposed to this event.”
Did you just say what I think you just said?
opposed to this event. So for the sake of my morality and principles,
I’m not going to attend.” I could see him tensing up, perhaps expecting
“Well, you don’t have to attend, of course,” I said, trying to simultaneously process what he just said and not alienate him.
“But, just out of curiosity, you’ve never heard him speak before,
“And you haven’t read his book?”
“No, no I haven’t.”
“And yet you know, for a fact, that you are opposed to it? Fundamentally?”
smiled uneasily and slowly mouthed his next words as if I were a
semi-retarded child who needed it explained to me in the simplest of
terms. “Look, I’m from India. I know what these Swamis are all about.
Trust me, I know all about it. So, save your breath– you’re not going
to change my mind.”
Ouch. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But I just wonder—“
listen, I’ve gotta go.” He nervously eyed the door, ready to bolt
should I try to brainwash him or stage an exorcism. “See you later.”
With that he was off — yet another card-carrying member of this world
religion with thousands (perhaps millions?) of adherents.
Sure, they may come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and
flavors. But whether its the Christian preacher condemning us to eternity in hell for not recognizing his way as the only way, or the haughty atheist who denies God’s existence with just as much self-righteousness and dogmatism, the real faith being practiced here is goes by a simple name.
I know that there isn’t one neat and tidy definition of “fundamentalism“, but for me some of the hallmarks of this religion are:
maintaining the exclusive validity of one’s set of beliefs over the
beliefs of others, especially when confronted with a differing
- Consistently favoring dogma over dialogue or discussion;
inability to give another the benefit of the doubt or open oneself to
the possibility that one might have something yet to learn from the
My student friend unwittingly admitted as much when he told me, proudly defiant and rolling up his sleeves for a fight, that he was fundamentally opposed to attending the lecture.
Of course, nobody is arguing that he doesn’t have a every right to choose which events to attend and which not to attend. But consider his reasoning for a moment. What
if the guest speaker had been a mathematician or a scientist? Would
anyone talk about being “fundamentally opposed” to the event? Could a
student of one of the most prestigious universities in the world expect
to be taken seriously while saying stuff like I’m fundamentally opposed to hearing from a physicist or I already know what all these geologists are all about, and you’re not going to change my mind?
I’m aware of the irony here: the student in question would probably object to being labeled a fundamentalist, and may even argue that such a label would be better placed on religious leaders like our guest speaker (or, for that matter, on me). And I know that in labeling him a fundamentalist, I run the risk of being one myself.
So I think I’ll email him and invite him to a cup of tea. Who knows… we might actually learn something about one another. It may be a long shot, but I’m not fundamentally opposed to trying.