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Excerpt
Religious Fanaticism
(Excerpted from: Understanding power – The Indispensable Chomsky)

Woman: Fundamentalist religion has realty taken off in the last decade, maybe as an outlet for some of this despair. Do you have any thoughts about the significance of that development in the U.S.?

It's pretty amazing what's happened, actually. There has been a lot of cross-cultural studies of what social scientists call „religious fanaticism“ — not people who just believe in God or go to church, but they're really kind of fanatic about it, it's the kind of fanatic religious commitment that permeates your whole life. And what these studies demonstrate is that this is a typical characteristic of pre-industrial societies — in fact, it correlates very closely with industrialization: as industrialization goes up, this kind of religious fanaticism goes down. Well, there are two countries that are basically off the curve. One of them is Canada, which has more fundamentalist commitment than you would expect given its level of industrialization. The other is the United States — which is totally off the chart: we're like a shattered peasant society; I mean, the last study I saw of it was done in around 1980. and the United States was at the level of Bangladesh, it was very close to Iran. Eighty percent of Americans literally believe in religious miracles. Half the population thinks the word was created a couple of thousand years ago and that fossils were put here to mislead people or something halt the population. You just don't find things like that in other industrial societies.

Well, a lot of political scientists and others have tried to figure out why this aberration exists. It's one of the many respects in which the United States is unusual, so you want to see it it's related to some of the others — and there are others. For instance, the United States has an unusually weak labor movement it has an unusually narrow political system. I think there is no other industrialized Western country that doesn't have a labor-based political party, and we haven't had one here since the Populist Party in the 1890s. So we have a very depoliticized population, and that could be one cause of this phenomenon: if social and political life don't offer you opportunities to form communities and associate yourself with things that are meaningful to you, people look for other ways to do it, and religion's an obvious one. It's strikingly the case in the black communities, actually, where the black churches have been the real organizing center which holds life together: I mean, there's terrible oppression, a lot of families are falling apart, but the church is there, it brings people together and they can get together and do things in that context. And the same is true in many white communities as well.

Now; I don't think you can draw too many conclusions from religion itself — it's kind of like technology it depends what you use it for. Like, even among the fundamentalists, you have got Sojourners [a politically aggressive religious group], and you have Jerry Falwell [a right wing televangelist]. But it certainly does not carry with it the potential of aligning with other forms of fanaticism — and that's a big danger in the United States, because it is a very significant movement here, in fact, by now just about every major political figure in the country has to associate himself with it in some way. In the 1980 election, for example, all of the three candidates advertised himself as Born Again Christian, and the other was a Methodist minister or something. In the 1988 election, Dukakis was secular, which is unusual, but Bush said he was religious. Actually. Bush, technically speaking, is not president — because he refused to take the Oath of Office says something about „I promise to do this, that, and other things“ and Bush added the words „so help me God“ Well, that's illegal: how isn't nor President, if anybody cares.

Woman: All right! Yeah!

Happy? Yeah, let's impeach him.

I mean, it wasn't because Bush is religions — Bush knows where the nearest church is, because he has to show up there every once in a while. Or take Reagan, what does it mean to say he was a Born Again Christian. It means somebody told him he's a Born Again Christian. In Bush's case I presume he's totally secular, he just knows that by now you've got to make a nod to this huge fundamentalist constituency — and since you're not going to offer them anything, they really want, you offer them symbolic things, like saying „so help me God“ or something like that.

But the point is, if things ever really come to a crunch in the United States, his the population — I think it's something like a third of the adult population by now — could be the basis for some kind of a fascist movement readily. For example, if the country sinks deeply into a recession, a depoliticized population could very easily be mobilized into thinking it's somebody else's fault: „Why are our lives collapsing? There have to be bad guys out there doing something for things to be going so badly“ — and the bad guys can be Jews, or homosexuals, or blacks or Communists, whatever you pick. If you can whip people into frenzies like that, they can be extremely dangerous: that's what 1930s Fascism came from and something like that could very easily happen here.


From the book


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