Book Review

The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth by Solomon Schimmel.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008; 282 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-518826-4, hardback, $29.95.

This academic study of the psychology of religion examines why and by what psychological means fundamentalists maintain beliefs that have been thoroughly contradicted by modern scholarship and science.  Fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the case studies, with a chapter devoted to how each upholds and promotes the divine authorship and inerrancy of scripture despite overwhelming scholarly and scientific evidence to the contrary.  The author introduces his theme with a chapter explaining how he was raised an Orthodox Jew and as a teenager and young man was a devout fundamentalist.   Despite no longer accepting Orthodox teachings or assumptions, he maintains much fondness for that community and way of life, and he understands why people value such comforting sense of familial and cultural community, as well as rites and beliefs which give them a feeling of purpose, meaning, and continuity in their lives.  Other chapters analyze the forces that lead people to defend doctrines that support a world view and way of life that is very dear to them, more significant than truth, logic, or intellectual consistency. 

In explaining the tenacity of unreasonable beliefs, he makes this interesting and sobering statement:

Many people live their lives without any strong interest in ascertaining philosophical, theological, political, historical, or scientific truths.  They can lead meaningful, productive, and enjoyable lives in their blissful ignorance.  Among fundamentalist Jews and Muslims, there are some who simply don't care much about the "truth" of TMS [Torah revealed on Mt. Sinai] or of KFA [Koran from Allah].  They simply accept it as part of their socialization experiences, but it is not a prime motivator in the way they lead their life.  This attitude might characterize the majority of religious believers in all religions, and the majority of people in general.
     Academics and religious and intellectual leaders who are supposed to specialize in "truth seeking" and "truth teaching" tend to unreasonably project their strong interest in "truth" onto others.
     Moreover, . . .  the scientific method for ascertaining "truth" is far from natural to the human mind.  Indeed, if it were natural, one would have expected it to emerge thousands of years ago rather than just a few centuries ago.  Often the "explanations" of physical phenomena provided by religions have seemed more plausible to the average person's cognitive apparatus than have scientific ones, which are often counterintuitive.  This has been the case even though the religious explanations have almost invariably been proven wrong with the advance of science.  This is similar to religious versus scholarly explanations for the origin of sacred scriptures. -- pp. 194-5

Though somewhat plodding in style, this very earnest and open book gives much food for thought on why people accept any type of belief or authority, and what they seek from the religious and philosophical systems they adopt and cling to. – Sally Dougherty (March 2009)