by Anthony Egan SJ

We live in difficult times: shaky economy, corrupt politics, social disorder, the widening gap between rich and poor, rampant violence in many forms, the list can go on. There is a temptation to think in ‘end of the world’ terms. One sees a strong strand of fundamentalism re-emerging in religion and populism in politics, both using a language of the enemy outside (the threat) and fundamentalist formulas proclaiming certainties to combat them (the solution).

Whether of the Left or Right, fundamentalism and populism create an ‘Us/Good vs. Them/Evil’ dualism to explain and solve the world’s problems. If only X happens or Y disappears everything will be all right is the rhetoric. If only everyone adhered firmly to the Bible or Quran, free market capitalism or socialism, if only there were land redistribution, disarmament/rearmament, more taxes or an end to taxes; if only one or other country is crushed, one or other religion vanished (or in the case of new atheists all religions), abortion and gay rights banned, evolutionists silenced, heretics burnt, then everything will we okay.

We’ve heard this rhetoric. Unfortunately it’s nonsense.

Neither fundamentalism nor populism work. Nor do they offer hope because both are at bottom an angry expression of despair.

Populism as politics expresses rage at the ills of world and gives people an enemy to hate, offer charismatic leaders who claim to understand the people and quick-fix solutions. Religious fundamentalisms offer much the same, but pretend God is their ultimate leader and source of justification for their actions.

The underlying failure of both systems is that life and the world is more complex. Life is a complex system. Everything is connected: politics, religion, science, economy, culture. They interact, change and are changed by each other – or they die out. Every decision one takes has an effect on this complex system, both intended and unintended consequences.

Simplistic political solutions – often couched in terms of a ‘Final Solution’ used with lethal effect by a populist in the 1930s named Hitler – don’t solve problems in the long term, but usually end with ‘the People’ enslaved to a political tyrant. For a while there may seem to be improvement – at very least political certainty and ‘safety’ – but ultimately the ‘cure’ is more disastrous than the ‘disease’ populism attacks. Populism ultimately undermines the society it seeks to create.

Fundamentalist religion, in its many forms, likewise undermines the possibility of faith with its promise of certainty. As a ‘solution’ it may offer simple answers, an alternative to pessimism about the world and God’s presence/absence in it, but does so by avoiding the real questions life throws at us. In the end the answers no longer relate to the questions, and religion becomes a false escape from life.  Like populism, fundamentalism ultimately undermines itself, often destroying belief in God in the process.

Populism and fundamentalism are false hopes. In politics and religion, we need instead a pragmatic mixture and reason and realism to steer us through these difficult times.