Understanding Religious Fundamentalism

I am always thrilled to reread these two passages by Erik Hornung, and to find in them just about the wisest things I’ve ever read about religion in general, and fundamentalism in particular. Although he hopefully assumes (the book was first published in 1971) that just because fundamentalism will become increasingly “inhuman” it will lose adherents, his words are still a roadmap for how the sane among us can choose to deal with varieties of belief.

Meanwhile, the second passage is an equal corrective to scholars or intellectuals who would prefer religions to yield more easily to definitions or explanations, rather than clinging to the ambiguity which are their lifeblood:


As believers and lovers we may be lost in the absolute nature of the moment, but when we observe history we know that nothing existent is definitive. Inexorably history destroys all “eternal” and “absolute” values and demonstrates the relativity of every absolute point of reference which we seek to establish. Hence the fanatical opposition to anything historical—or scorn for it which takes the form of unscrupulous distortion—on the part of those who wish to establish definitive, binding norms.

      One church, one state, one order of society for all mankind, the equalizing compulsion of one system for all—these and many other absolutisms have taken to absurd lengths a mode of thought which followed the law of unity and did not tolerate plurality. Although this mode of thought continues to celebrate triumphs, in principle it has reached the end of its development, both because it is not equal to the tasks of the future and because it is no longer in tune with the changed consciousness of mankind. As soon as the dominant mode of thought ceases to fit the structure of the dominant mode of consciousness, it begins to degenerate into something inhuman which cannot, despite its coercive force, change the mode of consciousness.

      All the evidence suggests that human society of the near future will be pluralistic and undogmatic—or it will not exist at all. In all spheres of life it will have to allow for the multiplicity of possibilities, without excluding the one as an extreme case. After the shock therapy of this century I believe that society will be thoroughly sick of dogmatic ideologies and “absolute values.” It is unlikely that human religious belief will be unaffected by the newly transformed mode of consciousness. Deep faith, in particular, must accept that God has never spoken his last word, even in the revelation of the sole God. A new stage of consciousness is open to a new revelation, the nature of which cannot be predicted at all, except that it will be different….

      The language in which we speak of the world will never be contained entirely in mathematical formulas, nor will it be contained entirely in words. So long as there is content that cannot be expressed in a univalent form, at every stage of consciousness language will turn to images as an adequate descriptive medium.

      The nature and appearance of Egyptian gods are inimical to any closed, final, or univalent definition. We see them develop in history, and we see them leading a constantly changing life of their own. What a god is cannot be defined. Whatever statements we make about him, it does not exclude a mass of other statements. Seen in another way, every god contains within himself all the information about a particular content, which took form in him and entered human consciousness in that form. For the Egyptians the gods are powers that explain the world but do not themselves need any elucidation because they convey information in a language which can be understood directly—that of myth. Every myth exhibits and interprets no more than a part of reality, but the totality of the gods and their relationships with one another exhibits and interprets the entire reality of the world.

      Whatever the nature of the gods may or may not be, in whatever system of concepts or network of associations we may place them, all attempts to “explain” them have been attempts to express the information they convey in a different, less ambiguous language. We sense that they say something valid about the world and about mankind. But no language has been found whose expressive richness can compare with that of the gods themselves. Again and again they refer us back to themselves, revealing to us the limitations of our conceptual universe. If we are to comprehend the world we still need the gods.

– Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, tr. John Baines, 254, 258-259