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Best of Donald Catlin

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Fundamentalism

20 September 2001

A word of explanation is due. I write my monthly mathematics article on this site one month in advance of posting. With all of my equations and formulas it is undoubtedly the hardest article for editor John Robison to set up and that is why I give him a month to do so. I should like to say that John does a remarkable job at setting it up. Last month's article (which I wrote in August) promised an article about the mathematics related to comps. I wrote the article that follows on Tuesday, September 18th, one week after the obscene tragedy that struck our country. It is self explanatory. I wrote to both John and Frank and explained that this, my November article for the web site, would not be about mathematics. I had no stomach for writing about the mathematics of gaming under the present circumstances. Gaming mathematics pale in comparison to the real issues on my mind.

Both John and Frank made the decision to switch my October and November articles -- thank you guys. [Editor's note: More than just switching the two articles, we decided not to wait until October and to post this article right away.]

My heart goes out to all of those who lost their loved ones in this tragic event. I am proud of our firefighters, our policemen, our EMTs, and our politicians of both parties; they have all been wonderful. Nevertheless I am still sad. And Angry!

What would cause a group of men to conspire, with the loss of their own lives, to commit such horrible acts?  The targets they chose, I believe, reveal the answer.  Although the Capital Building and White House were not struck, it seems quite likely that they were the real targets and the Pentagon was a last minute change.  Certainly the plane that went down in rural Pennsylvania (thanks to the heroism of those on board) was headed to one of those two targets.  Those targets are symbols of democracy.  The other target, the World Trade Center, was the symbol of capitalism.  Put another way, the targets were vibrant symbols of political and economic freedom. 

From these basic freedoms flow basic work in science, economics, theology, agriculture, medicine, mathematics, politics and on and on.  Let me use myself to illustrate the idea.  In the University no one told me what mathematics to study; I studied what interested me.  This is a form of political freedom.  I have been a consultant for 25 years.  If I do a good job, I am hired and paid; if I don't, I am not.  The free marketplace decides.  In pursuing both my interests and my economic self interest, a small bit of the world's work gets done. Those policemen and fire fighters in New York were not told to hold those jobs.  They chose to have those jobs because they wanted to be policemen and fire fighters and to be paid for doing so (and I am grateful that they did so, they are heroes).  Michael Debakey the famous Houston heart surgeon pursued his interests in surgery as well as his own financial self interests to become what he is today and the world is better off because of it.  I could go on and on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Now let us suppose that you believe that the "truth" is already known as revealed in some holy book; which one doesn't matter.  All that needs to be written has already been written.  The way religion should be practiced is already known, the way society should function is already known, the way people should dress is already known, the way sex is practiced is already known, men's and women's roles in society is already known, the way to work agriculture is already known, the way people should eat is already known, the people who govern and the way they govern is already known -- everything is already known!  Religion is not an adjunct of society, it is the society.  It follows that there is no need for political freedom in such a society.  What good would it be?  There is no need for economic freedom in such a society. A person's role in such a society is already known.  Who needs economic self interest?  In such a society there is no need to study science, mathematics, psychology, sociology, theology, or any other -ology; everything is already known.  The "truth" is known.  Such a society is stagnant.

Fortunately there are not many societies in our world like the one I describe above.  But there are certainly pockets of individuals that would like to move their countries in that direction.  In Afghanistan they have succeeded.  It is no accident that this country is so poor.  It is a stagnant society.  It is a lifeless, stark, brooding society.  And it is angry that it is.  Rather than understand that it has "shot itself in the foot" so to speak, it blames the West for its troubles.  It is democracy and capitalism that are to blame for its squalid conditions.  In addition, the people who live in the world of democracy and capitalism are the devils.  If these fanatic leaders are the only ones who know the "truth," then everyone who does not accept their view of life and religion is a heathen and does not deserve life.  We are the unholy ones.  Given such a hypothesis it makes perfect sense to attack the prime symbols of capitalism and democracy and, while doing so, kill a large number of the unholy.  And that is exactly what they think happened on September 11, 2001.

Now, I understand that not all fundamentalism leads to violence.  The Amish and Mennonites come to mind.   But you see these people do not let their religion preclude or dictate political and economic policy.  They live and work in our society and accept democracy and capitalism.  Sure, they want to preserve their ways, but I assure you that the farms they run are there to make money for their families.  Fine.  Religion is a separate issue as well it should be.  The same is true of many devout followers of Islam throughout the world and throughout our country in particular.  For them religion is a separate issue.  In their minds it is not a model for political and economic structure.  They accept the separation of church and state. 

Having said this, however, I believe that religious fundamentalism is often the breeding ground for bigotry, hatred and violence.  History shows this clearly.  From the slaughters of the Crusades to the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, religious zealots have murdered and maimed thousands in the name of God.  Killing the unholy!  I hope that the horrible acts of September 11th will cause religious fundamentalists of all faiths to stop and reflect.  I hope they can see that maybe, just maybe, they could be wrong about a few things and by admitting this might bring about a kinder and safer world.  After all, it is obvious that fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Islamics, Shintoists, and so on, can't all be right.  Maybe none of them are right about a lot of things.  Perhaps we should all reflect on our beliefs.

To be sure, the situation in our world is more complicated than I have outlined.  In Iraq, for example, not only is religious fundamentalism at work but they have a tyrannical dictator as well.  Libya is in a similar situation.  Yes, there are other forces at work but the fuel that makes suicidal terrorism possible is religious fanaticism.

I hope the war on terrorists will succeed and I wish President Bush and his administration well.  I believe the policy is a sound one.  This is not a war against religion.  It is a war against religious fanatics who are so certain that they know the "truth" that they are willing to die to kill the unholy and the symbols of their society.  I hope they identify these people and exterminate them. Not because I am right and they are wrong, but because there is a majority of us in the world who are probably wrong about a lot of things but who don't deserve to be murdered just because those religious fanatics think they have a monopoly on the supposed "truth."

Sorry for such a diatribe; I just couldn't help it.  Next month I'll get back to the mathematics of gambling and promise a much lighter tone.  See you then.

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers