AUSTIN , Texas -- Some who read Sunday's New York Times magazine on "The Education of a Holy Warrior'' -- about a Muslim religious seminary in Pakistan that is deeply influenced by the Taliban of Afghanistan -- found it profoundly disturbing. As well they might. The Taliban itself is one of the most disturbing phenomenon in the world today.

The horrors perpetrated against women there continue. The latest reports from human rights organizations concern a wave a suicides by women deeply depressed over their virtual enslavement.

The article by Jeffrey Goldberg, however, focused more on the ideology of jihad, which means either holy war or struggle, depending on who is doing the defining. Goldberg spent quite a bit of time with the students at the Haqqania madrasa in northwest Pakistan, helpfully armed with a considerable knowledge of the Koran himself. Osama bin Laden, the suspected terrorist, is a great hero to these students, and most of them said they would like to see bin Laden armed with atomic weapons.

While all this is the sort of thing our more paranoid citizens can work up a considerable snit over, a more interesting theme in the article seemed to several of us to be the problem of reasoning with a fundamentalist mindset. It is difficult to have a discussion with someone who believes all truth resides in the Bible or the Koran, or for that matter, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand or Dianetics.

When I suggested that many examples of our native species of fundamentalist were to be found at the recent state Republican convention in Houston, one friend said dismissively, "Oh, those are just our local knotheads, they don't have any impact." Actually, they're not knotheads at all, and they do have an impact on our public life.

Two recent Supreme Court decisions -- the Santa Fe school prayer case and another barring a Louisiana school board from requiring that the theory of evolution be taught only with a disclaimer mentioning the biblical story of creation -- may lead many to conclude that we are on the high road to separation of church and state. But such decisions have the unhappy side effect of reinforcing a sense of persecution among fundamentalist Christians, and of strengthening their notion that the country is becoming godless and that secular humanism, whatever it is, rules.

Jacques Barzun's new book, a brisk gallop through 500 years of Western civilization called From Dawn to Decadence, points out an interesting feature of history: Ideas don't appear and then disappear over time -- the same ideas reappear in new manifestations over and over. The appeal of certainty and Authority is timeless.

Of all people, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who led the coup in Pakistan in October, put the counter-argument. "Yes, we do use the term 'Allah's will,'" he told Goldberg. "We do consider God to be the supreme sovereign, and we do consider ourselves to be his representatives on earth. We being his representatives on earth, whatever has to be done is done according to the teaching of Allah. But when we say 'the will of God,' that doesn't mean we aren't using our brains, that we are trigger-happy fundamentalists." In other words, God gave us brains so we could use them.

Since people allegedly relying on the Word of God have come to some truly appalling conclusions over the centuries, it seems to me necessary to at least keep the discussions going to keep our brains limber.

The problem with those who choose received Authority over fact and logic is how they choose which part of Authority to obey. The Bible famously contradicts itself at many points (I have never understood why any Christian would choose the Old Testament over the New), and the Koran can be read as a wonderfully compassionate and humanistic document. Which suggests that the problem of fundamentalism lies not with authority, but with ourselves.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.