The Challenge For Fundamentalism
Do we want a world in which only the most threatening religion wins?
Copyright © 2002 Dorian Scott Cole
This commentary is about the fundamentalist mindset, and the susceptibility of this mindset to becoming hijacked by leaders, to become radical and violent.
Religion is one of the most controversial topics to write about, and most writers wisely avoid it. It is one of those topics that people argue passionately about, and when cornered sometimes pick up a rock and clout someone in the head. Religion shouldn't lead to violence, but it sometimes does. Argh! Apparently I'm not wise enough to avoid the topic. But at least I critique from once having experienced fundamentalism, and not as a complete outsider.
This Web site explores the human condition that writers write about, and religion is part of the human condition. Most (not all) of the writers whose work I see in movies and TV, who dare explore the topic of religion, I think do a great job. They seem to have a broad understanding of their topic, and treat it sensitively, often using humor as a buffer. For example, the TV series, Everyone Loves Raymond, occasionally gets into very delicate areas, and they are handled with great skill so that they aren't offensive. I am probably not that skillful, so if critiquing religion offends you, please put down that rock and stop reading this article.
My father used to quote an old saw: "There are three ways of doing things, the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way. This modern proverb has some truth to it, but it reflects a way of thinking that is very polarized. The polarized idea is that there is a perfect way to do everything, and everything else is wrong. The question is posed as a binary, permitting only two answers: right and wrong. The choice is obvious, as even the Army way is posed contemptuously so that we know it is not the "right way."
By posing the question as a binary, the listener is set up for binary thinking - he is unlikely to think outside of the box he is in. "Right way, wrong way" is a myth that we buy into hook, line, and sinker. I hear it all of the time. "If they had only done it the right way..." But the myth isn't true. There isn't a perfect way to do everything. Everything comes down to choices that involve trade-offs. Choice depends on which trade-offs we are willing to live with.
I once inherited a counseling client *1 from a therapist when the client brought himself into my purview and announced that marriage counseling was doing him no good, so he had quit going. He had shot himself in the foot (literally) during an argument with his wife. His wife left him, and he needed someone who could help him. I soon discovered that the therapist had overlooked a number of egregious circumstances that were bound to interfere in their life. She was blinded by her client's male chauvinist attitude and could not get past it. His attitude was a major problem, to be sure. In discussing him with the therapist, I found that her agenda was in the way of helping her client. Her sense of "right way" was an obstruction.
Few things are simply black or white with no in-between. It is certainly easier to view the world in these terms. It is certainly easy to criticize others from this point of view, as in, "If they had only done it the right way... my way." I've come to realize that we each own a piece of this real estate called "the right way," and it is usually either a mythological answer that no one has seen, but we believe to exist, or it is the way that we personally believe that things should be done.
If you recognize yourself in the preceding paragraph, welcome to just a taste of the shortsighted world of radical fundamentalism. We all manage to drift into it occasionally with nonsense ideas that make us a little crazy. This article is really about all of us.
The way that we pose things, polarizes us. Politicians are highly skilled at this. The goal of political rhetoric typically is to create a polarizing image. For example, the terms "liberal" and "conservative" (See definitions at the bottom) are terms that we use to polarize people to reject one agenda or person and support another. We commonly use these terms to brand others. For example, the terms liberal and conservative are typically thrown at people like poison darts. Barry Goldwater, when a Presidential candidate, was branded as too conservative, inferring in his case, "too hawkish," to become President. Since that election followed the Vietnam war era, and no one wanted to be mired in another difficult war, the label hurt Goldwater and cost him the Presidency.
Most politicians and most people in today's world would probably consider themselves "liberal" on most things, and "conservative" on a few. Actually today's political makeup is largely composed of moderates, with the Democratic "left" having migrated there with the population. Liberals are people who don't feel constrained by the argument, "We've always done it this way," and will embrace reform when they think it is necessary. For example, it is difficult to find a politician who didn't talk about reforming welfare, or who today talks about reforming the Social Security system. They differ on the "how." Politicians convince us that the system is broken and needs to be fixed, so we must vote for them to "reform" it. Reform. Very popular action among politicians and voters. Classically Liberal activity.
Liberals are probably identified more for their associations with various causes, such as their support for social programs and individual rights. But today's conservatives are supporting medical and prescription drug plans. Liberals also generally seem more reserved about going to war. The name "liberal" is also frequently thrown at the press and academicians, to my mind trying to identify them as "wimpy bleeding hearts and pacifists." The label "pacifist" would probably be a better term for liberals, however being a pacifist rather than "hawkish" has been more positively regarded in the last twenty years and wouldn't have the negative impact that the dreaded word liberal seems to have. However, the last ten years, beginning with the successful military campaign in 1991 against Saddam Hussein and then in Kosovo, accelerated by 9-11 and the war on terrorism, and then today's feelings against Saddam Hussein, all have brought military power back in vogue. (Hopefully we haven't become radical through overconfidence and power, and lost the idea of restraint and searching for better solutions.)
Most politicians really don't like "authoritarian attitudes" - a form bordering on tyranny - and are tolerant of other's attitudes and opinions. Yet social assistance, reform, and rejecting authoritarianism comprise the classic stance of a liberal. Yet many conservatives have the same characteristics. Whenever a politician stands up to say something that others oppose, he is often called a "liberal," hoping the label will discredit his opinion. The real fear is usually that the politician might be too open with money and take on too much social assistance - more of an ultra-liberal.
What is implied might be better expressed by the word "openhanded," or "spendthrift." The person is identified with giving handouts irresponsibly and over-abundantly, without any expectation that the people will ever take care of themselves. Tax and spend - discredited idea - thus the shift to the "right" (conservative) by the public and elected representatives. But politicians throw the "liberal" poison dart at other politicians without regard for what the other politicians stand for and what the words actually mean. It's effective propaganda.
What is a "conservative" all about? The word "conservative" is currently in vogue, and politicians are eager to be associated with the label. Conservatives resist change. This goes way beyond, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The conservative is the stick-in-the-mud who says, "I'm not moving. I have my ideology, we have always done it this way, we stick with our traditions and values, and I refuse to even think about it. I oppose any kind of change - things are good enough." Many conservative Republicans have recently disavowed themselves from this stance. A real political conservative, besides being hesitant to change, is also closely associated with strict budgetary controls reflected in a hesitancy (read "refusal") to spend, and they often vote for cutbacks. Saving money is a bandwagon that even liberals can generally get on. However the last few conservative presidents who campaigned on this issue increased the national debt more than the Democrats.
Conservatives are more likely to focus on just the basics. One day I was sitting in an airliner and talking to a pilot who was flying as a passenger. A stewardess asked us both to move back and over a seat. We had both selected the wrong row and wrong seat. I commented that we needed to get back to ABCs and 123s. Somehow the best of us manage to lose focus of our initial objectives. Conservatives are more likely to push for "readin', writin' and 'rithmatic' in the school system and shift funds away from other programs. When it comes to war, conservatives are generally no more hawkish than liberals are pacifistic.
A lot of politicians and other people call themselves conservative, as the US goes through a more conservative phase, but I wonder if they realize what they are calling themselves.
My opinion is that most of us, like most politicians, and like myself, are actually moderates with leanings. I refuse to be branded with either label. I hate labels - they are shortcuts that cause misrepresentations. We are a little liberal here, a little conservative there. We're liberal conservatives. Moderates. We have strong views but they usually aren't far off center. Rather than brand ourselves with misleading labels that present false illusions, we should avoid the labels... and think.
What does this have to do with fundamentalism? Fundamentalism is not just a religious position that you can stick a label on. The conservative view is similar in ways to the fundamentalist view. Both emphasize basics. Fundamentalism is a mindset that is rigid. Binaries of right and wrong come naturally to it, and typically fundamentalists will admit to no other positions. Fundamentalism resists change. Like the rest of us, most fundamentalists have fundamentalist ideologies but are moderates at heart. Religious fundamentalists live in a religious atmosphere with the dominant dichotomy: the God of fear and punishment, and the God of forgiveness and love.
There is nothing necessarily "wrong" with fundamentalism of any kind. This article is not meant to stereotype the fundamentalist mindset, or attack it - I'm not throwing poison darts here. I'm concerned about vulnerabilities that can lead to radical fundamentalism, hate, and violence. I'm alarmed that I am seeing this mental shift in some parts of the news media, especially among some commentators, and I see it as well around the nation in many of our youth, and in the violence that is again rising against Muslims in the US during this conflict with Saddam Hussein.
Some of the nicest people that I know are religious fundamentalists. They have a rich faith, would never harm anyone, are always looking for ways to help others, and are very self-sacrificing for others' benefit. This describes most fundamentalists in all religions and those who have a fundamentalist mindset in all nations. Fundamentalists in all religions are a welcome voice that continually asks us airline pilots and passengers if we are straying from the basics to the point that we have lost them. I appreciate them for what they are, and refuse to disparage them.
What is a Fundamentalism mindset?
Fundamentalism is only vaguely definable. The religious fundamentalist movements have few beliefs in common with each other. There are literally thousands of differing beliefs as free thinking people in all religions, who emphasize basics in religion, react to things within their religion or the world that they hope to rectify or emphasize. There are very basic (fundamental) things which they hold true, which are unique to each of them, and they hold rigidly to these beliefs. Generally they don't twist beliefs, but emphasize some aspect of their religion, or feel led in a different direction by their interpretation of some religious writing. But as different as each is, they all have the same dangerous vulnerabilities (not that we all don't). Fundamentalist thought has similarities regardless of whether it is in law, constitution, nationalism, news journalism, or in religions such as Islam/Muslim, Christianity, Judaism, Hindu, or whether speaking Farci, English, or Arabic.
The vulnerability is for fundamentalism to become radical. The radicals are the ones who claim to be on a mission from God, who twist the faith to mean all kinds of hateful and violent things, and who go to any extreme to accomplish their mission. They are no longer examples and promoters, but judges and enforcers.
Radical fundamentalism leads to a bad end. The unexamined and unrestrained exercise of religion (and politics) has historically led to violent radicalism with horrible consequences. Sometimes it is a mission, and sometimes it is just used to justify meanness. These include many atrocities: The crusades during which Christians invaded the Christian/Jewish/Muslim Holy Land and killed the Muslims. Burning at the stake of women accused of being witches (the inquisition). Justifying slavery. Shootings of abortion clinic doctors. Ethnic cleansing that has killed or displaced entire ethnic and religious populations.
Ethnic cleansing has happened repeatedly through the ages, such as the driving from Czarist Russia of the Jews and the Muslim Turks (300,000), and was done by Hitler and the Nazis against 6 million Jews in Germany. Turkey killed 14,000 Kurds and 200,000 Greeks inside Turkey. Israel forced the exit of large numbers of Palestinians from their homeland (some of whom would have exterminated them). Islamic terrorists murdered 300,000 Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu), and the Serbs carried out campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, against Albanians in Kosovo, and 200,000 people in Bosnia and Croatia.
Saddam Hussein murdered as many Kurds as he could, many of the Kuwaities whose land he invaded, and he attempted to murder the Israelis. Invading militaries, settlers, and governments, often with a quasi-religious justification, mistreated, killed, and displaced the native people in Africa, the Americas, and Australia. The Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists in the US and other countries twist religious beliefs to justify killing or displacing blacks and Jews. The killing of the Ba'Hai *2 in Iran (1985 - set on fire to force them to renounce beliefs; 1999 - forced from their homes and persecuted). The Protestant/Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland. Terrorists have struck against a long list of countries, including the US, killing thousands. The list unfortunately goes on and on, and the action has had a presence in all countries. Preventing the fundamentalist mindset from being hijacked into radicalism is a worthwhile goal.
Religion typically encourages the opposite of isolation, intolerance, and rejection. So why does fundamentalism get hijacked? On one hand, I have difficulty appreciating how people can subject others to such mistreatment. I have been unable to watch two films about the Salem witch trials (The Crucible and a recent one on TV). It is hard for me to appreciate that people could actually allow their relatives to be tortured and burned at the stake with no actual evidence and forced confessions, and I have a strong stomach and a strong sense of administering legitimate justice. Most of us could neither do these horrible and tragic things nor let them happen. But radical fundamentalism loses all sense of conscience, believes that God is supporting their cause, and becomes violent, even killing innocent people as in the case of Al Qaeda and the destruction of the World Trade Center. I have no answers, but I do have some insights, and I think the discussion is worth having.
Human beings have the capacity to go bad regardless of beliefs - it isn't a belief problem. It is the direction chosen by believers that is the problem. Fundamentalist thought at its worst slides into extremism and becomes a rejection and surrender of individual responsibility to an authority outside of themselves. "To thine own self be true," is a repressed option. Ultimate Truth gets hung up on a sour note. Conscience becomes subservient to the beliefs of the organization. It is sometimes shaped by guilt and extremes, and objections of conscience are repressed by self-reproach. It is preoccupied by a search for endless rules from outside to provide perfect direction for every situation and contingency. It keeps followers in isolation by judgment and rejection of others and paranoia, gleefully watching as the entire world presumably slides into the flames of Hell, and ever eager and willing to withhold the water of life and stir the flames believing that they have no responsibility to help anyone since God has already planned to crush most of the world. These same people fight within themselves over "doubtful disputes" that accomplish nothing, are never able to help others in any meaningful way, are full of condemnation and wrath, poisoning themselves with guilt, fear, and hate, and telling a perverted message that repels the entire world.
This kind of extreme mindset rejects everything and everyone that is different or threatens the status quo. It is a perfect perversion of religion and ripe for any leader like Usama bin Laden to hijack it into radicalism and violence. The result is movements like the Taliban (Afghanistan) which emphasize violence, fear, restrictions, and control, by a permanently and predominantly vengeful God, and an "us against them" mentality. It is the same story in any religion, and is like a self-sustaining neurotic syndrome from which it is very difficult for those caught in it to break free.
Fundamentalism isn't normally radical and violent. At its best it motivates by compassion and a zeal for making life better for others by presenting what is moral, presenting what gives and sustains life, reaches out hands to all others in love, friendship, and aid, and presents a message of forgiveness, love, hope, and peace. These are the best traditions of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Muslim. These reflect a God whose heart is open to all, who loves to forgive, and leads all into the best, for all who open their hearts and minds to His leading.
There are two things that I think are common to people who think of the world in a fundamentalist way. These things aren't common to all, and some only apply to religious thought. These two things which make fundamentalism vulnerable are, 1. isolation that comes from an overemphasis on literalism and truth, and 2. isolation that comes from a preoccupation with sin and messianism.
First is an overemphasis on the literal interpretation of law and religious literature than can isolate fundamentalist groups from others. Strict interpretation often seems to miss the point, to most of us. For example, government officials who stick to the letter of the law, often infuriate people with meaningless actions. Enforcement against some things that people want or do may be far removed from the authors' intentions. Similarly in religion, the notion is that Truth, with a capital T, meaning absolute truth, is what is spelled out in black and white. It admits to no flexibility, meaning exactly what it says. The idea of the "spirit of the law," which invites understanding and interpreting the author's intention, has little or no validity.
Things change very slowly. We understand that it is better not to stone misbehaving children or prostitutes, as some ancients required. Interpretation actually changes, especially when viewed through the mature lens of higher truth. The number of fundamentalist movements in any religion is in the hundreds to thousands, each with its own interpretation of Scripture, and each believing that it is unerringly right in its interpretation, and many of these movements are open to the right of the individual to individual interpretation. These leave open the question of how valid the notion is that these beliefs are literally interpreted. Each fundamentalist movement is a new interpretation. However there typically is a core of beliefs that most in any larger movement tend to hold true.
Vulnerability: Literal interpretation leaves itself open to less tolerance for others' interpretation, and a sense of truth that is limited to what is written in a specific passage. Gaining a sense of intention is less likely to be seen in the perspective of the entire book, or in its historical context, or the language meaning of the day, although all of this knowledge is available in fundamentalist seminaries and in religious bookstores, and is taught in many places of worship. Topical studies which cut across many of these factors, and sermons which are inherently contextual are rarely heard, while exposition of a single verse (statement) is most common in fundamentalist services.
The vulnerability of literalism is seen clearly in the joke about the man who prayed for God to show him what he wanted him to do. He anticipated specific instructions from a specific Bible passage, leaving everything up to God. So he closed his eyes, opened the Bible, and pointed to a passage. When he opened his eyes, the passage read, "And Judas went out and hanged himself." He gasped and quickly made another stab at it. This time the passage read, "Go and do likewise." Based on yanking a passage out of context and using a literal interpretation, his next move might have been one of great overemphasis of some Bible passage. Understanding intention and context are essential parts of understanding law and religious literature, whether it is religious law, the country's constitution, the laws of the nation, or the rules of the house.
The worst kind of misinterpretation is done by those who become exclusionary in their beliefs. A statement like, "A house of prayer for all nations," (nations are the people of groups, such as the Christian nation, or the nation of Islam, not necessarily political boundaries), is ignored, or apologists go to great lengths to nullify it for current history. Groups become isolationist and nationalistic, believing God to be exclusively on their side, whether within a political boundary or as a group within a community. They see others as lost, heathens, savages, and damned (bound for Hell). Whoever is not in their group is expendable and is simply a pawn in God's plan. This is isolation. You wonder, in the minds of these people are others turned into objects without human characteristics, except for negative ones? When people are dehumanized and treated as objects, how will they be treated? How can fundamentalist thought avoid allowing people to begin thinking of others as objects?
Meaning is constructed, providing an understanding of beliefs that is unique to the individual, and forms the meaning structure in his life. For example, one person may interpret Scripture and events to mean that God is helping him in small tasks (even finding a parking space), and another may interpret this as simple luck, believing that God helps him get through emotional strain through his message.
Each person interprets the events in their lives within their own construct, which is created by their individual beliefs. For example, one group may believe that those who die are simply "asleep" and with their bodies until the resurrection at the end of time. Because of this they may place a lot of emphasis on preparing the body, elaborate preservation, frequently visiting the cemetery plot, etc. Another group may believe that their dead relative may be in Purgatory, and may offer prayers of concession to get them to Heaven. Another group may believe that the dead are with God. They are in a better place, and so comforted, they may place little emphasis on the funeral arrangements, and more on the memory and hope of being reunited at their own death.
Another group of beliefs centers around judgment and where they are going when they die. For some, any sin is believed to separate them from God and send them in the wrong direction. Because of this, they may have a preoccupation with not hurting others, and the idea of helping others may be repressed. Some may believe that they will be judged on their entire life. Everything will be OK if they have built up enough good points on the balance sheet, so they may be unconcerned about any singular bad thing that they have done, and find the balance sheet motivates them to do good occasionally. Still others may believe that once they have given themselves to God, then they can never be lost again. They may interpret this as being able to hurt others with impunity, or they may find great comfort in forgiveness and be able to climb out of the morass of guilt that keeps many people permanently down.
While tolerating individual belief and meaning, and supposedly only being inflexible about their creed, individual belief is ignored by literalism (this is an oversimplification). And then most people, as they grow in spiritual understanding, see much more meaning in what is written. For example, the Sufi Muslims, and many Christian traditions, and the Hindu, are open to finding more meaning in religious written passages than a strict reading of the words in a passage would present. Would being more in tune with the idea that people construct meaning in their own way have any impact on fundamentalism?
The vulnerability here is a limitation on spiritual growth and understanding, which can lead to a stilted view of others and misinterpretations. Leave the person open to forced misinterpretation and taking things out of context, and then this overemphasis on literalism and truth can lead to a growing isolation of groups and rejection of others, resulting in hostility toward others and insurmountable divisions.
In summary about literalism leading to isolation, beliefs tend to be dictated by the individual organization and its leader, and a supposed literal interpretation of individual passages of scripture. Literalism tends to ignore the reason behind a passage, while blindly obeying. Individual conscience and rational judgment can be repressed. The result is physical isolation from others into small groups, and isolation in thought from other groups. In this isolated condition, the group can begin a downward spiral, becoming paranoid and becoming more and more radical in their interpretation of scripture. To prevent this, I suspect that the groups need to be turned outward, reaching out to others, rather than turned inward, growing away from others.
The second major area that can isolate fundamentalism and leave it vulnerable is a preoccupation with sin and messianism. The roots of these are from the historical emphasis of religions. Messianism conveys the idea that God is coming to save mankind when we have ultimately failed, and this idea is strongly associated with a day of judgment. On one hand, the emphasis on messianism can be good in that it points us toward looking at how we live as a society. Collectively we may encourage the wrong things. Sometimes we need to get back to ABC and 123 if other things are preventing us from doing them.
The emphasis on sin and messianism can form a symbiotic relationship that is fatalistic and isolating. The belief is that the sin of the world pushes mankind into an inevitable final conflict and destruction. Man is unable to prevent his own demise, and only God can intervene. Believing that others are basically sinful and that you should stay away from them, and believing that their destruction is inevitable, can be interpreted to relieve believers of any responsibility to reach out to others. They are damned anyway, and you will just get poisoned by their sin, so why bother. The ideas of individual and collective responsibility for reaching out to others are lost. In its most aberrant form, the believer sees it as his duty to strike out at those who are "lost in sin," rather than reach out to them. In contrast, how would others regard the Christ who hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other "sinners" of the day, and reached out to them? Would this action have no purpose in the religious meaning construct of those whose focus is sin and messianism?
This emphasis is destructive in another way. The constant talking about sin results in considerable guilt feelings and self-criticism for the "true believer." This is a classic demotivator, and keeps the person preoccupied with himself and his difficulties, and constantly condemning of others' sin. It is simply negative, rejecting, and devisive. (The results of this type of atmosphere are illustrated in the article, Building Effective Organizations," (See link at the end.) The person rejects himself and others. The overall emphasis is on the negative and demotivating aspects of religion, and not on the positive and transformative aspects of religion. Perfection is a guiding beacon that sets a direction to go in, but is a destination that we are all unlikely to ever attain. Expecting perfection of ourselves is like trying to carve a beautiful sculpture, but staying preoccupied with the shavings so that the sculpture never appears.
Motivating people by guilt and the strength of your will is a difficult proposition. I remember a fundamentalist minister (Rev. Cunio) who told a story about his father and his mule. His father plowed the ground using a mule. His father was a stubborn man, and mules have a notoriously stubborn streak. One day the mule got on a stubborn streak and refused to move, as mules do. His father tried everything imaginable to get the mule to move. It was a real contest of wills. Finally, in desperation and a final ultimate attempt at victory, his father lit a fire under the mule. Fire isn't exactly a positive motivator, but the mule finally moved. He didn't say that the mule continued moving to finish plowing. That's the problem with using guilt and other negatives to motivate people. You never know where they are going to go, and it is usually just away. It probably won't be in the direction that you want them to go. I remember that same fundamentalist minister saying, "I have no need to preach about evil and sin. Show people enough good, and then they can easily distinguish good from evil." It is these people who go on to do more good.
As an example, I have often seen parents try to use guilt as a motivator to get their adult children to visit them. Positive goal, negative motivator. I have never seen it have the desired effect - it always has a negative effect. The parent who meets his visiting adult child at the door with, "You're late? Why don't you visit me more often? Why do you have to leave so soon?" or with other more veiled guilt darts designed to make them feel bad and visit more often, can predictably expect to see their adult children less and less. The negatives drive them away, and the positive goals are buried by negative feelings.
In summary about isolation caused by a preoccupation with sin and messianism, these tend to cause followers to look at the rest of the world with horror, and a fatalistic sense that the "world" is hopelessly lost except for them. Steeped in sin themselves, they have negative feelings about themselves and are repressed. The sin of the "world" is a deterrant from contact with it. So they become physically and mentally isolated with their own group. In this isolated condition, the group can begin a downward spiral of paranoia, becoming more and more radical in their interpretation of scripture because of an acute focus on sin, human failure, and expected delivery by the messiah. To prevent this, I suspect that the groups need to be turned outward, reaching out to others, rather than turned inward, growing away from others.
It isn't that the religions or fundamentalism start out bad. It is basically an attitude problem that can grow. Most in someway point people toward God and spiritual growth. Just as John the Baptist in ancient days chose a stricter path for himself in the Nazirite community, I respect the paths chosen by fundamentalists, and can even tolerate their passion for asserting that they are the most right. Most individuals, as they grow, grasp the larger message and move beyond the misrepresentations in their religion. All religions have literature that can be taken out of context and used against others. For example, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita is hardly different in tone from parts of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim Old Testament. Both are very nationalistic and include the discourses of warriors who lived in a time of frequent war.
Understanding this literature is difficult. But it is the emphasis today on intolerance and a mindset of absolute Truth that lends itself to judgments against other's beliefs and behaviors. These judgments go beyond the "crimes" that society collectively asserts require intervention - justice - and extend to a long list of behaviors that the religions believe are bad, including practicing another religion. Their methods of intervention include rejecting other people, rejecting religions (rejecting by refusing to mix with them, and calling them damned). In intervention, they step over the line from teaching to enforcement.
The challenge of trying to change
It might help to understand the environment that fundamentalists are in. As an analogy, people who live in the city know that food is good for them, and eat it. Their thoughts seldom need to go beyond the local supermarket. In contrast, people who farm are close to the earth and its basic cycles and dangers. Being closer to the source, they know how to grow the food, and what makes it good. Similarly, fundamentalists are close to the very literal, most basic, pictures of God. They tap a rich tradition that was validated through the ages. Mentally they habitat in the footfalls of the living, fire breathing, pronouncement spewing God - a predominant aspect of a God of power and judgment that some choose to emphasize. Every nerve is sensitized to these vibrations. Hearing the judgments accompanied by the smell of smoke, the sight of fire, and punctuated by the basic rumble of his footfalls, fundamentalists tend not to interpret religious literature, but adhere to a very literal and basic understanding.
While religious literature may try to portray many aspects of truth, it is filtered through the lens of the individual, of time, of spiritual growth, and a myriad of other factors. Everyone, religious or not, lives with a certain amount of inflexible beliefs - it is how we construct our world so that we can live and interpret the events and meaning in our lives in a stable and reliable system. Most of us live with change that comes through maturity and the open exchange of ideas. Fundamentalists are minimally open to change. The idea that others might be right about their idea of truth, or even represent an aspect of truth, is not acceptable because it is too threatening. The fear is, a chink in their system might bring the entire system of thought down, and throw all of their religious rules and their entire religious future into question - a hopeless and frightening state from which they might never have the ability to recover. While some admit doubt about God as an essential element of faith, the idea that there can be a different interpretation of truth is out of the question.
All of the fundamentalist basic religious doctrine is inflexible and unchangeable, and the fundamentalist religions only change their beliefs slowly over time. Those fundamentalists who do alter their beliefs typically find themselves at odds with their organization and either leave it or break off into a splinter group. This is a common and natural occurrence among fundamentalists and even among other religious and non-religious groups. Even writers groups break off into splinter groups. Expecting a major change in beliefs within an organization is unreasonable.
While change in beliefs is not realistic, and not even desirable, guarding against being hijacked by radicalism is realistic, and an imperative. The main challenge to fundamentalists is whether they themselves stray from the basic messages, or fall into the traps of religious intolerance that encourages violence to individuals, other religions, and nations. It is a question of what they choose to emphasize - they can find religious writing to support any position.
The influence of leaders and the system
Who are fundamentalist leaders? The ultraconservative politicians and news commentators belong in this list. I won't name their names. I hesitate to even breathe well known names such as Usama bin Laden, Ayatollah Khomeini, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson *3 in the same sentence, but they are all well know leaders in fundamentalist camps. Usama bin Laden anointed himself a religious leader, I think, for political convenience. Falwell is an Independent Baptist.
The word "independent" is often a cue that a religious group may not associate with the goals and doctrines of any other religious group, not even very similar ones. Christian leaders, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, try to influence the world through a combination of teaching religious doctrine and encouraging political action. They make exceptionally good use of various communications media. They also both frequently find themselves in hot water for statements that are both controversial and I think reveal an underlying bias against those who are different in religious belief and behavior from themselves. These slips reveal the slippery religious landscape that fundamentalists inhabit.
These rhetorical slips by these leaders are the tip of the iceberg which reveals the underlying bias in their interpretation of Scripture. Their interpretation is at the heart of their religious belief and culture. This interpretation influences what is persuasively taught to their followers on a daily basis. The message is a strong indoctrination.
Although Falwell takes a less firm stand, the message of some fundamentalists reflects a systemic vulnerability that originates in some historical positions of Christianity. "Only we know and teach the truth, and those who believe our doctrine are OK, and everyone else is bound for the flaming gates of Hell." They interpret Scripture to say that the God who once reached out to all people, narrowed his scope to Abraham and the ancient Israelites, and then further narrowed it to the Christians. They confuse being chosen as an example with being chosen exclusively. Do you think that this exclusiveness is well received by those on the outside? Is it seen as an invitation that represents a God of love.
Their idea of "Truth" is of their "ultimate Truth" that is unable to tolerate others' interpretations. They have placed themselves in the position of the final arbiters of what is truth. This follows from their very basic interpretation of Scripture. It is this very literal interpretation, and their position as final arbiters, that sets some fundamentalist movements on the brink of being pushed into radicalism. I hear this view often expressed as young people from some areas in the US loudly inform their neighbors and peers in other religions that they are bound for Hell. In a world in which Christianity has been a minority religion for thousands of years, do you think that this interpretation represents a loving God who is concerned for everyone?
This type of belief is not unlike the fundamentalist message pervasive in the world of Usama bin Laden. Usama bin Laden resorts to an "our God against your God" mentality that doesn't even represent the beliefs about God of most of the world. The fundamentalist mindset is exploited by bin Laden and others in the Middle East (including Persia and North Africa). His message is similar to the message of the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and white supremacists (Christian), and is the same message expressed by some Jewish fundamentalist sects and Muslim fundamentalist sects that reject anyone who is different in any way from them.
It is religious and other leaders who have the power to change things, or to perpetuate the problem.
Our world is at the point where a small number of people can eliminate the world's population, and a group of religious fundamentalists of any variety, turned radical, could do it or cause it. The antagonism stirred up by fundamentalists in general contributes to world tension. Whether we end the world soon with a big bang, or continue to create a better world, depends on our ability to resolve our differences and live together in some way that reflects a Godly attitude. Rather than resign ourselves to an ultimate destiny of failure, we need to have the same positive outlook expressed in the book of Jonah: given the opportunity, almost inevitably we do change for the better. (See Prophecy, Hysteria or Doom link at the end.) I think that our attitude must be that we will look for ways to respect each other and find peaceful solutions. Toward that end I offer a way of communicating with each other that helps get around the divisive obstacles of self-interest. (Link at the end.)
As I view the turmoil in the world, it seems obvious to me that leaders set the direction that followers take, either through sympathy or through direct encouragement. (Although I have often seen poisoned and incorrigible believers chase away their pastor.) Civil unrest and violence seem directly linked to what religious leaders, and even news commentators, have to say. Fundamentalist religious leaders and other leaders need to learn how to avoid the danger zones that lead their followers into destructive purposes. Fundamentalist religious leaders have a choice. They can emphasize the divisive aspects of religion. They can fight the wicked world and the devil, and instill fear, hate, and rejection. Or they can instill love, and assist lives to be transformed.
I believe that only one choice represents the heart of God for the world that He created (by whatever means). To me, the voice of God is clear in the rich heritage of religious literature given to the world. I don't recall a single great religious leader saying, "Happy are the war mongers, let us teach hate and aspire to make war on everyone who is different," but at least some leaders did say that God makes his sun to shine on everyone, even the wicked, and "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Fundamentalist religious leaders encourage and perpetuate religious degeneration by constantly portraying that a religion is under attack, the end of the world is coming as a result, and overemphasizing "spiritual warfare" motifs to rally people to the cause. These are popular motifs, especially when the country is under attack. Many of these leaders also seem to rely heavily on guilt and fear to keep their people together and in some way "motivated." When I hear "guilt messages," from religious speakers, I know that the speaker doesn't have a clue about the power of God to motivate, so feels that he has to do it all himself. People don't need an enemy to rally them if the cause is sufficient. If the cause of religion needs this, then the message is useless and should be abandoned.
The influence of leaders is not limited to religious leaders and religious attitudes. One recent disappointment to me has been the reaction of some news commentators to opposition by several nations to the US plan to ask for another UN resolution against Iraq that includes the consequence of military action (such as B.O. at Fox - some of whose work I admire. *3). These nations, such as France and Russia, who are in the debate over how to handle Iraq and who have significant history with Muslim populations and Arab and Persian nations, are hesitant to rush to war, and are being raked over hot coals by these news commentators by shoving in their face past US assistance to these nations, calling them names, deriding them, and making other derogatory comments. Like a fundamentalist spiraling downward into the radicalism of hate and violence, these commentators seem unreasonably threatened by a difference of opinion, and too eager to push war. Perhaps they are right about the need for war, but their childish behavior ("You don't agree with me so you're not my friend so I'm going to hurt you") belies any sense of good intention or reasonableness on their part.
Fundamentalists, non-fundamentalists, and even the non-religious - in general people get from beliefs what they want to get, and mark people as enemies to suit their own purposes. Many fundamentalists will always regard any constructive criticism of their system as an attack by the Devil. When criticism comes, the walls go up. They believe themselves to be above an earnest critique - after all, God is on their side, and only their interpretation is correct, so they don't have to listen to anyone else. I'm certain that many fundamentalist leaders will label this article as the work of the devil, accusing me of high crimes, somehow twisting this to say that I have "denied Christ" and am a dreaded godless PostModernist monster (erroneously considered to not believe in God) somehow linked to an antiChrist - never mind that I have very solid beliefs and act on them. I'll just spell that out here and save them the bother of research, and make it easier to twist things into misrepresentations. Unfortunately it is too often twisted misrepresentations that I hear from some fundamentalists leaders. I have often noticed that those who are divisive and mean-spirited thankfully seem to go out of their way to prove for all to see that they are divisive and mean-spirited, discrediting themselves.
The challenges facing fundamentalists are the same challenges that we all face. There are a number of things that I think we must all ask ourselves. Do we portray a true picture of God, or one that is distorted because some things are overemphasized? Does that emphasis well serve the melting-pot world of today? For example, is God accurately portrayed by rejecting the entire world and turning away those with different behavior? Or is an inviting and forgiving God a better portrayal?
Are we teaching and living examples of Godliness, or are we trying to take over the world through some kind of force to make others the same as ourselves? Force is used in many ways, such as criticism and other forms of ostracism such as forming exclusive communities that exclude those who are different, sending the military or terrorists, or forcing people to hear our "message," of "God says..., so you must do."
Do we concentrate on ourselves to the point that our religious organizations are simply social clubs? This leads to cutting ourselves off from others.
Do we delight in the idea of vengeance, rather than working for positive change. Has The Late Great Planet Earth (by Hal Lindsey) become a prayer book, manifesto, and self-fulfilling prophecy? Delighting in vengeance is a clear danger sign that we are on the wrong path, and clearly advised against in Scripture, as I'm sure the authors of such books know and intend. Warnings of what can be are clearly different from what must be at any given time. (See Prophecy, Hysteria or Doom link at the end.)
My supposition is that isolation is the cornerstone of radical fundamentalism. This condition is dehumanizing. It allows aberrant beliefs to flourish. Coupled with an emphasis on sin and messianism, isolation deepens and can lead to a focus on the problems of the entire world and a sense of hopeless desperation. These lead to an attitude of distrust, fear, and condemnation. Collectively these can impair conscience and judgment. It is easy for a leader to hijack these mindsets into extremes of world reform through hate and violence.
We should reexamine our interpretation and emphasis of our religious thought. Most religion deals largely with how we treat others. Allegiance to God leads us down this path. I believe that this is the message that rings like a bell in religion - that is, what God cares about the most: caring for each other. As said, God requires of us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. In short, to love others.
We are the ones who are accountable for the kind of world that we create. Do we want a world in which only the most threatening religion wins? Those fanatics who believe that absolute Truth and right are on their side are likely to stop at nothing in their battle, short of destroying the world. I'm not the author of the end of this story. Fundamentalists are. We all are. So choose your own ending - following are four possible endings and a space for your own words.
Ending one: The world is headed for a confrontation between radical religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalists in all religions have antagonized each other to the point of creating a wall of hate between them. Each regards the other as heathens. Heathens are heathens, and their life has no value unless they convert to their religion. They can no longer develop any trust between each other (as today in Israel, and was in Northern Ireland). Radical Muslims living in central Indiana, believe that their God given imperative is to convert the entire US to an Islamic society. Christian fundamentalists in central Indiana believe that their God given imperative is to stop them. Violence erupts between them, and extends to anyone who is different. The quarrel spreads across the US, polarizing other fundamentalists into radicalism and drawing them into the battle. Fundamentalists around the world are drawn into the fray, and soon nation is against nation. Radical fundamentalists cheer as world war erupts.
Ending two: Radical fundamentalists, and those slipping that direction, begin to realize that they are drawing close to a standoff that can be resolved only through violence. Christians are actively trying to get converts all across the lands of others. Muslims are actively trying to convert countries to Islam, one person at a time. At some point their missions will collide. They realize that to whom individual allegiance goes is not up to each religion, but up to individuals. It is the role of individuals within religions to spread their message, not conquer. They decide to deemphasize their rhetoric and encourage their people to reach out to others. They come to an understanding that each will not oppose the other, and they will continue in peace.
Ending three: Radical religious fundamentalists begin a major drive to convert others within the US, or drive them out. They gain support from many other fundamentalists, both religious and non-religious, and other non-fundamentalist religious people who just don't want to live with anyone who is different. Despite fundamentalist losses in court, many still don't feel welcome in the US. The US becomes an exclusive community with fewer ethnic and religious groups. The movement spreads to other nations. The world becomes a much more regimented place with fewer individual differences tolerated. Each country becomes more isolationist, and there is less understanding of internal problems. Uniformity and rules are in vogue. Individual differences are attacked. For some reason there is less zest for life than before, but no one knows why. Depression becomes pandemic and no cure is found, and religion is found to be of no help.
Ending four: Many radical fundamentalists decide that their interpretation of their mission is more important than anything. They are supported in this interpretation by many fundamentalists. They cause endless trouble and support terrorism. The governments of all nations are forced to restrain them, and deny them permits to travel across international borders. They claim that they are being attacked by Satan. Eventually their religious belief dies out as people see that they do more harm than good and reject their beliefs.
Write your alternate ending: _______________________________________________ .
Building Effective Organizations.
Prophecy, Hysteria or Doom?
*1. I no longer do counseling, and haven't for many years.
*2. The Ba'hai religion was founded by an Iranian called B'ab who died in 1909. The Ba'hais emphasize peace and have a very positive outlook, yet these non-threatening people have been persecuted mercilessly and continuously to this day in Iran since the Ayatollah Khomeini radical fundamentalist religious regime took control.
*3, 4 (and see next for 4). I am not a regular listener, or devotee, of any of these speakers, movements, or commentators. My typical news preferences are ABC, NPR, CNN, and FOX, but other news services have significant merits. I don't mention my religious affiliation to prevent my religious beliefs from reflecting on any religious denomination, and to prevent religious stereotypes associated with religious denominations to be associated with my beliefs. Rumors are likely guesses, but suffice it to say that I prefer most major denominations.
*4. Because of the longevity of the pages on this Web site, I will not list names of people and give them a black-eye that would be on the public record for years. In listing Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, they are not criticized but acknowledged as leaders, but I mention that they are often controversial and often have apologized or explained comments they have made that were criticized by others, and are representatives of the state of their fundamentalist faith, which includes many good things. For example, Falwell's church does a tremendous amount of good in its community, as well as in the larger religious community, and should be recognized for that.
Conservative: Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
Conservative: 1 a : an adherent or advocate of political conservatism. b capitalized : a member or supporter of a conservative political party.
2 a : one who adheres to traditional methods or views. b : a cautious or discreet person
Merriam-Webster® Online Dictionary copyright © 2002 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated
Liberal: Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
Liberal: One who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways. b. capitalized : a member or supporter of a liberal political party. c. : an advocate or adherent of liberalism especially in individual rights.
Merriam-Webster® Online Dictionary copyright © 2002 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated
Fundamentalism, fundamentalist: a. An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in 1920 in opposition to Liberalism and secularism. b. Adherence to the theology of this movement.
2. A movement or point of view characterized by rigid adherence to fundamental or basic principles.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation. All rights reserved.
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