Escape from Fundamentalism

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

I started to write a comment to Maha’s latest installment of The Wisdom of Doubt, which was about fundamentalism, but felt there was enough of importance here for others, to promote it out of the comments. The important part is not so much my thoughts, but the work of Sara Robinson (at Orcinus), who has done what in my mind is some major thinking on authoritarianism and fundamentalism, much of it from her own personal experience with scores of people who are leaving or have left these worlds:

For the past five years, I’ve been a member of a large and busy online community of former fundamentalists. Through years of discussion, we’ve learned a lot from each other about how and why people become fundamentalists — and also how and why they find themselves inspired to leave authoritarian religion behind. We’ve noticed patterns in the various ways people are seduced into fundamentalism; and also a predictable progression in the steps they go through in the agonizing months and years after enlightenment dawns. We’ve also discovered that we seem to fall into readily-identifiable subgroups, and that each of these subgroups wanders down somewhat different paths and uses different techniques as they approach the wall, determinedly hoist themselves over it, and then set about coming to terms with life here on the reality-based side.

Two or three times a week, we find new members on our doorstep. Safe in the anonymity of the Internet (and often under cover of night — these missives are typically time-stamped in the wee hours of the morning, usually posted furtively after weeks or months of lurking) we’re often the first people they’ve ever whispered their doubts out loud to. Their introductions are often heartbreakingly miserable: "I can’t believe this any more — but my husband will leave me if he knows." "My whole family is fundie. I can’t tell my parents I’ve stopped going to church — it will kill them if they ever find out." "I’m a deacon at my church. If I start asking these questions, I’ll lose my whole community."

If this sounds interesting, it starts in a series called "Cracks in the Wall", and concludes in "Tunnels and Bridges". You get to these by going to Orcinus, and find them in the left side bar, under "Sara’s Recent Series". There are multiple installments, so it’s a lot to list the links to all of it here.

Even if this doesn’t interest you personally, Sara’s series, like Maha’s Wisdom of Doubt, are big keys to understanding and cracking the right wing mentality that has our country and parts of our world so in thrall.

Now onto less important stuff, my thoughts on Maha’s latest Wisdom of Doubt:

Related to the belief in scriptural inerrancy is the deification of the bible as “The Word of God”. This one book is set apart, and placed on a pedestal, from the millions of others, which is as pretty clear cut an example of absolutist thinking as you can get. It’s my own simple litmus test for whether someone is a Christian fundamentalist or not.

Related to this, is the more specialized belief that one particular translation, usually the King James, is the only authentic Word of God (accept no substitutes). I suspect this may derive from Scofield’s influence and era, but I’m not sure.

Many claim the bible is The Word of God, but few fully live out this belief. They make judgments about this Word, saying that this section here is about cultural matters (and can be ignored), but this stuff over here is vitally important. Most women do not cover their heads, for example, which the Apostle Paul suggests/orders in one of his letters. And so their petty, fallible human judgments overrule, and to my mind invalidate, whatever grand, cosmic claim they make for the entire corpus.

Such are the mental contortions one must make to adopt an absolutist mindset (any black and white mindset) in a world of grays. This doesn’t even go into the variety of ways this Word of God is interpreted.

It’s the need to have this kind of absolute mental anchor – regardless of the kind of anchor it is, religious or political or whatever – that is most interesting. It would be interesting to find:

  • what factors drive people towards absolutist thinking
  • how is the inevitable cognitive dissonance typically masked or handled or ignored (what are the types of mental contortions people go through)
  • what factors pull people out of this kind of thinking

After I wrote this list, I recalled that much of this work has already been done, in the writings of Sara Robinson, above.

This type of absolutist thinking (and the cognitive dissonance that goes with it) once infected an entire country, the Soviet Union. Enough people believed, more or less absolutely, in the Communist ideology to get into enough positions of power, to take over this vast nation, which provided a backdrop for much of the history of the 20th century. A specific tenet of Communist rule was that other political viewpoints (other kinds of thinking) were disallowed, which meant absolute rule from one absolute viewpoint, the Communists’. My point is that absolutist thinking isn’t limited to religion (as we know), although religion is probably the most natural mental space in which this kind of thinking can thrive.

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12 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Kiwiwannabe  •  Jul 27, 2007 @4:57 pm

    Yes, the problem is not just “religious fundamentalism” per se, but “absolutism,” in which religious fundamentalism and other types of authoritarianism are just manifestations of that root cause. The root problem is absolutism.

    This is why I feel it is inaccurate to call myself an “atheist” because for me its not a matter of me not believing that any “God” exists– my problem is with absolutism in ANY form (religious or secular). And not all religion has to express itself in an absolutist way.

    Between some GREAT posts here and at Orcinus, some really excellent examinations of these problems are being discussed.

    Keep up the good work!
    ~ Josh

  2. D.R. Marvel  •  Jul 27, 2007 @9:22 pm

    Much (most?) of the text in the King James version of the Bible is incomprehensible to the ill-educated louts who fill the pews (and collection plates), roll about the aisles and chew the carpets several times weekly at your local Fundie Church…

    They swallow the idea that “God’s Word” is ALWAYS right and proper…But they badly need someone to explain what it all means…

    Someone always does…

  3. cosette  •  Jul 28, 2007 @3:20 am

    I was raised in a christian fundamentalist home and to this day I carry such shame about it all. I can hardly talk about it. I broke away from the church when I went to university and took a couple of sociology classes and met lots and lots of different people. Now I can’t even stand to hear a church hymn.

  4. diane  •  Jul 28, 2007 @6:32 am

    Read John Dean’s book “Conservatives Without Consciences”.
    Excellent explanation of what’s going on in today’s politics because of people with this personality type!

  5. paradoctor  •  Jul 28, 2007 @11:14 am

    Absolutism condemns absolute evil, but it is itself evil; for it justifies every crime, as a means to an end.

  6. wmr  •  Jul 28, 2007 @12:05 pm

    The absolutism grows naturally out of the authoritarian personality. The work of Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer on this is a big part of John Dean’s analysis in Conservatives without Conscience and Mrs Robinson refers to it as well.

    The easiest place to read up on this is here, where Altemeyer has made his latest book available for free.

  7. wmr  •  Jul 28, 2007 @12:08 pm

    Dang, the link didn’t take. Well try again or here it is for cut and paste:

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  8. moonbat  •  Jul 28, 2007 @12:26 pm

    Comments 4 and 6: Bob Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians” can be found here.

    Much of Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience is based on Altemeyer’s research. In fact, it was Dean who encouraged Altemeyer to put his work into a book and get it out to the broader public. Altemeyer’s material at the first link above, is the result of this prodding by Dean.

    Altemeyer presents his material in a very accessible and humorous way, and so it’s an easy yet informative read. If I may share one anecdote from this material:

    Altemeyer devised a simple test to score the amount of Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) one “carries around” in one’s personality, in other words, how strongly you tend toward these beliefs.

    He then took 40 people who scored high in RWA, and set them at the controls of a computer simulation of running the world. In short order, this group blew up the world in a nuclear holocaust. Deciding that maybe this wasn’t the most informative outcome, he then rolled back the simulation to two years prior to the holocaust. The RWAs managed to avoid blowing everything up this time, but they created a hell on earth: enormous disparities between rich and poor, huge environmental degradation, and lots of smaller wars.

    Next, Altemeyer took 40 people who scored low in RWA, and let them have a try at the simulation. Those who were familiar with the simulation said it was the best run they had ever seen. There wasn’t the huge gap between rich and poor, the environment wasn’t that badly trashed, and although there were wars and conflicts, these were relatively small and manageable.

    I can’t think of any better scientific demonstration that shows why we need to get idiots like Bush and the like away from the controls. Everyone should read Altemeyer’s work.

  9. wmr  •  Jul 28, 2007 @1:52 pm

    moonbat, looks like we’re running in the same tracks again.

  10. Swami  •  Jul 28, 2007 @11:12 pm

    Good post, moonbat. I’m reminded of a story I heard over 30 years ago..Some Fundi had a word from the lord, so he packed up his wife and children headed out into the desert with any provision because the scriptures had promised him that the Lord shall provide..Needless to say, they all perished.

  11. Bucky Blue  •  Aug 3, 2007 @9:09 am

    I do think we need to be careful with our terms. Fundamentalist is not the same as Evangelical. Most of the Religious Right is Evangelical, not Fundamentalist. While I would characterize most of the Fundi’s as being passive toward authority, I would not characterize Evangelicals that way. I believe the Evangelicals and their RR movement is more about class. Go to any large, suburban Evangelical church and it will be filled with rich yuppies who would vote for and support republicans weather they, the Evans, were in church or not. I believe the distinction is much more nuanced than simply the RR are a bunch of fundamentalists who are passive toward authority and voted republican because their pastors told them to do it.

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