Escape from Fundamentalism

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.

Katrina Isn’t Over

Since Maha started today with a post about one government cover-up, I thought I’d post this item about another. I wrote about it last week on my own blog, but since then this story seems to have failed to penetrate the broader media. I’d hate for it to be missed. – Paul

What’s worse than having your house destroyed and being forced to wait for a FEMA trailer to live in?

Having to live in that FEMA trailer.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.

A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency’s lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.

Ironic, isn’t it, that we can now add George Bush to the list of leaders who gassed their own people?

It’s clear that, despite the embarrassment of Katrina, FEMA’s morally upstanding, gung-ho, do-what-it-takes-for-the-disaster-victim attitude is just as strong as ever:

On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency’s Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.” A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

Of course, they did have reason to expect that, if they did do testing they’d find problems. Because problems existed.

FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.

One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” in litigation.

“Yeah, people are dying, but before we do anything, we really need to check with the lawyers.” Nice. Of course, now FEMA has reversed itself and has ordered tests. Why?

On the eve of yesterday’s hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA reversed course on the issue and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use.

How about that? Oversight. Imagine.

But revelation of the agency’s earlier posture — in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress — attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) decried what he called FEMA’s indifference to storm victims and said the situation was “sickening.” He said the documents “expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance” and added that “senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA had obstructed the 10-month congressional investigation and “mischaracterized the scope and purpose” of its own actions. “FEMA’s reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency’s litigation position,” Davis said. “FEMA’s primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety.”

About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.

Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members have suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians have warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.

You can see why the FEMA folks might want to make Congress subpoena the records instead of just handing them over. What a swell bunch of folks. They’re still doing a “heckuva job.”

Too Easy

Via Atrios and Whiskey FireMichael Gerson writes,

Recent books and studies seem to indicate disturbing sexual trends among evangelical Christians. And this time we’re not talking about their pastors or political leaders. The new attention is on evangelical teenagers, who reportedly start sex earlier than their mainline Protestant peers.

One gleeful headline on an Internet site recently read: “Evangelical Girls Are Easy.” That is not the way I remember it.

Um, Mr. Gerson, maybe girls just didn’t like you.

Yeah, I know. That was too easy.


It was one thing when it appeared the Bush Administration was trying to cover up a “friendly fire” death by claiming Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire. I remember similar episodes from the Vietnam War. I dimly remember a made for television movie about a “friendly fire” coverup, in fact.

But today Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press reports that there is evidence Tillman was killed [deliberately] by another Ranger. Forensic evidence suggests he was shot in the head — three times — by an M16 from only about ten yards away.

I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but this definitely requires more investigation. There will be more congressional hearings next week.

Update: You’ll enjoy this.

He wasn’t so much a patriot as he was apparently an antiwar lefist [sic] who enjoyed chomping on Noam Chomsky.

Not the first, won’t be the last leftist in the ranks. Fact is so is his brother, Kevin. Shame. We used to sniff them out in basic training and help them “out”.

Update 2: See Jesse Lee at the Gavel.