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.