How fundamentalism poisons the mind

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A posting in the blog of a former fundamentalist Christian asked some questions about progressive Christianity. I made some attempt at addressing some of the questions, and in the course of the ensuing discussion I was reminded of how difficult it can be sometimes to have a serious conversation about religion with some people who came out of but are no longer part of fundamentalist Christianity.

It can be a painful process to leave fundamentalism behind. Once you realize that you have been lied to, bitterness is a common result. Some people can make a soft landing out of religious fundamentalism by flowing almost seamlessly into a more mature spirituality. Those are the lucky ones. Speaking as an ex-fundamentalist myself, I don't know how they do that, actually. From Marcus Borg's writings of his own spiritual odyssey, he gives the impression of someone who was able to evolve into a progressive faith without experiencing a protracted period of bitterness about what he had been taught in his youth. Others, however, having felt betrayed by the lies they were told, feel bitter; and, unfortunately, in many ways they are still stuck in the fundamentalist mindset that they think they have left behind, with disastrous consequences for their own spiritual growth.

I saw this latter phenomenon in the case of the blogger I had some discussions with. There was much close mindedness that made a serious discussion quite impossible. For example, she insisted that there was nothing good whatsoever to be found in the Bible--that it was for all practical purposes an evil body of work. That is obviously such a biased and dogmatic opinion, it is hard to know how to react when people say such things. When I pointed out that there is both good and bad to be found in the Bible, she simply closed her mind down and refused to concede this most elementary point. I think this sort of extreme position is a typical outcome of the binary thinking of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists do essentially take an all-or-nothing position on the Bible--it must be all good and all true, they tell us, because otherwise it would be totally worthless and there would be no point in valuing it at all. Once someone with a fundamentalist mindset realizes that the Bible has its flaws, then, based on that same all-or-nothing position, the natural tendency is to take the opposite point of view and totally deride the Bible as worthless. That is obviously not very logical, nuanced, or open minded, but then neither is fundamentalism in the first place.

The same sort of weirdly close minded intolerance came up again, when she pointed out that lots of evil has been done in the name of the Bible and God. I of course fully concede the point, but when I pointed out that by the same token many people have also expressed compassion and a concern for social justice in the name of the Bible and God, she simply denied it or dismissed it. On this point, once again, her mind was completely closed. Again, in contrast to my attempt at presenting something of a more balanced perspective that shows how the Bible has been used to support all sorts of things, both good and bad, she took an all or nothing approach. This unwillingness (or inability) to take a more nuanced view of the subject suggests that a kind of fundamentalist dogmatism that is still at work.

The individual in question also often seemed to confuse "fundamentalism" and "religion", essentially making no distinction between the two. Again, I think this is a typical outcome of the fundamentalist way of thinking; when you come from a religion of True Believers that considers itself the only legitimate expression of a faith, then once you reject that the fundamentalist version of the faith, then you just assume that no other expression has any legitimacy--so therefore all religion is rejected as invalid. Again, the sort of binary, all-or-nothing thinking is clearly at work here.

I actually can relate to some of what is at work in this process. When I as a teenager bitterly rejected the fundamentalism of my upbringing, I still carried with me a lot of ideas about what religion supposedly meant--ideas that originated in fundamentalism, but which I had not put behind me even though I had rejected the religion. Like this blogger, I was unable to comprehend that the "God" that I had rejected was not the only way of conceiving of the Divine. Like this blogger, I associated a rejection of fundamentalism with a rejection of all religion. On the other hand, I don't think I took such an extreme stand on the Bible; I didn't hate the Bible as much as I just considered it irrelevant--especially the miracle stories, which I didn't take seriously as historical events. But even as an atheist I found ethical virtue in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount.

I myself still carry the scars of fundamentalism with me, though it has been more than 30 years since I rejected the religion of my upbringing at age 16. The scars I carry probably have a lot to do with why I don't take communion at church services, or why I remain unaffiliated with any given church, or why I am so sensitive about hearing even a hint of certain theological ideas in church, or why I eschew the use of the label "Christian" for myself, even though I am in close agreement with many progressive Christian theologians.

It took a long time for me to grow and to learn that there is more to Christianity than the fundamentalism I was taught as a child. I don't know if I'll ever get over those last remaining scars that I carry with me, though.

However, now that I feel like I have learned a lot and grown beyond where I came from, I do find that running up against total close mindedness from others who came out of fundamentalism, on subjects like the Bible, can be frustrating. It certainly does make a real discussion impossible. I feel like I ought to be able to tell former religous fundamentalists, "Hey, I've been there, I can relate to what you are saying, and maybe you should consider this." But I think for the most part they aren't interested in what I have to say. They have to learn the hard way, I guess, if they will learn at all.

Unfortunately, I find that it is about as difficult to discuss religion with militantly anti-religious former fundamentalists as it is with religious fundamentalists themselves. I think the problem is that it is hard for many people who come from a fundamentalist background to shed their old fundamentalist way of thinking. They haven't really stopped being fundamentalists; they've just changed teams, is all. The binary thinking that characterized their old faith still haunts them. This illustrates just how much fundamentalism really does poison the mind.

8 comments:

Andrew said...

"I think the problem is that it is hard for many people who come from a fundamentalist background to shed their old fundamentalist way of thinking. They haven't really stopped being fundamentalists; they've just changed teams, is all. The binary thinking that characterized their old faith still haunts them."

You have summed it up excellently. I notice on so many blogs where people chronicle their exodus from Faith that their rhetoric remains the same. They have simply swapped out certain nouns. However, their "assurity" remains just as bulletproof as before. Out of the frying pan and into the fire I guess.

I was commenting on one blog where the writer was wavering between the faith she grew up on or atheism. I believe she was hesitant to go into atheism, but was not wanting to stay where she was. When I tried to talk about a third option, she admitted that she really did not think she could see God any other way.

Are we hard wired for digital (either/or) or analog (varying degrees) thinking?

Mystical Seeker said...

I notice on so many blogs where people chronicle their exodus from Faith that their rhetoric remains the same. They have simply swapped out certain nouns. However, their "assurity" remains just as bulletproof as before.

You raise a good point about the need for absolute assurance. This is an important feature of fundamentalism, and a lot of people who leave fundamentalism are still stuck on it. They don't leave fundamentalism out of a discovery of the virtues of ambiguity, doubt, nuance, and complexity; instead, they just decided to be certain about something different.

Interesting question about hard wiring. I would hate to think that we are hard wired in this way--that would mean that human society would never really outgrow fundamentalism. Certainty is definitely reassuring for a lot of people, regardless of the cause, and I can even see its attraction. But it is just not a very mature perspective. Some people never outgrow it, for whatever reason.

Gartenfische said...

I think when you're trained to think in black and white terms, it's hard to switch gears and see the grey. There is an aspect of the mind, I guess, that seeks for concrete answers. With questions of God, though, I think there are more questions than answers.

After reading stuff like this, I'm glad I wasn't raised in a religious family.

Nice blog, by the way!

Mystical Seeker said...

With questions of God, though, I think there are more questions than answers.

Hi Gartenfische,

Yes, excellent point. I think that the existence of all these difficult questions rather than easy answers doesn't really jibe with a lot of people's feelings that God would necessarily provide all the answers in some clear, unambiguous way. Investigating difficult questions is a lot more work than having the answers provided for you. It requires active participation in the spiritual process.

JP said...

I have followed that discussion on the above mentioned blog you participated in. It got just a bit too heated and listening pretty much went right out the window. I understand how this person feels and sometimes you can not help but react emotionally, especially when you felt cheated, robbed, and taken advantage of.

I respect your point of view and agree with you on the bible. It not meant to be taken as "either/or". It simply......is. It is what it is, a historical book recounting the triumphs and tribulations of those who experienced the "Other". It is their story, nothing more, nothing less. It is very easy being a fundamentalist, it is a normal reaction when emotions are involved. It is something I hope to stay far away from as I encounter those that may disagree with what I believe...or don't.

Mystical Seeker said...

JP, thanks for your comments. I don't much enjoy getting into heated discussions myself.

Eileen said...

I do think, on some level, that we are hard wired to either "digital" or "analog" thinking.

It would explain a good many things. So many people who are conservatives in either their politics or religion can't cope with ambiguity. It's just not in their makeup. While for me, the idea that anything is fast and sure is equally incomprehensible.

I think this is what makes religion and politics so difficult to talk about.

Mystical Seeker said...

Eileen, you may be right. I like to think that people can grow spiritually into a more mature perspective, but if it is hard wired, then for lots of people it is just plain hopeless.