Monday, September 29, 2008

Toxic Religion

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking 2006), Daniel Dennett writes of how it is essential for society to carefully examine its religion and reform and change it as necessary so that we do not "pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendent's." It is an intriguing thought. Can something as good as religion be "toxic?"

The dictionary on my little MacBook that I am using to type this article defines the word "toxic" as "poisonous." Religion as a form of poison? Yes, I think all would agree, at least to a point, that it is true. When we encounter reports in the media of polygamous sects that "marry" fourteen and fifteen year old girls to old men in what really amounts to sex-slavery, we find ourselves appalled at such a repugnant notion. When we discover the motive behind all of this is religion, we are forced to say that, at least in this case, religion has become toxic.

There are other examples. We can think of the Branch Davidians and their "sinful messiah," bearing the sins of his community by making claim to his follower's wives. Or, maybe we might consider the Aryan Nations or other white supremacist "churches" which build a religion based on hate.

Well said, you agree, these forms of religion are nothing if not toxic. Indeed they are. However, the seeds of toxic religion plant themselves in much deeper soil, and are far more deceptive. I propose that the seeds of toxicity that produced such acts as 9/11 appear in many religious movements in America. This is not to say that common American religious movements would ever condone an act such as 9/11. Yet, we do see and hear of sentiments akin to such hate not so different on our television screens regularly.

One case that comes to mind is that of a popular television evangelist suggesting that AIDS is a punishment of a vindictive (he would no doubt say loving) God for homosexuality in America. If so, how do you account for the thousands infected that never had any contact with homosexuality or drug use? Should they suffer? Should innocent children? A religion with a vindictive God at its heart is a toxic religion.

Another prominent evangelist, who once publicly endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, has similarly pinned the fate of New Orleans on the wickedness of the city. Does God really do things like that?

Other prominent evangelical leaders have pooh-poohed global warming and done what they could to keep the faithful from supporting efforts to recue the planet. One writer of a popular fiction series concerning the return of Christ sees the whole world ending with all Jews being killed or becoming Christians. Although this writer may give lip service to a pro-Israel stance, is this not really the height of anti-Semitism? In the end, all Jews are gone.

There are Muslim haters and proclaimers of a future Christian/Muslim war-as if the crusades (also sparked by religious fervor) were not enough. Toxic religion seems to be everywhere. Moreover, we find it in most of the world's great faiths. There is Christian toxicity, Muslim toxicity, Jewish toxicity, and so on it goes. This begs a question: What is the common denominator?

In a word, xenophobia, a fear of the different and the new. Because of religion's tendency to xenophobia, it is often toxic. It is not just toxic in Baghdad or Jerusalem, or in New York, it is toxic here, right in our neighborhood, right in our own hearts and minds.

Healthy religion should serve to enlighten and make one more tolerant. However, often narrow-mindedness and a super literalism concerning the traditions and scriptures from the world's religions make religion quite toxic. Commonsense calls for a different approach. If something is not working anymore (if it ever did), it is madness to keep hanging onto it.

What we need to do is to take another look at our religions and ask if they really support a narrow-minded, "my way or no way" approach to life. Isn't there something universal in religion that preaches broadmindedness and love? Can we find that kernel of light in our religions? Can we fan that into a flame that burns so brightly that all toxicity burns away as so much dross? All religions I know of have some version of the Golden Rule in their traditions. Maybe that is the place to start. The world has about all the toxic religion it can endure. It is time for a revival. It is time for a reformation. It is time to put away toxic religion.

Of Witches and Other Nutty Things

We must be very careful that our lives are not under the influence of witches. They are everywhere. Probably ghost and goblins as well. All of the forces of evil are out there-- just lurking. They are waiting to make their move. And they mean business!

At least that is the message I seem to get from a video clip of Ms. Palin at her church. In this clip (take a look), a "man of God" prays over Ms. Palin and sends those witches packing! Thank heavens! We sure as shootin' don't want to have a VP with a witch problem!

Never mind that no one can produce a bonafide, abracadabra witch. Never mind that it sounds like something out of the pages of Salem Witch Trials. Ah... the Trials. Remember trial by ordeal? They'd dump the suspected witch in the water-- all tied up. If she floated and couldn't be drowned, well, you had a real witch on your hands-- kill her. If she sank, the poor woman was just a chump like the rest of us-- proven innocent, but a bit too late (lots seemed to be innocent, after the fact, of course).

Rather amazing that all of this "hocus pocus" is still around and active in the 21st. century, isn't it? But such is fundamentalism. When faced between a choice of silly ideas and "supposed" Bible references, it seems that reason just goes down the drain. The paranormal has been investigated for years. Except for late night call-in programs, I have yet to see any bonafide evidence of witches, wizzards, little devils, necromancy, or _____ (you can continue the list).

So what's the deal? The Bible says these things are real. And for fundamentalists, if the Bible squares off against reality, reality loses. It almost seems a bit nutty (in the psychiatric sense). But, it's not. Really it's just all a case of mass delusion and religious frenzy. There is a way out. Most adherents will never take it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why it is difficult to Reason With Fundamentalists

It is difficult to reason with fundamentalists. In fact, it is virtually impossible. What else might one expect? The very nature of fundamentalism is hardly conducive to the give and take involved in reasoning. If you attempt to have a discussion, you will soon find that it turns into a one way diatribe. Your fundamentalist friend will quickly become one-pointed and narrowly focused. You will leave the conversation feeling as if you have been talking to someone who can't see the forest for the trees.

And, of course they can't. What our fundamentalist friend has to offer to the conversation is usually a collection of tried and true (for them, anyway) cliches A good example of this appeared on the local news in the town where I live not long ago. A prominent fundamentalist televangelist was visiting our small city. Since his career had always been built upon confrontation, the local television news did an interview-- mostly for shock value-- that ran on the evening news. They asked him if his position on gay rights and gay marriage or civil unions had changed any over the years. He replied that "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." It's a catchy phrase. I noted to myself, however, that he was saying that phrase thirty years ago. I wondered, had his thinking on the matter progressed no further than this point? Had he nothing new to say?

Later, NPR ran a program featuring a controversial fundamentalist preacher who had recently made a great deal of money writing (with help) a fiction series about the "last days," "the rapture," and "the second coming." It became apparent that this minister believed there was only one way to view spiritual questions. It happened to be his way. The interviewer asked, "Now, Reverend, do you really think that only people who believe like you are going to heaven?" The preacher replied that it wasn't he that said such things. No, it was God. God said that you had to see things his way. The Bible said it.

Of course. one might always try to argue the Bible with fundamentalists. I have. Once, a fundamentalist missionary asked me if I believed the Bible was "the inspired, inerrant, word of God." I replied that I did indeed believe the Bible contained the word of God. "Contains? Contains? The Bible doesn't contain the word of God, it IS the inspired, inerrant word of God," he railed. His conclusion was that I certainly wasn't a real Christian. I certainly didn't deserve the title of minister, and that I was deceiving my flock. Unless I said it like he did, it wouldn't do.

When I was in seminary, I met a fellow student in the bookstore one day. He really didn't like all of the questioning of the "literal word of God" by students in our Biblical studies class (mainly me, I would guess). I wondered what he meant. He explained that the Bible was true, and that was that. Not really, I countered. Where is the proof that the Bible was absolutely true in all that it affirmed? This was the clincher from his point of view, "We know the Bible is true because it says it's true." I asked, "How can we be sure the Bible is true when it says it true, if what it says might not exactly be the truth?" Answer: "Because it says so."

And so will go conversations concerning politics, morals, religion, or whatever it may be. The fundamentalist is caught up in a web of circular thinking and well worn cliches. There is no getting around it. Trying to reason with fundamentalists, you quickly discover a disdain for reason. Over four decades ago, the great fundamentalist guru-philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, wrote his Summa Theologica on the matter. It was a little work entitled Escape from Reason. The title tells it all.

You cannot really reason with a fundamentalist, or at least not without great difficulty, because fundamentalism is an escape from reason. It is hard to work on reasoning when one party is all about escaping it.

What Happens When a Fundamentalist Quits?

In the holiday movie, White Christmas, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are faced with the terrible downturn in fortunes experienced by their former commanding officer from the European theater in World War II. The general, a well beloved man, has retired after the war to a small inn located in Vermont. Through an involved plot, the famous singing and dancing duo of Wallace and Davis find themselves at the inn just prior to Christmas. There has been no snow, hence no winter time visitors. After realizing that their former commander is now commanding a declining inn, Wallace and Davis (Bing and Danny) go into salvation mode.

The plan they have involves keeping the general away from his favorite television program, which has national syndication. Danny really "hams it up," and it takes some doing, but he succeeds in keeping the general away from the set long enough for Wallace (Bing) to make an appeal on a popular show for all of the men under the general's command in the war to converge at the inn for a production that he and Davis (Danny) have staged. His appeal is musical. He sings this song: "What do you do with a general when he stops being a general? What do you do with general unemployed?" Of course, all of the men bite. Hundreds show up. It snows. Bing and Danny both get the perspective girls, and all is happy. I know the story well. My wife has made me watch it every year for the past thirty-one years.

So, let me wax musical for a moment (maybe we could use Bing's tune). "What do you do with a fundamentalist when he stops being a fundamentalist? What do you do with a fundamentalist unconnected?" Or, in the vernacular, what happens to a fundamentalist when they leave the fold? Where do they go? What do they do? We might be tempted to answer those questions the way another movie classic answered a pressing question, "Frankly, my Dear, I don't give a damn." Still, I think compassion calls for a different answer. It cries out for us to understand.

Fortunately, John Brent (1994, "Leaving Protestant Fundamentalism: A Qualitative Analysis of a Major Life Transition," Counseling and Values 38 No.3) chronicles the path taken by those leaving absolutist churches. In a qualitative study of those who leave, he found several common themes:

1. Participation in the life of the fundamentalist milieu-- At this stage those who would eventually leave were members in good standing. They are fully involved in the life of the church. Their thinking is like others in the group. In their community of faith, the Bible prescribes the absolutes. That is true for them as well.

2. Then, they experience their initial disillusionment-- At some specific point on their fundamentalist journey, something happens. Those who would eventually leave feel disconnected and separated from the absolutist subculture. This point of disconnect could revolve around many factors. One of the most common points of disconnect is the demand for conformity.

3. Next, they move into a stage of tolerance-- In this stage, our "would be" former fundamentalist is filled with doubts and fears concerning the tradition and the subculture. Still, such members remain. Yet, they must deal with unrelenting doubt. Doubting intensifies the problem, since now, in addition to disillusionment; members must deal with the experience of guilt concerning their doubts.

4. Disillusionment, doubt, and guilt intensify until members reach the point of leaving-- Tensions grow. Eventually, a breaking point is reached. This is the defining moment. It is the point of no return, often related to some extreme crisis. At this point, the (newly former) absolutist leaves.

5. At first, this seems great-- The one who leaves feels a sense of relief. The crisis and disillusionment seem to be resolved. He seems to be freed from the unreasoning acceptance of dogma and practice that was once his life. But, it's not over yet. Shortly, the newfound relief abates and our spiritual traveler experiences emotions of guilt and fear.

6. After this long journey reaches this point, a stage of "New Horizons" rises from the ashes of an apparently broken past-- After recovering from the shock of withdrawal from the subculture, the former absolutist begins to form a new belief structure. She may embrace a new form of Christianity, or a new view apart from religion.

7. Still, problems remain for our spiritual pilgrim-- Now the process may seem complete and the whole issue resolved, but it is not really over yet. From time to time, recovering fundamentalists experience psychological/emotional problems. Often it has been noted that they experience periodic fundamentalist relapses.

Those are the stages Brent proposes as I might interpret them. I would add this: A traveler along the way might get "stuck" at one of the stages on the journey. They may be in the wilderness quite a long while. Still, many former fundamentalists will eventually associate with a more liberal church. Some will seek new solace in the highly liturgical churches such as Episcopalian or even Catholic (although, due to a different type of absolutism, it is not my experience that Catholicism is a common destination). Some will no doubt give up on religion all together, often becoming bitter about the whole endeavor. Yet others will create a hybrid religion combining bits and pieces of things they have learned of and tried out on the journey.

What then does happen to former fundamentalists? As you can see, there are many destinations. Where they might end up is somewhat of a mystery. Still, one thing is certain. They will be forever changed by their history. It seems that no one just walks away from fundamentalism.

The Road to Fundamentalism

What is the road, the path that leads to fundamentalism? The traditional answer associates fundamentalism with poverty, low educational attainment, and low socioeconomic status in general. This picture has emerged from research such as that by Coreno (2002. "Fundamentalism as class culture," Sociology of Religion 63 No.3 335-360.). The common picture that emerges from sociological research indicates that fundamentalists share a distinct class culture. In this view one might envision all of the factors that coalesce in this culture and see how that might lead to fundamentalism. Ignorance, poverty, and the accompanying hopelessness lead folks to seek hope somewhere.

That "somewhere" comes along in the fundamentalist subculture and the answers it provides. In the face of a none too friendly world, fundamentalism gives hope of a better tomorrow-- a "mansion just over the hill top." Those from a higher social status may not impose it, but in one respect Marx is right, religion is an opiate. It becomes a drug that takes away the pain of doing without all one might want and even some of what one might need.

The idea, well established in social and economic theory, of religion as a drug has many other applications as well. Perhaps the problems one is running away from have little to do with economics or education. Perhaps fundamentalism becomes a way to escape from a basically unhappy life. I well remember the answer of many of the church leaders to my problems when I was in the fundamentalist "fold." I was constantly told to doubt my "doubts and believe my beliefs." In this case, fundamentalism becomes a way of escape from the things folks cannot escape by other methods. It becomes a way to "hide one's head in the sand" and simply ignore or discount a reality that is not desired.

Here, we are talking about mass-delusion, mass psychological control. By way of example, in some churches, adherents are taught to believe that miracles are performed regularly right in their church. Yet, the evidence fails to verify such phenomena (a good example can be found in Travis Reed's Associated Press article, "Florida Revival Draws Thousands: Man Claims to be Faith Healer" Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, July 12, 2008). In fact, in a 2005 controlled study of heart patients reported in the July 2005 edition of The Lancet, no improvements were found in the mortality rates of cardiac patients receiving intercessory prayer. The study followed standard research protocols. The April 2008 American Heart Journal reported that in some situations, intercessory prayer was even correlated with greater mortality among heart patients. Real, bonafide miracles are hard to find and virtually all that are researched can be explained or debunked. Yet, we can see fundamentalism as a type of self-delusion for the hopeless and mass-delusion for the faithful subculture. In this case, fundamentalism works for those who are desperate and grasping at straws or lacking intellectual integrity.

Burton, in a 1989 article in the Journal of Religious Research, takes the common notion that fundamentalists are less educated than other identifiable religious groupings to task. This body of research found the relationship between education level and fundamentalism weak. This makes a sort of intuitive sense. There are many fundamentalist and evangelical colleges, many of them liberal arts colleges. My fundamentalist friends are certainly, as a whole, not less educated. I don't think we can really attribute the gullibility of fundamentalists to less education. It might be more a case of a qualitatively different education. Fundamentalists and children of fundamentalists attend schools where it is automatically assumed that "all truth is God's truth" and the "the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God." Therefore, they are led to believe that no "true" information can ever contradict the Bible.

In contrast, I teach at a non-fundamentalist, church-related, liberal arts college. One of our main missions, if not the main mission, is to create critical thinkers. With critical thinking, the truth is open to question. To question sacred positions held by many in our society requires courage-- especially if one's questioning results in novel answers. In short, critical thinking can be painful and cause distress. From this perspective, fundamentalists are seeking a world that makes sense, and they cannot bear living with ambiguity. Therefore, they opt for unquestioning certainty. It is those people, those who cannot bear to live a life of ambiguity and would rather believe than investigate, who ultimately become attracted to fundamentalism.

Ten Signs that You Might be a Fundamentalist

Presently, fundamentalism is a hot topic. Many folks have been astonished at the level of evil perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists, the most notable example being the events of 9/11. Those events are indelibly etched on the American psyche. Recently, news stories of the fall of Ted Haggard, a prominent evangelical, have attracted attention. After years of railing against homosexuality and assorted other sins, Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was "caught" committing the very "sins" he so railed against. More recently, Americans have been shocked at revelations of events happening at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints compound in Texas.

All of these groups and individuals involved would likely be viewed as fundamentalist. Is there some common denominator they all share? I have recently noted that some fundamentalists, who once proudly claimed the title, are presently reticent to make use of the label. Some American Christian fundamentalists have been opting for the title "Bible-believing," although their belief system hasn't changed. Once again the question is raised, is there any common denominator(s) among the variety of fundamentalists?

Two come to mind. First, there is the idea of absolute certitude. This is certitude that is unequivocal. On the points of doctrine on which fundamentalists groups claim certitude, they are highly unlikely to think they may be in possible error or that these points should ever be examined. The second characteristic is the importance of the fundamentalist culture from which their fundamentalism emerges. This culture supports adherents and discourages asking questions or incubating doubt. These two characteristics they have in common.

From these two commonalities, some signs that one might be a fundamentalist come to mind. I thought it might be instructive to construct a list of "Ten Signs that You Might be a Fundamentalist." Bearing my all too apparent fallibility in mind, here is an attempt at such a list (note that I speak here of Christian fundamentalism, although the signs apply, with a little tweaking, to all varieties):

1. You tend to see the world in terms of dualities. Everything is black and white with little in the way of shades of gray. If someone is not right about the essence of your faith, he is wrong. Period!

2. Going along with that idea, the other's "wrongness" doesn't only extend to matters of faith. You begin to think that the other person is at her core a "wrong person." She is flawed in some way.

3. This leads to the notion that there is a basic "them and us." There exists two basic groups of people, the subgroup with which you identify and the rest of the world.

4. The "rest of the world" is under the control of the Dominion of Darkness. The world is not only different and wrong in what it believes; it is basically evil. You are part of the righteous ones. Those unlike you are most certainly not.

5. The basic character of "the world" is everywhere. It is in the public schools. It is in the libraries. It is on the television (Well, there might be something to that one!). It is in the government. It takes in the folks on your street.

6. Your task is to get out of the world. Find alternative books, music, schools, friends, associates, etc.

7. If you can't escape it completely (Who can?), it is your task to launch a mission to make the world match the fundamentalist subculture. You must work to make the schools more Christian, for example. You must work to make government godlier. It is your task to change society in the direction of your religious beliefs.

8. Generally, you associate with conservative causes. You may not agree with the policies of all conservative politicians, but there are always issues that take on major importance. In the US, these usually amount to abortion and gay marriage/rights. The view is myopic and only the "hot button" issues matter.

9. You will usually "follow the leader." There are several well-known fundamentalist Christian leaders in the US. The fundamentalist faithful take their cue from them. They set the agenda. It is difficult for you to do much other than walk in lock step to the beat of their drummer.

10. Finally, if anyone should ask, these are not your ideas. You must follow them because they mark out God's agenda. To be a fundamentalist is simply another term for being a follower of God. Those in churches that disagree with the basic tenets of fundamentalism are lost. They don't know God. In short, they aren't really Christians at all.

Do all ten of the characteristics apply to all fundamentalists? In reality, folks are probably fundamentalist by degrees. However, the two elements of certitude and a supporting, indoctrinating subculture are universal characteristics. I want to end with an assignment. Go back over the list and write the inverse of each point. What would such person or society acting on reverse characteristics look like?

Are the Terms "Fundamentalism" and "Cult" Equivalent Terms?

In my mind, the term "cult" is an ugly word. It acquires that connotation by its usage. In a quite literal definition, the term refers to religion and religious practice, especially ceremonial practice. Therefore, we might refer to a bar mitzvah as part of the cult of Judaism. We might likewise refer to the Eucharist as being bound up with the cultus of Christianity. In its barest definition, the term "cult" is neither good or bad, evil or benign. It is a quite generic and non-specific word.

However, we all know that there is an entirely different meaning of the term "cult." When we think of that meaning, we usually think of some aberrant form of an established religion. Since there are so many varieties of belief within any given religious faith, it's a lamentable term-- maybe not very useful. But, for the sake of argument, we must muddy the waters even further. It seems that many Christians use the term to refer to non-Christian religions in general. Many churches speak of Hinduism as a cult. Or they might refer to Zen as a cult. I've heard "A Course in Miracles" devotees called cultists. Even some techniques, such as transcendental meditation, which may be practiced completely apart from a belief in any sort of god, are often labeled cultish, despite the fact that many medical practitioners recommend meditation practice.

In it's lamentable usage, it seems as if there are various defining characteristics assigned to the concept of a cult by those that use the word, a few come to mind quite readily:

1. Cults are authoritarian
2 Cults usually separate folks from mainstream society
3. Cults often use mind control methods
4. Cults brainwash people (This is a slightly nuanced version of number 4.)
5. Cults cause adherents to do illogical things
6. Cultists cannot be reasoned with by conventional methods

Usually, when cults are discussed, the discussion occurs in conservative churches, often churches that might be labeled fundamentalist or evangelical. (For the sake of this discussion both will be regarded as funadmentalist-- although I know some evangelicals might object. "Evangelical" is a quite fluid term, historically identical to the term "fundamenatlist.") It would appear that fundamentalists have some need to "contend for the faith." It is rare to see many books written from a religious perspective dealing with cults that was not produced by a fundamentalist. This being the case-- that they are the most likely to label alternative religious movements as cults-- I am compelled to make a surprising observation. Usually, the characteristics ascribed by fundamentalists to cults-- characteristics such as those listed above-- are highly descriptive of Christian fundamentalism as well. This can be easily illustrated.

The characteristic of authoritarianism attributed to cults is surely true of fundamentalism. It is true on two counts. First, fundamentalism is a movement largely directed by charismatic figures. I'm not talking about the Warren Jeffs or similar folks here. I refer to the televangelists, megachurch leaders, and leaders of the religious right. Leading figures direct the faithful and teach them what to believe. Adherents "follow the leader" often blindly. This leads to the second source of authoritarianism. Here I am referring to the Bible/Bible interpretation package that directs fundamentalists. The Bible becomes a "paper pope," the fundamentalist interpreters regared as virtually infallible.

On the charge of trying to separate the faithful from mainstream society, surely the fundamentalist leaders must plead guilty. Adherents are encouraged to break ties with family and friends that get in the way of their belief system. They sometimes are forced to cut ties with friends in churches they attended before becoming fundamentalists. Alternative schools flourish to separate fundamentalist youth from "the world." Fundamentalists maintain separate institutions for arts (recording companies and labels, and publishing concerns, all adhering to the fundamentalist outlook) separate organizations teaching authoritarian ideas for husbands (Promise Keepers, for example), and distinct political action groups (guided by quasi-religious opinion).

Mind control methods? Yes, even here it must be noted that fundamentalists meet the qualification for cultists. Members of fundamentalist churches are taught to deny their questioning and maintain a mantra of "God said it! I believe it! That settles it!" Doubting and questioning are discouraged. "Proof texts" from the Bible are memorized for use when a church member might have a question. When taking up questions with church leaders, members are not enouraged to think things out for themselves. Just as when I was a fundamentalist, members are told the "right" answers for troubling questions.

Do fundamentalists brainwash people (remember, we are talking about the fundamentalist church down the street, not the Moonies)? They bombard them with many meetings each week. They often work themselves up into emotional frenzies. Even if that is not always so, one must admit that fundamentalist leaders know how to work emotionalism to arrive at their desired outcome. They threaten those who don't believe the "right way" with hell. They de-construct reality as we see it and create an alternate reality filled with devils, demons, and flaming perdition. Some have been able to get very sick folks to stop taking medicine to prove they have faith worthy of being healed. It would certainly appear to be a form of brainwashing.

What about logic? Is the fundamentalist's version of "science" logical? Is faith healing logical? Is it logical that mental illness is caused by demon possession? Is the fundamentalist world view logical?

What about reasoning with a fundamentalist? All I can say is forget it. We don't have enough time to review that question. Just give it a try some day.

It is a sad state of affairs that there are dangerous cults in our world. Certainly any fair-minded person would agree that white supremacist religious groups, polygamous groups, the Branch Davidians, Reverend Moon and his followers, and many others fit the negative use of the word cult. But, apparently so do fundamentalist Christians. They may not adopt the extremes that the "far out" cults embrace. They may be more socially acceptable. They may share many characteristics (perhaps negative) of Christianity in general. Nevertheless, the similarities remain. I have discovered all people are inconsistent (including yours truly). Maybe in one sense fundamentalists are no more inconsistent than the rest of us. But is fundamentalist Christianity a type of cult? We must agree, the similarities are striking.

Are All Fundamentalists Extremists?

In this article, we wish to explore the nature of two words, fundamentalism, and extremism. What connotation do we arrive at when we hear these words? Are they essentially the same? In other words, are we to construe fundamentalism as a variety of extremism? Does the equation work the other way as well? What we are about here is a definition of terms.

One could give considerable space, either directly or indirectly, to defining the term "fundamentalism." After a careful examination, some conclusions may be reached. There are two major characteristics of fundamentalism. The most apparent facet of this ubiquitous term is certainty. Fundamentalists are very certain people. Further, it is certainty that cannot be entreated. Fundamentalists know that they know that they know. Case closed. The popular bumper sticker gets at the heart of this: "God said it! I believe it! That settles it!" Evidence is largely irrelevant. In the sense used here, one might view certainty as an attitude.

The second dimension of fundamentalism to consider is the subculture. The subculture supports the fundamentalist, befriends him or her, and supplies the certainties into which the absolutist is inducted. We see this in Christianity when we consider alternative music, a closed society into which only the initiated are invited (unless others are visiting and viewed as potential initiates), and a Christian jargon, including the rhetoric of the right. Even when the adherents are separated from the subculture, the sacred memory of the teachings of the subculture help the adherent maintain membership in the society of the certain.

These components are true of all types of fundamentalism. They are true of all types of religious fundamentalism as well as political fundamentalism (often the two blend). As Alistair McGrath points out, one might even speak of an atheist fundamentalism such as represented in Dawkins's, The God Delusion. Even in this case, careful investigation indicates these two features are present.

What then is extremism? The dictionary feature available on my handy little MacBook which I am using defines an extremist this way: "a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, esp. one who resorts to or advocates extreme action." That's a mouthful! There are certainly some terms we must "unpack" if we are to make use of this definition. First, we must define what "extreme views" are made up of.

Of course, that is a question that is heavily dependent on culture, at least on one hand. Many Europeans view the United States as very (overly) religious. In reality, the US is a church-going nation. Is that extreme? Not really. In the context of the definition, extremism must drive someone to extreme actions. When we speak of "extreme sports," we know that we are all referring to sports that usually involve some danger. I propose we take the notion of extreme views as views that might be dangerous to individuals, society, or the progenitor of the views. Therefore, we will define extreme views as dangerous views.

The next term we need to get at is "fanatical." I propose that a fanatic is someone who is so consumed with something that they cannot divorce their thinking from the object of their fanaticism. They must always talk about it, practice it, and promote it.

How do fundamentalists hold up when it comes to rejecting the label of extremism? Certainly, at least in the Abrahamic Faiths, there is a missionary imperative. That is why fundamentalists cannot take no for an answer. In the case of Christian fundamentalism, adherents will spend considerable time evangelizing, even if the objects of their evangelism are not interested in what they have to offer. If they "slack off" in promoting fundamentalist Christianity, the subculture moves in with a heavy dose of guilt to enforce evangelization. Say what you will, but a true fundamentalist surely qualifies as a fanatic (somewhat akin to the sports fanatic whose team is the best and greatest and who tend to lose through poor calls and bad breaks rather than bad plays-- although the analogy quickly breaks down).

Of course, there are degrees to which one adheres and embraces certainty. We have to think of it as a spectrum. Somewhere on that spectrum, folks cross the line and become fanatics. To the extent that someone is truly fundamentalist, relative to any action or belief, s/he will be a fanatic.

But, what about the "extreme" side of things? It has been stated that being extreme involves an element of danger. When has that line been crossed? What constitutes danger? Physicality? Or, can danger be psychological as well? There is little actual danger done by becoming a Yankees fan. Still, think of the rioting that often breaks out after soccer matches in otherwise civilized Europe. When is an idea dangerous? Or maybe we should ask, When is an idea too dangerous? Certainly, polygamy is dangerous. Surely, Christianity so opposed to abortion that it is willing to resort to violence against abortion providers is dangerous.

Where do we leave this question, then? Fundamentalism may fairly be called fanatical. But dangerous? That is a question that we must answer for ourselves, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. Is fundamentalism extremist? I think all that we can say is it depends.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Is Sarah Palin a Fundamentalist Crazy?

Let me start by saying that the purpose of this blog is not political. In the sidebar, the reader will find my book advertised, along with a podcast interview concerning it on Fascinating Authors and a link for a lengthy book review. If you haven't bought the book you should. It explains much about fundamentalism. It's worth your time. I say this even if you happen to be a fundamentalist. The book, contrary to most books written about fundamentalism, is not really about politics. But, this Sarah Palin thing has me snagged and I do believe that the Republicans are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of most Americans.

The book fits here. It describes my background as a fundamentalist, and if recent prayers and clips of Sarah's performances in church are any guide to go by, back me up about 30 years, and we could be two theological peas in a pod. I was a fundamentalist Charismatic. Ms. Palin is a pentecostal by history that currently attends a Charismatic church. You know, a bonafide, "tongue talking, get the devil in a headlock, prophesy (you know, "Thus saith the Lord" kind of stuffstuff), cast out demons, the whole nine yards" type of operation.

Beside beliving obvious silly, almost comical things, like God wants a new pipeline in Alaska, all of this means she believes that Israel is the promised land, and the US should back Israel-- even if Israel acts unjustly, that many (maybe most of us) are likely heading for eternal perdition, and that she views (I heard her praying about this one) Iraq as a "holy war" of sorts. Her church sponsored the head honcho of Jews for Jesus as a speaker. He blamed suicide attacks against Israel's Jewish population on their failure to receive Jesus as the messiah (which seems out of keeping with the "Israel-friendly" views of fundies in general).

Is this religious nuttiness (don't take my word for it! Read about it in the Anchorage Daily News) something that we can take a risk on? Can the US really afford to have a fundamentalist crazy as a possible president? Do we want someone to change our misguided war efforts into an all out holy war? If you ask me, these fundamentalist politicians are dangerous-- very dangerous.

Obama's preacher and church got plenty of play in the media. Why isn't this getting any more play than it is? Because the Republicans are indeed playing the "sexist card" and everybody is fairly scared to investigate and report about Governor Palin and her extremist views. But come on! This is serious business, and we are talking about the VP candidate for the oldest first term, would be president our nation has ever seriously considered.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I give the American people more sense than to want this scenario played out in reality. Honestly, she's nutty. "There is no nut like a religious nut," as I heard a weekly news magazine commentator once say. But he was wrong. A religious nut with real POWER is much more dangerous.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"A Pit Bull with Lipstick?"

Last night, Sarah Palin gave her "speech of a lifetime." Ms. Palin appeared out of nowhere and now is on everyone's radar screen. John McCain, so it is said, was having some difficulty connecting with the Republican base (ie. evangelicals/fundamentalists). Sarah was Johnny's answer as to how to "hook-up" with those Republicans who failed to find the good senator "righteous" enough for the job.

It was a calculated gamble. However, it seems to be paying off. Sarah has become the darling of the Christian Right, sending quivers of delight through the James Dobson crowd. Now, finally, it seems as if the Holy Guardians of Our Morality are fully on board. Ms. Palin seems to be just what they were looking for in a running mate.

Last night, the RNC reminded me of several things. There was the emotionalism of a Holiness tent meeting. There was raucous applause when ever Sarah mentioned war, or pursuing energy policy that will contribute to a decline in the environment. That good ol' George Bush disregard for the other nations in the world and the other 80%+ people that inhabit the planet was there aplenty. I'm sure the delegates were well aware that Sarah is as willing as Mr. McCain to fight a hundred years in Iraq. Typical Right-wing hubris, and that's for sure.

The curious thing is that all of that: pro war, being the cowboy with the most guns, trashing the environment, a curious "pro-life" stance that says "no" to abortion and continues to say "no" to social programs helping the poor children of the world, taxing the middle-class and cutting taxes for the wealthy, total disregard for the good of all of the residents of the planet-- all of that is somehow included in the fundamentalist religious creed. It is all one. After all, to be a Christian means to stand for Christ and support off-shore drilling.

It seems so utterly foolish. Hold those opinions, if you will. But, don't make them religious dogma. Here's a good activity. Place the "snarling, lipsticked, pit bull's" speech alongside Jesus' Kingdom speech in the Sermon on the Mount. I'll give you this: maybe politics will always fall short of Christian ethics. But, when it comes to those claiming to be guided by Christian ethics AND in light of the gospel of the right, either the fundamentalists are wrong, or Jesus is. "Compassionate conservatism" is far too selective-- especially when it turns Bushisms into religious doctrine. No equivocating on that score.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Bible and the Law

Recently. my hometown newspaper carried a story concerning a death penalty case in Texas. The defendant, Khristain Oliver, had been sentenced to death in a murder case in 1999. Not long ago, Mr. Oliver appealed his sentence (death) to a New Orleans based appeals court. At issue was the influence of the Bible on the sentencing phase in the case. (He subsequently lost the appeal.)

It appears that, during jury deliberations, the jurors had access to a Bible and looked to "the Good Book" for guidance in how to proceed. Later questioning of jurors dismissed the accusation that the Bible was consulted for guidance on the sentencing of murders-- although it was admitted that a Bible was present in the jury room and there was a period of Bible reading to assuage the consciences of the jurors regarding their decisions. Any way you want to cut it, this seems to be a very "Biblical" decision that was reached.

This begs the question of how far courts should go in following the Bible in the administration of justice. Take the case of criminals pleading an insanity defense (thought be many to be frequent, but actually happening in less than 1% of murder trials with the defendant prevailing quite infrequently). Is there any room for mercy towards the insane in Biblical jurisprudence? I can't find any. At least it is not mentioned.

What about juvenile courts? The Pentateuch is clear. If a child is incorrigible or "curses father or mother" they must be put to death. Are we to start killing juvenile delinquents? Would that be a prudent method of deterrence?

What about war crimes and genocide? Well... in a "righteous cause" they might be permitted. Surely the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua is a case of genocide. Maybe that is why so many Christian Right and Rush Linghbaugh conservatives are so gung-ho on killing Muslims. The book of Joshua describes a situation where Joshua (supposedly under the guidance of the Almighty) told the Israelites to go to war against a certain nation-state and kill everybody and everything-- including babies. "But," says Josh, "if you meet some young virgins in town while you are doing the Lord's work, save them for yourself." Rape and pillage? And all at the command of God?

Isn't it apparent that using the Bible as a sentencing code is a rather silly endeavor? Who would really want to go back to "eye for eye and tooth for tooth?" Wouldn't we all soon be blind and toothless?