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Back in 2012, a survey showed that 1 in 4 Americans still think the Sun revolves around the Earth and not the other way around. I was easily reminded of that period in history (around the 1500’s to the 1600’s) when this issue was a very contentious one – that period when Copernican books were banned, Bruno was burned at stake or when Galileo was put under house arrest for the last years of his life. And the big reason was that their propositions or discoveries go against the teachings of the Church. It wasn’t until in 1992 that Pope John Paul II formally apologized on this issue.
It was a historic move by the Church under the former Pope back then, helping ease the tension over Science & Religion. Flash forward to today, the relatively new Papacy of Pope Francis is promoting the idea of tolerance, being welcoming to atheists and gays even going as far to say that Evolution and the Big Bang are real. The Church of England in 2008, as another major move in the world of religious affairs, apologized to Charles Darwin for misunderstanding him on his theory of evolution. Religious organizations continue to adapt worldwide. But in spite of what seems to be a world that has become more tolerant when it comes to ideological differences or simply in general, the irony is religious fundamentalism has been on the rise.
Aside from the violence in the Middle East often played in the news, fundamentalism is creating a lot of negative implications globally—one of which has been affecting the many policy developments around the world. For a big part fundamentalism is completely stonewalling a lot of policy making as a lot of it has taken roots and has become more influential in the world of politics.
In America, Christian Fundamentalists are said to be feeding toxic partisanship. At the same time there is some growing concern that they are not that different with the kind fundamentalism Americans typically fear from the Middle East. While they don’t pursue their goals through violent means, they are as committed in ensuring that their religious beliefs are fully enforced as law. They have become increasingly influential in the American political arena, more than willing and with conviction to aid their representatives in doing mostly anything to block meaningful legislation to go through just because a small part of legislation is against their religious beliefs. One example of which is disregarding the minimum wage and other much needed economic reforms just because one is completely against homosexuality.
The obstructionism taking place is happening not just in America but in many places such as across Europe and in Australia in a more or less similar fashion. The use of religious beliefs has become very convenient politically, that it can move a lot for a cause to vote. Protests would then rage more on the issues of what one is against rather than what one is for.
France became the 14th country in 2013 to allow same sex marriage and a lot of the political issues needed to be discussed are covered around this issue. As historian and writer Mark Mazower puts it in Financial Times: “France’s struggle is against much more than gay marriage.” Prior to the passage of the law, millions took to the streets and converged onto the favorite Instagram selfie buddy in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, to protest in defending marriage. Of course, on a political level, the opposition loved this and continue to do so, taking it into their hands to affect the policies of their current administration.
In Australia there are parallel conflicts. American TV host and political commentator Bill Maher put it back in 2009 for the United States that the “Democrats have moved to the right and the right has moved into a mental hospital (far right).” This seems to be the case in the rise of radical right in Australia. The moderates of their conservative party are overtaken by the radical right involving Christian Fundamentalists who have become influential in their political arena with the same tactic, same strategies of putting up policies mirroring religious beliefs which are easily sold. It is believed that their current educational system is secular but religious extremism have a hold in it.
An adviser to ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority), Sociology Tutor at Southern Cross University in Australia and author of Religion in Secular Education, Cathy Byrne has been researching on the past 7 years on the role of religion in government education. She is concerned about the growing suggestions of what seems to be a totalitarian fundamentalist Christian society in Australia through the religious instructions taught in their schools. She writes:
“Religious extremists reject the idea of human equity. They prefer their religious worldview to democratic institutions, values and processes, and think one religion, theirs, is the best and only framework for society…Many RI programs in Australia are evangelical and biblically literal. These programs position a narrow, extremist view of Christianity as the superior way to live and believe.”
Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair weighed in on this issue as he called for the importance of religious tolerance as a key to promoting peace around the world in the 21st century. According to him, religious extremism has become the biggest source of conflict around the world and he asserts that it’s not ideological difference but religious difference will fuel this century’s major battles.
The paradox is religion is in global decline, but religious extremism is rising. While religion has long held a wide acceptance in human history, recently we have more atheists & agnostics coming out in spite of fear from a dominant public who believes otherwise. Recently we’re seeing organizations such as Openly Secular –a new coalition launched in the mid of 2014 with the mission to highlight and overcome discrimination against secular people which includes atheists, free-thinkers, humanists, agnostics, and non-religious people.
Fundamentalism, however, isn’t necessarily just an issue for the religious. Of course, the heat is not just found among the religious. Secular movements are not exempted to the temptations of fundamentalism. Religious or not, it’s applicable to anyone with beliefs.
Radical feminism for one is what makes it difficult for many to call themselves feminists. When actress Emma Watson gave a speech for the United Nations she mentioned how feminism has become an unpopular word such that it promotes hatred or rigid attitude towards men.
Scientific fundamentalism, medical fundamentalism, skeptical fundamentalism—as their very names suggest, represent absolutist, rigid attitude the same way be it about ‘logic’ as the only answer to everything, Western medicine or that going to the hospital is the only answer to everything (a.k.a. the ‘magic bullet’ or ‘magic pill’ syndrome), and what can only be seen or what is deemed ‘realistic’ with a reliant focus on ‘disbelief’ is the only answer to everything.
The world is no doubt going through many significant societal shifts. In the last 100 years we have progressed rapidly as technology progressed, democratic governments have sprung up in many places around the world, women have risen to more significant roles, we’ve landed on the moon, we have a grumpy millionaire cat, we’ve finally found the ‘God Particle’, and now we’re planning on colonizing Mars. In spite of being in the 21st century and all the progress we have accomplished, there’s still a big part of our world that is still as intolerant as the 1500’s.
Fundamentalism is nothing new, but what is different in today’s world is that it has become more toxic such that there is no room for honest or rational discourse to reach a compromise, further complicated by the constant media sensationalism we’re experiencing these days. Emotionally charged or repetitive statements are held as truth burying evidences or facts to come to an honest conclusion.
Months ago, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher together with Sam Harris got into a heated debate about Radical Islam and became popular news. Ben is right to say that we can’t generalize a group of people because of the actions of the few and I personally prefer to see it that way. But Sam Harris and Bill Maher mentioned troubling statistics which must not be set aside directly countering Ben’s ‘actions of the few.’
The statistics are based on the published Pew Research and looking at it closely, when Muslims were asked if they are in favor of death penalty for somebody who leaves or renounces their religion, a staggering 86% in Egypt are okay with killing that person who leaves; 82% for Jordan, 66% for those in Palestinian Territory, and 76% in Pakistan.
Perhaps it’s a cultural problem. Perhaps it’s an economic one. But there’s something that is not addressed in their debate which perhaps is too boring for TV.
Something else is also at work and this is the workings of a fundamentalist mind which involves all of us or at least anybody with a thinking mind. Most of us have a grasp of what extremism is and we like to think we are rational beings, but whether we acknowledge it or not, we have no idea that we’re being fundamentalists in our own little special ways. Many can still be oblivious to how beliefs make one deeply intolerant— emotionally and mentally. Everyone is susceptible to the same mind traps.
SO WHAT MAKES A FUNDAMENTALIST MIND?
Fundamentalist tendencies brought forth by our culture, traditions, and the dominance of ideological systems be it imposed, voluntarily accepted, or self-made forms a big part of our identities. One of the biggest difficulties usually is how to separate the evil that is within those ideologies. The ties of beliefs within one’s identity could make it tougher to let go of destructive beliefs.
One could be a son or a daughter who has to keep following whatever his or her parents says. One follows because they are the parents. He or she believes that parents are to be respected, which is true, but they rely on him or her for everything even fully depend their own happiness on. Now, little does the son or daughter know it is negatively affecting many areas of his or her life. It’s no longer conducive for healthy boundaries. While this doesn’t mean for one to be disrespectful to one’s parents, what’s happening instead is codependency is already taking place.
Fundamentalist behavior plays here for the perceived authority or respect for parents is always the fitting justification that it can overlook the fact that the children even under the umbrella of family setting are still separate individuals that must be given due space for personal growth. When this personal growth is inhibited one negative result is family hero types develop from this and have what is called the caretaker mindset leaving them vulnerable to manipulative behavior having been conditioned to be responsible or guilted into a lot of things (i.e. the responsible child carrying the burden or the responsible one conditioned to be responsible for someone else, even others’ emotions).
A negative result also, often seen, is the so called mama’s boy. A mama’s boy comes from a long term conditioning of not being able to fully make a decision for himself, for his own sense of growth due to being dragged down on a toxic level by his own mom (or his own family). Women who are with one know how frustrating this can be.
Another is, one could be a friend to someone who tells a story of another person (a.k.a. let’s do gossip venting). While that person claims to be an open minded person, he or she believes that friend anyway even if it’s not half the picture or worse he or she didn’t bother to get additional sides of the story at all. It’s easy to judge something that was easily cooked without questioning the motivations involved or the root cause of what happened. It’s fundamentalist in a way for whatever perceived bad behavior one can easily be against, is easily sold. This is the kind of brainwashing strategy used by fundamentalists themselves. Straw man type of arguments or story telling is played thus emotions are played and before one knows it, he or she fell as well into the trap. Demonization is easy. (Oh that monster. That monster. Let’s go punch that douche in the face.)
A couple of years ago, I happened to be watching a science documentary clip and was playing it alongside a friend who happens to be religious. The scientist in the documentary was describing a process about how the brain works while asleep but in the middle of the explanation she started saying that the scientist in the documentary is rationalizing.
She was very engaged, serious, and felt sorry for the scientist as if he’s doomed not to be saved. The truth was, the scientist in the documentary was simply describing the process. No one was rationalizing anything. What was obvious was the fact that she equated it easily as an attack to her faith or to Jesus. She saw the scientist explaining the details of the process as rationalizing. Why it’s fundamentalist in a way –science is conditioned to be an automatic enemy if you’re religious. It’s part of fundamentalism in conditioning enemies that it becomes a reflex or instantaneous to be emotionally charged, in this case, against science. (That monster. That monster.)
To be a fundamentalist is to have that strict adherence that something is unchangeable. To be a fundamentalist is to completely block in any way in getting to know or to properly question something especially if it involves authority, tradition, strongly held religious beliefs or just simply the way one is used to seeing things—sticking to what one knows than being open. The attitude of definitiveness, absolutism, or reductionism devoid of any sense of openness or effort to connect would be found.
Psychologist Stephen Larsen describes in detail in his book The Fundamentalist Mind on the workings of Polarized Thinking. Polarized thinking means that once you’re strongly set on some things associated with your belief, for example women’s rights—you’re most likely going to lean on a political party who is supporting it while disregarding the opposing political party at all. The farther one gets to polarization, it can get extreme, it then becomes a dangerous form of polarization.
If you had a bad break up and your ex from the New England area is a Patriots fan, Tom Brady lover, die hard Celtics fan, a self-proclaimed hipster & loves listening to MGMT, you’re most likely going to detach yourself from anything that has to do with those. You may start hating the songs she listens to, start booing the Patriots for the deflated balls (instead of cheering for them like you used to) or you may even start hating on anything that has to do with the East Coast. Let’s say you’re a California boy, being one you just start hating on everything from the East and say everything that is cool about the west. (Yeah, west coast represent.)
We have this habit of lumping things together in one ball, especially for whatever is convenient for us. We stick with it as if it’s the answer to everything. We stick to it as if it’s already enough. We stick with it as if it’s already complete then we block off anything new, especially something contradictory, but could actually be helpful.
As part of dangerous polarized thinking, the following are seven common dominant characteristics found in fundamentalist thinking:
1.) Dualistic Thinking
Good vs Evil; Catholics vs Protestants; Science vs Religion; We vs They; Lakers vs Celtics; Democrats vs Republicans; Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life, and so on.
If you’re a Laker fan, must you automatically hate the Celtics? If you love your husband, must you automatically hate your mother in law? If somebody criticizes your girlfriend, does that automatically mean you break up with her? If you like the Democrats, must you hate the Republicans? If someone’s pro-choice does that mean that someone is not for life or vice versa? If it’s not this, it’s that?
Dualistic thinking is the tendency of being limited only to two choices, black or white thinking instead of being multiplistic or seeing the plurality of options, perspectives or the shades of gray. It’s seeing things only as either/or.
Celtics fans don’t necessarily hate the Lakers, opposing fans do have big respect for the other team’s stars; There are many people who vote for both political parties; If someone criticizes your girlfriend or boyfriend doesn’t mean you have to leave her/him; We are they instead of we vs they, and so on.
2.) Reductionism & Absolutism
The Lakers are the best and that’s it, period ; the Celtics are the best that’s it, period ; Lebron James is not an elite player and lacks the notorious clutch gene and that’s it, period ; My God is the true God and that’s it, period ; Women should stay at home and must go make you a sandwich and that’s it, period ; “I’m right and you’re wrong and that’s it, period” ; “It’s the law and that’s it, period” ; “Evolution is not real and that’s it, period” ; “Those who are not in our religion should be converted or be killed and that’s it, period.”
“To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no suprises and no unknowns.”
– Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
For a lot us, we do say things with certainty but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s about it or period. It’s a paradox. No matter how certain we may be at something be it about anything, we do know that there’s more to it. It goes back to the definitive or certitude attitude and this attitude tends to be in big display especially during expression of intense emotions.
When something is deemed absolute, reductionism happens as well. You devoid yourself of the unknowns that can be known, or the knowns that are already known. It is the reliance on simplistic narrative, reducing a lot of things into something easily explained.
The lack of critical thinking or the inability to distance oneself from simplistic narrative goes with this. Instead of acknowledging complexity and the expansiveness of reality, things are oversimplified or reduced and/or deemed absolute.
Taking literally what the scriptures or words say without regard to the context.
This can also be put under the context of someone who can’t read between lines or seeing things primarily by their face value or label.
4.) Fear based
When fear sets in, dominos of simplistic thinking comes in. Fear and rejection becomes the convenient responses due to a feared authority, for example, against science or secularism for the religious (because the bible is correct) or vice versa.
With fear comes paranoia. There comes the predominant thought that the world is bad, with so many evil people or that one person you can’t get along with should be prayed for because he or she is evil.
5.) Environment of subtle manipulation or sense of coercion
Where there is fear, there comes manipulation or coercion which explains a lot with the attitude. Fear is then spread. Of course, fear may not necessarily be apparent or present due to acceptance developed over time. Understanding human fear is a powerful element especially if it involves long term conditioning of the punishment that would arise if something is not done (i.e. If you don’t finish reading this article and pray to internet kittens tonight, your love life will suffer for seven years…)
6.) Highly intolerant
Inability to welcome new ideas or totally differing set of values or beliefs which thus often lead to anger, resentment, and a lot of negative emotions towards something or towards others. If power is involved it can mean persecution or punishment (i.e. Galileo).
Unreasonable fear or hatred to something foreign or strange or those who are different.
What to think vs how to think is a battle for the fundamentalist mind. Since a fundamentalist mind is conditioned in beliefs that are deemed immovable, it is forced to think in one way of thinking.
I’d like to add more characteristics and I don’t mean to be a reductionist myself. To add, another common pattern I find personally with fundamentalist thinking is the toxic idea of control or certainty. It’s a temptation & nature of the human mind to solve problems, to fix, or to find that ‘magic bullet’ or ‘magic pill’ to ease the fear of uncertainty one finds in and the solution is to find some sense of certainty.
It’s human nature that we like to be certain, we want to be in control, we are afraid of change and rejection. We fear. But when these needs or fears become toxic, there comes the strain of dealing with someone with a vaulted mind or someone with an obstinate refusal to entertain something, along with a lot of the characteristics mentioned above.
CAUSES & HUMAN NATURE
Thanks to the internet, we’re exposed on a daily basis to trillions of cat videos, kittens, Kim Kardashian’s butt breaking the internet and a ton of mind blowing information. Due to this easily accessible information, for someone who’s living most of his life believing that the earth is flat then suddenly is exposed to something highly contradictory that the earth is round, resistance will eventually arise. It’s in our nature to seek homeostasis or balance or a return to what is familiar. Thus, the answer to why fundamentalism is on the rise begins with technology.
Influx of information these days puts a lot of mental or psychological strain especially to those who lived and have been conditioned to cling on to the idea that what they know is all they have or all that there is or all that should be. We’re bombarded with information more than ever and a lot of it gets through our heads challenging our most precious beliefs about the world and ourselves. As mentioned earlier, it makes it even harder if beliefs are deeply tied to one’s identity then it is more painful to let go.
The economic aspect plays a big part too. The influx of technology has affected income inequality, and this is one big critical point of battle in politics when we you see politicians battle over a budget. Millions can be made in an hour by some wolf of Wall Street or by some big company, while a big part of the country there are workers who would take a lifetime or more to earn the same amount or not at all.
If you have a big portion of population not experiencing a minimum degree of quality, especially dignity in living, the tendency for them is to cling on to myths, to find something that can make them feel certain about their life or themselves. It then becomes a vicious cycle benefiting only who’s in power, as the one in power would have the power and influence to maintain the status quo, after all cheap labor means higher profits, uninformed consumers keep consuming, even defending a bad product. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Self-serving motives are definitely involved in the rise of fundamentalist thinking.
The problem is this: the fundamentalist mind harbors beliefs which are absolute, inflexible, immovable or deemed forever applicable to anything and to all times, but beliefs by their nature can be changed, evolved, improved, modified or can be proven false at any time. Thus, this makes fundamentalist thinking very restrictive to an ever changing complexity of living or maladaptive. What makes this thinking so dangerous is that it can develop justifications on coercing, imposing, be enslaved or to enslave and hurt others.
It’s amazing how human nature is capable of a lot things to adapt or to survive. Our minds have their own psychological immune system to make sense of the world or to protect itself until it is ready to ‘work with’ a perceived threat or new information which leads us to one theory called cognitive dissonance.
One example of cognitive dissonance would be for many who are in the coal business and that to suggest to them that coal is bad for your health and is bad for the climate, they would just deny it or won’t see anything wrong at all in spite of overwhelming evidence or facts. Facts or evidences don’t help ironically. The more we are faced with, the more defiant we are.
A big part of this lies with the burden of change or cost of change. Giving up a source of your income would definitely be a hard pill to swallow. For one to even begin to process such contradictory information would be overwhelming.
But what about things that are simply what it is or just neutral or not necessarily invoking any challenge at all? For a lot of us when faced with something new, we have this instinctive drive that there are only two options, to be for it or against it. It goes back again to our dualistic tendencies. Larsen mentions in his book that in spite of our dualistic nature, the key is:
“fluidity, versatility, flexibility and ability to move between states as the environment requires” and that “stuckness and rigidity are the enemy—and any social or religious program that locks up the nervous system into just one among its many states, or polarizes it into opposites, is pathological.”
In other words, we are still capable of being multiplistic or expansive in our views in spite of the biological limitations or whatever conditioning we may have; or in spite of our dualistic nature, we are capable of multiplistic thinking.
Two other psychological studies are worth mentioning: First is the Stockholm Syndrome referring to the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken in Stockholm, Sweden, in which several bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault in August of 1973. In the end the victims got emotionally attached to their captors and even defended them. It is described as “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.”
The other one is the Milgram Experiment conducted originally in 1961 by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the hopes of understanding why individuals or a group of people or a population would be so obedient to an authority no matter how harmful or evil it can be.
In this experiment, an actor is placed in one room while a participant invited through monetary compensation is placed in an adjacent room and must electrocute the actor for any wrong answer he gives. The participant has no knowledge that the other person is just an actor and faking the pain of electrocution. The participant must keep on following the order of the authority figure behind him in spite of the actor begging for the participant to stop due to pain as the voltage of electrocution is increased in the process. See video:
This experiment has been repeated to many different counties since then, and the result is a consistent 65% of the participants still went on electrocuting despite hearing a begging of no from someone experiencing pain at a certain high voltage point, placing value more on the order of the authority figure present. As for the monetary compensation involved, participants who strongly didn’t want to continue offered to return the money.
The three studies mentioned herein not only reflect our tendency to be evil but we’re predisposed to deny truth, tying ourselves to an abusive relationship while justifying it or hurt others due to authority.
Children doing the Nazi salute in school (1934). From WikiMedia Commons, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2007-0329-501 / CC-BY-SA
There are those who are over-protective of their partners (girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, business partner, clique, etc.) while passing along the flaws of their partners onto others (projection). There are those who studied in the medical field for years tell you that AIDS virus is an Auto-Immune Disease (hint: AIDS =/= AID); there are those who easily get upset, angry, and go through a round of assumptions because you weren’t able to respond to their text message fast enough or respond to whatever they asked fast enough but what they’re really angry about is something else.
As the saying goes, we’re all crazy. It starts with our self-serving biases all the way to our life philosophies. On a higher level of things, a crazier idea is that a perfect belief system exists or that there is a body of knowledge that is already complete, capable of handling any assertion or problem that arises.
CHALLENGE AND EVOLVE YOUR BELIEFS
From our experiences growing up, not only we go through acknowledging the complexities of life but from time to time we have to add or build on to our life knowledge or experience. A lot of things, though we may forget or intentionally ‘erase’ from our memories, are still there helping us in our decision making.
But then there comes that painful period where you experience that big of a contradiction such as a major heartbreak, break up, losing a loved one, failing the bar exam or one big defeat. It’s as if you’ve reached a precipice where you’re forced to truly change. You then are forced to reorient the many things you believe in or simply your beliefs. You had no other choice but to adapt and expand your mindset. You couldn’t just operate from whatever was just the default. You had to change. You had to evolve.
Famous life coach Tony Robbins has always emphasized the importance of not falling into the trap of always operating with the same worldview. Operating with the same worldview faced with a problem that it cannot solve would be ineffective, more so it can even be destructive. It’s not far from what Einstein said that we can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.
You’ll have to constantly look at things in a different way. Your fair share of heartbreaks and the way you used to see things at one point you realized can no longer work. In my own experience, there came a point the predominant belief system I had can longer be applied just by themselves when faced with a new and an unfamiliar life problem. Growing up, as I further set out into the real world, it was only a matter of time that I became a victim of my own beliefs.
The idea of a perfect belief system is a tendency and a temptation of the human mind. Since the moment we first stepped in schools or join our friends in a religious ceremony, we’re conditioned to think that there’s an answer to everything or that one belief system, without us even knowing it, can answer everything. As we grow, we then are reminded that truth must be constantly pursued. We then see beyond words that truth is expansive.
Let’s say the idea of a perfect belief system exists, disregarding anything outside of it, to which it doesn’t agree with. A belief system belonging within a sphere could be perfect. However, will this belief system contained within a sphere be able to answer any problems or new ideas outside of it? Or will this belief system be already complete?
Kurt Gödel in 1925
This was a question addressed by a mathematician and logician named Kurt Gödel. In 1931, he published what is called the Incompleteness Theorems. According to Gödel, there is no formal system of logic or self-contained system of logic that will be able to address or solve problems or any assertions outside of it. A perfect self-contained system is bound to contradict itself. This reveals that in order for that system to address problems or assertions outside of it, it must have to expand to reach it and solve it. Now you have a paradox—the perfect system is imperfect at the same time; or the complete system is incomplete at the same time.
Gödel was able to formally prove the idea. He was able to formally prove that any logical system of knowledge is incomplete thus the name Incompleteness. With this along with many of his other contributions which made a huge impact in the rise of computational technology, scientific thinking, and philosophy, he has become to be known as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and considered along with Aristotle as one of the most significant logicians in history. He is considered as well as the founder of theoretical computer science.
Gödel may well be wrong. One may say his own theorems can be applied to himself. Who needs math or arithmetic anyways, it’s just a bunch numbers. It’s just another field in itself. It can be another big fat lie. One may ask, how can this be applicable to our daily lives? Perhaps Gödel can even be just another player in history, on a mission to make us believe that we can have it all, only to toy with our already fragile yet forever hopeful hearts.
But there’s one thing we can be certain of and similar to what Carl Sagan said: to behave as if we already know all there is to know or to behave as if our knowledge is already complete would be a big mistake.