Understanding Fundamentalist Thinking

I don’t like it when right-wing talk radio hosts tell me what I, a left-winger, think and what my motivations are (which they do often it seems). They get it wrong most of the time, usually because they ascribe their own motivations to us left-wingers. So I’m going to cross a line here that I’m not completely comfortable with, but I believe it’s important to try to understand why people do what they do.

I am not a Biblical or Constitutional literalist, so I am often confused by why other people are. I have talked to many of them over the years and, to me, their reasons don’t justify their beliefs. So I’m going to try to answer a question, not by ascribing my motivations to them- but by ascribing universal human traits to them. If I mess it up, my apologies to all the literal authoritarians out there. Here goes…

What is it with all the fundamentalism in our country in this century- religious, political and academic? Fundamentalism is usually defined as a literal, authoritarian interpretation of a religious text. But this sort of thinking is often applied to the other areas of society- like politics and education. It is black and white thinking where black is always that which is different from yourself or different from those who influence you or hold power over you. I keep hearing the same disturbing phrases lately…

“Is he a true Christian?” This is all about judging whether people are worthy or not. It’s not the same as “is he a good person?” or “does he follow the teachings of Christ?” This question means- is he like us or is he “the other”?

“That’s Un American!” America is what we as a society say it is- today. America is what we make it- today. America is not an eternal unchanging thing. America used to be a land that allowed one person to own another person, America changed. America used to be a land that only allowed people who owned property to vote. America changed. America used to be a land where women could not vote. America changed.

“I don’t want my kids exposed to those ideas.” If you are truly interested in truth and facts and reality, and if you believe your ideas are right and true (and can therefore stand against criticism and alternate viewpoints), then what’s wrong with letting your kid learn about other ideas? This is a country that was founded on the belief that we needed a new way, that we needed to think out of the box, that we needed to drastically change things, that democracy is the way to run a country. In that country all ideas should be on the table. And if all ideas are okay to consider, then nothing is Un-American. Certainly many ideas might be morally wrong, factually wrong or just plain unworkable; but to divide ideas in to American and Un-American is pure fundamentalist authoritarianism. It’s a euphemism for “not what I am.”

“That’s a subversive idea!”  According to the dictionary subversive is ‘To undermine the power and authority of an established institution’. Kind of like what the founding fathers did during the revolution. Fundamental thinkers seem to believe subversion is defined as any and all criticism. Well, if an institution can’t handle a little constructive criticism then it doesn’t deserve to have it’s power and authority. If it’s a good institution then it can weather a little criticism and if it’s a good institution it can take that criticism to heart and fix itself. I would hope that all persons and institutions have subversiveness in their souls. Things can’t get better, more efficient, more profitable unless the use of power and the claim to authority are questioned.

I’ll tell you what I think is up with all the fundamentalism. It’s not really fundamentalism, it’s authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is absolute strict adherence to individuals in power, and those structures that legitimize their power, at the expense of the wishes and the freedom of individual people. Why do people need authoritarianism? Why do they cling to it with such fear that they become violent and intolerant? Because they have a need to be told what to do instead of figuring it out for themselves. It’s really very anti-democratic and anti-freedom.

This goes hand in hand with black and white thinking- thinking that all versions of something are wrong. But in reality, what’s right and wrong depends on what version your talking about, It depends on what the situation is. “It depends”- and that’s what some people can’t stand. It’s too confusing for them. They can’t have things “depend”, so they decide that it never depends and it’s always wrong.

In order to avoid thinking for yourself you need a concrete, unchanging set of rules that you just follow without question. Even though no true set of rules such as this exists, you tell yourself the Bible is that rulebook and you make it fit your experience and you make it outlaw all other experiences. You tell yourself the Constitution is the rulebook for how to run the country and you make it fit your experience and outlaw all other experiences.

Now, in order to know when the rules are being followed or broken, you have to tie the rules into some superficial indicators that are easily identified. Easy-to-recognize visual cues that are familiar and comfortable to you- like whiteness or crew cuts.

Even if you have a set of concrete rules you still have to apply them to the situations you find yourself in. So you can’t escape the uncertainty of life as much as you’d like. In order to deal with that you create an ultimate authority figure in the form of a God or a “leader” (like a founding father or a superior officer). They tell you what to do so you don’t have to wonder how to apply the rules.

You just follow orders and only act when someone, or some God, tells you to. The God idea can be insidious because the answers come through prayers and those answers are really just your subconscious telling you what you feel most comfortable doing. Often this is what you’re used to, or what you imagine the authority figures in your life would tell you. It is, like all religion, a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.

Authoritarianism is different from having principals. Authoritarianism is doing what your told without question by those who have power over you. Principals are a hierarchy of values that have nothing to do with who has power over you. “First principals” are more important than “second principals” which are more important than “third principals” etc. This is important since, life being full of grey areas and things that depend on circumstance, principals can often conflict with one another. Knowing which principals are of greater importance allows us to figure out how to act when the conflict occurs. But you have to think it through yourself because while your principals may be steadfast- each situation is unique. This is too much for authoritarian people.

Authoritarian literalism is not reflective of the reality we all live in. It is used to maintain the privileges of the few and control the many, some of whom are happy to be controlled so they don’t have to deal with the fear of having to accept responsibility for their own actions.

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