“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. … Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards.”
-Pope Benedict XVI
Of course the pope is correct, if your goal is to have a pat answer for every nuanced thing that the world throws your way. In the world of religious fundamentalists there is no place for shades of grey, no room for the individual intricacies of the world to be accommodated. It’s like using a sledgehammer to do brain surgery.
The big problem with fundamentalism, of any sort, is that it relies on the assumption that one solution can be mandated for the messy, changeable world. One reason we have more people per capita in prison in the US than any other nation in the world is that for the last 20 years we have been passing laws that take the judge’s discretion out of sentencing. No two cases are the same, but they are sentenced identically regardless of the actual circumstances surrounding them. The result is that a person whose crime is stealing a bike is condemned to 20 years if it is his third offense but a rapist may only serve 5 for his first.
We are terribly afraid of change, of randomness, of a world moving beyond our control and by saying “the book (any book) tells us to do it this way!” it gives us the illusion of a magical answer to all problems. The reality is that there inst a single solution to the real world and its chaotic way of occurring.
My real problem with fundamentalism, however, is that it is based on faith. it cannot exist without the ironclad faith that whatever book, law, or authority is being referred to is correct and infallible. Sadly the truth is that faith, however kindly applied, is based on a lie. Heres why:
Joseph Campbell once said “unless your myth works with the current scientific knowledge of your day, it isnt working for you.” What we are faced with today in the Judeo Christian tradition is a 3000+ year old set of rules and explanations about the world that we simply can not believe in with our own two eyes. You may be the most devout person int he entire world but you can not honestly believe that woman was literally created from a rib or that a snake tricked us into sin. So what happens? Your mind can’t be fooled, it simply can’t. Your true intuition KNOWS that the world works in a certain way because it has seen it and tried it and has seen scientific evidence repeated time and time again that shows it works a certain way, and yet here comes these books that tell us “no the world doesn’t work in that way which you have seen with your own two eyes, it works in this other, magical way, that these men wrote about 3000 years ago!” And if that werent enough of a mind fuck they go on to say “AND if you DARE to believe all this science nonsense, you are not only wrong, you are a sinner and you are bad in the eyes of God!”
This, unfortunately leads to what is known as cognitive dissonance. In your heart of hearts you know the scientific, provable truth, but you want to be a good person in the eyes of your religion. How do you put away the real world and start to believe in this hocus pocus biblical world? One word: Faith. Faith is nothing more than your purposefully ignoring everything your senses (including common sense) tells you and pretending to believe the fantastical stories religion weaves.
The real problem is that it doesn’t work. You don’t really believe these things because your experience has disproven them over and over again. It’s like the child who spys on his parents putting out Christmas gifts, no matter how much he loves the idea, no matter how convincing his parents tales, he is forever unable to believe in Santa Clause bringing gifts from that day on. So the person trying to be a good Christian (or Muslim or Jew) is faced with the idea that they are bad christians (or muslims of jews) if they dont really believe what they are supposed to. Here is where fundamentalism comes in. Because when we are lying, when we must say we believe in that we really do not believe in with our hearts and minds, we overcompensate. We yell louder, we are willing to die (or kill) we are willing to commit any horror in order not to face the idea that this idea we feel we MUST believe in is something that we, deep down, don’t really believe a word of!
Need an example? it is a commonly held notion that those who have a violent anger towards homosexuals are themselves closeted homosexuals. That their rage and violence against gays is a reaction to their own deeply hidden (and feared) gayness . Well, in 1996 the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia did this study.
The authors investigated the role of homosexual arousal in exclusively heterosexual men who admitted negative affect toward homosexual individuals. Participants consisted of a group of homophobic men (n = 35) and a group of nonhomophobic men (n = 29); they were assigned to groups on the basis of their scores on the Index of Homophobia (W. W. Hudson & W. A. Ricketts, 1980). The men were exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes, and changes in penile circumference were monitored. They also completed an Aggression Questionnaire (A. H. Buss & M. Perry, 1992). Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. The groups did not differ in aggression. Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.
The louder you yell and the more violent your reaction the less real belief in whatever your faith is you have. these guys claimed to be viscerally repulsed and hostile toward homosexuals and yet their penises seemed to say quite the opposite. So no matter how loudly you scream, no matter how much you are willing to fight and die ‘for’ your faith, the fact remains that as a fundamentalist you are telling the world that in your heart of hearts you really don’t believe a word of what your ‘holy books’ are saying. This is no gloat either, both the homophobes and the fundamentalists are in a special kind of hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone, the hell of being at war with your own mind. They suffer because they can not bring the two worlds, the real and the ideal into harmony, they hate themselves even more for what they hate in everyone else.
So what is the solution? With apologies to the pope, it’s to learn to deal with the world as it comes, as reality currently reveals itself and not to react as if we live in a world of ‘shoulds and it-would-be-better-ifs” To admit that the holy books are best taken as metaphors, as guide posts to a life of peace and solidarity with the world not as a magical spell to hold the world and change at bay. It does seem to be coming despite the loudest yells and violence of fundamentalism, the world slowly seems to becoming more and more tolerant of its wondrous variety. Sadly those deepest mired in their delusion will likely become more and more violent as the real world encroaches on their facade. On the good side, they also seem to be dwindling more and more as the rest of the world stops glorifying their willingness to use conflict to ‘defend their faith’.
The buddha told his students not to believe in him, not to have faith in his words, he said over and over “be ye a lamp unto yourselves”. His teaching was to question every deeply held belief, to look at the world and to find the truth that could not be denied. Strict rules, he discovered, were a cold corpse trying to direct we the living how to get by. He was not advocating hedonism or anarchy, he knew that the truth of the world meant that treating others as we treat ourselves was what we would find, you dont need a rule telling you “dont steal from yourself” and that if we looked carefully we would see that this is what stealing from another meant. He knew that we knew right from wrong and didnt need a “big man in the sky” to tell us that. he knew, in short, that we didnt need faith when we had the truth right in front of us.