WHY FUNDAMENTALISM DOES NOT WORK FOR HUMANS
This chapter is organized as follows:
- Working through to a core belief
- Fundamentalism is anti-human
- A family retrospective
- Symptoms of malaise
- More words on the core issue in fundamentalism
- Checklist: the fundamentalist mindset
- The choice before us as we leave fundamentalism
- Dwell on the magnitude of the issue for a moment
- Take a breath
- Where are you now?
Now, I have a challenge for you. There is a common denominator that runs throughout the previous list of reasons for leaving fundamentalism. What is it? If we could figure out the underlying core belief and eliminate it, then maybe the issues listed there would start to resolve themselves.
So how do we sniff out the core belief? You start with an observation and then go deeper and try to find the root cause responsible for the observation.
WORKING THROUGH TO CORE BELIEFS
Let’s use an example of an observation, such as my comment that I was more attracted to people outside the church than I was to those inside. Those inside were very nice but boring to me.
What core belief could account for my experiencing church folk as boring?
Suppose, for instance, the people outside the church were free to be themselves. They had their own natural curiosity and drive to learn. They faced their challenges and learned from them. They were free to experience the wide range of their emotions. They were free to explore and to grow. In contrast, the people in the church were told what to believe and what to think and how to feel. They were all the same, essentially. Back in the day, I remember a pastor referring to us as “cookie cutter Christians.” But why blame the evangelicals, when it was the belief system that was turning them out like a bunch of cut-out cookies?
What was it about the belief system that was turning them out like identical cookies, even robotic?
The belief system taught that human nature was evil and had to be eradicated, that the newly saved person had to take on the mind of Christ…not their own mind, but what the church interpreted biblically as the mind of Christ.
Bingo. The church people weren’t allowed to have all the wonderful flavors of being human. They had to become walking bibles, a special fragrance to the Lord. Bor-ing. The people on the outside of the church seemed to have more vitality and more real humor (in contrast to the adolescent humor I saw in the church). I wanted to be with the outsiders, but I “knew” that the saints in the church had the “real life.” And so this contradiction played out through the years until I left the saints for the “real people” outside.
See how this works? Take whatever the example is and look deeper. Try to find the root belief that would account for the example. I liked outsiders more than church people. Church people weren’t allowed to be themselves and so were boring. No wonder my human spirit responded more to outsiders who could be themselves.
Try another example….loneliness. For me, the church was a very lonely place. Why? What was the root belief that would result in loneliness?
My human nature was suppressed, in favor of the “victorious Christian life.” If I could touch heart-to-heart with another person, much less with my own heart, of course I’d be lonely. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? Here, the root belief comes back to the same thing as the first example: suppression of one’s humanity because it is sinful. To me, taking on the “mind of Christ” resulted in boredom and loneliness – because it wasn’t me. I was trying to turn myself into a walking bible. That doesn’t work in the long-term.
FUNDAMENTALISM IS ANTI-HUMAN.
In each of the examples above, my human self was repressed in favor of a new identity as a child of God. On paper, this might sound good – but in real life, in my experience it doesn’t work. We need to have unified selves, not fragmented selves. We need the freedom to be and to become, not to have our natural growth suppressed and imposed upon, not even in the name of God. Especially not in the name of God who – if you believe it – created humans to be free.
When you are in a system that nips your humanity in the bud, there is a big price to pay. Your humanity doesn’t have a chance to grow and flourish. Everyone in the church turns out the same. The fresh air is outside the church, not inside.
This is such a pivotal point. You are told that your human nature is sinful and that you need to read and apply the bible and follow prescribed religious beliefs and practices. You cut yourself off from the natural path of growth. You no longer get to be yourself, to be open to the facts in your surroundings, to learn from your experiences, to come to your own common sense, to develop your own opinions and thoughts, to learn critical thinking. In place of that, you get to conform to someone else’s agenda of what is right for you “in the name of God.”
You are threatened that if you don’t conform, all sorts of bad things will happen to you: God will be angry; God will turn his back on you; you may go to hell when you die; others may go to hell if you are not there to toss them a lifeline in Christ; you will have a miserable life as a sinner cut off from God. Oh, these aren’t direct threats, but you know from countless sermons what the penalties will be, don’t you?
If you aren’t a psychologically and emotionally healthy adult, someone else will tell you what to think and how to live. Enter fundamentalism. They take the burden of doing the hard work off your shoulders. You no longer have to grapple with deep questions of life, such as, “Why am I here? How can I come to understand my self and to grow? How can I build a purposeful life? How can I relate to other people, and to my world? How can I develop skill at critical thinking?”
Answers to questions such as these are handed to you by your faith community on a silver platter. The only trouble is that that’s not psychologically healthy for you, and there’s danger lurking in those answers. We need to listen to and honor our inner voices, our selves, and if we don’t, our lives will be nipped in the bud. The day may come when you deeply grieve what might have been, had you been able to honor and nurture your own true self.
A FAMILY RETROSPECTIVE
Let’s look back at my parents. We left them happy in their new religious community. The end of things didn’t work out quite as happily, though, as the years passed. My brother rebelled and left the church. His rebellion laid the seeds for various conflicts, including for health problems that later cost him his life. Before he died, though, he returned to the faith.
Religious beliefs split our family, until my brother and I couldn’t talk to our parents on any meaningful level, because we always knew what their agenda was, and then my brother and I, being out of step with when we were each in or out of the church, lost a chance at a close relationship, too.
I remember reflecting to my parents even as a teenager that there were “thirty topics” that I couldn’t talk to them about. Their response was, “You can talk to us about anything.” The conversation ended there. I said no more, apropos of my nickname, “the Sphinx.” Maybe I never found anyone safe to talk to in those days. If everyone is in agreement, there can be a good time indeed in the fundamentalist church. If the children rebel or try to find their own way, that can be another scenario entirely.
Could I indeed talk to my parents about anything? How could that be, when I knew that to share my heart would come in conflict with the fundamentalist belief system? The parents’ hearts and arms might have been open, but fundamentalism closed their minds to anything contrary to fundamentalism. By definition they could not be open to me, because that would for them be disobedience to God.
The words “fantasy world” comes to mind. If our human drive is to love, to touch, and to communicate, what is this mindset that thwarts those drives when one is not in agreement with the faith system? Is this a true religion, or is it a comfortable fantasy-land that masquerades as “God’s will”?
That’s a pretty stark question but one that will be interwoven through this web site. If a young person feels that there is a chasm between her and her parents, despite each of them loving the other and yearning to touch and be touched, where is the reality? The reality is that this religion has the potential to split families apart. Fundamentalism has the makings of tragedy, which I experienced in my family. There was more than enough pain to go around, for all concerned.
IF A CORE BELIEF IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNHEALTHY, THERE WILL BE SYMPTOMS OF MALAISE.
Let me give you another example of going beneath the symptom to the core belief: A lot of church folk are sugarholics and overweight. Social gatherings typically involve sweet desserts. In my limited observation, food addictions are not uncommon among fundamentalists. In many cases, I think it might be because of emotional starvation – not on the church level of singing and rejoicing, but on the personal level of touching at the deepest levels of the self. I’m referring not only to person-to-person connection but also to one’s connection with one’s own self and emotions. If there is deep emotional hunger, we eat to try to fill up the void. We also do not learn about nutrition, so we don’t understand how sugar can change our brains and emotions, nor are we typically very much interested in learning.
How does this example relate to a core belief in fundamentalism, that your human nature is sinful? Again, the fundamentalist food addicts are told that it’s wrong for them to be on the throne of their hearts and that they need to surrender to Jesus and that they need to take on the spirit of Christ and grow in him. Their “selves” subsequently get neglected and repressed. Any thought that is outside of the mind of Christ gets squelched. In the face of repression, what is comforting? Food, sugary desserts.
Even though a lot of people are comfortable, satisfied, happy, and unquestioning in their religion, the ones who do question are the ones who begin to notice the discrepancies and ultimately often start to want something better, something healthier, something more satisfying, and more connected with real life. Not being controlled by sugar.
MORE WORDS ON THE CORE ISSUE IN FUNDAMENTALISM
As stated above, I propose that the underlying reason for things going bad is the tendency of fundamentalism to disrespect human nature and call it evil, trying to root it out. After many years of working this subject around in my mind, I came to see evangelical Christianity as an anti-human religion. I think that fundamentalist belief systems in general are anti-human and that this rigid system of thought is in fact slavery, because the adherent must be a follower and there are consequences for any deviation from the belief system.
Fundamentalists of course would have an answer to this, such as, “We don’t disrespect human nature. We believe that God cleanses it and sanctifies it.” Many who have this belief are happy in their faith. Our audience at this web site, however, is comprised of those for whom this approach hasn’t proved to be all that it was set out to be.
If there were no obstacles or roadblocks, if you were getting plenty of supportive feedback, if you held a responsible position in the church, if your extended family was congenial and unquestioning, if you didn’t read newspapers or have contact with the world of ideas, etc., all might be well with your faith system and with your living a surrendered life. Many people are content not to question (or to question within acceptable parameters) and to believe what they are told. Many people – especially parents – may be too busy to read and think much. It’s when challenges arise that there is disquiet. If there is enough disquiet, an individual may try to do something about it.
I station-surfed one day and landed at a “Focus on the Family” broadcast in time to hear the visiting host say proudly, “Our people don’t read newspapers. They are too busy taking care of their families.”
The only price for fundamentalist salvation is your freedom of thought and your life (and your financial contribution). When you give up your freedom and your life in return for being “saved,” what are you? In Christian fundamentalist terms, you are a slave. You are taught that you find your highest freedom in giving up everything for Christ, in being that slave.
Another day when station surfing, I heard a radio preacher’s voice lowered to underline the importance of what he was about to say: “What is the definition of a Christian? A slave. A slave for Christ.” What are the ramifications of being a slave? Does a slave develop an independent line of thought? Does a slave have his own opinions? Decide he’d rather do something other than what the master says? Seek his own education? Think his own thought? You get the picture. A slave’s life is curtailed, especially for someone who is a compliant slave.
I was taught that there was nothing good in my human nature and that Christ wanted to live in my heart and that his spirit (and the holy spirit) would live out through me. “I” was dead in sins but alive in Christ. I was proud to be a slave for Christ, for I was taught that that’s what I was made for and that my freedom was to be found in obedience and in living in accordance with God’s will and the teachings of the bible. The only problem was that this didn’t seem to work for me. I ended up with the issues listed above that I couldn’t reconcile between my experiences and my faith.
Where does all this lead? Do you relate to my descriptions of the core issues in fundamentalism? Are you struggling to understand the fundamentalist mindset?
CHECKLIST: THE FUNDAMENTALIST MINDSET
The mental grid through which the fundamentalist sees the world is referred to as a “mindset.” Some of the characteristics of this mindset are:
- Authoritarian – (“God said it. I believe it. And that’s that.”) (“The Bible tells us that the man is the head of the household, as Christ is the head of the church.”)
- Anti-inner voice (“Anything that you object to is really the devil tempting you.”)
- Anti-reason (“The wisdom of man is foolishness with God.”)
- Anti-free thought (“He won’t vote against Roe v. Wade. Don’t vote for him.”)
- Anti-inner compass (“Jesus doesn’t want you to have those emotions. He wants these other emotions.”)
- Anti-public education (“Public schools teach evolution, climate change, tolerance for the homosexual lifestyle, and sex education.”)
- A sense of exceptionalism, often akin to narcissism (“I am God’s chosen. Nothing will happen to me that is outside of God’s will,” “The United States is the city set on a hill,” “One nation under God”)
- A sense of being exempt from consequences (“I am focused on my family. I do not have time to pay attention to the ills of the world.”)
- Rigid thinking (“The bible gives me the right answers.”)
- Disrespect for people (“Sinners need to be saved.”)
- Black and white, judgmental thinking (“We are saved. You are lost. We are the white sheep. You are the black sheep.”)
- Lack of humor, lack of being able to understand and appreciate irony and the more sophisticated levels of humor (Fundamentalist humor typically was – in my experience – corny.)
- Magical thinking (“God can work miracles.”)
- Passivity (“Wait on the Lord.”)
- Intimidation by bullies (The “bully pulpit” is appropriately named. Many road-side religious signs are bullying and threatening, intended to plant a seed in you – the power of suggestion. “If you think it’s hot here….” “You WILL MEET GOD!”)
- Boundary and privacy issues (Personal boundaries are violated from childhood on up through people praying for one, through the ends justifying the means if it results in someone getting saved.)
- Overwhelming emotions, related to loneliness in fundamentalism (Your life is not your own, but repressed emotions have a way of building up and breaking out. Fundamentalism cuts off human intimacy – first within the person and subsequently person to person. It is a lonely religion.)
- Enduring isolation is much different from enjoying solitude. With the latter, you enjoy your own company.
- Dehumanization (The steps one would take to become a real human being are seen as sinful and therefore denied.)
THE CHOICE BEFORE US AS WE LEAVE FUNDAMENTALISM
- Either ignore and discount the inroads of the fundamentalist mindset on our consciousness and end up “layering,” that is, we think we’re free but in actuality we are superimposing a new but similar framework of thinking on the old embedded fundamentalist grid.
- Or, understand that this mindset casts a long shadow and that our growth must include new awarenesses and adjustments, repeatedly.
DWELL ON THE MAGNITUDE OF THE ISSUE FOR A MOMENT
I told you above how I found the church folk boring. They all seemed the same. I knew what their opinions would be on any topic. It seemed like the same pot was being stirred around endlessly, the pot of salvation, to bring more unbelievers in so that they could be saved – and become, what, boring, too?
But stop and think through the ramifications of this blandness for a moment.
What does being human mean? Do we not have a right to our own mind and emotions, to our ability to think, to the fullest sense of our human creativity, cultural appreciation, learning from experience, ability to mature, etc? Do we not have a right as part of nature – as a tree has a right – to take in nourishment and turn to the sun and grow naturally?
Fundamentalists are instead told that earthly things are sinful, that God has a different plan for them, that they will get a “new nature” that is reflective of God’s plan. But what they experience instead is the destruction of their human nature. They become robots, all alike, blank slates. When you try to communicate with one of them, too often there’s no one there. A person who leaves fundamentalism may struggle with feeling invisible, for their human nature was grievously damaged – whether from a punishing type of conservative fundamentalism or a smiling more liberal type of evangelicalism.
This is what the fundamentalism anywhere in the world is doing to people. At bottom fundamentalism has become an ideology and not a faith, because the real truth of it is what it is doing in the name of God and “faith.” This fundamentalist ideology is “cleansing” people of their human nature (killing so many parts of their human nature) and turning them into clones, into slaves.
Fundamentalism kills the organic, precious parts of its adherents’ very selves. It kills the believers’ inner sense of self and of trust in that inner voice, which is a living part of the world itself. Fundamentalists are killing those parts of people whose souls they “catch.” They are killing their humanity and what makes them human.
“I’m angry with my friend,” said the little boy. “Jesus doesn’t want you to be angry,” said his mother. “Let’s pray for your friend.”
In my church, I was told that my human nature was sinful, that there was no good in it, and that I had to take on the nature of Christ and be led by the Holy Spirit. I had to obey God and essentially become a walking bible. I was told not to trust my own intellect and ended up self-censoring what I read and exposed myself to culturally. If my inner voice raised doubts, I was taught to pray for faith, that those doubts were the devil tempting me.
This web site addresses the serious psychological consequences of following that line of thinking, that self-imposed censorship. It’s not pleasant to think of ourselves as “a blank wall,” but we’d better learn the worst of it if we want to work on growing out of it. Can we afford to devote ourselves to any ideology or mindset that trashes our human nature? Then can we expect there not to be consequences in our lives? There’s a cost to denying our human nature, often a huge cost. You can’t retrieve lost years and lost opportunities, nor can you easily reconstruct neural or emotional pathways that didn’t fully develop.
What would happen to a flower that starts to develop and then the freeze comes? The flower would be nipped in the bud. In the same way, our lives are nipped in the bud when we believe that we have to leave what is natural behind. That is one of the huge tragedies of fundamentalism…minds and lives that are nipped in the bud.
I’ve repeated myself on that “nipped in the bud.” Believe me, the day when this insight was brought to me by a friend was one sad day, when it really sank in what the cost was in lost human potential, in the loss of personhood.
Our path back to health is to understand what happened to us and to reconnect with the human nature that we were born with. It’s our human nature asserting itself now that is helping us to leave the tyranny of fundamentalism.
Perhaps you have been shocked by the above. Sorry, but we must know these things before we can do anything about them. If you feel threatened or feel that I have gone too far, may I suggest that you withhold judgment? This web site is for consciousness-raising.
WHERE IS “GOD” IN ALL THIS?
Do you really believe that a loving God would create human beings and then set out to destroy them? Would such a deity want his name used for the destruction of human nature, the mind and emotions, the ability to think and all the rest of our human endowment? This is what fundamentalism in Christianity, and wherever else it is, in the name of “faith” is literally doing to people. This is why its adherents seem like blank walls. There is nothing human inside them, no humanity because it has been “cleaned”, destroyed. Our human endowment is a living system, an organic part of the world and when, in the name of this faith, they “clean,” they are killing so many pieces of that living whole in each person they “catch.” Very serious.
When anyone is indifferent to and dehumanizes human beings because they don’t share a belief or worldview in any facet of life, this is amoral, unethical, and reprehensible. But when dehumanization characterizes holding a particular mode of faith and/or religious and spiritual belief, then it is more demeaning and destructive because it is a totality of our humanity that is being dehumanized. It’s like all of human endeavors and activities. When you say you are representing and acting on what is highest and best in humankind and actually doing the opposite, this is the fabric of great destruction and tragedy. Because it is the ethics and higher good of humankind that are being used as a cover for lower purposes.
TAKE A BREATH
Don’t be surprised if your inner switchboard goes on overload while reading the above paragraphs – even if you don’t fully understand them. Read them over and over until they make sense. Of course these thoughts are threatening, because they go to the heart of fundamentalism and can be a knife in your heart as well. Remember that you don’t have to decide right know if you agree or disagree with the above description. Just take it in like you were watching television. Step back, take yourself out of the equation, and try to concentrate on understanding the psychology of the fundamentalist experience. You probably don’t have enough information right now to make a good decision, anyway.
Let me try again to frame what happens to us in fundamentalism, in different words, simply. This is at the core of why fundamentalism doesn’t work.
- Fundamentalism basically says, “You are not ok. We are ok. Become one of us.”
- This web site is saying, “You are ok. They are not ok. Outgrow them. Be your own person.”
- Fundamentalism replies, “But we are right. The bible tells us so.”
- This web site says, “A certain interpretation of the bible has been used as the stranglehold around fundamentalists, but those chains can be broken.”
WHERE ARE YOU NOW?
What if you came to see that this whole fundamentalist package just wasn’t working for you? You see other church members who seem happy and at peace, who laugh and sing, who are convinced that they are on God’s road, that God is their best friend…but you don’t find a long-term peace, even though you may have been multiple times to the altar to surrender to a deity. The doubts keep coming. You may keep sensing that you want something more and have a growing feeling that you don’t fit in. Fundamentalism isn’t working for you.
Then, however it happens, the decision is made to leave. Perhaps you wake up and simply say, “I don’t believe this any more, the virgin birth, rising from the dead.” Perhaps your mind is opened through education. Perhaps you fall in love with a non-believer and choose the non-believer over the church.
Some folk seem to walk away easily. I know folk like that. They were able to say, “I didn’t believe that stuff anymore and so I left.” In contrast, I was a “true believer” until I was close to 30 years of age. I didn’t just walk away and leave it all behind me. I can relate to you if you can’t just walk away either. When I left, I little guessed how very long and difficult the journey would be. Hopefully, with the resources available to you that I didn’t have, you can get up to speed a lot faster than I was able to.
Now let’s move on to “What to expect” as you leave the fundamentalist church and what some of the pitfalls are. Forewarned is forearmed.