Night-time for Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism — How It Works

Living among the fundamentalists as I did when I was a kid leads me to think now that I lived as though in a primitive tribe. Its most devout members were culturally conditioned, since birth, to believe that the Bible was the infallible word of God. Most others who secretly doubted it knew better than to say so because that would jeopardize their standing in the club, and we know that to a member of our species total ostracism is as fearsome as death itself.

I have no doubt that I also am subject to this dread, but the smaller group I choose for myself is a group of realists — Secular Humanists? — to which our most iconic ancestors belong, including Shakespeare, Franklin, Twain, and all the earliest scientists who suffered and sometimes died for the tenacity with which they pursued reality. Add 93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences and 97% of members of the Royal Society (all atheists), and it appears to be a formidable club indeed — by which I mean both a group of like-minded people, and a cudgel!

My own mind is made in such a way that it is repulsed by both pretense and superstition. I’m sure there have been many minds in the past like mine, carried around in the heads of people we now call “scientists” who, like Diogenes, just want people to stop blocking the light so they can see clearly for themselves. In unreceptive times (which until now has meant “all times”), however, we do have the option of shutting up about it. I haven’t shut up, frankly, because the present-day penalties for apostasy are not great enough to deter me; but I can envision a level of intensity that would silence me — so I am not the material from which heroes and saints are made.

But back to the bedrock of fundamentalism: since I abhor self-deceit so viscerally, when I was advised to read the Bible as an antidote to my rapidly-diminishing faith, I had no choice but to read it objectively, rather than with the preconceived notion that it was, indeed, infallible. This is not a good way to restore one’s faith! For me it was just another of the thousand blows against it. I have since wasted a lot of time writing satirical paraphrases of Bible Stories — a.k.a. B.S. (My favorite is where Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the Sodomites “to do with as they wish” if they will only give up their desire for the two hottie angel lads in Lot’s house. Google it to get theologians’ monstrous interpretations.) Honesty should compel one to acknowledge that Old Testament mythology is about

a primitive deity
invented by a primitive people
In a primitive time.

Full stop.

Sherlock Holmes: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

For a fundamentalist, however, the impossibility is that the Bible is not infallible; and therefore whatever one reads there, no matter how preposterous it seems, must be the truth! And from there, using the most ludicrous, convoluted reasoning imaginable if necessary, rationalizations are conjured. All that is required for acceptance is not that any explanation be reasonable, but only that it seem better than the others. A whole industry has been barnacled onto this hunger for rationalizations. It’s called “Apologetics”! (Psychologists, though, call this practice “motivated reasoning.”)

These believers are not harmless. We’ll never know for sure how much Israeli foreign policy, for example, was affected by beliefs about Armageddon and Satan by two of our more limited presidents, Reagan and W; and the damage done by fundamentalists’ homophobia is incalculable — but the list is endless.

The Future of Fundamentalism

It’s all over but the shouting. In Europe it’s essentially over already, and in this country it has clearly passed the tipping point in a rush — statistics indicate that the air is rapidly leaving that bubble. Two essential phenomena will soon bring it all crashing down for good in this country: the web, to which we owe the rapid deterioration of superstitions so far, and the rapid deployment of fMRI in the neuroscience domain. One of the uses to which it is presently being put is to sense the true depth of our raciall prejudices. Its use in this case is a great example of discovering the truth about something we try earnestly to hide; and that characteristic is what I anticipate will prove so valuable in discerning what the nominal True Believers actually truly believe!

Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba published his seminal work, “The Authoritarians,” in 2006. It captured everything he and his too-soon-departed scientific partner Bruce Hunsberger had accumulated during their careers focused on authoritarianism, religion, atheism, and associated phenomena. Most interesting to me was Altemeyer’s asking groups of True Believers to simply postulate a “Hidden Observer” and to tell how that observer would assess the sincerity of their beliefs. Oops! They gave themselves low marks!

There is no trickery in this stratagem; yet it was enough to give the participants permission, of a sort, to be more honest about their beliefs — and the results differed markedly from their earlier professions. Over half admitted serious doubts. Anyone who wants to understand fundamentalism, either from the inside or the outside, must read this book! Only willful ignorance will keep them from it, since it’s available free online. Here is how Altemeyer himself describes the quandary — a profound one for fundamentalists:

This means the whole edifice of belief, Bible and bustle is built on an unresolved fundamental issue in many fundamentalists. Indeed, it’s the fundamental issue, isn’t it? But what speaks loudest to me is how secret these doubts are in so many cases. NO ONE knows, for very good reason, and the secret doubters will probably never “come out” of the choir. Instead their faithful presence in church will reassure all the others, including the other secret doubters, that “everyone in our group really believes this.” And they may well carry their secret to the grave.

If that straightforward device of imagining a Hidden Observer had the results it did, think what we will discover when brain scientists train their fMRI searchlight on this subject, and the results become widely known! If secret doubters want to carry their secret to the grave, they had better scamper!