This toxic, destructive behavior in religious practice does not characterize all religious life. But variations of these aberrant actions are likely to appear in religious fundamentalism which we can find throughout the world. How do we account for the rise of this religious phenomenon in our present age? One would hope that our level of education and our knowledge of the potential in each of us to exploit and dehumanize others would serve as a safeguard against fundamentalism. But such is not the case. Fundamentalism thrives in our world, in our society, and in our religion. It has nestled within the TV evangelists, it has aligned itself with political extremism, and it has copied the flare of the entertainment world's personality cult with the style of both high-fashion as well as the hyper-cool persona of T-shirts, ragged jeans with holes, and the must-have baseball cap worn backwards! From whatever vantage point you view fundamentalism it must be seen as a potent force in our homes, our institutions, and our society. So let's dig deeper into the robber of our humanity's potential and spiritual destiny.
The American Heritage College Dictionary defines fundamentalism as "an organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century in opposition to Protestant liberalism and secularism, insisting on the inerrancy of scripture." That well describes fundamentalism from the perspective of Protestantism. However, fundamentalism is a term now used to describe movements within most of the world's major religions. The movements may usually be defined by specific beliefs that people are not to question, as well as an attitude of superiority. The beliefs center around a confession of certain tenants or propositions considered to be "fundamental" or basic to the particular faith; these beliefs are supported by militant fervor with accompanying programs designed to convince and convert other persons or groups to the "right" and "authoritative" way of believing, with the threat of damnation and judgment for non-believers at the end of the world which is expected to come soon in a likely apocalyptic catastrophe. This last characteristic does not surface as a theme within Hinduism but is quite prominent especially within Christian fundamentalism. In summary, Protestant Christian fundamentalism is a movement of zealously committed persons who regard the Bible as supernaturally communicated by God to inspired individuals who recorded the divine and infallible words in the original documents for the purpose of revealing knowledge of God, Christ, and the morally perfect conduct of life as the only means of avoiding eternal damnation at the Last Judgment.
The roots of Christian fundamentalism may well be traced back to the Holiness Code of the Old Testament Pentateuch, its development and implementations by Ezra and Nehemiah following the Jewish Exile, an other-worldly emphasis on purity by the Pharisees, and the mood of apocalyptic doom which seeped into early Christian thought from an ancient Persian dualism via the Jewish experience of anticipating the coming of the "day of Yahweh." However, within the United States, the term itself first appeared in the early twentieth century with the publication of a series of books called The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth. Between 1910 and 1912, these books became circulated quite widely, financed by two wealthy laymen who sought to resist the tendencies of major theological schools to use scientific principles in studying scripture.
The Fundamentals stressed the need to bring Christian thought and practice back to a doctrinally sound position. Such a "sound position" would be based upon five articles of faith: the inerrancy of the Bible in every detail, the Virgin birth of Christ, the physical resurrection, the substitutionary theory of the atonement (Christ was "substituted" for human beings and "paid the price" for the sins of humanity), and lastly, the imminent physical return of Christ.
Having been distributed in three million copies at a cost of $250,000, The Fundamentals soon came to impact the major Protestant denominations in the United States, with a carry-over to Great Britain as well. The wide-spread dissemination of a work designed to challenge an understanding of the Bible influenced by the academic tools of higher criticism and literary analysis led to an eruption of a mean-spirited conflict which had been building within churches, denominational agencies, and theological schools. Lacking a spirit of civil discourse, a willingness to engage in open debate, and an appreciation for the insights of any disciplines other than the formula of inerrancy for studying scripture, the fundamentalists zealously pushed an agenda to enshrine their five articles of faith as the sole measure of Christian orthodoxy.
To that doctrinaire creed, the leaders of the movement also added some very strict measures for setting themselves apart from the world. Forbidden were the use of alcoholic beverages, playing cards, dancing, smoking, slacks for women, long hair for men, and participation in worldly entertainment such as the theatre. Turning their eye upon civil society, the fundamentalists espoused a notion of the United States as a kind of theocratic state, certainly a "Christian nation" where the Bible would serve as a supreme guide for the conduct of policy.
While more could be said in describing the range of fundamentalist thought and programs, I want to turn now to a psychological understanding of the movement. The first thing to note is the role of its charismatic leaders. In fact, the notion that fundamentalism is a monolithic, unified force is not quite accurate. Throughout its history, fundamentalism looked more like a river fed by many tributaries, each reflecting a particular leader, e.g., Benjamin B. Warfield of Princeton University in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jerry Falwell of Liberty Baptist Church and Liberty University in the late twentieth century, and Billy Graham of the "evangelistic crusade" in the mid-twentieth century.
These individuals, and other fundamentalist leaders who could be cited, appear in society as what Jung would call "mana-personalities." Jung brought the word, "mana," into the field of psychology from the discipline of anthropology which had studied the manifestation of mana in Melanesia where it was regarded as "a universal magical power about which everything revolves." (Collected Works, Vol. 7, para. 108) Jung went on to apply the concept of mana as the powerful force which appears in one who has lost rational discernment under the influence of unconscious dynamics.
Such certainly appears to be the case with fundamentalist leaders who appear to be oblivious to the autonomy of unconscious forces within their psyches. Such religious figures appear as personalities who are possessed by a sense of power, self-righteousness, a divine call to speak for God, and a capacity to cast a spell-binding influence upon would-be followers. Such a person has indeed been possessed by "a dominant from the collective unconscious, the well-known archetype of the mighty man in the form of hero, chief, magician, medicine-man, saint, the ruler of men and spirits, the friend of God." (Collected Works, Vol. 7, para. 377)
Jung goes further: "... it is a question of inflation. The ego has appropriated something that does not belong to it." (Collected Works, Vol. 7, para. 380) This rings true to my ears as a description for the root cause of fundamentalism. With its militancy, its self-proclaimed authority, its confidence in being ordained by God to speak with ultimate pronouncements, and its harsh judgment of all who fail to live "perfect" lives, fundamentalism conveys the mood or feeling tone of psychological inflation. It comes from what Jung would call a sense of one's "god-almightiness," as he goes on to describe:
An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of
nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past,
incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of
drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself
and therefore cannot be argued with. ... Paradoxically enough, inflation
is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens
when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and
loses the faculty of discrimination, the sine qua non of all consciousness.
(Collected Works, Vol. 12, para. 563.)
Such a state of inflation compensates one's sense of inferiority. Given the fact that fundamentalism has often appeared to take root under conditions of powerlessness and within groups who fear their sense of powerlessness, we may understand then the rise of a movement which brings a promise of power and vindication to its adherents enthralled by the summons of their inflated leaders whose egos are taken over by the God-image.
But we must add one more element to the prevalence and power of fundamentalism. Not only are its adherents seeking power and a place of recognition and respect in contemporary society, fundamentalism must be accounted for by at least one additional dynamic that propels its ascension within our materialistic, secular society.
Fundamentalism masks our terror of death. So swiftly do the dogma, rituals, and personalities of fundamentalism speed by us, that we do not notice its distracting feature. And the reality from which we are distracted -- from which we want to be distracted -- is the existential anxiety about the inevitable approach of death... whether it be brought on by age, disease, or accident. This looming prospect of our inevitable end is a heavy load to bear. How much easier it is to live our lives if we are distracted from this inevitability of our end with the promise of a heavenly reward if we live by fundamentalism's righteousness, and a hellish judgment if we do not.
Of course, all the major religions of the world provide some narrative about a world beyond this world, a final judgment and a life after this one, etc. And it is a comforting promise of all the religions that this life is too much a Mystery to be accounted for by the brevity of this physical existence. The awe and complexity of life, even from the perspective of scientific theory itself, hints at levels of being that cannot be accounted for in this one brief existence.
But it is the inflated, self-serving ideology fundamentalism -- adrift from reason and powered by the dynamic of fear -- that disturbs us in our core where reason and emotion intersect an in-depth spirituality. Fundamentalism is not only bad science; it is also bad psychology and bad religion. It offers nothing either to affirm the dignity of humanity, or to provide a way of coping with the riddle of death.
More on this next time.