Fundamentalism? - Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
There are few places where the dialectic between love and domination is more accessible than in fundamentalist religion. This article is the outcome of my inquiries so far into how and why so much fundamentalist religion embraces domination and tries to insist that we submit to their particular worldview. I've looked at what fundamentalism is, how it comes into being, and why it is likely to be harmful.
I was prompted to pay attention to fundamentalism by Katherine Yurica's excellent treatment of Dominionist Christianity The Despoiling of America - How George W. Bush became the head of the new American Dominionist Church/State and from a different direction, by Cardinal Ratzinger's rant about feminism (see my critical review of this article.) Karen Armstrong's book The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been especially helpful and much of what follows draws on what she has to say.
What fundamentalism is
Fundamentalist religions are intensely preoccupied with the protection and recovery of religious beliefs and ways of life that have been compromised, or are felt to be under threat, usually by some form of modernization. Fundamentalism rides on fear. Fear of the unknown; loss of identity; loss of status; loss of understanding; annihilation or extinction.
How fundamentalism comes into being
Karen Armstrong has a handy notion that fundamentalism is primarily a conflict between 'mythos', and 'logos'. 'Mythos', means mythical, often premodern religious stories featuring saints or prophets that embody a revealed truth about what it means to be human, that tell us how to live.
'Logos', means practical, pragmatic action based on effective, rational, analysis of the 'facts' of life, planning, building, and administration.
'Mythos' is concerned with universals that repeat, that stay the same, and provides imagery, ritual and ceremony that honours and celebrates these eternal verities. By contrast 'logos', deriving from the explosive growth of rationality and its fruits, science and technology, is future-oriented, it presumes perfectibility and progress and it has become the dominant form of 'belief' today.
When a community of believers find the spiritual 'mythos' they are committed to being overthrown, disabled, invalidated, contradicted or damaged by others who believe in the intrinsic superiority of a secular, rational 'logos', or of the intrinisc superioity of an incompatible 'mythos', resistance takes the form of fundamentalism. We attempt to reassert, retrieve, or defend the values beliefs or institutions that seem under threat.
One of the biggest challenges to traditional 'mythos', has been The Enlightenment, a revolution in beliefs involving philosophy, science and industry that, through globalization, is now reaching out to most of the planet. The Enlightenment began with the Copernican revolution that demolished the belief that the earth was at the centre of the Universe, later it confirmed humankind as being merely a branch of the animal kingdom and generated the modern notion that, in contrast to the rationality of science, religion is mythic, a narrative. A Big Story but a story nonetheless.
Fundamentalism mirror of Western Modernism
Western European industrialization, with its rampant accumulations of capitalism, colonization, advanced technology, improved human rights and individualism isone of the fruits of the Enlightenment intellectual revolution. This modernity and the new thinking on which it was founded, grew quite slowly across several centuries. Despite huge amounts of suffering and privation, people in Europe and America were often able to find some accommodation to these new secular definitions of what it means to be human.
However, as Karen Armstrong details, this galaxy of Western values and practices, along with the ruthless exploitation of the commercial and political advantage they gave, was exported almost overnight to the rest of the world. Empires were built, people enslaved, territory expropriated, resources plundered. The age of Dominant Western Man. To appreciate the genesis of recent fundamentalist religions of rage and revenge, it is worth looking at this at some length, in for instance such countries as Iran and Egypt. In 1798:
Iran had a similar experience, beginning early in the 19th century.
In 1953, Operation Ajax, a CIA/British intelligence coup, removed the Prime Minister Musaddiq of Iran, who had nationalized the Iranian oil industry.
The peoples of Egypt and Iran and the many nations who were similarly exploited had little or no defence against the dominance, coercion, and violence of Western secular modernity. They were faced with few options: try to join it and succumb to identity demolition due to the alienation and dissociation of modernization - or resist - begin the fundamentalist task of reasserting the existing traditional spiritual 'mythos' of Islam that for generations had 'made sense' of the life tasks of birth, coming of age, marriage, ageing and death.
In Egypt such a re-assertion of Islamic values carried a huge burden of accumulated rage and anger due to the experience of generations of imperial humiliation and exploitation. The result was militant Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the assassination of President Sadat, and upwards of 20,000 Islamic militants in concentration camps. In Iran the Shah's brutalities triggered a return to the core beliefs of Islam and led to Ayatollah Khomeini's profoundly fundamentalist regime.
Why fundamentalism is likely to be harmful.
Conflicts between city and country, settled and nomad, industrial and agrarian, will often set 'logos' against 'mythos', modernity against tradition. But the dominant belief in the ultimate righteousness of the secular 'logos' of science, rationality, efficiency and market forces that is often driving such social change tends to have no place for the love and compassion of traditional spiritual 'mythos'. To paraphrase Sartre, Western secular rationality has a God shaped hole in it. That many people would want to resist such an impoverishment is unsurprising and so the seeds of another fundamentalism are sown.
Sadly, as Karen Armstrong shows, when fundamentalist resistance to this secular rationalism uses the 'mythos' of premodern spirituality as a basis for political actiontheology becomes ideologyfaith coagulates into duty, obligation, and sacrifice, even martyrdom. When this happens, love and compassion, core qualities of all authentic spirituality, tend to be discarded in favour of violence, coercion and domination.
This was a new idea to me, that any version of making the 'mythos' literal, of insisting on acting as if the 'mythos' were literally true, seems to be, by definition, disastrous.
How does this distortion of faith work in practice?
Armstrong tells how early in the 19th Century a millenial movement in the US 'proved' by reference to the Book of Revelation that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in 1843. To paraphrase Karen Armstrong - the Great Disappointment His non-appearance entailed hasn't stopped new generations of Americans, for example Seventh Day Adventists, looking forward to an imminent End of History.
In Iran, one of Ayatollah Khomeini's responses to the attack by Iraq and the subsequent war, was to support the mobilization of 20 million young people, many of them belonging to his Foundation for the Downtrodden, who were eager for action.
According to Khomeini:
As Armstrong points out, this took an element of the 'mythos' of Islam and turned it into 'logos'
What would be 'headlines' of what I have learned so far in this inquiry about fundamentalism?
A community of people who value and are committed to a set of beliefs, usually prophetically revealed, about what it means to be human, find these beliefs being invalidated, or suppressed in favour of what they perceive to be an alien belief system.
Since identity is often tied with this kind of belief that truth is revealed and unified and absolute, challenges to the belief system can be very alarming producing fear, terror, fantasies of annihilation and conspiracy and the sense that the challenged group is a 'righteous remnant'.
A common response by groups who experience their settled faith as threatened, is to revisit the origins of their belief system, selecting key elements of it which are held to be essential and thus articles of faith, i.e. literal truths that require duty, obligation and sacrifice. This is usually coupled with an obligation not to question authority. Leaders of such groups are usually charismatic, authoritarian men.
This reversion to the fundamentals of their tradition is undertaken with little or no awareness of its historicism. i.e. that the detailed textual analysis of 'scripture' is a modern phenomenon, that projects into mythic premodern oral story-telling modern agendas of a desire for security and certainty.
This kind of return to fundamentals may have several outcomes; it may lead to seclusion, withdrawal from the world; active avoidance of people who don't share their beliefs; demonizing of their opposition; public witnessing of their faith; mandatory dress, hygiene, or behavior; evangelical attempts to re-sacralize the world; militant piety, the use of force or coercion to insist on the adoption, public recognition and legal enforcement of their preferences by others.
This seems to define fundamentalism in a broader way than Karen Armstrong and led me, as befits an inquiry, to some surprises - examples of fundamentalism in unsuspected places.
Fundamentalism and psychotherapy
A wider definition of fundamentalism brought a fresh perspective on something very close to home. I was surprised to realize that The Independent Practitioners Network [IPN], one of the organizations to which I belong, and of which I am a founder member, has a gentle set of the ingredients of fundamentalism.
In the last twenty years, many counsellors and psychotherapists in the UK have felt at risk due to an incoming tide of 'professionalization' around licensing, qualification, training and state regulation. This 'secular modernization' has seemed to many of us to be very damaging, both to clients and the practice of psychotherapy and it threatened to put quite a lot of us out of business. We started IPN as a way of doing practitioner/client accountability in an ethically sound way that would contradict this damaging professionalization.
IPN appears to have all the characteristics of a fundamentalist sect; founded in opposition to a culture or tradition that was seen as alien and inadequate; under threat of state regulation that would take away the right of self determination, even the right to work as a therapist; public confrontation by militants of collusive, self-serving, organizationshostile 'enemies'that sought to colonize the precious territory of psychopractice and the hierarchical, categorizing, academic, professionalizing style of these organizations; creating an alternative organization that claims to be delivering an exemplary approach to practitioner accountability.
When I said IPN had a 'gentle' set of the qualities of fundamentalism, I meant that, yes, we had a perception of groups who seemed to be 'enemies', many of us felt unfairly side-lined by the 'professionalizer/colonizers' some of whom we knew quite well as colleagues. But in yet another fundamentalist ingredient, we claim a higher order of understanding of the subtle power issues involved in the 'modernization' of psychopractice. And very important, in contrast to the dullards who were busy reproducing or recycling existing and ill-fitting ways of holding the accountability to clientsinvolving some ultimate line of higher authority in the UK Privy Council no lesswe were highly innovative and ingenious in devising a flexible, decentralised network structure with no bureaucracy and no hierarchical leadership. All of which sustained a certain sense of righteousness and dare I say it, superiority. We are doing this 'properly'. Exactly the sort of attitudes that appear characteristic of an early stage of fundamentalism.
Perhaps because some of us have had extensive groupwork experience as well as working as psychotherapists, we have also been busy looking at the ironies and contradictions of this 'fundamentalism', for instance the extent to which we might become entranced by a victim/ persecutor/rescuer pattern. This inquiry into domination is intended to be an example of this reflexivity.
One of the key elements of fundamentalism which Karen Armstrong points to is that while the popular received idea about it is of a return to archaic origins, how this is carried out is paradoxically a form of modernization. Paradoxical, because fundamentalism is almost always involves resistance against some kind of modernization that is perceived to be damaging, or the imposition of what is felt to be an alien tradition. But effective resistance means finding an ingenious, innovative way of holding or securing the tradition that is felt to be at risk.
Again IPN is a good example. We sought to preserve forms of accountability and ways of becoming a practitioner that in our experience seemed essential both for clients and as a route into becoming a psychotherapist. This required a unique piece of social innovation, building a community of practitioner peers in face to face contact who not only pay attention to colleagues work but also to 'where they are in their lives'so that we can 'stand by' each other's work and so that for example, a practitioner's slide into unresolved personal distress would become quickly apparent. (IPN details here link).
Where IPN would seem to part company with Karen Armstrong's take on fundamentalism is that the network has a good gender balance, no hierarchical leadership and gives scrupulous attention to how power is deployed and is diligent about sustaining the pluralism of the network and keeping it open and flexible.
Psychotherapy and religion
What counts as human nature and what counts as a viable form of companionship in the task of becoming more fully human - of human flourishing - are key elements of both religion and psychotherapy. Though in my experience not many psychotherapists are sharply aware of either power or their working definition of human nature.
Karen Armstrong's detailed descriptions of the highly contested ebb and flow of fundamentalist 'truths' about human life, how to be a person, how to relate to our inner and outer worlds, was strikingly reminiscent of the flux of definitions and redefinitions of psychotherapy in the last 100 or more years. Might psychotherapy and counselling generically 'psychopractice'belong on a continuum of world religions? Indeed as I am inclined to suspect, from a post modern psychological perspective, might not the notion of fundamentalism be a handy notion for understanding the processes of change and resistance to change of psychotherapy, or any other institutions?
While the number of people involved in IPN and the professionalization issues may be tiny and insignificant compared with say the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the ingredients have a family resemblance. There is, or has been, fear of annihilation, or extinction by a group with alien values around accountability. This has unified a community of people who share the same threatened values, focused their attention on finding ways of preserving what is precious to them and resisting efforts from any direction to make psychotherapy into a 'state religion'. It's too soon to know this perspective on IPN will affect my participation in it. IPN-style I'll circulate this article and report later on what responses, if any, there are.
Bringing it all Back Home
A foot note. Through my local example of IPN, I found that fundamentalism is not only 'out there' but has found a fertile location in-house. Is it also driving some of the agendas of our political systems?
For instance, suppose the 9/11 attack was an inflection point, the point in the curve of history where a fundamentalist voice, speaking as it were for the oppressed down the ages, says to New York City, over-arching symbol of modernity, 'this is enough now!' This quotation from J. C. Scott certainly supports this notion. The American response to this attackan unending 'war on terror', obsession with security, suppression of dissent , propagation of a climate of threat and fear, displacement of rage onto scapegoats, Afghanistan and Iraq, loyalty oaths with client state allies, patriotic fervor, itself looks strikingly like a classic demonstration of fundamentalismthe defence of traditional American values in the face of a new phase of (OBL style) modernity.
To briefly re-iterate the earlier definition, fundamentalism is the defence of beliefs and ways of life that are felt to be under threat, often from the threat of annihilation by an alien culture. Fundamentalism rides on fear. Fear of the unknown, loss of identity, loss of status, loss of understanding, annihilation or extinction. And curiously, at the point when America had reached a peak of overwhelming global military and economic dominance, OBL found an Achilles heel in this supposed invulnerability: emotionality - fear. Like two wizards jousting with their magic, Bush and OBL each cast spells entrancing whole populations of people. OBL in effect says 'get your foot off the neck of my people' President Bush responds with a 'War On Terror' -that I have elsewhere here described as a trance induction, a spell - that makes his home population, 294 million people spread across 3000 miles, much more fearful than the level of danger would appear to justify.
In both actions the key ingredients of fundamentalism are in play. The mythos of Islam is enacted literally, denying the Prophet's teachings that emphasize the sacredness of life and using selected passages from His teachings to justify massive death and destruction. The US 'mythos' of 'democracy', 'freedom' and 'one nation under (a Christian) God' is enacted literally, in Afghanistan and Iraq with arbitrary, irrational violence that denies, as though it had evaporated, the Jesus, Sermon on the Mount story of love and compassion. Result - an impenetrable gulf of misunderstanding between the protagonists. And huge numbers of people in the West and the US successfully entranced, hypnotized into feeling some of the same fear and dread as indigenous peoples perhaps felt when the bulldozer of modernity arrived and demolished their centuries old certainties.
So a relatively benign, if painful outcome of this item of my inquiry may indeed be to notice what it feels like to be on the receiving end of domination. That if we feel anxious that a plane we fly in, or a train we travel on might be attacked, or a city we live in be wrecked by a dirty bomb, that this is what it feels like to have modernity thrust on you by a colonizer who is alienated from your values, who doesn't care if you live or die, whose purposes are entirely detached from your interests.
For example, following the Balfour Declaration establishing the Zionist project of a State of Israel - the 750,000 Palestinians who were displaced from their homes. Or those Palestinians who throw stones at bulldozers as big as a house that are demolishing their homes.
In the first six months of 2004 - Israel civilians killed by Palestians: 31, Palestinians killed in the occupied territories by Israeli security forces: 362 Source:
Fundamentalism seems also inescapably political, about power, who has it, who abuses it. Who feels abused. Who bystands these events.