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The Mind of the Fundamentalist
April 29, 2004 3:40 AM   Subscribe

The mind of the fundamentalist (streaming RealAudio) is an hour-long radio show featuring excerpts from talks given at a psychoanalytic psychotherapy conference in Sydney. Three speakers discuss experiences with fundamentalists, and driving factors behind their beliefs. It includes an amazing first-hand account of fundamentalist terrorism by a journalist whos plane was hijacked, and who later tracked down the hijacker and attempted to understand what drove him. The RealAudio-squeamish can find a transcript here.
posted by Jimbob (20 comments total)

 
wow. the first smug australian i've ever heard.

the second section is interesting, though. thanks.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:58 AM on April 29, 2004


H.L. Mencken wrote a profound analysis of a Christian fundamentalist Reverend of his time. Mencken's explanation of his behavior was that the entire reality of the Reverend was a dichotomy between good and evil. But with an inherent flaw. To be good was a constant and lifelong struggle, but if you failed, even once, you were irrevocably drawn to the evil side.

The Reverend tried to be pure, but failed in his purity with his church's choir leader. Knowing them both now to be condemned to Hell for having sinned, they both lost any and all restraint, and went on a violent crime spree.

Mencken compared that with the morality of a Shriner, who, an otherwise good man, respectable husband and father, has a fling with a hooker during a business convention. Thereafter, he returns home unchanged in any particular, even continuing to attend church regularly, with few, if any anguished feelings of guilt.
posted by kablam at 8:16 AM on April 29, 2004


From the transcript:

They come from all walks of life, all nations, rich and poor, educated and unlettered, religious and secular, respectable and underworld. I find them fascinating people. And the fundamentalist is a person who inhabits a complicated world, in which the solutions to all our problems are simple. But if the fundamentalist happens to be of a violent bent, then he’ll have to reconcile his idealism, which he claims motivates him, with ruthlessness and ruthless methods.

These people seem to hold an extremely broad definition of "fundamentalist." I'm not sure you're discussing much of anything when you discuss a term so expansive. I wish someone would have offered a concise defintion of the term, since they seem to be using it a bit differently than how I would. (Something alont these lines.)

The journalist at least had an interesting story to tell, and had some fascinating insights into Panday.

The psychoanalyst's speech, however, made for a frustrating read. He basically offered unproven, unprovable opinions as fact, and we're supposed to accept it as fact because he's "The real McCoy, a psychoanalyst." Besides which - psychoanalyst? In 2004? I thought psychoanalysis was about as credible to "legitimate" clinial psychologists as Freud's writings.

Anyways, I found the whole thing pretty dissastisfying. Smugness abounded and everybody seemed pretty happy that they weren't living in the simple-minded world of the fundamentalist. I have to wonder if they would describe every person who believes in an objective, absolute and universal moral code as a fundamentalist. (And if so, see my above comment about the uselessness of the term given such a broad application.)
posted by mragreeable at 9:49 AM on April 29, 2004


I think that the general def of 'fundamentalist christian' is one who holds the belief that the bible, every word of it, is God's own truth and that the meanings of those words describe the nature of Reality such that any idea that contradicts the text of the Bible is automatically deemed false.

This definition encompasses a wide range of functional belief systems as there are many ways to interpret the dictums of the Bible and there are many contradictory ideas within the text. Do you love your neighbor no matter what or do you stone your homosexual neighbors? etc. The striking conflict at the center of the fundamentalist sect I clashed with in my younger years was that the ambiguity of the Word of the Lord was invisible to them while at the same time the irony of their being 'Christian' (meaning people of Christ, the Lamb, the Price of Peace) while promoting such a hateful public discourse of judgement and condemnation was equally invisible to them.

I can't help but note that selective enforcement of a loose and ambiguious set of laws is generally held to be one of the things that gives rise to facism. But anyway.
posted by n9 at 10:00 AM on April 29, 2004


kablam, that's a fascinating dichotomy, and I think you could probably get a lot of mileage out of it.... where's it taken from?

The problem in both has to do with integrity. The reverend has an ideal of perfect integrity, and so once he fails at integral goodness, he and the choir leader abandon perfect integrity entirely (and perhaps decide to embrace a kind of integral corruption).

The Shriner apparently has no such ideal, and commits an act that even many avowed secularists could consider a pretty deep personal treachery, let alone a thiestic moralist. But because he didn't have the ideal, he's able to live the with near schizophrenic action.

One of the things that puzzles me, though, about Christian Fundamentalism is that it does seem to produce (usually in smaller degrees) people like the Reverend. Its central point has to do with resolving the problem of inevitably broken human integrity...

Also, just stumbled across an interesting observation on Christianity [NSFRH*] on the net recently:
it helps to consider the religious groups and practices available at the time of Christ and how they interacted with the lesser and greater law...

... Zealots [were] people whose strong political agenda has replaced their religion. Marxist Christians, and others (of both the right and left wings) typify this well. Such feel that every conflict can be solved by force.

*Not Safe For Religion Hostile. Sorry.
posted by weston at 10:03 AM on April 29, 2004


I thought this was a good definition:

The great thing about the world’s problems is that they’re so easy to understand and so simple to solve. Or so the fundamentalist mind believes.

The only difference is that the solution usually involves pushing their beliefs on me. I have no problem with a conservative moralist, if they don't want to watch Friends because of the unmarried sex... hey it's a free country. It's when they start wanting to restrict others from watching it, take away valid evolutionary theories from school, and push THEIR ideology upon the rest of the public for some greater good that the rest of us our unable to see, well that's when they move into fundamentalist.

And I do think that a fundamentalist mind is simple. They refute logical discourse, by appealing to what their absolute sense of right and wrong dictates. The same can be said about some aging hippie douche bags (thank you South Park), but when most fundamentalist arguments go like this:

"Being/doing x is wrong"
"Why"
"God says so"
"What if the person doesn't believe in God"
"Doesn't make God not exist, it is wrong, it is in the Bible" with the implication that they don't give a flying fuck what you think, they know better.

Now that's another gross generalization I made about a group, but generally is true. Even Aquinian thinkers of the middle ages got off to the idea of Socrates and those Greek thinkers. They had volumes upon volumes of what they believed were logical, theological arguments. I can respect their sense of objectivity. Fundamentalists who just go "It's wrong because it says so in the bible" are close-minded and have a small perfected view of how things should run. If that's not simple... well I don't know what is.

Ok well maybe my pigeon-holing of fundamentalists is simple, but I digress.
posted by geoff. at 10:03 AM on April 29, 2004


Well, my post wasn't so much a solicitation for definitions of fundamentalism as it was an observation about the speakers. That said, I rather appreciate your observations, n9.

I think expanding the idea of fundamentalism to secular belief systems is certainly valid. I've known logical positivist and (especially) objectivist fundamentalists were every bit as much of a douchebag as most of the really egregious religious fundamentalists. (At least as far as civil discourse is concerned - I will happily concede that the logical positivist fundamentalists tend not to blow people up.)

But does that mean that a fundamentalist is any person who holds to a particular set of beliefs with conviction? Or a person who holds others accountable to their own personal beliefs, even if that other person has a different set of beliefs.

The latter sounds like a better definition, but it seems to make any moral judgement useless unless both parties hold to the same moral principles. And if that's the case, how can any person who believes, for instance, that stealing is bad and should be illegal, be anything other than a fundamentalist?
posted by mragreeable at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2004


And if that's the case, how can any person who believes, for instance, that stealing is bad and should be illegal, be anything other than a fundamentalist?

There's a difference between thinking that *action* is bad for *reason* and thinking that *action* is bad because *book says so*.

If you're going to be broad about fundamentalism, potentially including objectivists, Marxists, and women who read The Rules, than it seems the crucial thing which makes one a fundamentalist is a rigid belief in a particular external, unquestionable belief system. I.e. He or she accepts a particular dogma as axiomatic and all other beliefs stem from there.
posted by callmejay at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2004


There's a difference between thinking that *action* is bad for *reason* and thinking that *action* is bad because *book says so*.

It seems to me that "Book says so" is a reason, even if you find it to be a bad one. If I think an action is wrong because my mom told me, and I'm dogmatic about it, is there any difference in the mindset?

Or are you saying that even if those people are equally wrong, the one is not a fundamentalist simply because their dogma is cofified in a sacred text. That's probably more in keeping with the traditional definition of "fundamentalist," though it's clearly far more rigid than the definition used in the radio show in question.

it seems the crucial thing which makes one a fundamentalist is a rigid belief in a particular external, unquestionable belief system. I.e. He or she accepts a particular dogma as axiomatic and all other beliefs stem from there.

It sounds like the only way to avoid the fundamentalist label is to believe your own personal belief system which you invented, or to have no firm belief system at all.

I'm really not trying to be obtuse, I just want to have some idea of the meaning of the term - otherwise, I'm starting to find this label "fundamentalist" pretty suspect. Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King seem to have believed the Christian Bible with great conviction, and lived it, far moreso than someone like Jerry Faldwell. Yet Faldwell is far more likely to be called a fundamentalist. It seems to me that the word we're looking for is perhaps "hypocrite."
posted by mragreeable at 1:08 PM on April 29, 2004


i thought the second guy was more interesting because he seemed to be trying to find a different explanation - one that the comments above seem to ignore - which is that a fundamentalist is someone who comes to believe they are somehow a god figure themselves or, at least that they somehow have priveliged access to god. that seems to be a better way to distinguish (or define) fundamentalists from other religious people.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:13 PM on April 29, 2004


mragreeable - do you know anyone with a firm belief system? one that always works? the way you talk it sounds like you think this is the normal state of affairs - it's not. most people have slack in there. most people are not fundamentalist.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:16 PM on April 29, 2004


ARGH I lost the whole "book" i just wrote... *sigh*.

To summarize, I like to look at fundamentalism as a fear/control phenomenon, where people who have extreme anxiety and fear about the large, ambiguous, impossible-to-fully-control world, and about taking responsibility for their lives latch onto a rigid set of pre-definied rules, rewards and punishments in order to relieve their fears and hand over responsibility to Higher Authority.

As far as the control part, the concept of "if someone doesn't believe the same thing I do, they must be converted, enslaved, or destroyed" is the ultimate power fantasy - and someone who applies that to real people around them is simply someone with extremely profound fears who can conceive of no other way to cope with them. It is the very pinnacle of extreme narcissism: "I am right, with no possibility of error, and if you do not do exactly as I say, you must be eliminated." The article referenced in FPP touches on that for a bit. [on preview] Andrew Cooke, that's exactly what i'm getting at - ultimate narcissism is, effectively, believing you are God, infallible, always right, all-knowing. This is the key point of my thoughts about fundamentalism.

I read a book a while ago called People of the Lie that, while going off into some strange territory toward the end, seems to me to be very useful in trying to understand how people would latch onto fundamentalism of any stripe. The book posits a definite, workable psychological definition and diagnosis of what "evil" actually is: an extreme form of narcissism, which is rooted in very deep pathological fears.

I found that a very interesting concept, and helpful in understanding the actions of violent, destructive fundamentalists of any sort.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:02 PM on April 29, 2004


I didn't find the second guy to be all that interesting because his premise seemed to come from a flawed starting point. Most of his idea that religion is about love of self was justified by the "fact" that fundamentalism required that the individual believe there is but one god and that all other gods are false. He posits that by focusing on the fact that your ideas are correct to the exclusion of all others, you are being self-centered.

Leaving aside the fact that another of the panelists was talking about a Hindu fundamentalist (which I'm fairly certain is a polytheistic faith), I find his argument to be absurdly cyclical. If you believe that the table sitting next to you is God and that there is no other god but that table, well then that's what you believe. Anybody who doesn't agree must be wrong when viewed from your belief structure. If you believe something is true then by extension you must believe that anybody who believes it is false must be wrong. It has nothing to do with love of self. The only way to get where this guy seems to want to take us is if you first assume that what the fundamentalist believes is not true, and further assume that the fundamentalist also secretly believes that it's not true.
posted by willnot at 2:10 PM on April 29, 2004


mragreeable - do you know anyone with a firm belief system? one that always works? the way you talk it sounds like you think this is the normal state of affairs - it's not. most people have slack in there. most people are not fundamentalist.

If I had to venture a guess, I'd say most of us have a lot more sacred cows than we would care to admit.

Certainly the overwhelming majority of people would be horrified at the very idea of someone trying to offer a moral justification for the crimes of the Nazis. I'd be surprised to find someone who entertains such a debate as impartially as they do a discussion about which tires to put on their car.

I personally would be reluctant to give up, say, Occam's Razor. I know of no formal proofs for it, nor can I even conceive of a way to offer a real deductive proof. It is often played like a trump card in debates, but it can be proven anecdotally at best.
posted by mragreeable at 2:56 PM on April 29, 2004


It sounds like the only way to avoid the fundamentalist label is to believe your own personal belief system which you invented, or to have no firm belief system at all.

Well, I'm not sure I'd argue with that, especially if by firm you mean near-absolute. A non-fundamentalist theist, of which there are millions in the US, for example, will usually say that they base their beliefs and actions loosely on their religion, but sometimes differ with it. Often the very religion which they aren't comlpetely in agreement with is itself amorphous. Their religious questions are nuanced. One could also think generally along the lines of a philosopher, professional or otherwise, so as to have not completely invented their belief system.

I often find it interesting to see how foreign philosophies become considered native to a religion which originally had nothing to do with it. I look at Reform Judaism, for example, and see a whole bunch of Humanism involved. When you look at the monotheistic religions as they are practiced and thought about today, it's hard not to see Plato's influence.

It seems to me that "Book says so" is a reason, even if you find it to be a bad one. If I think an action is wrong because my mom told me, and I'm dogmatic about it, is there any difference in the mindset?

I think it would be nearly the same if in practically every situation you turned to "mom told me" as the one and only truth, i.e. if you accepted "Mom is always right and everything she said was literal and perfect" and based all of your beliefs and decisions on that.
posted by callmejay at 3:31 PM on April 29, 2004


I have to agree with being a bit concerned about the 2nd guy's confidence in his psycoanalysis, but his points were still interesting.

Occam's Razor! There's a point I was going to raise. I think one of the defining aspects of fundamentalists, particularly religious fundamentalists, is that at the end of the day the ideas they push are rarely the most fundamental, basic tenets of a religion. Fundamentalism is an ironic term.

For a basic example, look at a major commandment of god that should impact on the three Abrahamic faiths.

Thou shalt not kill.

It's not too difficult. Four words. However, for several thousands of years, religions have struggled to find ways around that commandment...to find situations that make an exception to the rule - and who are the ones looking for the justifications to kill? The fundamentalists of course! Far from taking the book at it's word, they obfuscate it with human ideas.

I had an argument with a fundamentalist Christian friend in my final year of highschool. He was adamant that gays could not be Christians. I told him I could prove that they could, in the Bible.

Snotty: Okay, proove it. Where in the Bible does it say gays can be Christians.
Jimbob: John 3:16
Snotty: ...what? How?!
Jimbob: Easy...that whoever believes in him shall have eternal live. Not whoever except gays. Not whoever except anyone. Just whoever - completely inclusive.

And here's where we get the obfuscation again. He couldn't handle that.

Snotty: But...But...not at the same time, they can't!

He had to go and obfuscate it. He had to go and modify simple, truly fundamental ideas with human interpretation to justify his beliefs. The same thing can be done with Islam - basic Koranic versus encouraging the non-violent, non-forceful spread of the religion are obfuscated by fundamentalists.

Simply put, fundamentalists...aren't.
posted by Jimbob at 3:38 PM on April 29, 2004


"Thou shalt not kill" could easily be translated as "though shalt not murder," and this is in fact the obvious translation what with all of the justified killings and genocide in the OT.
posted by callmejay at 3:42 PM on April 29, 2004


So, what's murder, and what's burning someone at the stake because you think they're a witch, or bombing a restaurant to prove a political point?
posted by Jimbob at 3:52 PM on April 29, 2004


(which is to say...fundamentalists seem to be able to consider those actions excluded by "Thou shalt not murder" as well)
posted by Jimbob at 3:54 PM on April 29, 2004


I haven't read the transcript yet. It's a beautiful day and I'm in a great mood, and I don't want to start fretting about fundies.

If anyone is interested, tonight's (Thursday's) Frontline "the Jesus Factor"the Jesus Factor is an examination of Bush's fundamentalism.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:55 PM on April 29, 2004


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