Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beware of Your Inner Fundamentalist

Are you a fundamentalist? The mere question would shock some readers, especially those of a more secular, libertarian bent who would think that rather impossible.

We are used to the idea of fundamentalism being associated with religion. After all it originated with the hateful, intolerant, small-minded Protestant sects that clung to a literalistic interpretation of the Bible in spite of overwhelming evidence against that view. We are used to seeing the fanatical terrorists as part of fundamentalist Islam. The anti-Semitic rants of Mel Gibson, and his even more hateful father, fit well with fundamentalist Catholicism.
But, as noted already, the strict definition of fundamentalism applied only to the Protestants sects defending “the fundamentals of the faith.” But the word took on a broader definition; one that described an attitude held by an individual believers.

Still many are reluctant to apply it outside of religious circles. Yet I see no reason to restrict the use of the term to only religious beliefs. A fundamentalist attitude can be found in numerous ideological circles as well. There are fundamentalist Marxists, fundamentalist Objectivists, fundamentalist liberals, fundamentalist libertarians, etc. No belief system is immune to the fundamentalist virus.
I want to outline a few of the traits of the fundamentalist mind. I do not claim that this an exhaustive description, I only wish to highlight a few of the more obvious thought patterns of the fundamentalist believer of all stripes.

The primary characteristic of the fundamentalist is the need to force reality to fit their ideology or belief, rather than adjust their beliefs to fit reality.
I have covered one aspect of this in fundamentalist Christianity in regards to civil rights for gay people. While science and common sense indicate that homosexual orientations are not choices, but facts of nature, the fundamentalist Christian is adamant that this cannot be the case. His Bible says such people are “worthy of death.” Yet, if sexual orientation, which is not the same thing as sexual behavior, were innate then the God who said such things would be rather monstrous and immoral himself. So, not matter how much evidence accumulates the fundamentalist rejects it for precisely the same reason he is immune to science when it comes to evolution.

Fundamentalists, because they have strongly-held belief systems, believe they can speak out on almost any issue, even on those where they are uninformed. Since reality must fit their beliefs, and not the other way around, they are able to deal with any reality by forcing it into their ideology or religion.
I’ve seen this in my fellow libertarians all the time. Instead of admitting that they simply don’t know something, about a specific issue, they concoct answers based on their ideology, instead of on what they know about the issues involved.
There is the case of a libertarian “scholar” who was one of the most fundamentalist of all libertarians in recent memory. He pontificated on every subject under the sun, even those on which he knew little. It wasn’t that he was a stupid man; he was quite intelligent. But he was often uneducated on the topics in question and would always speak from his ideology, not from his knowledge. His “scholarly” material was often footnoted after the fact, as he hired grad students to seek out footnotes that appeared to fit his thesis. Fundamentalists start with conclusions and then seek out the facts, instead of the other way around.

There are simply vast areas of discussion where I have nothing to say because I’ve done no research. I simply don’t know. There are times when I’m asked questions and the only answer I can give is: “I don’t know.”

The way I escaped fundamentalist Christianity was through my need to question and seek answers. I didn’t simply accept the doctrinal answer as the only possible answer. I didn’t start with the conclusion and then sought the evidence; I looked at the evidence and judged the conclusion. Did the belief fit the evidence? When it didn’t then it had to be adjusted or rejected.

And I sure as hell didn’t escape Christian fundamentalism to only find myself embracing some secular version of the same mind-set.

The fundamentalist assumes his belief system answers all questions. I actually do not believe that any single belief system can answer all questions. Some dilemmas are impervious to such reasoning.

Sometimes there appear to be conflicting principles involved. Sometimes there is just too little known about a situation to draw a conclusion. Sometimes there are answers but I don’t know them, perhaps others do, but not me.
One of the virtues of shunning fundamentalism is that frees you up to say: “I don’t know.” It is liberating to be free to not have all the answers.

The fundamentalist starts with moral condemnations. In a debate with a fundamentalist they quickly resort to denouncing opponents as immoral or evil. Since the fundamentalist assumes what they believe the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then anything someone else believes isn’t. Not only are their beliefs automatically wrong but also the one disagreeing is automatically assumed to have moral flaws.

For the fundamentalists opponents are never sincere. There are never simple errors involved. Nor can the fundamentalist ever contemplate that they might be the one who is wrong. It simply isn’t possible, they have the “word” and it is authoritative.

One clear sign of fundamentalism is how a person responds to new information that they previously did NOT know. Fundamentalists tend to ignore new facts and continue repeating the same mantra over and over. They will routinely dismiss information that they previously didn’t have as irrelevant or unimportant. Consider the following truncated exchange with a fundamentalist Christian as an example:

Me. The Bible says no man has seen God. Correct?
Him. Yes

Me: Was Jesus God?

Him: Yes.

Me: Did people see him?

Him: Yes, but that isn’t a contradiction.

Me: Why?

Him: Because it meant God the father not God the son.

Me. The Bible says in the Old Testament that Moses saw the hind parts of God. This was before the birth of Jesus.

Him: That’s not a contradiction.

Me: Why?

Him: Because it isn’t.

At this point he entire argument was a repetition of him simply asserting, “because it isn’t,” over and over again.

The fundamentalist rarely finds he needs to change his mind. Why would he? Since he has the whole truth changing his mind is an admission he is wrong. And if he was wrong before, he could be wrong again. That undermines the entire fundamentalist mind-set.
I freely admit I’ve been wrong before. Not just once or twice, but with human consistency. I’ve changed my mind repeatedly on matters as new evidence presented itself. I was took the so-called “hard core” libertarian position that gay people should not be allowed to marry because it was expanding the state and they could get all the rights of marriage privately. I was very, very wrong. That statement is simply not true, as I learned. When faced with evidence that disputed my belief I changed my belief.
I know that in the past I was mistaken, not evil, just wrong. And since I know that my errors were good faith errors I can’t automatically assume that the errors of others are anything aren’t the same. I also know that since I have been wrong before, I could be wrong again and that in any such discussion or debate I just might be the one in error.  I can’t automatically reject information that doesn’t correspond with my conclusions on various issues.
Fundamentalism, as a frame of mind, is destructive. It harms those who embrace it and it harms the cause to which it is applied. Fundamentalist Christians have done irreparable harm to the Christian faith. Ditto for fundamentalist Muslims and Islam.  I see no reason that the libertarian version of fundamentalism is any different. Of course the fundamentalist will have an answer—because it’s absolutely and totally true and if you disagree you must be immoral.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post. Blogged it here: