The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: When a friend turns to fundamentalism

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: When a friend turns to fundamentalism July 31, 2013

Ray’s conversion to Islam and the challenge to my liberal values

Recently, a friend of mine — let’s call him “Ray” to protect his privacy — converted to Islam.  I have some concerns about Ray’s conversion.  He’s just gone through a depressive period following the loss of a job, an injury to his back, and a breakup with his girlfriend — and he was thinking about suicide.  I was concerned that he was not making rational decisions.

In spite of these things, I was prepared to be open-minded about his conversion when he came to visit me.  In fact, we’d just had a sermon at my Unitarian church about Islam.  (I was especially moved by an azan — call to prayer — which was played.)  And to be honest I was looking forward to demonstrating my liberal-mindedness about Islam, as compared to Ray’s and my other friends.  When he come to visit, Ray showed all the enthusiasm of a new convert.  He wanted to share his newfound faith and, if possible, even convert others.  I was ready to listen.  But then he started speaking in literalist, absolutist, and exclusivist terms and I grew more and more uncomfortable: The Koran was received directly from the “mouth” of God.  Arabic is the most perfect language.  Islam is the culmination of all religious revelation.  Islam is so complete that no further revelation has been needed for centuries.  Islam is really just logical.  

None of this is all that shocking in itself, since most of these are tenets of Islam.  What was shocking was to hear it coming from my friend Ray.  Ray is an intelligent and articulate person.  He was raised Mormon like me, and like me he rejected the faith as an adult for many of the same reasons, including (or so I thought) its literalism, absolutism, and exclusivism.  Thereafter, he adopted a stance somewhere between atheism and pantheism (also like me), but he had no particular spiritual practice that I know of.  I had a hard time not seeing his conversion as a kind of regression.

And then I really started to get concerned when Ray started in on the anti-Zionist talk, which bordered very closely, in my mind, to anti-Semitism.  And finally, he brought up 9-11, and told me what he tells people when they ask him about it.  Rather than condemn the perpetrators, he criticized American foreign policy.  He implied the attacks were justified.  Now, I have the same concerns about American foreign policy as he does, but that would not be my first response — as a Muslim or as a Pagan — if someone was asking me about 9-11.  In my mind, there is only one right response to a question about 9-11 and this to condemn the attacks unequivocally.  What’s even more disturbing was that he says the people he goes to mosque with consider Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to be heroes!  And supposedly these are “moderate” Muslims he is worshipping with.  This was not the kind of Islam that the recent sermon about Islam at my Unitarian church had prepared me for.  Ray was quick to say that the Islamic concept of jihad does not justify holy war, and he repeatedly said that Islam is a religion of peace.  But I was not mollified.

In spite of all this, Ray seems happier and more positive than I have ever seen him.  He spoke in glowing terms about the release of guilt that he felt.  He described his conversion moment (which preceded his formal conversion) in terms that I recognize as authentic religious experience.  I especially found his religious practice of praying multiple times a day and fasting during Ramadan to be impressive.  So, I found myself struggling with what to say.  I tried to ask some critical questions that might get him thinking about some of the conclusions he was drawing from his experience.  It’s a long way from feeling the approbation of divinity to concluding that a book contains the fullness of God’s revelation and another leap from there to the political conclusions he was drawing.  But Ray seems to have made the leaps in a single bound.  For the most part, I checked my responses, reminding myself that only a few weeks prior to his visit he was suicidal.  If his choices are suicide or religious fundamentalism, then I found it difficult to gainsay his choice of the latter.

Jung’s patient and the rationalist critique

Ray returned home, but I continue to struggle with this issue of how to respond responsibly.  Then I came across a discussion by Carl Jung in his Terry Lectures of a patient of whose neurosis* was healed by a religious experience.  Jung does not record what the specific nature of the neurosis was, only that the patient had come to him “because of a very alarming experience” and that the neurosis “had become overpowering and was slowly but surely undermining his morale”.  Certainly the same could have been said of my friend Ray a few weeks before his visit.  Jung described his patient as a non-practicing Catholic who was not interested in religious matters: “He was one of those scientifically minded intellectuals who would be simply amazed if anybody should saddle them with religious views of any kind.”

Jung instructed the patient to record his dreams, which were then conveyed to Jung, but not analyzed, in session.  One of the dreams which stood out for Jung was one with obvious religious meaning.  This was remarkable itself, because the patient did not consider himself religious.  Eventually, the patient’s dreams culminated in a visual image of a mandala, a symbol which Jung interprets as representing the wholeness and resolution of conflicting opposites in the Self or God.  But Jung did not share this interpretation with the patient until later.  This image gave the patient the “impression of the most sublime harmony” and, according to Jung, had a deeply transformative influence on his condition.  The dream was a turning point in his psychological development.  Jung says, “It was what one would call–in the language of religion–a conversion.”  (I myself have had a similar experience of personal transformation — albeit on a more limited scale — through a religious symbol.  I wrote about it here.)

What’s remarkable about this is that this transformation occurred prior to any analysis.  In fact, there was no real intervention by Jung at all, except to suggest to the patient that his dreams would provide the answer to his problem.  The patient’s transformation, then, was not a rational process, but a spiritual one–or a psychological and emotional one, if you prefer.  And this is why Jung compares it to a religious conversion.  In fact, not only was the patient’s transformation accomplished without the aid of reason, it was accomplished through the surrender of reason.

Allow me to explain.  The Terry Lectures were given in 1937, and Jung had probably treated this patient years or even decades earlier.  It is difficult today, after the influence of Freud and Jung have so thoroughly saturated our culture, to imagine a time, a century ago, when most people would have thought that finding meaning in dreams was superstitious.  Jung writes of informing another patient “at the risk of shocking him severely” that his dreams would provide all the necessary information to get at the root of his neurosis.  And he describes the idea that we should take dreams “as if they issued from an intelligent, purposive, and, as it were, personal source” as a “bold hypothesis”.  Thus, Jung’s patient’s willingness to take his dreams seriously, given the prejudices of his time, was a kind of surrender of his rationality.  Jung writes:

Being highly rationalistic and intellectual he had found that his attitude of mind and his philosophy forsook him completely in the face of his neurosis and its demoralizing forces. He found nothing in his whole Weltanschauung [worldview] that would help him to gain sufficient control of himself. He was therefore very much in the situation of a man deserted by his hitherto cherished convictions and ideals.

Although the patient’s “conversion” was (to my mind) more benign than my friend Ray’s, both are essentially the same kind of experience — a sacrifice of critical faculties that leads to spiritual transformation and greater personal wholeness.

Jung then proceeds to describe similar effects of dream images on other patients:

“Others will confess that a similar vision came to them in a moment of extreme pain or profound despair. To others again it is the memory of a sublime dream or of a moment when long and fruitless struggles came to an end and a reign of peace began. If you sum up what people tell you about their experiences, you can formulate it this way: They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves, and thus were reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is almost like what used to be expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God.

This is an excellent description of my friend Ray’s state when he visited me.

Jung concludes his essay by responding to the hypothetical rationalist to whom the account above might sound “crazy”.  Jung responds by noting that he is not making any metaphysical claims about God, only theorizing about the effect of religious symbols on the psyche.  “It is a fact,” Jung says, “that my patient felt a great deal better after the vision of the mandala.”  Jung goes on to say that for many people the embrace of these kinds of experiences is a matter of psychological survival:  “[They] have to take their experience seriously if they want to live at all. They can only choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. The devil is the mandala or something equivalent to it and the deep blue sea is their neurosis.”  And this was the dilemma I found myself in during Ray’s visit: I saw my friend caught between the “devil” of religious fundamentalism and the “deep blue sea” of suicidal despair.

Jung notes that the “well-meaning rationalist” would point out that he is “replacing an honest neurosis by the swindle of a religious belief”.  Jung responds that a religious experience is its own truth: “[I]t is not a question of belief but of experience.  Religious experience is absolute; it cannot be disputed. You can only say that you have never had such an experience, whereupon your opponent will reply: ‘Sorry, I have.’ And there your discussion will come to an end.”  I have resisted this idea in the past, the notion that religious experience must bring discussion to an end.  I agree that religious experience itself is irreducible and beyond criticism, but the conclusions we draw from those experiences should not be.

But Jung questions whether we have a right to criticize religious experience when it helps a person live a more meaningful life:

“No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses a great treasure, a thing that has become for him a source of life, meaning, and beauty, and that has given a new splendour to the world and to mankind. He has pistis** and peace. Where is the criterion by which you could say that such a life is not legitimate, that such an experience is not valid, and that such pistis is mere illusion? Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about the ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?

My response is to question whether we cannot have the “life, meaning, and beauty” without the “swindle of religious belief”.   Can we not have the peace without the “illusion”?  Can not my friend find salvation from suicide without resort to religious fundamentalism?   Is it possible to find this kind of transformative experience in a liberal religion like my own Unitarianism?  I don’t have the answers to these questions.  I have myself often felt that something essential — a transformative experience — was missing from the rationalist Unitarianism that I participate in.  (I wrote about this here and here.)

Jung seems to think that the irrationality of the experience is essential, which is why he looks to the symbols of the unconscious for help:

They are the one thing that is capable of convincing the critical mind of modern man. And they are convincing for a very old-fashioned reason: They are overwhelming, which is precisely what the Latin word convincere means. The thing that cures a neurosis must be as convincing as the neurosis, and since the latter is only too real, the helpful experience must be equally real. It must be a very real illusion, if you want to put it pessimistically. But what is the difference between a real illusion and a healing religious experience? It is merely a difference of words.”

Jung implies that it was his patient’s rationality that was making him sick.  And only the intervention of the irrational unconscious could bring the healing and wholeness he needed.  Jung concludes:

“No one can know what the ultimate things are. We must therefore take them as we experience them. And if such experience helps to make life healthier, more beautiful, more complete and more satisfactory to yourself and to those you love, you may safely say: ‘This was the grace of God.’

“No transcendental truth is thereby demonstrated, and we must confess in all humility that religious experience is […] subjective, and liable to boundless error.  [But] only heedless fools will wish to destroy this; the lover of the soul, never.

I would, indeed, be a heedless fool to say anything that might destroy Ray’s peace and pistis**.  And yet, I remain troubled, because the conclusions he draws from his experience are very troubling.  What do you think?  How would you respond if a friend found peace and healing in a fundamentalist religious belief that was intolerant?  What if that belief had the potential to inspire violence against others?  Have you found that liberal religion can be as transformative as fundamentalist religious experience?  Or is that like having your cake and eating it too?


* “Neurosis” is a psychological crisis due to a state of disunity with oneself.

** “Pistis” is trust in God’s salvation or the inner certainty of love granted by God.

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  • What a painful experience that first conversation with your friend must have been for you. I agree, a genuine religious experience is irreducible. My worry about your friend would be that his experience did not happen to him via dream or from within at all; he was given something from outside himself by MEN, not deities.
    To me, the appeal of fundamentalism of the sort you describe your friend clinging to in his unhappiness is different from a mystical religious experience. The appeal of fundamentalism is certainties that comfort, even if parts also discomfort. It is like clinging to a raft in a sea of unknowns, even if the raft is full of sharp shards and nails.

    • Labrys, I have to disagree with you. I did not go into detail above, but Ray’s conversion *did* result from a mystical or religious experience, although it did happen while listening to a Muslim teacher. It was not that he was rationally convinced by what was being said; rather, he was transformed by the experience which just happened to occur in the context of a teaching moment. Ray spoke about an overwhelming sense of love. And this is what converted him. I agree that the promise of certainty in a world of uncertainty makes fundamentalism very appealing — I know that from experience — but many fundamentalists also have powerful and transformative spiritual/mystical experiences. I think it’s wrong to assume that their experiences are not genuine just because the conclusions they draw from those experiences seem to us to be wrongheaded.

      • My confusion would come from the idea that a conversion influenced by love would also include some of the rather hateful, blaming speech he seems to bring back from his mosque. It seems an odd dichotomy to me.

        • Yeah, I know. It’s paradoxical. But I don’t think things are so black and white in spiritual matters. I don’t think contact with the numinous is always all sweetness and light.

          • Sorry to be so long getting back to this — August always slams my life into carbonite like a Star Wars villain. Yes…the paradox, damn there is a topic that could take days to hash out, no? The numinous is not always luminous…don’t you think that should be a bumper sticker?

  • Fascinating post, John – and some very complex questions raised. I’ve read a little Jung and have been meaning to get around to reading a lot more, and this post has convinced me to make him a high priority on my to-read list!

    As to whether we can have “life, meaning, and beauty” without the “swindle of religious belief” – I want to say yes. But I know for a fact that I have not had religious experiences that compare in their experiential or transformative power to those of theistic Pagans or people of other religions. My naturalistic spiritual practice is powerful and meaningful to me, but it did not come into my life at a time when I needed this kind of transformative experience. I will say that I find the non-logical moments – when I allow myself to suspend disbelief and feel a real connection to the metaphors and archetypes I utilise in my practice – are the most powerful. So yes, I think the the transformation comes from the surrendering of the logical mind.

    And as to how I would respond in this situation – I honestly don’t know. You make a good argument for it being a positive change for him, but of course the fundamentalist leanings are deeply troubling. I would tend to presume that such beliefs will only lead to unhappiness or disharmony in the person holding them – or certainly for people in that person’s life. Considering that your friend is in a volatile condition, I agree that his well-being must come first. But I think I would find it difficult to remain silent or to maintain friendly relations with someone who has taken on such views. I guess it’s something that you will have to deal with over time, as it pans out.

    • Aine, I think you’re right about the fundamentalist attitude leading to an inner disharmony. It takes a lot of psychological energy to maintain those beliefs. In my own case, when I went though my own fundamentalist phase, I was certain I was right about everything, but I also perpetually unhappy and my relationships troubled. My frustration with Ray is that I thought he had already moved beyond that phase. According to James Fowler, spiritual development tends to be unilinear. People can get stuck in one stage of development, but they rarely regress. I suspect that, although Ray was raised Mormon, he may never have been really converted to it, so he never went through this phase before, in which case this really is not a regression, but a step forward.

      Regarding the question of religious experiences, I wonder if we are having the same experiences as theists, but without all the psychological fireworks. That is, is it possible that non-theists are achieving the same spiritual goals of integration with self, other people, nature, etc., but that the change of consciousness is happening more gradually or subtly?

      • I can understand your frustration, especially when you’ve been through such a phase yourself and experienced the fallout first-hand. But yes, perhaps this is a stage in his development that he hasn’t been through yet, and with any luck will move through and learn from.

        That’s an interesting take on it! I think that might well be the case. I find that I can glean more than I would expect from the writings and musings of hard theists, probably because we’re looking for similar experiences or transformations in ourselves through our spiritual practice. I guess it makes sense that the same physiological things are going to be happening in the brain, but perhaps as non-theists we hold back a little more, not letting ourselves let go entirely of our logical mind, and hence the more gradual or subtle effect.

  • Constant Reader

    I’ve seen quite a few people find Jesus or recovery, and walk around on a pink cloud for a while. They learn the lingo and use it religiously (pun intended, at least about the Christians), follow the rules unquestioningly, and want to talk about nothing else. Eventually, though, most people reach a point where they integrate their new way of life in a more balanced and thoughtful way. If I were giving my opinion (and I am, since you asked), I’d tell you to take a wait-and-see approach. If you see dangerous behavior or if his attempts to convert you become problematic, then you will have some decisions to make. Otherwise, let him be.

    Regarding symbols, thank you for posting that. I recently had a symbol appear in a dream (also a sort of mandala) that left me with a feeling of peace and contentment, but I haven’t looked into it any further. I’m going to refer to your Pagan Square post as a starting point .

    • Thanks Constant. I agree. I have a tendency to think of religious choices as somehow final, even though my own experience is that they are anything but. Ray is on a journey and this is not the end of it. Looking back on my own conversion to Mormonism at age 19 (after having been raised Mormon), the 40 year-old me would have had many of the same concerns about the 19 year-old me as I now have about Ray. And Ray is not too much older than I was when I converted, only 25.

  • rhyd wildermuth

    Having had profound religious experiences both as a fundamentalist christian in my teenage years and now as a polytheist in my mid-30’s, I think I’d suggest a longer view. Experiencing the divine (or as I’ve been calling it, Divine Trauma) is profound and life-altering, much like entering a gate into a world you didn’t know existed because the walls were so high. It’s disorienting, fraught with wonder and traumatic experiences that constantly need translation into the material realm outside of the wonderland. God or the Gods or spirits talk to you, and you don’t know quite what they’re saying without asking around. That initial experience is both necessary and jarring for oneself and also for others who’ve known that person.

    Perhaps your friend will stay on that path, or change. I started out closer to an archetypalist view until a couple of hard kicks in the face from the gods (it took a few of ’em, because I’m stubborn and was certain I was right). But I don’t for a second feel that my initial experience (or even the ones as a fundamentalist christian during my adolescence) were illegitimate; on the contrary, I think I learned as much from being “wrong” as I have from being “right” (until the next kick to the face…).

    Either way, regardless of the unpleasantness of certain beliefs, the experience in another is beautiful, and the relationship between “neurosis” and belief has been recorded in First Nations cultures repeatedly–those called to become shamans who run away often experience something similar if they run from it; also, many of the lives of the christian saints tell similar stories. Whether it’s a posteriori re-inscription of the experience or not, it’s probably impossible to tell.

    And to borrow from a materialist atheist, Slavoj Zizek, the biggest fault of a fundamentalist is that they actually act as if they believe what they claim to, which is a deal-breaker in our pseudo-secular, liberal democratic (uneasy) consensus. We can think and believe whatever we’d like, provided we don’t act like we do. I think perhaps many pagans experience the same injunction.

  • Sage Blackthorn writes the following on the Patheos Pagan Facebook page in response to this post: “I once read that we are all enacting a story we tell ourselves about our place in the world in order to make sense of our lives. To enact a story means to live in such a way as to make that story reality. Now some people find the story there were told as children does not hold true for them as they grow, so they rebel against it. That story has an outline, filled with names and places and characters…. it provides a general structure, a filter or lens through which we perceive the world. I find it interesting that “Ray” was raised in a “literalist, absolutist, and exclusivist” world view, rejected it and has now found himself back at that very same view point that he previously rejected.

    “We often hear people say “Nature abhors a vacuum”, meaning that when there is an emptiness, something will rush in to fill it. And the same author who wrote that we are all enacting a story, also pointed out that you can’t just get rid of a story you realize is hurting you and leave nothing. You need a new vision, a new story as it were, to replace the old one that is not only inspiring for you, but healthy as well. Otherwise, our minds will tend to revert to the old outlines, the old structure. We may fill in the outline with new names, places, and characters…. but we are still thinking in the same old patterns that we had previously rejected as harmful to us. They just seem fresh and new because we’ve dressed them up with new names. But they will feel comforting because they are familiar to us. This is not true personal growth, because we’ve come back to the very point we started at and put a new mask on it, dressed it up and made it attractive.

    “If I were in this position, I don’t I would feel like I was being honest with myself or “Ray” if I didn’t voice my concerns over what I was hearing from him. Not saying that his conclusions are “wrong” for him, but that I disagree strongly with many of them. I cannot see Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, or anyone who commits acts of mass murder for that matter, as “heroes”. I cannot see the attacks that happened on 9/11 as anything other than a great tragedy where people lost their lives in pain and confusion. I might disagree with American Foreign Policy, and I think that America should stay out of other country’s internal affairs (because we have no right to tell others what to do, we can only choose how to react to their choices based on what is best for us). Like wise, I wouldn’t feel right telling “Ray” he was “wrong”, only that I disagree with his conclusions and I would have to decide from this point on if I could have “Ray” in my life as a friend any longer if he held the view that my beliefs were “wrong” according to his new world view.

    “Also, that “Ray” was suicidal is not my responsibility and should not have any bearing on my responding truthfully to what he is saying. “Ray’s” issues are his own to work out. If he asks me for help with his troubles, I can offer advice from my own perspective and hope it helps. But, I would feel like I was lying to him if I hid my feelings about what he was telling me. He is fully free to continue on his new path, but he should know that THAT path is not one I can walk with him. If converting to Fundamentalist Islam leads him to a happy and fulfilling life, then I would wish him well. But I would keep someone in my life who told me that only his believes were right, thereby implying that all others are wrong or misguided. I hear this all the time, and when I bring this up, people always say “But they never SAID that, you’re only interpreting it that way!” Which is true, but the question is then one of compatibility between me and “Ray”. If having “Ray” around makes me uncomfortable, annoyed, irritated by his constant “My beliefs are great, everyone else’s are wrong” attitude…. then I’d have to wish “Ray” a good life but a life without me. Because I believe there is no one right way to live, I couldn’t bring myself to tell “Ray” his way is “wrong” for him. But I can say it’s wrong for me, and that I cannot be comfortable following him down the path he has chosen. I am the one standing in my footsteps, I have my own journey to walk and I choose to walk in the company of those who make me happy to be around, who support me and are there for me. Not in the company of those who tell me I have to change to suit them, that I’m wrong they are right.”

    • Sage’s comment about nature abhorring a vacuum reminds me of a quote by Benjamin Disraeli: “Man is born to believe. And if no Church comes forward with its title-deeds of truth to guide him, he will find altars and idols in his own heart and his own imagination.”

  • What can you do? You can continue to love him and to show him what a Unitarian and a Pagan looks like. That’s about it.

    I have friends who hold radically conservative political views. I do my best to avoid debating for the sake of debating. I’m not going to change their views and they’re not going to change mine. If they say something blatantly false or misleading or not in alignment with the values they claim to hold (which expressing approval for Saddam or bin Laden certainly is) I’ll offer a counterpoint as calmly as I can.

    “Is it possible to find this kind of transformative experience in a liberal religion like my own Unitarianism?” Sadly, no. It’s too rational, and too eager to cut open the goose of religious experience to see where it comes from, with the usual results. Individual Unitarians can find transformative religious experience – I’m one of them. But we find it in spite of our liberal religion, not because of it.

    • “… we find it in spite of our liberal religion, not because of it.”