Fundamentalism causes more befuddlement than anything else in America these days, followed closely by kale chips and the Kardashians.
I know fundamentalism inside-out. I was in, and now I’m out. An earnest evangelical for 20 years or so, I grew up immersed in religion: at multi-weekly church services, a conservative school and summer missionary camps. What fundamentalism is doing to the world matters. It matters enough to catch a glimpse of what’s motivating those beliefs instead of just rolling our eyes at them. It matters enough to tell the story through cat gifs.
1. Eternity. Literally the best thing ever.
Cats, very focused on what they want.
When it comes to how a fundamentalist perceives the world, eternal life is in the balance — and not in a metaphorical way. When I was in the throes of religion, I wasn’t interested in whatever new idea the world had to offer. I was interested in living in heaven forever. Fundamentalists are literalists. That means they believe heaven and hell are physical places, and each account in the Bible went down exactly as told: the parting sea, the virgin birth, the thrice-crowing cock. Those are their stories, and they’re sticking to them.
How can fundamentalists be so sure? Because they need to be. Being sure becomes a primal need to survive. Even more long-term than our physical survival is our eternal fate, and fundamentalists believe all of our lives are on the line. Will we suffer in a fire that never burns out and never quite turns us to a crisp either, century after century? Or will we live in a mansion on a street paved with gold between one fluffy cloud and the next? This is not a theoretical inquiry to a fundamentalist. Everything that happens on earth is of secondary importance. These pre-eternity stomping grounds are a test. The world began with six days of creation and will end in a fiery mess. No need to get attached.
2. Contradictions, begone!
Good luck chasing those contradictions away, cat.
The contradictions of a fundamentalist are obvious from the outside. But inside, you determine “the truth” differently. I learned to rationalize so the facts always went my way. Contradictions were explained away so as to not trouble me. When it came to sticky issues like why we no longer stoned people to death Bible-style and why we ate Old-Testament-forbidden shrimp at Red Lobster when celebrating good report cards, I had the latitude to ask about two questions if I ever got confused. More often it was like, “I’m totally confident in my faith and am just asking in case anyone ever asks me this, you know, but…”
The answer was usually either, “That was the Old Testament. Jesus’ sacrifice made that law unnecessary” or, if the question was about the New Testament, the reply could be, “You have to have faith because God’s ways are higher than our ways and beyond our understanding.” That comes from a verse in the Old Testament, of course — we reinforced our faith about the Bible by having faith in what the Bible told us about faith. Without knowing I was being indoctrinated, I came to understand which verses we did and didn’t take literally. Because of these mental leaps, I got really good at explaining things that made no actual sense. (Why do you think fundamentalists spin so well on the evening news?)
3. The road to hell is paved with an open mind.
Keep on keepin’ on, cat.
If you’re talking to a fundamentalist, it doesn’t matter if you have a compelling argument or more credibility than you can shake a King James Bible at. It matters that their entire life, including the eternal life ahead of them, hinges on holding firm to what they believe. Holding firm is a virtue. Being unswayed by non-Godly logic is a virtue. You will never out-logic a fundamentalist. Your logic doesn’t interest them, and your facts seem suspicious to them.
In many ways, that need to hold firm is at the root of creationism — i.e. the belief that evolution is wrong, factually and morally. The fear of change runs deep. No evolving allowed. No not-knowing allowed. And no changing your mind based on shifting opinions or scientific discoveries (which are kind of the same thing in the world of fundamentalism). When you’re a fundamentalist, changing your mind means taking the first step on a slippery slope toward perdition. Changing your mind about one issue means fearing that everything else may then also (and somehow could?) unravel.
4. It’s hard in there for a fundamentalist.
The cat will stay in the box, but thanks.
Most fundamentalist denominations don’t have icons sitting around their churches. I was taught to value my personal relationship with Jesus and to reject the symbols that we thought smacked of pre-Reformation years when the statue-loving Catholic church dominated and claimed sole access to God. But not having graven images, we gave God our own mental image. Our dogma was rigid enough — we didn’t need stone statues.
Fundamentalists lock their beliefs into a particular historical framework, and they think that limited view is the whole truth. This kind of literalism hardens the beliefs themselves. It turns grand concepts like love into calcified rules. It’s like walking down the fake flowers aisle in a craft store instead of wandering around a garden. Those flowers holds some idea of the original, but they have no life — and there’s really no reason to stop and smell them. But fake roses seem beautiful if you’ve never seen a rose bush in full bloom. And when you’re living that way, it doesn’t feel like you’re rigid. It feels like you’re right.
5. You’re a mean one, Mr. Fundamentalist.
To so many who grew up knowing the golden rule or just being considerate humans, it’s obvious how poorly fundamentalist Christians treat other people. To those who believe that life is about heaven and hell and who’s going where, kindness never becomes the most important value. And if you believe you’re supposed to get other people up to those streets paved with gold, too, you start to judge and shout. (Sadly, there is no ’60s-era dance that goes with the refrain of “Judge and Shout.”)
Fundamentalism is all about what’s wrong — in yourself and others. In that environment, it’s easy to lose sight of kindness. I knew the Bible verse that says to not judge someone else for having a mote in her eye when I was walking around with a beam of wood in my own eye (a mote just means a speck of dust, so go ahead and drop that knowledge at your next cocktail party). We didn’t ignore that verse, but we were pulled by other verses that made us feel righteously indignant. We talked about God’s love, sure, but it was blame that made our world go ‘round.
Cat shows excellent compassion skills, cuddles up anyway.
Most of this motivation is subconscious when you’re in the middle of it. I was so immersed in fear and judgment that I was like a fish that doesn’t know it’s wet. I came out of the murk slowly, gulping in fresh air and not quite trusting it (speaking of evolution). The best way you can respond to your friendly neighborhood fundamentalist is with compassion. They don’t know that’s what they need, but it’s the only thing that will get them onto dry land.
More about Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome (Available in hardback, e-book and audio formats. Paperback coming 3/15/16.)