Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Psychopathology of Fundamentalism

One of the most difficult problems facing the critic of religious belief is to provide a convincing explanation for the emergence of religious fundamentalism. The are two predominant issues that render it difficult to provide such an explanation:

1) They evade explanations proferred by evolutionary psychology, as most fundamentalist religions do not appear to promote what we might term "evolutionary successful strategies". They frequently promote behaviour such as chastity, self-abasement, social isolation, time-consuming rituals and (in the most extreme cases) suicidal matyrdom that reduce significantly one's chances of reproduction and therefore any potential for the spread of congential dispositions towards religious fundamentalism.


2) Fundamentalist belief is often so grossly at odds with reality that it is difficult to see how a healthy human mind could assent to some of their more central tenets.

Some commentators even take issue with identifying what might be termed a "fundamentalist mindset" in the first place. The Muslim commentator and author Walid Aly, for instance, decries any attempt to describe radicalised Muslims (or the radicalised of any non-Christian faith, for that matter) as "fundamentalists" because he views this term as pertaining exclusively to the Protestant faith, specifically the periodic movements within it to return to a faith based entirely on such "fundamentals" as scriptural innerrancy and faith in Christ (perhaps best expressed in the form of Martin Luther's "Five Solas"). Others, such as Scott Atran, reject the claim that there is any substantive difference between the mind of the "fundamentalist" and any other human mind to begin with. He suggests:

"I certainly find very little hatred; they act out of love," he says. "These people are very compassionate." Atran, who studies group dynamics at the University of Michigan, is talking about suicide bombers, extremists by anyone's standards and not representative of fundamentalist ideology in general (New Scientist, 23 July, page 18). But surprisingly, much of what Atran has discovered about suicide bombers helps to explain the psychology of all fundamentalist movements.


[D]espite the fact that fundamentalist thinking is often portrayed as simplistic, this... is not borne out by research. Measures of cognitive complexity, which describes how an individual combines, classifies and processes information, show that fundamentalists are no different from the wider population. In general they operate solid, logical and sophisticated chains of thinking, albeit thinking that is based on non-negotiable articles of faith.

While any treatment of fundamentalism has to take such observations seriously, I don't think either constitutes sufficient reason to abandon the search for features that are universal to what we might call a fundamentalist mindset. In the first place, while the term "fundamentalism" may well be tracable to specific movements within the Christian tradition, I think it can still be retained as a general term for extreme and inflexible forms of zealotry. For the "fundamentalist" (whether religious or secular - e.g. Marxists, Tea-Party zealots etc.) all experience is framed through the "fundamentals" of their doctrine of choice: such fundamentals form the foundation of their understanding of the world in a completely intractible sense. It is this exhaustive framing of the world through a narrow set of beliefs that distinguishes the "fundamentalist" from the rest of us.

In the second place, while it is almost certainly true that fundamentalists do not universally suffer from any sort of inherent cognitive impairment, that is not to say that there must not be any identifiable differences in the operation of the mind of the fundamentalist and that of the average person. I have no doubt that the fundamentalist is capable of scoring highly on tests which measure the capacity for cognitive complexity, but the more interesting (and important) question is whether they [i]employ[/i] such capacities as readily as the average person in their day-to-day lives. The most insidious forms of ignorance are often entirely willful.

And so my theory. In my opinion, the two most characteristic traits of the fundamentalist mind are:

1) A complete lack of a sense of humour.


2) A complete absense of imagination.

In some ways, the two are dependent on each other. The importance of novelty and perspicacity in humour (with respect to convention, timing etc.) mean that imagination is probably necessary for a well-developed sense of humour, and the playfulness and irreverent abandon of imaginative thought probably requires a levity that can only emerge in those of good humour.

Humour is important to the healthy human mind as it appears to be central to the way we relate to other human beings. As Henri Bergson put it:

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,--the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man as "an animal which laughs." They might equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to. - Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic, pp. 6-7

This relation of humour to one's disposition to other human beings can expose a lot about one's personality. We invariably find something discomforting or even obnoxious about one who cannot laugh at himself or absurd situations. Even more so when one finds oneself easily offended by the expression of humour. Such a disposition betrays, I think, a severe ill-ease with oneself and with the world more generally (see next post). If we can identify in the mind of the fundamentalist a severe mistrust or misapprehension of humour (and this does seem to be true, equally, of fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Marxists, Far-Rightists etc.) then we can probably assume that there is some severe obstacle in their thought processes which prevents them from acknowledging the absurdity of the human condition in the relaxed, good-humoured manner it deserves. What is really happening here?

Put simply, an essential tennet of fundamentalist thought lies in a fundamental mistrust of humanity and its capacity to execute its agency freely. All fundamentalists view humanity as necessarily sick and depraved, naturally drawn to immoral excess in the absense of some controlling dogma. For the Christian, this immorality - or "sinfulness" - is an a priori condition of human existence: we are sinners before we even act. Such a disposition towards one's fellow man makes one necessarily "anti-human", at least to the extent that these other humans fail to share one's world-view. This manifests itself in the absurd, paranoid construction of "out-groups" whose powers (and unity) are invariably grossly exaggerated. This out-group can take the form of such nebulous entities as "secular society" (Christians), "the West" (Muslims), "the Bourgeoius" (Marxists) or "the Left" (Tea Party). Such groups are posited as unrelentingly undermining the strength of the "in-group" (in fact, that seems to be their only function) and whose influence, on occasion, appears almost omnipresent. The imagined construction of a powerful homosexual lobby in fundamentalist American thought is the probably the most wantonly absurd example of this manner of thinking.

Of course, when the entire world is sick, depraved and populated almost entirely with enemies who pose nothing less than a total existential threat to the well-being of the believer, the relaxed, self-depricating and fundamentally egalitarian disposition towards humanity necessary for the expression of, or appreciation for, humour is completely absent. It's difficult to laugh at something you have been taught to so viscerally hate.

The total absense of imagination is also not difficult to identify. When I use the word "imagination", I'm not talking about the capacity to invent or accept fictions: the fundamentalist mind is almost infinitely pliable in this regard. Rather I use the word in a more Romantic sense, to denote ones capacity to consider the world from another perspective, or to imagine that it may be different (and crippling and inexorable fatalism also appears to be common to most fundamentalist beliefs). Concepts like hell or some future utopia (in which one's in-group has finally and definitively prevailed) are not the product of an imaginative mind, but rather a desperately constrained mind, incapable of considering, for any length of time, the complexities of human existence. Do good people deserve to go to hell? Can we be happy in heaven if we have loved ones there? How would a society remade to our precise specifications look? How can we possibly imagine that all would be happy and content there? To such questions - which require us to acknowledge the presense of human minds beyond our own, the fundamentalist has no answer. Such questions are best left unasked.

This complete mistrust of the perspectives of others is most clearly manifest in the fundamentalist's treatment of art. No fundamentalism anywhere has ever tolerated art which deviates from - let alone undermines - its narrowly defined dogmas. The Taliban banned dancing, Stalin sent poets to the gulags and American Evangelicals rail endlessly against the depravity of Hollywood and secular music: what's the difference? Such censorship is nothing more than an extension of one's mistrust of the individuality of others into the political arena. If people are fundamentally sick, then an expression of their subjectivity cannot be tolerated. Such creative exuberance is an anthema to the fearful, humourless "piety" of the fundamentalist believer.

The solution? Never trust someone who lacks a sense of humour or a sense of imagination. Chances are they don't trust you either.