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Welcome to Captain Cassidy’s Kitchen! Today we are going to make one of the season’s top party dishes: fundamentalists! I know you’re all eager to learn, and trust me, it’s just a simple little recipe that you’ll be reaching for again and again.

As you can guess, educated folks have been thinking for a while about just how religions come about in human societies. One theory goes that religions arose as a way of helping humans survive better together in groups, while the non-religious groups didn’t stick together as well as religious ones did. I’m a lot more attracted to models of adaptation, myself; these models say that humans took those parts of our minds that had already adapted for other purposes and expanded those adaptations outward, ending up in a religion. We’d already evolved to consider agent detection and figure out cause and effect; when we observed things we couldn’t explain, like thunder or stars, we made up reasons using those capacities. And we’re still doing it. Someone recently discovered a so-called “God gene” that seems to predispose people toward believing in religious ideas, though religious and atheist folks alike reject the idea that belief is purely a genetic thing or that humans were pre-packaged to believe in a god or gods.

For example, we had no idea what caused plagues, and no real way of fighting them. When we were children, our parents protected us, so when we grew up, we made up a super-parent who could still protect us. We pleaded with that super-parent to keep sickness away and propitiated him/her with gifts and sacrifices–namely in the form of food that we ourselves needed, but which we went without in the name of the greater good. When (not “if”) plagues came anyway, then we obviously had done something to anger that super-parent, and we needed to placate that super-parent’s wrath. Sometimes we went to absolutely crazy lengths–sacrificing our own children, or waging war on other people–to placate our super-parent.

And somewhere in that history, probably very early indeed, someone figured out that speaking for this super-parent was a great way to get power over others.

I’m sure most of those early priests and priestesses were sincere, as many of them are today. But I’m sure it didn’t take long for the ruling class to figure out how truly useful religion was in controlling their people. They came up with all sorts of reasons why plagues still came no matter what people seemed to do to placate their super-parent, and in time even the people themselves rationalized their concerns away and came up with new rationalizations, chaining their minds to the service of their super-parent.

It is not surprising to me at all that ancient religions didn’t have much in the way of Hell to threaten adherents with. That came about as people got more sophisticated and as competing religious ideas began to threaten dominant ones. Here was a huge, totally disproportional threat that nobody could verify was even a real danger. It played upon our very human fears of the unknown. It worked grandly to manipulate people–since folks couldn’t figure out if it was even a real threat, they certainly didn’t know exactly what would keep them from being stuck there. Christianity famously created this need, then filled it–coincidentally being both the claim for the existence of Hell and the supposed escape from it. And I’m sure that very quickly, the ruling classes figured out just how useful Christianity was as a way of controlling their people. Just as Phil tweaked his “date scene” in Groundhog Day over and over and over again to make it exactly perfect, Christianity tweaked its message constantly until it arrived at a polished version that worked on just about everybody.

But now, two thousand years after the Gospels of the New Testament got penned by their anonymous authors, there are so many competing religious (and non-religious) ideas that we’re seeing a certain segment of Christianity drill down on their dogma to keep the faithful sheep in their fold. We understand a lot more about what goes into a zealot than we did back then when Christianity was getting rolling, and we understand how the universe works a lot better than our primitive forebears ever could.

For example, we know that these are the ingredients that go into a religious zealot:

* Authoritarianism. Blind obedience to authority. Unquestioning loyalty. Commitment to the Dear Leader. Zealots tend to feel most comfortable in an atmosphere demanding loyalty and obedience. Dissenters face a range of penalties ranging from censure and ostracism to physical abuse and death.

* Denialism. Seeing facts and finding ways to escape them one way or the other–ignoring them, denouncing them, rationalizing them away, whatever it takes. Denialism can take the form of conspiracy theorizing, cherry-picking and quote-mining, presenting false experts, and a variety of other tactics.

religion (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

* High need for closure. “Closure” here means “solid and firm answers,” and religious people tend to really dislike uncertainty. It also relates to how close-minded someone is–meaning how open that person is to alternate explanations for something–and a distinct preference for both order and predictability. Closure can be seen in two ways: “urgency,” in which someone needs to get ambiguity resolved as quickly as possible, and “freezing,” in which someone needs to maintain that resolved ambiguity as long as possible.

* Entrenched ignorance. The simple truth is that the vast majority of fundamentalists don’t really read their Bible, much less understand what they read, and most know a shockingly small amount of their own religion’s history. They get most of their information from preachers, videos, and apologetics books that may bear little to no relation to reality. They rail against scientific theories and facts without actually understanding them and force their views on morality on other people even though the results of this strong-arming do not actually accomplish what they say they want. They are quite vocal about saying that if a fact conflicts with their narrow interpretation of the Bible, then that fact must be dismissed or denied. As Dan Fincke wrote recently regarding his time as a Christian, “The Bible was absolutely true, any theologian, biblical scholar, historian, or archaeologist who said otherwise was simply wrong.”

* Fear. My time in fundamentalism was marked by fear–fear of going to Hell, fear that my friends and family were going to Hell, and lots more. When I hear fundamentalists talk now, I hear fear in their words. They are terrified of what will happen if Christianity loses dominance–they’ll say it is because their god will destroy everything in a pissy, petulant rage, but it sure looks a lot like they’re afraid of what life will be like if they lose their unwarranted privilege. They use fear as a tool of controlling their flocks, and also as a proselytizing technique.

* A punitive mindset. Anybody who’s tangled with forced-birthers is well aware that conservatives of all faiths view pregnancy as a penalty for having unapproved consensual sex. But what might surprise outsiders is just how firmly fundamentalists support punishment in all forms. Their acceptance and approval of the idea of Hell–a non-rehabilitative place of pure pain and punishment that cannot be avoided or escaped, a place where dissenters will finally get what is coming to them, all presided over by a vicious, ruthless, punitive god who cares more about justice than mercy–permeates their entire worldview, creating a population of people who condemn outsiders and hit their children.

There’s more, of course, but those are the major ingredients I see in fundamentalism. Know what’s missing from the casserole, though?

* Love. When a military watchdog group tried to stop American taxpayer-funded military chaplains from proselytizing and covering up religious abuse, streams of shockingly hateful, profanity-riddled threats came pouring into the watchdog’s inbox. When an atheist high school student challenged her public school’s religious abuse, she was threatened with rape and death by good, loving Christians. It’s painfully obvious that fundagelicals care more about forcing their views on others than about loving anybody.

* Charity. When Joel Osteen’s church got robbed of $600,000, which was the take from just a couple days of services and not counting other donations made via other methods that didn’t end up in the church safe, it made me wonder why this church isn’t more of a big name in charity. While churches are spazzing out about putting costly stone monuments and huge-ass crosses showboating their religion anywhere they can get away with it, people like me are left wondering how many starving people they could have fed with the money from those monuments. WWJD? Why, put a humongous statue of himself up on a hill for the idolization of the masses!

* Mercy. When uber-Catholic Mel Gibson was asked about his wife’s eternal fate, he was straightforward about the idea of the woman he’d married, the woman he loved, the mother of his children, the person he was sharing his entire life with, going to Hell despite being a far better person than he was in every way. His punitive god has no room for flexibility; rigid belief in the correct doctrines matters far more than being a decent human being.

* Truth. To me, a religion that makes objectively false truth claims is not a good religion. I mean, they all kinda make claims of one kind or another, but when a religion says black is white and up is down and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, that tells me that the religion is making these false beliefs into a marker for membership–especially if the religion’s leaders fight against the truth in all forms. When a miracle gets debunked, a good religion says that it must change to fit the new fact into itself. But a bad one insists that no, no, that disproven miracle really happened despite all the facts pointing to the contrary. I’ve personally seen Christians insist something ridiculous, only to be solidly debunked, and then seen them out the next day making the exact same claim even though the claim was completely disproven the day before. But Christianity cares more about feeling good than about something being true, and if an urban legend brings “people to the kingdom,” then it’s okay to lie. If something should be true, that’s as good as if it really was true. This dishonesty is the signal mark of an invalid and unhealthy religion.

* Humility. Most of fundamentalism can be boiled down to “I’m the most specialest of all special snowflakes so my daddy loves me best.” Calvinists famously think that their god pre-selects those who are going to Heaven and those who are not, but you don’t need to go that far to see Christian arrogance in action. When you hear about “miracles,” often they are at the total expense of others suffering the same fate (what, their god didn’t love the other plane passengers as much? or the other cancer victims as much?). While talking out one side of their mouths about everybody being sinners, fundamentalists very obviously think that their sinning is nowhere near as bad as others’ sinning. They genuinely think that Christians should run the country, decide how everybody should live and conduct themselves even in private, and have a say in other people’s private decisions. The worst of the lot are abject racists and sexists, but even the less-toxic fundamentalists fall prey to thinking they are super-special snowflakes. They think the whole universe got made just so they’d have pretty stars to look at, and that their deceiver of a god created the world with an appearance of age just to make humans more likely to work together in harmony to advance science, because that totally would work better than just telling the truth (true: I have totally personally heard a fundie claim this and get instant applause from other fundies), and that the god who made every law of physics cares deeply and intimately about where they eat lunch after church or the circumstances under which a man touches his winkie. When someone says he or she doesn’t find fundamentalist claims compelling, more often than not, after all other manipulative attempts fail, the fundie will display faux sympathy, claiming to “pity” the dissenter for not being as discerning, smart, open-minded, and gosh-darn awesome as the fundie is. But remember, kids: atheists are the egotistical ones.

If the salt should lose it savor, as Mark 9:50 and the other Gospels ask, what can make it salty again, indeed?

The reason I was thinking about this topic was, of course, that the Cosmos show is getting a lot of attention lately from fundagelical Christians (I usually write it that way because at this point, there isn’t a whole lot of difference, practically speaking, between evangelicals and fundamentalists; be happy I’m not going with “talibangelicals” or something even less friendly). Obviously, more sane and loving Christians are speaking out against the science-denial going on in fundie-land, and I can see the religion continuing to splinter between the two groups. And I think that it’s important to know why fundagelicals think the way they do. If you don’t even know why something is happening, it can be hard to stop it.

It can be really hard to turn a ship though, especially if that ship is sinking. A long time ago, I helped run a very large online game that from the get-go had faulty management architecture. This is the game that had tried to run itself like a Fortune 500 corporation or something. And no matter how much the game’s administrators later tried to change that philosophy, it just seemed impossible. A bad foundation really does make the house shaky. So I’m not sure how well this attempt by loving Christians to rescue the religion is going to work. They’re working against a few zillion hateful, angry, fearful Christians who are in it more for control and dominance than for serving their Savior. I know from experience how hard it is to change an organization’s focus. And this was just a game that’d existed for a few years. Think how much harder it is to change one of the world’s major religions.

Think it’ll work?


It would take a miracle, as Miracle Max said…

We’re going to talk next about God’s Not Dead, the latest bit of schlock coming out from the right-wing Christian newspeak machine. I see Christian enthusiasm around this movie as a symptom of the disease infecting modern Christianity–namely its desire to dehumanize and mischaracterize dissenters in its rush to cling to and grab more control over their people and outsiders alike. The Christians who think this movie is inspirational or even anything but offensive, pandering, fearmongering dreck are actually a big part of the problem. And I’m going to tell you why, next time. Please join me on our continuing journey.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...