Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Make a Fundamentalist

Some years ago, I read a study looking into church attendance in America. I was, at the time engaged in regular debates with an Evangelical Christian I knew. We were both A.A.'s. His nickname around the rooms was Preacher Paul ... and mine was Dave the Atheist. (I was in a militant phase of my life-long agnosticism). I think I was hoping for evidence that religion was dying off due to the weakness of its own premise. And the study I read did show a sharp drop-off in attendance in some churches. But it also showed - much to my surprise - increases in other churches. Was it, as I might have expected, the more liberal churches that were gaining members while the more hard-line ones tailed off? Nope. It was exactly the opposite. As science and general secularism made the tenets of traditional religions harder and harder to swallow, people seemed to be gulping them down with more relish than ever.

This was baffling to me at the time. I was in my mid thirties, enjoying my first meaningful period of sobriety in years, and busily filling my mind with a lot of the evolutionary biology and anthropology that inform my world view to this day. But my thinking was engaged mostly in the question of what was real and what wasn't. I was having a ball dismantling the beliefs of my friends, not much interested yet, in how a deeper understanding of human origins might be useful in trying to make a better world. That would come later.

But the little riddle posed by the study I'd read stayed with me, and it wasn't long before I started to look for the 'why' of it. Why would people, surrounded by the increasing licentiousness of an ever more secular society, be hewing toward forms of religion that forbade their enjoyment of it all. Why would these folks - the very demographic for whom the term 'ME generation' was coined - be seeking out religious congregations that said not "do what you feel" but "do as you are told"? Why?

And it has not lessened at all since. Fundamentalism is on the rise the whole world 'round. But so is secularism. At about the same rate. How could this be? In a world increasingly united by satellite television, movies and the Internet, how was it that large numbers of people seemed to be choosing not the future, but the past? How were these people not only resisting all the new permissions society was handing out, but actually finding a counter-message powerful enough to satisfy. Were the TV evangelists really doing that good a job?

Well, it took me a while to understand. But eventually I figured out that it wasn't that messages of old-time religion were holding back the secular tide. It was, in fact, the secular tide itself upon which the new fundamentalism was rising like an ark from an old and unlikely biblical tale. In confusing times, people seek solidity and structure. Sometimes, a mounting deluge of options is not what the doctor ordered.

There is an old cliche in sports movies and books. In it we see a basketball team sitting dejectedly on wooden benches in a locker room. A coach in a rumpled sport coat is pacing. Everyone stares at the floor. Finally the coach stops and gathers his resolve. "Okay", he says, "I'm not going to lie to you. We're getting our butts kicked out there. They're bigger. They're faster. They're just plain better than us. We look like a neighborhood pick-up team playing against the NBA all-stars. Should we give up? Should we just sneak out and head for the bus? No. Why? Because we don't quit. We don't give up. What we do is reach deep inside. We find our hearts. We find our guts. And we fall back on the fundamentals. We're playing their game out there. No wonder they're mopping the floor with us. So I want you all to get up ... stand tall ... and remember everything I've drilled into you a thousand times. They can't beat us unless we beat ourselves. Now get back out there and play your game ... our game! And remember there is no 'I' in Team!"

Every time that I hear about riots breaking out just after Friday Prayers in one or another Muslim country, I think that they must all have had a similar pep-talk that afternoon.

I posted a little graphic the other day. It said this: "Here's how to make a fundamentalist ... Find a traditionalist, and then push him into a corner." What I meant was; if you undermine a person's dearly held beliefs, you are unlikely to cause him to let them go. He is much more likely to dig his heels in and fight to keep them. To fall back on the fundamentals ... and come out swinging.

In this post, I am using the term 'Fundamentalist' to include anybody who has hunkered down with their core beliefs. We are all aware of religious fundamentalists, but I see a sort of fundamentalism everywhere I look these days. And I see a common thread. I see people who hold something dear, and feel that they are faced with a real threat to keeping it. It could be a political credo, or a contested scientific theory. Animal rights groups and environmentalists can get pretty fundamental. Hell, we've all heard about Pete Seeger trying to ax the power when Dylan went electric. Folk-music fundamentalism right there.

The controversy that still swirls around the idea of evolution is just one of many battles between scientific understanding and the adherents to traditions that such new knowledge threatens to obsolete. When Copernicus proved that the earth was not circled by the sun but was itself a mere solar satellite, the issue was not only one of astronomy. That bit of celestial re-jiggering called into question the centrality of the earth, and by inference, our own importance in the eyes of God. And that, for some was a genuine crisis.

The stories of Galileo's house-arrest for heresy and of much harsher treatment for other doubt-casters during the inquisition make my point. It was not coincidence that an extremely harsh and unbending version of Christianity was ascendant at the time of the renaissance. It was to be expected.  The scientists, and the humanists, threatened to bump God from his throne. How could there not be blow-back? Is it a coincidence that the "Five Points" that define American Fundamentalism were adopted at the end of a decade that brought us Freud, Einstein, The Wright Brothers, Liberal Theology and Biblical Criticism? Or that televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson exploded in popularity following the cultural excesses of the sixties and seventies? I don't think so. I think that whenever social, technological and scientific movements seem to promise limitless options while sawing away at the legs of traditional assumptions ... a re-trenching is bound to happen.

Is it really such an anachronism that a man of Rick Santorum's seemingly antiquated beliefs has found such traction in the time of Internet porn, soaring out-of-wedlock birthrates, the 'Saw' movies, and demands for gay marriage? Not in my view. I would be surprised if there was no Santorum on the scene.

For me, every widespread human behavior has its roots in the close-knit tribal units of the hunter-gatherers we once were. To explain how one is driven toward a hard-core version of his beliefs in response to societal pressure, I look to two behavioral quirks of humans. One is common to most animals and one is found only in group-oriented mammals. The Fight or Flight impulse, and In-Group, Out-Group thinking.

Everybody knows that most wild animals will run away from humans or other animals that pose a threat. They see the predator, or smell it, and in an instant muscles are charged with blood and blood with adrenaline and the animal is gone in a flash. Unless it is cornered, of course. At that point the physiological responses that ought to have propelled it out of reach are recruited for another, less optimal purpose: to fight its way clear. In a case like this a mouse will attack a cat, or a cat attack a dog.  This is as basic an animal response as we can imagine. This is Fight-or-Flight.

The other is more subtle, and less well known. Among pack animals like us humans, complex systems develop by which we all can know our places in the order of our survival group. All our bonding skills are based on this. We'll survive better if we can care about others and be cared about in return. That is crucial. And to do that effectively, we must be able to identify our fellows. That part is pretty easy when you see each other every day. But there is another piece to this. In order to respond to threat as a group, all of its members must agree as to which outside forces pose that threat.

This is a little trickier. A threat might be something familiar like common predators, or fire, or thunderstorms. At the first indication that one of these is around, the survival group can quickly gather and defend against it, pooling their strengths. But sometimes a threat can be harder to spot. This is particularly true when it comes in the form of another group of the same species. Maybe the threat is readily apparent; an outright attack by marauders, say. But another type of threat might not be at all apparent at first. Maybe this new group, upon arrival, seems friendly enough, but stays to pick the trees bare of fruit and kill all the small game. Maybe they out-hunt the local guys and carry off the best women. There are many ways to lose your tribe to interlopers.

And so, during the long journey from the jungles of Africa to the condos of the San Fernando Valley, humans took on another wired-in behavior: the tendency to identify not only the group you belong to, but the group or groups to which you do not belong. Us ... and Them. And emotions are assigned to each. Trust, affection, loyalty, love ... these are for the group you're in. Suspicion, fear,  hatred ... these are for those other bastards. That's In-Group, Out-Group. This explains prejudices of all kinds, racial, religious, regional, political etc.

It is, you see, of greater evolutionary value to run from or fight off somebody who might possibly pose a threat, than it is to leave the welcome mat out and the doors unlocked. Ultimately, the root of all behavior is the will to survive, and having done that, to reproduce. We will all die one day, but it is hoped that our people will live on. And the truth is that we don't much care if their people do.

Sure ... we deny this. We are smart enough to have figured out that behaviors that were state-of-the-art for roving bands of proto-humans don't work so well for giant mega-tribes that have to find enough commonality within to form nations, and enough tolerance for the foreign, to have some decent trading partners and military allies. We have built structures to help us do that: The U.N., NATO, The Hague. And even with all of these, we barely contain our largely arbitrary disgust for the ways of other groups. Which is all the proof you need to be convinced that warring among ourselves is as natural to us as living peacefully. After all, why would we need treaty organizations and international courts if we tended naturally to accept one another?

So it is these two basic impulses that give us so much trouble. Fight or Flight, and In-Group, Out-Group. And both are wired deep into our humanness, and are not going away any time soon. They can not be 'taught' out of children by well-meaning educators, or 'shamed' out of adults by the insult-words 'bigot' or 'xenophobe'. They are with us forever, as far as we are concerned, and travel often as a pair.

Additionally, because these are not urges born in our logic centers, they don't incline us toward careful parsing of evidence. We look for shorthand definitions both of the group we identify with, and the ones we fear. So we might be patriotic or open-minded or virtuous or compassionate, while they are sexist or Marxist, or fanatical or degenerate. These labeling words always miss as many as they hit, but we don't ever seem to tire of using them. Because when a threat appears, accuracy takes a powder.

It's easy to see why the traditionalism of Muslims is hardening more and more into fundamentalism and radical strains even of that. They are positively besieged by a modern secular world view that gives the lie to nearly everything they believe in. Their children will not, unless swift action is taken, hold to the same values that they believe are absolutely critical to the longevity of their faith, and way of life. How could they? Our western-secular seduction is everywhere. We have not only pushed them into a corner, but the corner is broken off from the house and surrounded on all sides. What would you do? I think I'd fight back. But do we back off? Give 'em a little time to adjust? Never. Not when there is profit to be had. We won't be running out of terrorists any time soon.

In less violent terms, the same thing is going on among our own religious conservatives. They are, frankly, appalled at what has been done to the Judeo-Christian America that they believe is their providentially designed homeland. They think that a liberal court has legalized the mass murder of a million innocent babies a year. They believe Hollywood is doing everything in its power to shatter the nuclear family, and turn this place into a modern-day Gomorrah. And gay marriage? Lord have mercy. Is it any wonder that they back Santorum? Not to me, it's not.

And how do their opponents on the secular far-left respond? By ridiculing them, and treating their beliefs with as casual a disregard as one might express toward the idea of a flat earth or one that sits at the center of the planetary system. In other words, nothing to calm them, and everything to further inflame them.

This, friends, is how you make a fundamentalist.

And it works in reverse too. When social conservatives do manage to mount a counter-attack, say by making abortion or contraception a bit more difficult to get, the activist-left goes into their own Fight-or-Flight paroxysms, striking back with all the vitriol they can muster toward the 'Women Haters' of the right-wing out-group. Or the 'homophobes' if it's a gay-rights push-back. Or the 'xenophobes' and 'racists' if it's about immigration or affirmative action.

They might shoot me for saying it, but some of my left-wing friends have become positively fundamentalist in their thinking. They hold to their progressive doctrine with a fervor that can only be described as religious. Exemplars of tolerance? Only selectively.

In these starkly polarized times, both sides of this American coin, are largely defined by their extreme edges, (the moderates mostly not threatened enough to either fight or flee). Both sides call each other extremists. And on any given day, when either has felt sufficiently threatened ... both are quite correct. And as they tie more and more of their identities to the struggled-over values and counter-values, they all put more and more investment toward embracing the in-group, and defeating the out-group.

Does this all sound like bad news to you? I hope not. Because it's really very good news. If what I'm saying here is even mostly true - which I assure you it is - then the take-away is that much of what divides us is the result of mismanaging human traits that every last one of us has in common. And if the trouble comes from doing it badly, the solution must exist in doing it well.

The human brain is a system of the body. It produces thought in much the same way that the pancreas produces adrenalin. It will think and believe whatever it perceives as being best for that body. When stressed into fearfulness, the brain will think from fearfulness, and the result is often hostility. But when the stress is allowed to die down, that very same brain becomes, not only less vicious, but downright agreeable. We've all seen this happen. We've all been in arguments that ratchet up and up till everybody is pretty dug-in. And then somebody will concede a point. And suddenly both parties feel terrible about fighting, and can't wait to do something nice for each other. I have, in fact, formed some very good friendships in just that way.

What I am suggesting is that we all try hard to understand the motivations of those we have consigned to the out-group. If we can do that - and imagine ourselves in their proverbial shoes - we might find that we like them a lot more than we think we do. At least enough to respect them. Maybe they will like us better too. How can that be bad?

I truly never thought, twenty years ago when I was going hammer and tongs with Preacher Paul, that I would someday spend much more time advocating for religious people, then I do poking holes in religion. But I do ... as confounding as that may be to some. I may never understand why they believe what they do, but once they know I accept them, their need to either convince me or escape from me evaporates into the air.

Now if I can just stop fighting with the folks who vote the way I do ...

Dave Morrison ... March, 20, 2012

1 comment:

  1. I just knew that there was a book about all of this that I should read. You are writing it! This is an efficient turn of events for me, because I can economize on all that time and brain space I was tying up dealing with all these paradoxes, and let you do that work while you are driving or painting, and while I simply await your next post. No kidding.
    This is good, because unlike you, I am very behind in creating an impressive body of songs, and a reputation for presenting them, and I can throw more brain space that way while you work this Important Second Tribe stuff out for us all. Or at least for me.
    Seriously, I notice that the neglect of this phenomenon or ongoing dynamic is fouling up our world to the extent that we are unaware of it. And others who are more than aware of it are manipulating social perceptions to create the results they desire, but we don't.
    So keep on, install a papal button on this blog so we can send you your due royalty. Ddddd