Shuck and Jive

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Psychology of Fundamentalism

Not a week goes by that I don't have a discussion with someone (either on the internet or at church) about fundamentalism. We scratch our heads and wonder: what drives these people? Why are they so strange? Why do they care so much about things that have nothing to do with them such as gays being married? Why are they against evolution? Why do they think that being 'born again' or becoming a Christian is such a big deal? Why are they so pushy with their beliefs? What is this weird thing about the Rapture?

You and I aren't the first to puzzle over our fundamentalist neighbors. Walter Davis wrote an insightful article a few years ago, The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism. He writes:

My effort will be to describe the inner structure of the psyche implied by fundamentalist beliefs by examining those beliefs in terms of the psychological needs they fulfill.
He examines four central beliefs of fundamentalists as to what they do for people psychologically. The four beliefs are:
  1. Inerrancy or biblical literalism, the belief that every word of the Bible is to be taken literally as the word of God;
  2. conversion or the experience of being reborn in Christ;
  3. evangelicalism or the duty of the saved to spread the gospel; and
  4. Apocalypticism or Endism, the belief that The Book of Revelations describes the events that must come to pass for God's plan to be fulfilled.
I do wish that critics and true believers alike would learn that the text is not called "The Book of Revelations." It is the Revelation (singular!) to John. On with our story.

This guy pulls no punches. There is a temptation for the religious moderate or liberal to dismiss what he writes because he casts the net wide.

Religion remains of course the one thing we are enjoined to treat with kid gloves as if this is the one area of life where criticism and a rhetoric that tries to energize the force of criticism is verboten. Violating this rule is also the quickest way to lose what current statistics indicate will be the 93% of one's audience who say they believe in God. It is thus important that I indicate up front that this is not a contract I can honor. Like Freud, I think it can be demonstrated that religion is a collective neurosis. In fact one implication of the following examination is that Freud didn't go far enough. But let me reformulate this hypothesis in a more convivial spirit. Let's bracket the whole question of whether religion has an object. On second thought, let me concede it, the utter ontological truth of all the basic beliefs, ever each one. Only then perhaps can we focus on the question that constitutes the inherent and lasting fascination of religion. Not what people believe, but why. The consideration of religion as a psychological phenomenon-and as such perhaps the one that offers the deepest insight into the nature of the psyche and its needs.
In short:
What after all is religion but a desire displacing itself into dogmas all the better to assure the flock that what they desire is writ into the nature of things?
Even as I question the reduction of religion to neuroses in toto, I have to admit, it explains a lot of it. If I were to be totally honest and even aware, neuroses account for some of my own motivation for religious practice.

Here is a quick summary of the psychology of the four beliefs, using his words:

Literalism is a cardinal necessity of the fundamentalist because it guarantees the primary psychological need. For a certitude that in its simplicity puts an end to all doubt, even to the possibility of doubt. That is what one must have and once attained what nothing can be permitted to alter.
Splitting. Which as Freud and Klein show is the most primitive mechanism of defense employed by a psyche terrified of its inner world. The conversion story raises that mechanism to the status of a theological pathos....Here, then, is the real truth of conversion. Fear and hatred of the psyche and a desperate desire to be rid of it. The psyche is that which one must find a way to escape and then to deny.
Evangelicism offers the fundamentalist the only way to sustain the reborn self: by trying to recreate the experience of one's conversion in others in order to reenact an unending exorcism. In the other one locates the split off self one once was now placed totally outside oneself.
For the only way both to satisfy and to purge one's hatred is to express it on a massive world-shattering scale. The death one seeks projected into the death one delivers. The self is thereby done with life and freed for transport of the saved split off self to a realm of bliss freed from all cares. A psyche wedded to thanatos has found in thanatos the final solution. One's resentment against life has been turned into a righteous and of necessity cosmic attack upon it....Apocalypticism expresses both the final evacuation needed to prevent a return of the projections and the jouissance required to fulfill the demand of thanatos for that complete unbinding that can only come by putting an end to everything. The hatred in which the psyche is grounded requires no less: it is total in its control over the inner world and thus demands a matching totalization.
In short:
  1. Inerrancy as the need to reduce all complexities to the literal in order to confine the mind to its simplest operations;
  2. Conversion or the use of the primitive psychological defense known as splitting to establish an absolute separation of the saved psyche from the damned;
  3. Evangelicalism or manic activity as the way to sustain and project that split;
  4. Apocalypticism or thanatos incarnate as the desire for an event that will satisfy the hatred and the death-drive that has come to define the fundamentalist psyche.
Finally, sex.
Fundamentalists live in a world obsessed with sexuality. It provides the primary texts of Biblical citation. It's the concrete referent of the fulminations against secularism, secular humanism, post-modernism, ethical relativism, feminism, deconstructionism, etc. It's also what the vaunted claim of "moral values" is all about. Morality is not about a life of charity, or the pursuit of justice, or the opening of oneself to the depth of human suffering. It's about avoiding certain sexual sins and fixating on that dimension of life to the virtual exclusion of everything else.....Fundamentalism fixates on sex not by accident or divine decree but by the exigencies of immediate experience. Eros is that force which binds us to life as that blessing which can be lived and loved as an end in itself.

....Because it poses a comprehensive threat to the fundamentalist project eros must be poisoned at early as possible. Ironically there is, however, only one way this project can succeed. Through love.

....To put it in more concrete terms, from an early age one must be indoctrinated by those one trusts and loves in the primary lesson: that obedience is the price one must pay to retain love. And so deep must become one's need for this love that one becomes willing to make any sacrifice it requires.

....All natural functions are turned into matters of intense preoccupation. All innocent curiosities nipped in the bud. Spontaneity itself becomes a source of inhibition. The reign of the literal is born. That which most intimately attaches us to life becomes the thing upon which a ceaseless attack is waged. All natural instincts must become evidence that the only way to experience the body is as a site of sinful desires. Embodiment itself must become something one hates and fears, a condition in which something evil and disgusting is always at work. Everything that desire opens up in the subject must be turned back against itself. Sin, shame, and guilt must come to define the relationship that the subject lives to itself. The goal of fundamentalist child-rearing is to create a subject preoccupied with waging war on itself, with battling against its own desires under the gaze of a judgmental, punitive super-ego.
This is a fascinating and informative article. Hat tip to Why Won't God Heal Amputees.


  1. Do we need to mention that Fundamentalists hate psychologists too? They are the hardest patients to treat.

  2. Psychologists mess with the first belief.

  3. Excellent article. I haven’t read Counter Punch for a long time. Two comments:

    While I enjoyed the descriptions of fundamentalism (confirming my own loathing of this movement), this was also a critique of religion in general, in this case Christianity. The final paragraph raises the question of fundamentalism as the “proper and final form” of Judeo-Christianity (see below).

    Regarding the section on sex, I’m not so sure that liberals are any better than conservatives. In the current debate in the PCUSA, many supporting gays and lesbians speak of those in committed relationship as eligible for ordination, as are married heterosexuals. There is prudishness in this. As GLBT folks, we can be just like you! I don’t believe sex between unmarried persons, gay or straight, is necessarily sin and I’m sure most Christians in their hearts don’t think so either. It’s hypocritical.

    John McNeese

    “Fundamentalism is on the rise today and takes many forms because it speaks to something that has long been active in Christianity, something that the old Church exemplified and that we may find impossible to expunge from Judeo-Christianity in general because the truth of the matter is the existence of a contiuum that finds fundamentalism in the position of the Hegelian Notion, the telos and immanent logos that develops through the course of Judeo-Christianity until it achieves in fundamentalism its proper and final form.”

  4. Good point, John. It is just frankly weird that we have these bizarre rules about sexuality.

  5. Rev Shuck:

    Are you officially coming out in favor of polyamory?

    Can we expect blessings of polyamory in your church?

  6. Can we expect blessings of polyamory in your church?

    Right after we sing, "Why Don't We Do It in the Pew?"

  7. "polyamory?"

    I learn a new word every day...

    John McNeese's reminder was on my mind as read the original article and it is the reason I do not just passively disagree with Christian Fundamentalism.

    I think the polemic Jesus had with the Pharisees was all about defenestrating Fundamentalism.

    What He said about the Pharisees of then is completely true about the Fundamentalists of today. They even say the same prayers (see for example the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector)

    It is ironic that refusing to believe in the religion of the Fundamentalists, people still believe the Fundamentalist interpretation of Christ, so that in order to reject Fundamentalism people feel they must reject Christ.

    So in a very true sense, Fundamentalism is anti-Christ.

  8. Food for thought - though this also reminds me what I don't like about Freudianism in general: the 'hermeneutic of suspicion' central to Freudianism makes compelling analysis of groups the Freudian isn't already part of almost impossible. You tend to get these outsider analyses that sort of fit but seem really odd...until you realize that Freudianism is a religion :)

    I say this expecting flames from any Fruedians reading this comment thread...

    Honestly, though, I think this treatment of Fundamentalism is a combination of interesting/useful and over-generealizing/over-simplification. Freudians tend to turn what is outside their worldview into psychosis to make it fit into the worldview - this is not so different from a religion turning things outside its worldview into heresy so that it fits.

    In both cases, I think you learn some things, while at the same time other things of value are occluded or ignored.

  9. I think this treatment of Fundamentalism is a combination of interesting/useful and over-generealizing/over-simplification

    I would say that is a fair statement, Doug, and well put.

    This is one of the reasons I like reading the "new atheists" and checking out what they have to say. They to me are also interesting/useful in their critique of religion, and yet they too can over-generalize and simplify.

    But then again, I am guilty of the same.