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The Rise of Fundamentalist Belief

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The Rise of Fundamentalist Belief

A couple of months ago, while the protests were raging here in Brazil, I spoke to a local friend about the demands of the protesters. Aside from corruption, lack of infrastructure and poor education, it surprised me to hear that one of the chief complaints of thousands of the protesters had to do with homosexuality.

He said that a large strain of Christian fundamentalism has arisen in Brazil in recent years and the federal government planned to officially label homosexuality a psychiatric disorder and provide funding for corrective “treatments,” — i.e., the infamous “gay camps” where they send LGBT kids to force them to become straight (Spoiler alert: the LGBT kids end up hanging themselves.)

I was surprised not only by the fact that the progressive social issue brought out young, educated Brazilians in droves, but the fact that the rural and religious political contingents of the country are becoming more conservative despite the country’s rapid economic development.

I was similarly surprised in 2010, when in Australia, a friend there told me of the rise of the Christian right pressuring their government to teach intelligent design in science classes and to enforce stricter so-called “family values” laws across the country. I laughed and told her that only loony stuff like that happens in the United States. She wasn’t laughing.

All of this, of course, sounded eerily similar to the political polarization that’s been happening in the US the past 20 years, where the evangelical Christian right has pushed to get abortion clinics closed in many states, to limit women’s access to contraceptives, to teach “abstinence only” sex education, to bring prayer to public schools, and generally obstructed the federal government the past three years by refusing to vote on anything other than repealing Obama’s health care plan.

But in the usual myopia of me being American, I failed to realize that strains of religious fundamentalism have been growing more influential across the world.

In India, an ideology of hindutva — or Hindu nationalism/fundamentalism — has been growing since the late 1980’s, leading to more religious-related violence, including the riots in Gujarat which left over 1,000 people dead and a recent attack on a Christian church on Christmas. In Mali, fundamentalists recently destroyed the ancient desert city of Timbuktu, much as the Taliban did to the giant Buddhas of Bimayan in Afghanistan 10 years ago. The recent mass protests in Istanbul — where over a million Turks marched — were about more than a park, but rather rallied against Prime Minister Erdogan’s years of corruption and forcing Islamic policies on the country at a federal level.

In Israel, where a clear majority want to end settlements in the West Bank, their religious right continues to push through their expansionist policies against a liberal and moderate majority. And meanwhile, Egypt teeters on the brink of civil war after the president-elect, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, managed to get kicked out of office only year after being elected.

There’s a demographic paradox going on in the world. While overall religiosity is decreasing and atheism and agnosticism are increasing, religious fundamentalism has also been increasing and become more politically influential than ever before.

In the centuries after the enlightenment, world politics was defined by the struggle between European imperialists and the world they sought to conquer. In the 20th century, the geopolitical fault lines shifted, the worldwide struggle became between the capitalist and communist ideologies.

Now, in the post-Cold War era, the defining conflict of our lifetime will be between those who embrace the accelerating change of the world, and those who reject it and try to stop it. They are the modernists and the fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists ideologies are nothing new. What’s new is that they’re immoveable like never before. Communism eventually evolved to survive, opening up its markets. Fascism came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But today’s fundamentalism holds onto its beliefs with a pure faith that is unshakeable.

Pope Francis is introducing radical new ideas to Christianity: tolerance and acceptance.
Pope Francis is introducing radical new ideas to Christianity, ideas such as tolerance and acceptance.
The divide is not limited to religion either, nor is it limited to right or left. Right-wing libertarians find themselves strange bedfellows with left-wing conspiracy nut jobs. In gender arguments, biological determinists find themselves oddly aligned with Christian fundamentalists. Cultural relativists find themselves defending fascist policies abroad and criticizing liberal policies at home. Even the Pope seems to be down with gay people and atheists these days.

It’s a brave new world.

By the late 1980’s, the schisms that defined the planet and its conflicts for centuries had resolved themselves. The vestiges of European imperialism fell part. Communism imploded. We were all busy listening to Milli Vanilli, but the new world order was rocking out to a different tune — an acceleration of technological innovation and communication never before witnessed in human history.

The iron curtain fell, the developing world pulled itself out of poverty, and as the world integrated itself into one gigantic high-tech supermarket, almost every economic indicator shot up like Bob Dole in a Viagra commercial. Some believed we had seen the last of global-scale conflict. The standard of living would rise everywhere. Technology was connecting disparate cultures in unprecedented ways. The capitalist-democratic vision was inevitably springing up like weeds on a dirty lawn. Some went as far as to claim it was “the end of history” as we knew it.

And for the most part, it was true. The quality of life shot up in every region in the world. Tens of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. Democratic systems took hold in places never imagined before. Almost every metric improved on a worldwide scale — literacy rates, women’s rights, communication technologies, infant mortality, violent crime rates — everything was on the up and up.

Yet not only are more people drifting to fundamentalist belief systems, but these people, for the first time in history, are becoming politically radicalized — sabotaging and obstructing governments, trashing historical monuments and precedents alike. If the quality of life on the planet is so much better, why are so many more people violently clinging to ancient religions and attempting to force their moral codes on the rest of us?

Why is this happening?

I know what you’re thinking right about now. You thought this was a feel-good blog about loving yourself and all that rosy-cheeked hippy crap. And here I am writing about fundamentalist ideologies and geopolitics (a.k.a.: yawn city.)

Well, I’m actually less interested in the politics here and more interested in the psychological explanations behind the cultural backlash against modernity going on.

Why, despite all of the improvements in education, standard of living, economic mobility, poverty, are there MORE politically-motivated fundamentalists in the world, and not fewer?

The short answer is technology. Yes, Facebook really did ruin everything. The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.

Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that it would be just as difficult to not believe in God in 1500 as it is to believe in God in the year 2000. Obviously, most of humanity believes in God today, but it’s certainly become a much more complicated endeavor. With the emergence of modern science, evolution, liberal democracy, and worldwide 24-hour news coverage of corruption, atrocities, war and religious hypocrisy, today a person of faith has their beliefs challenged more in a week than a person a few generations ago would have in half a lifetime.

Developmental psychology teaches us that as we grow up, we take on more and more complex identities. Our identity consists of the beliefs, values and activities in which we invest in and care about. They define who we are and we latch onto them and defend them. If you’re a stockbroker and good at math, that is part of your identity. You try to live up to it and defend it. If you believe in conspiracy theories and are vegan, those are aspects of your identity. You try to live up to it and defend it.

One of the functions of our emotions is to help us protect our identities. When our identities are validated or threatened, our brains respond with corresponding positive or negative emotions, which then inspires our bodies to take appropriate actions. If part of your identity is that you’re smart and capable, but someone makes you look stupid, you will become annoyed and/or embarrassed and therefore become inspired to either cover up the error, or make sure it does not happen again. If your identity is that you are an excellent painter, but nobody buys your art, you will become sad and dejected and likely lose some motivation to continue painting.

Christians protesting gay marriage in France.
Christians protesting gay marriage in France.

These emotions are designed to spur new behaviors that will either bolster our current identity or help us find another one. It’s in these ways that negative emotions are often healthy and natural psychological processes, and shouldn’t be avoided or denied.

It doesn’t matter if your identity is that you’re a good mom, the smartest guy in your office, or devoted to Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior — when you feel your identity is threatened, you respond in one of three ways:

  1. You ignore or deflect the threat, usually through the use of defense mechanisms or perceptual biases. Example: “He’s just jealous; he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m fine.”
  2. You question your perspective and re-orient your identity to include this new data and feedback. Example: “Whoa, crap, maybe she’s right. Maybe I really am being a jackass.”
  3. Or you double down on your identity and push back against those who you perceive to be attacking you. Example: “Who does he think he is? I’ll kick his ass.”

We all do this. In every instance in which we feel our identities challenged or threatened, we respond in one of these three ways. Again, it doesn’t matter how superficial or profound the aspect of our identity, if we feel we are being attacked, we either deflect, integrate, or fight back.

In many cases, when the aspect of our identity being attacked is something superficial, like we’re good at playing rugby, or we know more about biology than our friends, it’s pretty easy to accept these attacks, integrate them and move on.

Other times, something more central to our identity is attacked and we get quite emotional. Perhaps someone says something offensive about our spouse or we get fired from our job. Something we had always believed to be true is called into question and we predictably react with a large amount of anger and/or sadness.

But all of these examples of identities/beliefs are malleable and falsifiable. They are adaptable. Fundamentalist beliefs are not.

Embedded within fundamentalist beliefs themselves is the idea that they are infallible and unfalsifiable. This is what makes them fundamentalist to begin with: This is simply how things are: the Bible is correct and that’s that; women should be sexually chaste and that’s that; non-believers are immoral and should be killed and that’s that. And this isn’t just limited to religions. Secular movements have their fundamentalist sects as well. Stalinism, nazism, eugenics, radical environmentalism and radical feminism — these are all just as inflexible and intolerant in their most extreme forms as any religion.

When one accepts a belief on pure faith, then any adaptability or deflection goes out the window. Instead of having three ways to react to an attack, a fundamentalist is left with only one: to double down and push back.

Pakistani Muslims calling for the death of a Christian woman for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.
Pakistani Muslims calling for the death of a Christian woman for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

But the million dollar question still remains: If society is becoming safer, wealthier, more educated, and more connected than ever before, why are more and more people drawn to radical fundamentalist beliefs?

The Lure of Fundamentalist Beliefs

To be a fundamentalist in the 21st century is to be someone who likely feels like their identity is being challenged on a regular basis. On a literal level, almost nothing in the Bible or Qu’ran or Torah makes logical sense in today’s world and one must constantly indulge in metaphors and allegories to find any reasonable meaning in them. All traditional social orders have evolved and changed, and science has shown the adaptability of almost every facet of life based on the environment.

On top of that, populations are more diverse and connected than ever before. 100 years ago, if you were an Evangelical Christian living in the middle of Texas, it was not too difficult to limit your exposure to any opposing ideas or ways of life. But today — with the internet, digital TV, social media — you are constantly bombarded not only with contradictory ideas, but people whose very existence clashes with the way you understand your life. It’s impossible to ignore.

This leaves each person with two options: become permanently adaptable and open to new ways of life, or permanently double down and push back.

Fundamentalist beliefs have typically taken greater hold in rural areas and among folks who are less educated. And while the planet has seen an overall increase in wealth and education, that growth has been unequal and spotty. Rural communities are being decimated in most developed countries, and income inequality is becoming a bigger social problem in pretty much every country I’ve ever heard of: from the US to Brazil to Sweden to Russia to China and India.

See, not only is technology infiltrating everyone’s daily lives with conflicting and confrontational messages, but it’s also creating greater wealth for fewer people by leveraging automation and globalization. In short, it takes fewer people to screw in a lightbulb today than ever before. Technology is making it so that more can be accomplished with fewer people, thus delivering greater value and wealth to a smaller and smaller percentage of people who are able to take advantage of it.

The point is that these advances aren’t necessarily benefiting everyone uniformly. Even though we’re all winning, some are winning a lot more than others, and that’s not a pleasant reality to accept.

As humans, we have an abundant need for certainty and for meaning, two things that are harder and harder to find in the sea of sensationalized information we swim through each day. In such a world, it is psychologically enticing to latch onto something which is unquestionable. It brings needed comfort and security in an evermore uncomfortable and insecure world. It gives a person clear purpose and clear meaning. And it divides the world into a simple and digestible dualism: those who believe in what’s “right” and those who do not.

The Way Forward

There are some radical social changes that are likely to happen within our lifetime. Some believe that technology will reach the point where food and health care will be cheaply provided to most of the planet. We do know that everyone will continue to become connected at greater and greater levels, for better or worse. Gender roles are quickly becoming antiquated and dissolving. Global war and violence are at all-time lows. Races are inter-mixing and within a few generations, some scientists say the idea of separate races will become a historical oddity (Spoiler alert: We’ll all look Brazilian.)

But these advances are happening unevenly, leaving many stranded, jobless, and without clear direction or their own sense of community.

In the 2008 presidential race, president Obama got in trouble for claiming that small-town Americans were “clinging to their guns, religion and xenophobia,” because everything else in their lives had either changed or been taken away over the last few decades. This statement was treated as a “gaff,” and offensive. He quickly apologized.

But he was right. The demographic data shows him to be. And it’s not limited to the US. The technological and economic integration of the planet is inevitable but it is also uneven. There are some who feel they are sacrificing their privacy, their community, and the security of their beliefs, and receiving little to nothing in return. From a psychological perspective, it’s understandable why these people choose to adopt imperturbable beliefs: it’s the only asset they feel they have.

The question is, how large will these reactionary forces grow? And will they eventually dig in enough to do irrevocable damage to a number of governmental systems? We’re already seeing obstruction and sabotage happening in the US. In other places, we see ungodly levels of corruption and often violent clashes between political factions. Israel’s prime minister calls for the invasion of Iran. The Taliban is growing within Pakistan, who has nukes pointed at India. A global clusterfuck could be imminent: the educated, internet-elite versus the rural, fundamentalist zealots.

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