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The Road to Fundamentalism

Aug 25, 2008
What is the road, the path that leads to fundamentalism? The traditional answer associates fundamentalism with poverty, low educational attainment, and low socioeconomic status in general. This picture has emerged from research such as that by Coreno (2002. "Fundamentalism as class culture," Sociology of Religion 63 No.3 335-360.). The common picture that emerges from sociological research indicates that fundamentalists share a distinct class culture. In this view one might envision all of the factors that coalesce in this culture and see how that might lead to fundamentalism. Ignorance, poverty, and the accompanying hopelessness lead folks to seek hope somewhere.

That "somewhere" comes along in the fundamentalist subculture and the answers it provides. In the face of a none too friendly world, fundamentalism gives hope of a better tomorrow - a "mansion just over the hill top." Those from a higher social status may not impose it, but in one respect Marx is right, religion is an opiate. It becomes a drug that takes away the pain of doing without all one might want and even some of what one might need.

The idea, well established in social and economic theory, of religion as a drug has many other applications as well. Perhaps the problems one is running away from have little to do with economics or education. Perhaps fundamentalism becomes a way to escape from a basically unhappy life. I well remember the answer of many of the church leaders to my problems when I was in the fundamentalist "fold." I was constantly told to doubt my "doubts and believe my beliefs." In this case, fundamentalism becomes a way of escape from the things folks cannot escape by other methods. It becomes a way to "hide one's head in the sand" and simply ignore or discount a reality that is not desired.

Here, we are talking about mass-delusion, mass psychological control. By way of example, in some churches, adherents are taught to believe that miracles are performed regularly right in their church. Yet, the evidence fails to verify such phenomena (a good example can be found in Travis Reed's Associated Press article, "Florida Revival Draws Thousands: Man Claims to be Faith Healer" Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, July 12, 2008).

In fact, in a 2005 controlled study of heart patients reported in the July 2005 edition of The Lancet, no improvements were found in the mortality rates of cardiac patients receiving intercessory prayer. The study followed standard research protocols. The April 2008 American Heart Journal reported that in some situations, intercessory prayer was even correlated with greater mortality among heart patients. Real, bonafide miracles are hard to find and virtually all that are researched can be explained or debunked. Yet, we can see fundamentalism as a type of self-delusion for the hopeless and mass-delusion for the faithful subculture. In this case, fundamentalism works for those who are desperate and grasping at straws or lacking intellectual integrity.

Burton, in a 1989 article in the Journal of Religious Research, takes the common notion that fundamentalists are less educated than other identifiable religious groupings to task. This body of research found the relationship between education level and fundamentalism weak. This makes a sort of intuitive sense. There are many fundamentalist and evangelical colleges, many of them liberal arts colleges. My fundamentalist friends are certainly, as a whole, not less educated. I don't think we can really attribute the gullibility of fundamentalists to less education. It might be more a case of a qualitatively different education. Fundamentalists and children of fundamentalists attend schools where it is automatically assumed that "all truth is God's truth" and the "the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God." Therefore, they are led to believe that no "true" information can ever contradict the Bible.

In contrast, I teach at a non-fundamentalist, church-related, liberal arts college. One of our main missions, if not the main mission, is to create critical thinkers. With critical thinking, the truth is open to question. To question sacred positions held by many in our society requires courage - especially if one's questioning results in novel answers. In short, critical thinking can be painful and cause distress. From this perspective, fundamentalists are seeking a world that makes sense, and they cannot bear living with ambiguity. Therefore, they opt for unquestioning certainty. It is those people, those who cannot bear to live a life of ambiguity and would rather believe than investigate, who ultimately become attracted to fundamentalism.
About the Author
James C. Alexander, Ph.D. is an education professor at a church related college and a bi-vocational minister who publishes regularly in the areas of education and religion. His latest book is Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalism: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism. His blog site is located at Repentant Fundie.
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