Michael Frost: The stubborn resilience of fundamentalism

I spent a large portion of my life immersed in a form of Christianity with fundamentalist tendencies, by which I mean at least a couple things. Firstly, there was a concrete set of beliefs that one should adhere to with a sense of certainty, and secondly, adherence to these beliefs defined who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’.

While some inconsequential beliefs could be questioned, if you messed with the core ‘fundamentals’ you were on the slippery slide toward eternal punishment, or at the very least to becoming an outsider to your community. Ongoing loyalty was preferable to the fear of disappointing others, of becoming ‘one of those’ who had lost their way, who had ‘compromised’, who had been discovered to no longer be one of us, on our team, in our club.

“If you messed with the core ‘fundamentals’ you were on the slippery slide toward eternal punishment, or at the very least to becoming an outsider to your community.”

As I grew older, the intersection of complex life experiences – that often contradicted the accepted framework – and the incorporation of thoughtful reflection and study provided me with the opportunity to re-evaluate my framework of belief and to look back on my past with a more critical eye. I became acutely aware of the deleterious impact that this fundamentalism had on me at a personal level, on my relationships with others, and how inadequate it was for engaging in the world as it really was.

This is not to say that I abandoned faith or spirituality entirely, but rather that it underwent significant and profound renovation. Fundamentalism became the target of my cynicism, sarcasm and critique; and rightly so in many respects. And, perhaps because of my own personal story, it was this kind of fundamentalism, as well as the more general relationship between Christianity, patriarchy, colonisation and other forms of oppression, that became the primary target of blame for many things that were wrong in the world.

Read Sarah Illingworth: Why I’m not a Christian anymore

It also appeared that for many years the wider trajectory in the West was moving away from religious fundamentalism. The insights of science, anthropology, the sociology of religion, postmodern and postcolonial discourse, as well as the forces of globalisation and diversification, highlighted to us the naïve and problematic features of religious fundamentalist thinking, and we were grateful to be leaving that behind. The rise of secularisation as an antidote to religious fundamentalism went hand-in-hand with the hope for a new tolerance that would open up a harmonious world of diversity and difference.

What seems to have been lacking in this analysis, however, was a sufficiently thorough understanding of human identity and community. And it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that people still have an innate desire to find their in-group and to belong somewhere, to someone(s). More than that, there is the need to identify oneself and one’s community in contrast with others who are not like us. In itself, this is a normal feature of human social identity, but when it is cultivated through stoking unhealthy fears of difference, it can become deeply problematic.

Read Oliver Chan: Nun of the above, a new civic faith for a post-religious world

While in the twenty-first century, religious fundamentalists are often mocked for creating clear in-groups and out-groups, in many cases non-religious people have simply exchanged one set of group identifiers for another in the urge to satisfy the same emotional need. Of course, these identifiers can still be religious and the challenges of religious fundamentalism appear more visible today than ever.

Fierce lines continue to be drawn on the basis of adherence to certain religious beliefs within all of the major religions, and this often results in social unrest and violence. But the challenge is wider than fundamentalist forms of religion. While many religious frameworks can be problematic, the challenge to our modern psyche is to confront our own desire for certainty, and our need for an enemy against whom we can contrast ourselves.

Read A Moroccan ex-Muslim on losing her religion

The emotional potency of this need appears to have been heightened in a globalised world. Although we have become more accustomed to ethnically, culturally and religiously pluralistic communities, for some this has been cause for anxiety rather than necessarily an opportunity for a growing understanding of one’s (global) neighbour. The presence of the ‘other’ has triggered all manner of insecurities and fears; especially, it seems, for the white Western person [man].

In the current climate, political and economic ideologies can be just as concrete and sectarian as religious ideologies (and of course in many ways they shape and feed one another). If you hold to the right set of beliefs on the political, economic and social spectrum you are ‘with us’. You have a group to whom you belong and with whom you can feel safe, and you have a clear enemy against whom you are pitted.

Just as in fundamentalist religion, if you diverge in any way from the purity of your team’s ideology, you can find that your own community will turn on you quickly. You might not be threatened with an eternity in hell, but you can find yourself isolated and alone. Political fundamentalism can be a potent and divisive force, even without the influence of religion.

Similarly, the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment across the West can be understood as a kind of ethnic or cultural fundamentalism. Global migration has disrupted the mono-cultural reality of many white Westerners, and rather than reaching for tolerance and understanding, the immigrant becomes the scapegoat, the enemy, the ultimate ‘other’ who can be blamed for life’s ills.

“The challenge to our modern psyche is to confront our own desire for certainty, and our need for an enemy against whom we can contrast ourselves.”

Fundamentalism is a much bigger problem than religion; it’s about our perceived need for certainty, and for a community with gatekeepers and controlled borders (or a wall). Within a world of increasing complexity, the seeming simplicity of this binary thinking can be an attractive proposition. Whether it be religious, political, economic or cultural – we are reaching and groping for that which makes us feel both ‘right’ and ‘on the inside’.

However, such thinking is deeply problematic and we need to find ways to comprehend that our place in the world does not have to be defined by a concrete and unwavering certainty in our own beliefs, nor does it always have to be defined by drawing battle lines against our opponents. Yet simultaneously, we want to foster passion for those things that do matter, to resist the oppressive forces of fundamentalism in all of its manifestations, and to forge a more just and loving world. Perhaps it is this complex intersection toward which our energies, whether they be religious, political or economic, should be directed.

Michael Frost is a lecturer, researcher and writer in the areas of theology, religion and social change. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Otago.