The language of ideological fundamentalism is all but invariably the language of militarism. Not just the language of conflict, extinction, or violence – but the language of organized action, the need for strong group identity and response, and coordination of action, thought, and ideological propagation. The language of combat is applied so frequently to ideological struggles that it becomes a cliche; worse, it becomes the only natural way to discuss these concerns.
Fundamentalism is an ideological stance characterized by several features. In no particular order you’ll see:
- Golden Age conceptions (including the narrative of a fall from grace or a decline of circumstance continuing to the present day); this sometimes manifests in Highest Ideal thinking – that if we just work hard enough and find enough right-minded people we can finally achieve this elevated state
- The assertion of the need for a strong core of believers to resist the on-going decline and/or to finally achieve the Highest Ideal
- The highly articular desire for subscribers (and a sometimes less-articulate corollary of the need to identify and cast out those who do not subscribe to the gold ideological standard set by the philosophizing mouthpieces of the group)
- Proclamations of disaster should the goals of resistance, ideological promulgation, and identification of dissent not be met
Sometimes – but not always – you’ll find fundamentalists referring to a certain structured set of ideas, often contained in a particular book. This sometimes leads to the assumption that fundamentalism is more or less a religious phenomenon; after all, religions are based on books, right? Well, no. Some religions have books. Some religions even have lots of books. Some religions have no books. Some religions have books bur adherents disagree on how much authority the information contained in the books actually hold.
One good example of non-religious fundamentalism is evidenced by people who espouse a particular sort of racism. The narrative goes that once upon a time all the “races” lived separately in different places doing different things and achieving whatever heights their inherent abilities allowed them to. Certain unnaturally-minded people caused a blurring of the boundaries that kept these different groups apart (perhaps because a member of a lesser group saw the riches of a greater group and desired those). Races mingled and became degenerate as a result. As a result, no one is able to reach their highest potential since they are distracted by cultural pressures to be “politically correct” and to “value human diversity” instead of becoming awakened to the beauty of an unsullied singular type. This is a beauty to take pride in and to celebrate and promote; if these efforts are not made, all this mingling and blurring will continue and eventually various types will cease to exist at all.
Sometimes this narrative has religious features, sometimes it has scientific ones (“scientific”) but neither gloss is required to create a narrative that makes logical sense to someone who has already subscribed to the basic tenant of ideological fundamentalism: that things as they are now are not things as they should be. Plus this narrative has the sort of direct cause and effect we humans prefer in our storytelling, it’s got a clear conflict, a call to action, and outcomes that are at once vague and easy to imagine. Perhaps most importantly, this narrative – and the narrative of fundamentalism in general – *includes the listener as the hero of the story by placing them squarely in the climatic narrative present*. You’ll notice that the conflict/call to action/outcome chain of events outlined above leaves out a climax. That’s because the present is the climax. The present is the climax of this narrative, the moment when the outcome is decided, and the story needs you – yes, YOU – to help bring about the best possible outcome.
Fundamentalism works because its speaks to us on a very personal, very sensual level. We are needed. We personally, individually are needed to protect something grand and beautiful. We can help. We can make a difference. We can participate in knowledge that others don’t have or have refused to listen to. This is a grand, heroic, enticing, and very sweet drama to participate in. All we have to do is carry this story to others and help them discover their own heroic potential. All we have to do is use this story as the backdrop to our decisions and priorities. Then things in our life will start to make sense and the bad, illogical, painful, chaotic, and disappointing things will have a context instead of being random or simply unfortunate circumstances. Fundamentalism promises adherents that they may not have created the shitty situations in which they find themselves but they are powerful enough to smash circumstances entirely and remake the world in a more perfect form.
This is all powerful stuff. It’s powerful, attractive, and it possess innate self-replication. Once you know what fundamentalism looks like you’ll start to see the many ways it’s employed. You’ll see its tendrils in political arenas, business and corporate settings, religious communities, educational centers, and pretty much anywhere people gather with a few shared ideas in common.
Fundamentalism is common because it’s simple, direct, easy to learn, easy to teach, and because it provides pretty much every answer to pretty much every question you might ever think to ask.
Of course, some forms of fundamentalism are relatively benign. Yes, it can create a really shitty corporate culture and it can make a group of eco-minded folks look really scary from the outside but in many cases the dangers are limited to the group itself; the members will suffer but people outside the group probably won’t. Best case scenario the group dissolves into back-stabbing and infighting as one member after another is determined to lack the missionary zeal required by the charismatic center. As more and more people fail to live up to the Highest Ideal of that particular fundamentalist narrative, the group will shrink as members are cast out.
Fundamentalism becomes a problem for the greater community when the language of violence, aggression, and specifically of militarism and combat are employed (thus bringing us back to the start of this post). When phrases like “holy struggle” or “sacred warfare” or “the war of the gods” are used you’re going to find people who pose real dangers to others and to the greater world we are all part of. Sure, some are keyboard jockies but others are not. Some are literally, personally, and violently committed to the story they’ve decided they are part of.
People sometimes laugh when I tell them that there are people in this world, in this country, that literally – literally – believe that I am ending the world. Then they see that I’m serious and get a little nervous. It’s a strange position to be in, believe me.
Saying that we must fight to preserve our religious heritage, our religious way of life, our spiritual beliefs and practices and communities from people who would wipe it out is perhaps understandable. After all, we have seen holy places destroyed and their protectors killed – it’s only natural to talk about our response to these incidents with the language of warfare and coordinated attack – right?
No, it isn’t. We have other options. We have other metaphoric allusions at our disposal.
Could we perhaps talk about the preservation and promotion of polytheism in terms of ecology? Could we talk about the value of a diverse cultural ecology, the resilience of a cultural habitat that contains many different actors and forces? Could we talk about food nets of resources and ideas? Could we talk about problems of monoculture and the greater strength of diverse populations?
Can ecology give us a vocabulary that affirms the distinction of each actor? Can we see that each actor is of a discrete type – though hybrids occur! – and possesses distinct needs that the environment must fulfill? Can the inherent dignity and value of each actor be affirmed *while at the same time* providing additional nurturance to those populations that suffer from imbalanced forces?
Nature contains conflict; nature contains violence. Nature does not contain militarism; that’s a somewhat different thing. (Though one could say that militarism arises from humanity and humanity is part of nature, I’d suggest that militarism is simply one option among many that arise from humanity and that our nature affords us the luxury of developing nuanced responses.) None of this is to say that we need a kinder, gentler way of talking about the needs of our religious communities. Conflict is inevitable; conflict is a part of our environment and is one of the actions manifested by the actors present in this environment. Sometimes our needs will clash. Rather, I’m trying to reach for a vocabulary, a dictionary of metaphor if you will, that does not rely on the vocabulary of militarism – a vocabulary that is characteristic of fundamentalism.
Changing the way we talk about the health of our communities, our past, our present, and our future changes our attitudes about all of the same. Changing our vocabulary also allows us to more clearly identify the fundamentalist promoters in our midst. We will then be individually and collectively more able to make choices about our responses to these narratives.