Fundamentalism in any form usually spells trouble

Q: A few weeks ago you included the parenthetical, "Remind me to write a column sometime about the surprisingly long list of things held in common by fundamentalist religionists and fundamentalist atheists." OK, so I’m reminding you. — E.C., Henderson

A: "Surprisingly long list" was grouchy hyperbole. I meant to say that when I’m in the company of fundamentalism — atheistic or religious — I have the same experience. Feel like I’m talking to the same person.

But then I feel the same way about fundamentalist politics, liberal or conservative. La Leche League Fundamentalists. (Ever try to feed a baby sitting next to one of those people?) The "leave the forest alone" environmental fundamentalists, who I blame for much of Arizona burning down a few years ago.

Fundamentalism is my concern. Not atheism. Not theism.

When I’m with fundamentalist religionists, I quickly begin to have the experience that, for them, something is wrong with me unless I’m like them. For example, as the general election creeps closer, I’ve already heard in no uncertain terms that if I vote for Clinton, it will mean I’m more or less godless. Seduced by Satan. If I vote for Huckabee, it will mean I really love Jesus.

Because Jesus would vote for Huckabee. If he could. I mean, technically, non-U.S. citizens born and living in Roman-occupied Judea aren’t allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections.

When I’m with fundamentalist atheists, I quickly begin to have the experience that, for them, something is wrong with me unless I’m like them. For example, I was invited to speak recently at a gathering of atheists. My topic was comparing and contrasting healthy and unhealthy religion. Not a few minutes in, I found myself spinning in an eddy of atheistic proselytizing, such as, "Do you believe in invisible pink elephants, too?"

I was being converted. I’ve been on the receiving end of proselytizers before, of various ilk, and I recognize the experience when it’s happening. They lead you through a series of scripted rhetorical questions designed to make you say: "Oh my God! I want to be one of you!" Or, in the case of atheism, "Oh my No-God!"

Then you’re like them. And all is right with their world. And that’s the goal. Not a rich dialectic. Not an edifying debate. Just a fierce intolerance of diversity, let alone mystery. A panic in the face of all things gray, abated only by uniform consent to black and white.

And that’s my point. Fundamentalism is not a questing for truth, nor a noble defending of truth; it is an ego-defense. It lives and breathes as a stand-in for actual ego development. It is the thing we do in lieu of confrontation of self. It is the facade of selfhood we plaster across a badly frightened, uncertain, undeveloped self.

It should concern you if you are quickly and chronically made anxious — or even hostile — by folks who remain unconvinced and uninterested in your religion. Or nonreligion.

The need to convert people is a cheap stand-in for the deeper miracle of relating to people — building relationships out of which real growth and enlightenment might emerge.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m no relativist. Fundamentalism is not the same as conviction wrought from the marriage of abiding values and the willingness to think critically. It’s not true that all ideas have equal value. Only valuable ideas have value.

The danger of fundamentalist anything is that it grounds our identity in negation, e.g., I’m not a Democrat, not gay, not a woman, not black, not going to hell, not poor, not stupid enough to believe in God, etc.

Whew! I’m not you, therefore I am.

Identity grounded in negation must, by its nature, presuppose antagonism. I’m saying fundamentalism contains an inherent violence. No big surprise when fundamentalists create Web sites that say Or join the KKK. Or behead journalists. Or assassinate servants of peace. No surprise when they smile that smirky, condescending smile — the smile that lets you know they are ever so grateful not to be you — and say "Let’s agree to disagree" (atheist), or, "I’ll pray for you" (religionist).

Same guy. Same communication. Same intent. Different dress.

Atheists like to call themselves "free thinkers." And some of them walk their talk, and strive to think freely. Religious people like to think of themselves as "deep believers." And some of them walk their talk, and allow those deep beliefs to transform them into humble, compassionate servant-friends of humanity.

Fundamentalism is an entirely separate issue. And one that troubles me greatly.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to


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