This is an article all about fundamentalism. Most people think of religious fundamentalism when they hear the term. I was in fact raised in a fairly fundamentalist Christian community called the Christadelphians. They still describe their own very specific beliefs as ‘the Truth’ (note the upper case T). Being a Christadelphian was really easy in a lot of respects. You never had to question your beliefs – due to them being ‘the Truth’. It was all worked out decades before I was born and apparently was still ‘True’! It was a close community. There was a lot to be said for it I suppose although I think you can probably imagine why I left at fifteen never to return! The problem I found was that narrow view. What happens to people from other churches or faiths when they died was a frequent question I would ask as a child. Add to that ‘How do we know we are right?’ And my younger self was onto something! However fifteen year old me left the Christadelphians in order to join a different sort of fundamentalism – that of revolutionary Trotskyists. I joined this group because I did not have any self-esteem and had almost no friends and was desperate to belong somewhere – I didn’t really mind where. In barely no time my socialist ‘family’ was where I belonged. I just had to agree with everything in the weekly socialist newspaper – very convenient that! If I agreed with all the beliefs then I was accepted, Simple as that.
As I grew older I started to question the the fundamentalist approach to life. And then I started noticing fundamentalism in unlikely places. People did not have to belong to a very earnest church or an even more earnest Trotskyist group. Fundamentalist attitudes were everywhere. In fact I have a fair few myself even now. Fundamentalism can involve any set of beliefs or even just one person’s own approach to life. You really don’t need a manifesto or a statement of faith! It can be characterised by a very ‘either / or’ view of life, a set of unshakeable beliefs, an ‘othering’ of people that don’t agree – which often takes the form of seeing them as conglomerate groups rather than individuals. It can also involve a strong feeling of ‘them and us’ and a demonising of other groups or individuals. The example which I always remember is when I was a socialist and our group complained about the ‘sectarianism’ of the other Trotskyist groups at length and treated them like the enemy, thus disproving their own point!
I am far from immune from this sort of thing and I think most of us do it to some degree. I find it is an important thing to be aware of though as it can be damaging and put a distance between people when there doesn’t really need to be one.
I have a few ways in which I try to counter this thinking and any related behaviour in my own life. These include:
- Remembering that everyone is at a point on their journey. To condemn them and write them off may be really unhelpful as, even if they have problematic views, they may change. On occasions I have ‘gone in hard’ on someone in the autism community and subsequently completely lost any opportunity to engage with them again. Of course I pull someone up if they express damaging views but I keep in the back of my mind the notion they could change. I am even an example of this myself. In my talk for TEDx Canberra recorded in 2013, I repeatedly used the term ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ which I would never use now. I have grown and times have changed. I’m glad nobody other than me has given me a hard time about that wording but you get the picture. However there are some people, organisations and situations which need immediate action as they are harming people with their words, actions or beliefs. This poses the very difficult question of where to draw the line which I suppose is one of the reasons fundamentalist thinking is understandably very attractive. This is a challenging area and as a person who tries to keep the dialogue open if that is an option, it can be really stressful and involve a lot of soul-searching – and guilt if I pitch it wrong.
- ‘Preaching to the choir’ is great – affirming, enjoyable etc. I often imagine a smallish room with all the people who I agree with on pretty much everything. We have a great time talking but the message doesn’t go anywhere where it can challenge someone, enlighten them, empower them or open them up to new things, My socialist friends in the 1990s did a great job at this. They would stay in their group and have meetings. If a non-member happened across our group and dared to utter a ‘wrong’ opinion, they were shouted down and never came again. Not really useful for an organisation of 100 or so people who wanted to change the world through mass revolution! I have spoken for a number of autism-related organisations over the years which sit somewhere on my ‘iffy’ list. Why? Well mostly because I am talking more to the audience than the organisation and often that will be full of people who can benefit from what I say. In addition to that, organisations can change their thinking as much as individuals can and me speaking about Neurodiversity and other good positive things may assist with that.
- What I find with the fundamentalist groups I have been in is that there are rules for EVERYTHING! They had a very specific view on pretty much every aspect of life. This was true for Christadelphians and Trotskyists alike. This involves the ‘absolute Truth’ applying to a lot of small things. I think this is a core part of ‘either / or’ or fundamentalist thinking. There actually are some big truths in the world – Don’t hurt people or the Earth, be respectful of others, that kind of thing. I would hope that most people share those truths. As one moves into fundamentalism though, there are strong opinions and beliefs on smaller and smaller things. I challenge my own fundamentalism by considering the scale of the thing I am being hardline on. I find it is a good test. If it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, it can be wiser to let that thing go, a least in that one instance.
- I know I am on the fundamentalist bus when I start holding others up to my own specific views and judging them, as if they had somehow ‘fallen short’ of the ideal set by me for me! I know! t’s a horrible thing but it can happen.
I find it is useful to reflect on the issues around either / or thinking. And as someone who has belonged to two separate fundamentalist groups I can confidently say that my life is a lot more pleasant and inclusive now I’m doing better at not judging everyone and applying my ‘Truth’ to the wonderful diversity of rest of the world.