The Mythology of Fundamentalism

Jeriah Bowser I Spirituality & Religion I Analysis I February 15th, 2016

There are fewer words in the english language as cloaked in ambiguity and steeped in power as fundamentalism. It is a word which completely dominates social discourse, public opinion, and political rhetoric, yet remains undefinable and enigmatic. When pressed to explain what one means by this word, most pundits will allude to "literal interpretations of religious texts," "religious extremism," or "a strict adherence to a set of beliefs," but fail to give any further context or description of what exactly makes one a fundamentalist, why fundamentalism exists, or why fundamentalists of all creeds seem to share so much in common. These are all questions that have fascinated me ever since the moment I realized, many years ago, that I was raised in a fundamentalist family and began to understand the many ways that this upbringing deeply affected me. An essential part of my healing from this traumatic upbringing has been studying the phenomenon of fundamentalism on all levels - sociological, historical, political, and psychological - in an effort to understand how ideas like this are created and perpetuated. As it turns out, my fascination with this cultural phenomenon is shared with many others. Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, and especially during the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in the US, perhaps no single word has held public attention so much, as governments around the world have taken advantage of the power that this word holds to create atmospheres of fear and paranoia which in turn allows them to enact draconian laws, create totalitarian surveillance systems, and incite nationalist fervor to an extent that they would never be able to get away with otherwise.

Despite the massive amounts of media attention given to this topic and the endless procession of talking heads who attempt to provide answers to these questions, I have found myself continually frustrated and dissatisfied with their answers. In addition to my search for a basic explanation of what exactly fundamentalism is, my most pressing question has been trying to understand why fundamentalists from different religions share so much in common. This strange and terrifying cultural phenomenon seems to not be restricted to any particular tradition but is rather a non-localized personality disorder or sickness which affects people from all across the religious (and secular) spectrum. In the course of my studies in comparative religion, comparative mythology, philosophy, depth psychology, and theology, I have finally started to answer some of these questions for myself, and I think some of my discoveries may be helpful others.

But before we explore what fundamentalism is, let's establish what it isn't.

Fundamentalism isn't a literal interpretation of religious texts. As one fairly well-educated in comparative religion and theology, I am of the belief that there is no such thing as a "literal interpretation" of any religious text. Every Abrahamic and Vedic religious text that I have studied (which encompasses Christianism, Judaism, Islamism, Bahá'í, Rastafarianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Sikhism) contains a vast collection of decontextualized stories, ideas, teachings, metaphors, beliefs, poems, and mandates which can be translated any number of ways.

Each of these religious texts contain so many possible interpretations and narratives that they effectively serve as a tabula rasa (blank slate), allowing people to project onto them whatever they wish to see and finding validation for their beliefs therein. Going solely off of these texts, you can find plausible arguments for genocide as well as pacifism, promiscuity and celibacy, materialism and simplicity, egalitarianism and totalitarianism, animism and anthropocentrism… every contradiction you could ever hope for, essentially. Obviously, having knowledge of hermeneutics, language analysis, varying methods of interpretation, historical/cultural context, and an awareness of how these texts were written and assembled can provide some insight into where these contradictions arise from, but very few people have the time and energy to do all of this work. There are many factors which serve to mystify these texts and make this level of insight inaccessible to most people, which is a conversation of its own. This mystification creates an environment in which most religious adherents rely on experts (clergy) to decipher all of this information for them (Rabbis, Imams, Pastors, Sanghas, Priests, Scholars, etc.). As these clergy receive their education from other clergy who have been taught very specific narratives of these texts, this inevitably leads to a situation in which we have billions of religious adherents who have virtually no context for their religious tradition/scriptures and very little understanding of the many ways that power and history has shaped their religious practice. One might be tempted to think that the opportunities of the internet and globalization in general would help clear up some of this ignorance, but unfortunately the opposite is true. As information on the internet is completely decontextualized and one-dimensional, it allows for a proliferation of idiots to dominate the cybersphere with their hatred and ignorance. I would say that discerning reality from confusion on these issues is more difficult now than ever before.

Paradoxically, by the time someone has gone through all the work of sifting through all of these layers of confusion and mystification, they are confronted with the unsettling realization that these texts are inseparable from the context that birthed them. The very act of digging to the heart of a religious text in order to find the fundamental elements of that text is the very process which destroys any possibility of finding these fundamentals; the more one searches, the more they realize how impossibly quixotic the quest is in the first place.

As one who has lived on both sides of fundamentalist culture, it is incredible to me how powerful this tabula rasa phenomenon is. As a child, I had plenty of access to Bibles in my house, I was even forced to memorize entire sections of it, but somehow I never saw that the words and teachings of Yeshua (Jesus) directly contradicted everything I was taught about Christianism. I developed a simple set of "bible-coping skills" to help me deal with parts of the Bible that my family didn't like: "Times were different back then, that doesn't really apply to us now," "Jesus didn't mean that literally, it's just a metaphor," "That only applies to other Christians," "Well, that's the old covenant, this is the new covenant," etc. These coping-skills allowed me to ignore or discredit ideas which didn't line up with my cultural programming (domestication), allowing me to read, study, and memorize the Bible without ever having to actually confront the ideas that lay within it. What is fascinating about this is that the scriptures were largely insignificant when compared to the rest of my domestication. My father's fundamentalist rhetoric took precedence over any of the messages actually contained in the Bible, and it took me many years to begin questioning it. Any scriptural contradictions or seeming discrepancies between the words of Yeshua and our beliefs were easily explained away and dismissed; it really didn't matter what was actually written in that book.

This is a crucial aspect of understanding fundamentalism: the power of cultural conditioning/domestication is far greater than the power of the scriptures themselves. Essentially, this means that all attempts to prove that the ______ religion is inherently violent/ignorant/intolerant are completely missing the point. There are no fundamental elements of any religious text, and any attempt to reduce them to a set of basic beliefs says much more about the person undertaking such an effort than it does about the texts themselves.

Once, as an educator, I assigned my students with the task of finding specific philosophical narratives within certain religious texts, in order to demonstrate this tabula rasa effect. Without fail, they were able to find (very convincing) narratives of feminism in the Bhagavad Gita, pacifism in the Quran, anarchism in the Book of Mormon, Marxism in the Tripitaka, and, just for fun, a zombie apocalypse narrative in the New Testament. The exercise was, obviously, an attempt to illustrate how we can find validation for virtually anything we want within these vast tomes of completely decontextualized stories, metaphors, and myths. This is also confirmed when one realizes that within each of these religions there exists individuals from nearly every political and philosophical tradition. There are pacifist Christians and racist vigilante Buddhist death squads, luddite Catholics and transhumanist Mormons, anarchist Jews and fascist Hindus.... you name the ideology, and I guarantee that someone, somewhere has found a justification for that ideology within their specific religious tradition.

Of course there are overall trends within each one of these religions and general narratives within their scriptures, but these trends have much more to do with social/political/historical context than inherent doctrine and the scriptural narratives can be easily ignored or evaded (as they often are). A few of these religions (most notably Judaism, Christianism, Islamism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) have been "adopted" by various States and Empires at some point in their history, which has drastically affected the way that these traditions are practiced and the way that the texts are interpreted. For example, one could compare global Bahá'í culture with global Christian culture and point out that Bahá'í culture is, on the whole, much more peaceful, egalitarian, and tolerant than its counterpart. Does this mean that Christianism and its sacred text - the Bible - is inherently more violent and intolerant? Only if one ignores the fact that Christianism has been enmeshed with Empire for at least the past 1700 years, while Bahá'í has yet to receive the same treatment. If a State or Empire were to extend its graces to the Bahá'í faith, I have no doubt that its adherents would quickly join the ranks of the other religions in practicing violence and hatred on unbelievers and apostates. The only reason Western Christian fundamentalists aren't currently strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up crowds of strangers is that they have no need to do so, they are currently on the "winning team." Even a cursory review of the history of Christendom will review that these monotheists have no problem engaging in mass slaughter of infidels and committing indiscriminate acts of terrorism when their God (and State) calls upon them to do so. If my father would have thrust a rifle in my hands and pointed at the infidels when I was a child, I have no doubt that I would have killed and died in the name of my God, as that was what I was taught to do, that was my reality, there was no questioning who the enemy was or what they deserved. Blatant commandments such as "Thou shalt not kill" are of little consequence to the fundamentalist, they are driven by much deeper urges (which are easily justified when the same Bible that says "thou shalt not kill" then goes on to tell stories of conquests, genocides, and the carnage of Empire.)

For anyone interested in understanding the role of religious identity and culture in our world, this is very important to understand, as it provides context for why certain religious traditions have developed along the lines that they have. The West's current depiction of Islamism as being "inherently violent" is a great example of this, as very few scholars or analysts (on either side of the issue) have taken care to point out the political and social dynamics which underlie this tension. The historical realities of Christian (and specifically American) intervention and exploitation of predominantly Islamic countries are rarely brought into these conversations, which leads to incredibly ignorant and inaccurate depictions of Islamism as being more violent than its monotheistic siblings - Christianism and Judaism. Islamism is inherently violent, absolutely, but not because of any unique doctrine or specific mandates contained in the Quran; it is only violent to the extent that it is a religion of Empire, and is therefore subject to the whims of Empire. Islamism is also inherently pacifist, to the extent that it contains numerous mandates, stories, and teachings which encourage nonviolence, peace, and equality.

Yet at the same time there remains a sense that these religious texts are somehow important to understanding fundamentalism, that there is a certain sort of fanatical dedication to these ancient scriptures within fundamentalist cultures. I agree, there is an emphasis on literal interpretation, but one cannot take the entirety of any religious text literally, there are simply too many possible interpretations to allow for such a simplistic explanation. If I were to take Jesus's famous "sermon on the mount" literally, I would be acting in direct opposition to fundamentalist Christianism.[1] The answer lies in which parts of these books are taken literally, which interpretations become doctrine, and which narratives are focused on. Essentially: which beliefs/myths the fundamentalists are bringing to the tabula rasa. Before we explore what these myths are, let's continue establishing what fundamentalism isn't.

Fundamentalism isn't just religious extremism. That is, it isn't engaging in violent action or rhetoric in order to further a religious cause. This assertion directly ties into the previous question we just explored, as it assumes that there is a core set of beliefs within each of these religious traditions/scriptures and the fundamentalists are those who use violence to enforce these beliefs. As there is no basic set of beliefs which comprise these scriptures or traditions, and as the utilization of ideological violence is endemic to the vast majority of our species, it is a major feat of conflation to say that only fundamentalists engage in religious violence. The connections between military culture and religion are well established, but I doubt many would consider the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Iraqi Armed Force, or the US Marine Corps examples of religious fundamentalism. At many points in the history of Judaism, Christianism, Islamism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, religious leaders have called upon their members to engage in violence against other religions, and have been met with little resistance. History shows that it doesn't take much to militarize an entire religious population. Actually, the vast majority of religious violence in the world is committed by moderates; that is, regular people who have been incited to hatred by their leaders, not by fundamentalist sects.[2] [3]

Unfortunately, this belief will continue being perpetuated, as a commonly employed tactic (of all fundamentalists) is to accuse another religion of being inherently violent, ignorant, intolerant, etc. Those who spout such provocative rhetoric will make sweeping generalizations in order to objectify other cultures and effectively make them Other. There are many reasons for engaging in such demagoguery, all of which serve to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred towards the Other and a feeling of unique greatness towards the few select members of the fundamentalist group. This serves as a happiness surrogate; as members of fundamentalist communities and cultures give up so much personal happiness, freedom, and autonomy over to their leaders and deities, they believe that they are compensated with a sort of spiritual entitlement which manifests itself in eternal rewards and privileges. By sacrificing so much in this life, they hope to receive vast rewards in the next.

The belief that fundamentalism is simply religious extremism/violence also ignores the fact that violence takes many forms, some visible and some not. Structural, or systemic violence is constantly working to ensure that the gears of progress continue churning on. When one considers that religious morality almost always serves those in power and reinforces dominant narratives, that religious groups are often tax-exempt and receive preferential treatment from the State, that religious clergy regularly engage in child-abuse and other forms of exploitation, that women are (often violently) subjected to men and masculinity, and that religions never fail to provide spiritual justifications for war and imperialist conquests, it becomes harder to distinguish who exactly is engaging in religious violence and who isn't.

Having established that fundamentalism cannot be understood as a literal interpretation of religious texts or religious extremism, can it be understood as a strict adherence to a set of beliefs? This answer seems the most plausible to me, but I have yet to hear anyone explain exactly what this "set of beliefs" is and why it is universal to all religious (and secular) fundamentalists.

At this point, we need to shift our focus to comparative mythology, as my background in this field has guided me in exploring this question. For those unfamiliar with comparative mythology, it is the survey of mythological archetypes, beliefs, stories, themes, and narratives from across many different human cultures in order to discover possible continuities and shared experiences between them. In other words, the comparative mythologists are trying to find common myths and beliefs which are shared by many human cultures. This is fascinating and important work because it reveals the basic mythological framework that underlays all our beliefs about the world, which holds implications for every single field of science and academic inquiry. Every ideology in the world - philosophical, religious, or scientific - can also be understood as a set of basic beliefs, or myths. When a comparative mythologist looks past the surface of an ideology and examines these basic myths, comparing and contrasting them to other ideologies, some very interesting discoveries happen; many opposing ideologies are revealed to be almost identical in their mythology, while other seemingly similar ideologies are revealed as having vastly different mythic structures.

For example, the ideologies of capitalism and communism have been widely presented as polarities - two opposing political and economic worldviews. The Cold War(s) were financed and fought under the guise of these two ideologies duking it out on the global battlefields of history, and many people still believe this narrative. As a comparative mythologist, I see these two ideologies as almost identical in all their basic myths. Both ideologies accept the basic logic, structure, and processes of industrial civilization, they both employ rigid hierarchies to maintain their order, they both rely on Modernist assumptions of Science, and they both use oppressive State power to accomplish their ends. Neither of them question the institutions of Patriarchy or anthropocentrism, the role of technology, the realities of industrial agriculture, or the feasibility of building a system of production predicated on infinite growth while living on a finite planet. They both accept the constructs of linear time, a market economy, and private property, and the only areas where they actually diverge are in their interpretations of how this market should be regulated and how this property should be distributed. When these two ideologies are broken down into their basic myths and compared to other human myths, the differences are hardly discernible.

This is essentially a process of shifting perspective, of changing how we see these ideas. These two ideas may indeed look very different if your nose is pressed right up against them and you can't see the larger context, but if you sit back and shift your gaze to encompass all the many ways that humans have found to live on this planet, the differences become hardly distinguishable. To return to the question at hand, what might comparative mythology reveal about fundamentalism? What do fundamentalists from Christianism, Islamism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have in common?

In comparing the basic myths of fundamentalist communities and cultures across the religious spectrum, there are striking similarities between all of these different religious groups. Fundamentalist Christian mythology is indistinguishable from fundamentalist Muslim mythology, fundamentalist Hindu mythology, fundamentalist Buddhist mythology, etc. In fact, if one were to examine fundamentalist groups based purely on their basic assumptions about the world, you would be hard pressed to find any differences at all.

All fundamentalists share a dedication to ten basic myths; these ten myths represent my attempts at summarizing and demystifying the basic philosophical assumptions of civilization: Anthropocentrism, Androcentrism, Objectification, Hierarchy, Power, Progress, Morality, Atomization, Dualism, and Property. As a full exploration of these myths would require much more time and space than this essay allows for and as I have already outlined the basic structure of these myths elsewhere, I will leave it up to the reader to explore the implications of these myths on their own. [4]

Although this list of ten myths may seem daunting to some, they are actually quite obvious when you see them playing out in your daily life, as they represent the most basic assumptions of civilization. As nearly every human alive today has been raised and inculcated in the logic and processes of civilization since your conception (a process known as domestication), these myths are not foreign to you at all. They are encoded into the language that I am using as I write this, they are reinforced with every economic transaction you participate in, they are hidden in every relationship you have ever had, they influence how you understand and create meaning out of the world around you, and they are the motives behind your every action. As a member of civilization, you are manifesting and perpetuating these myths all the time, whether you are aware of it or not and whether you intellectually agree with them or not. Of course, this is not to imply that everyone who participates in civilization is a fundamentalist, it is merely to point out the universal nature of these myths. The fundamentalists distinguish themselves from the rest of us through their unabashed devotion, acceptance, and dedication to these ten fundamentals of civilization.

Every fundamentalist culture is heavily Patriarchal and masculine (Androcentrism), every one of them relies on strict Hierarchy within their ranks, they each ignore and disrespect the sentience and value of other forms of life (Anthropocentrism), they all believe that certain places, people, animals, things, and ideas can be owned (Property), they always long for paradise and are terrified of their origins (Progress), they all rely on coercive and violent Power to control the actions and beliefs of their members, they are all committed to Objectification by establishing clear boundaries for membership into their community, they are fixated on dividing the world into two essentially distinct planes of reality (Dualism), there is always faith in an external Morality to guide their actions, and they all reject holistic thinking or ecological frameworks (Atomization). [5]

To put it simply, fundamentalists are simply those humans who are most firmly committed to the project of civilization, they represent the extreme boundaries of human domestication. Within this globalized all-encompassing culture of civilization, the fundamentalists have simply taken our myths to their logical conclusions. No matter what tradition someone belongs to, when someone is deeply traumatized and domesticated they end up bringing these experiences to the tabula rasa of a certain holy scripture and religious tradition and... sure enough, they are guaranteed to find validation for their beliefs therein. Religious traditions and texts allow these wounded humans to externalize their actions, give them a framework for projecting their trauma/domestication onto the world, and allow them to displace any accountability for their actions onto "God's will." Many people do not even need a religious framework in order to enact these myths, as the recent rise of secular fundamentalism demonstrates. [6]

I realize that this mythological explanation may come across as vague to many, and I attribute that to the enormity and difficulty of describing these myths to those unfamiliar with this way of thinking, as well as a generally myopic perspective on religious issues that is rarely challenged. Whether or not you agree with my summary of the ten basic myths of civilization, I believe that the basic framework I laid out is fairly intuitive to most people, as the similarities between Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu fundamentalists is often used as a point of humor in pop culture. [7] If you strip away all the trappings, costumes, rituals, languages, and surfaces of these groups, what they have in common is a striking dedication to all of the same basic ideas, and I think this is very important to understand. These various religions are merely different manifestations of the same basic belief system; they are different outfits on the same beast. Once we recognize this, we will realize that not only is fundamentalism a universal and systemic problem, but it is one that we all carry the potentiality for under the right circumstances. As domesticated humans, we are all potential fundamentalists, and I would posit that this is why the actions of these groups fascinate and horrify us. When the Westboro Baptist Church performs their homophobic antics, maybe they are simply holding up a mirror to our deeply Patriarchal, masculine, and sex-phobic culture. When Daesh publishes their grisly execution videos, perhaps they do so knowing full well that our culture cannot resist such spectacles of violence, as we are secretly fascinated by those who take our myths to their logical conclusions. When the Neo-Zionists carry out their violent rhetoric on Palestinian villages, maybe they are only carrying out the wishes of an entire nation who, no matter what leftist rhetoric they coat it with, still believes that there is something inherently different between them and other races/forms of life. When the 969 Movement Buddhists massacre entire villages of Rohingya Muslims, is it possible that they are merely playing out the mythology of not only an entire religion, but an entire civilization?

Due both to my personal experiences with fundamentalism and my academic pursuits in this field, I believe that this cultural mirroring is not only a possibility, but a sobering reality that holds vital information for anyone interested in understanding their own mythological processes and beliefs. When we look at situations that horrify us with the realization that we are looking at our own mythology being played out in the world and taken to its logical extent, we are granted a glimpse into our own beliefs, patterns, and narratives that we are participating in. This is not an easy or comfortable experience, but for those interested in what lies beyond the incessant lies and mystifying illusions propagated by corporate media outlets and religious demagogues, this can be a very valuable and meaningful process.


[1] The sermon on the mount can be found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the narrative of Matthew, chapters 5-7

[2] Mark Juergensmeyer's work is illuminating here, especially his "Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State" (2008), and " Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence" (2003)

[3] There has also been significant resistance to militarization and empire within religious groups, many times by fundamentalist communities (quick example: Men in many US Mennonite communities were conscientious objectors during WW1 and 2 and were jailed, fined, and treated horrendously for refusing to enlist in the military)

[4] My two essays, "Into the Wild, Part 1: Towards a Post-Civilized Critique of Civilization" and "Into the Wild Part 2: Rewilding Self" are a good introduction to how these myths play themselves out in our world and on our bodies. For a more thorough exploration of these myths, I recommend Max Oelschlaeger's "The Idea of Wilderness," Clarence Glacken's "Traces on Rhodian Shores," Roderick Nash's "Wilderness and the American Mind," and Richard Tarnas's "The Passion of the Western Mind."

[5] Of course, this is not a strict code for deciphering fundamentalism, and some communities may fixate more on some myths than others, but these myths are more-or-less present in every fundamentalist community or culture.

[6] the New Atheist movement is a great example of this, as well as the free-market fundamentalist disciples of Milton Friedman. This is also seen when many young people who are attracted to religious fundamentalist groups like Daesh come from heavily secular cultures and families (France, for example).

[7] Here are two examples of this in pop culture that I have seen in only the past week: