Fundamentalism: Symptom of the Great Disconnect

October, 2005
In this issue:
1. Reader News
2. October Editorial: “Fundamentalism: Symptom of the Great Disconnect”
3. Next Month’s Editorial Title
4. Quote of the Month: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

New Name??

I’m thinking of renaming this newsletter “Futureshapers,” making it more action-focused. I’m interested in what subscribers think of the idea. Would you like to see the name changed? If yes, what do you think of “Futureshapers” as a name?


(This editorial was excerpted from John’s book-in-process with the working title of The New Human: Beyond the Naked Ape)

What is behind radical fundamentalism? Why is it so divisive in our society? Why are people so enticed to take it on? How can we avoid such extremism? These are some of the questions I’m going to attempt to address in this editorial.

When most of us hear the word these days we think of radical religious fundamentalists, primarily Islamic if you are a part of the Western world, or Christian if you are Muslim. Being human beings, we see dysfunction in others before we recognize our own. So how do we recognize our own tendencies to be fundamentalists in some aspects of our lives?

What is behind extreme fundamentalism?

Ironically, religious fundamentalism is at the core of most of the world’s violence. But there are other disciplines where fundamentalism shows up. Business fundamentalism is at the core of much of the world’s poverty. Fundamentalism is rampant in all of humanity’s institutions. How did this hard line extremism come about? Why have so many people, in various cultures around the world, started resorting to militant fundamentalism and why is it causing so much pain in the world?

The dictionary tells us fundamentalism is “strict and literal adherence to a set of principles.” We might add that it is often based on someone’s strict interpretation of these principles, usually a single personage with a cadre of followers who reinforce this interpretation.

Extreme fundamentalists rigidly adhere to the interpretation in the form of some dogma or doctrine, often in lieu of the context for what lies beyond the doctrine. They tend to be quite intolerant of any views that do not agree with theirs. They demand that you believe exactly what they believe. Whether it is the Bible, the Koran or Talmud in religion or Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doctrine for capitalists or Marx’s communist manifesto, their staunch belief lies in the content of the dogma instead of any direct knowing or a personal integration of the context. There are education fundamentalists, rule of law fundamentalists and medicine fundamentalists. Political fundamentalists can be either conservative or liberal, where their views are extreme left or extreme right, thus producing the partisan politics we see so frequently these days.

What fosters radical fundamentalism? Why has it become so rampant in the world in recent years and such a threat to humanity’s survival? There are several factors to which we can point. One is the culture of fear we are living in. Fear leads to making choices that are consoling and appear to offer comfort, usually in the short term.

Scarcity also fosters fundamentalism. The belief that there isn’t enough for everyone (enough love, money, food, land, etc.) reinforces the fear and the attractiveness of fundamentalism.

There’s an old English proverb that goes, “Beware of a man of one book.” There is danger of getting caught up in cultish fundamentalism when the interpretations, dogmas, scriptures and belief systems are left unchallenged. A sole authority without any outside feedback is like Velcro to the fearful obsessive mind, which seeks certainty above all else.

In systems terminology, fundamentalism is a closed system. As such it has great potential for attracting followers who also seek a definitive answer to their quest, who want their discipline explained simply and don’t want their beliefs challenged or threatened by anyone or anything else. This cult-like belief system can get very narrow and rigid, to the point of perverseness and, ultimately, evil. The more closed the system, the more radical the fundamentalism becomes.

Fundamentalism is linear, not holistic or systemic. It is competitive, not collaborative, and usually excludes more than it includes. Certainty is imposed or forced rather than organic and natural. Extreme fundamentalism can manifest as a form of idolatry, idolizing some “thing,” such as text, passages, words – usually in print. Loyalty to the “thing” becomes fanatical, like the Hitler Youth during World War II and today’s suicide bombers.

Fundamentalism not only shows up in religion, where most people apply it, but it shows up in any discipline where dogma can replace direct-knowing. This includes politics, business, education, law and science. Among its many attributes, fundamentalism strictly adheres to the “letter of the law.” The fundamentalist businessman might be a staunch believer in the free market rather than having the direct knowing of the exchange of value in business. The fundamental lawyer may rely on the codification of the law rather than seeking true justice.

Why is fundamentalism so divisive in our society?

Fundamentalism separates “us” from “them.” It tends to be patriarchal, putting others lower in the hierarchy or assigning the non-believers to a lesser rank. Extreme fundamentalism fosters arrogance. It is a fusional way of bonding with fellow fundamentalists, adding to their specialness and self-righteousness.

Extreme fundamentalists need non-believers to work against. Christian fundamentalists have the anti-Christ to oppose, Islamic extremists have the infidels and hard core capitalists have the government and regulators to oppose. Having an enemy who they can vilify allows fundamentalists to see the non-believers as other than human beings. The enemy becomes an object, a “thing,” which allows the believer to be disrespectful, even hostile. The most extreme example of this is how soldiers, terrorists and criminals objectify their victims so they can dispassionately kill fellow human beings.

Fundamentalism separates the believer from his/her essential self. Emotional attachments or convictions to beliefs can be imprisoning. Capturing a set of beliefs and taking comfort in them might offer a temporary shelter from the storms of fear and uncertainty but it also freezes one’s ongoing search for meaning and connection. This cuts one off from one’s soul. Whether the context is God as in religion, justice in the law, service in business, health in medicine or knowledge in education, resorting to fundamentalism results in a great disconnect from the deeper inquiry that feeds the soul.

What’s the appeal?

Extreme fundamentalism is a simulation of the real thing. As close as it may get to simulating the “real deal,” it is nonetheless an approximation, like a holographic depiction or a really great photo. It can offer a consolation and perhaps some comfort in a world filled with fear and insecurity. It’s like a place for our thinking to land and relax. It might be considered a safe haven for the mind.

Extreme fundamentalism also appears to offer a sense of fellowship or belongingness to those who subscribe to the tenets of the key belief. This attribute can make fundamentalism even more attractive, since many people are experiencing a loss of community these days and may find some solace by joining with others who share a core belief or two with them. The group provides a false sense of relationship (fusion or “we-ness”) and an artificial basis for belonging, what M. Scott Peck, MD, calls “pseudo-community.” The dynamics of “groupthink” apply, adding to the cement that bonds people to their beliefs.

Fundamentalism can be compared to confusing the menu with the meal, the dogma over the experience. It can also be imprisoning, restricting our liberty to expand, learn and explore deeper dimensions of the discipline.

Conclusion: Getting to the Real Thing

How can we avoid falling under the influence of this extreme fundamentalism and continue exploring the new frontiers in our disciplines? One step is to become willing to engage the subject, whether it is business, medicine, the law or religion, and to do so deeply and ongoingly. Like lifelong scholars, we can rigorously engage in a constant inquiry, testing what we think we know and growing in our depth of understanding.

Continuing to learn from other disciplines assures us that we remain open and less susceptible to the rigidity that characterizes fundamentalism. In systems terminology, this prevents the system from becoming closed and imploding on itself, or becoming cult-like.

To begin, I suggest exploring the field of systems dynamics. Learn how systems behave and misbehave, how human relationships are as key as the acts or events in the system. Learn how closed systems lead to putrefaction and self-destruction while open systems encourage creativity and vitality (I’ve recommended some books and articles in previous issues of this newsletter but feel free to contact me for suggestions).

Our world is a network of complex systems, which we have created. Trying to solve complex systems problems with simple linear solutions doesn’t work if you want to have any positive impact in the world!

Regularly engage in dialogue with people who may not agree with you. Dialogue is neither debate nor intellectual discussion. It is an inquiry with the intent to learn new things, not persuade anyone to your point-of-view. This requires open-mindedness and listening. As the old adage went, “Leave your egos at the door.”

In summary, here are some of the characteristics of extreme fundamentalism that I’ve uncovered so far:

Some Characteristics of Extreme Fundamentalism

  • Based on beliefs rather than experience or direct knowing
  • Significance and self-importance is attached
  • Often represents a consolation or desperate mental grasping
  • Strict adherence to the dogma, as interpreted by the guru
  • Rigidly complies to rules
  • Extreme in point of view, radical fanaticism
  • Emotionally attached to the form of the doctrine/dogma
  • Reliance on documented printed word
  • Beliefs get set in stone, “calcified”
  • Intolerance of conflicting views or beliefs, closed system
  • Often patriarchal and adolescent in perspective
  • Conservative, resistant to change
  • Mind over spirit / concept over context
  • Separates, divisive, disconnects
  • Often arrogant, righteous
  • Fusional or “we-ness” (pseudo-community)
  • Specialness (we and ours are better than the rest)
  • Confuses concept with context, map with the territory, menu with the meal

CLOSING NOTE: My adventure continues as I inquire into this subject. I am not finished. I am still investigating this insidious malady that has penetrated cultures around the world. On Tuesday evening, October 25th, I’m being joined by three other Conversation Starters for a dialogue at the Saybrook Graduate School & Research Center to delve further into this inquiry. The title is “Fatal Fundamentalism: How Our Thinking Could Be Leading Us to Extinction.”

NEXT MONTH’S EDITORIAL: “The Potential Greatness of Humanity” (another excerpt from John’s book-in-progress, The New Human: Beyond the Naked Ape)

QUOTE OF THE MONTH: “The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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John is a San Francisco writer and businessman-futurist. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. More about John can be found at About.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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