While this blog is for churchless folks, we get some fundamentalist visitors also. I enjoy having comment conversations with them, even though I can get frustrated with preachiness and closed-mindedness.
Soon after I started the Church of the Churchless I wrote "How to talk to a fundamentalist." With more than four years of additional experience in this area, it's time for an update.
Fundamentalism is defined in various ways. I like this Wikipedia definition: "clinging to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence."
If someone is certain they're right, it's tough to have a productive conversation with them.
So it's good to learn early on whether you're dealing with a fundamentalist, since most of us have better things to do than try to open up a mind that is nailed shut. A simple question, if answered honestly, is a helpful aid:
When you hear a "yes," that's an indication of openness. It turns the conversation in the direction of offering reasons for a religious, spiritual, metaphysical, philosophical, or mystical belief.
Because if there's a possibility of being wrong, no one else should be expected to accept an assertion on blind faith. And if you are told, "no," I'd look elsewhere for conversational companionship (unless you're a glutton for dogmatism).
Fundamentalists aren't always honest in answering this question, though. They might feign broad-mindedness just to get a foot in your psychological door. Or they might not be aware of how rigidly attached they are to unfounded beliefs.
Thus often it's necessary to diagnose a fundamentalist attitude in the absence of an outright admission. "The Guru Papers" has some useful observations.
...The great psychological appeal of fundamentalism is that it offers certainty. Certainty can feel better than doubt and confusion. It can eliminate internal conflict, or at least suppress and bring relief from it.
...Certainty must be able to withstand challenges and counter-evidence -- anything that brings doubt. No combination of reason and experience can give the necessary kind of certainty, especially about the future. So faith is the key to religious certainty.
...A simple universe with a simple good (those who follow the rules), and a simple evil (those who do not), and simple explanations that can never be disproven are necessary for certainty.
It only takes reading through some active comment conversations, such as the one on this post, to see how valid these points are.
Fundamentalists, who can follow an Eastern guru as easily as a Western god, aren't used to being challenged. They don't like it.
They're accustomed to nodding their heads during talks or sermons where everyone agrees (or feigns agreement) about the tenets of their shared faith. Thus when they preach dogma in a forum like this blog where questioning and skepticism are valued, a culture clash quickly becomes evident.
What's particularly interesting is how the fundamentalist's need for hierarchy and authoritarianism gets projected onto those who disagree with them.
It amazes me (and regular visitors to this blog, I'm sure) when someone speaks of my followers or acolytes. I only wish.
I can't tell you how many times I've written a post that struck me as astoundingly wise, inspiring, and reflective of reality, then waited for my well-deserved praise to arrive through cyberspace.
And waited... and waited... and waited.
Which is pretty much what I do when I throw a ball for our willful dog, whose accommodating Lab side unfortunately is overruled by her willful German Shepherd side when it comes to retrieving.
Or when I try to convince my equally assertive wife that she should accede to one of my philosophical positions, which she's managed to resist during our nineteen years of marriage.
What's going on here, it seems, is that fundamentalist visitors to this blog can't understand how people can simultaneously (1) be deeply committed to understanding what life, spirituality, and meditation is all about, and (2) be deeply uncommitted to accepting on faith someone else's understanding. Including mine.
This accounts for all the talk in the above-mentioned comment conversation about me, and others by implication, giving up on seeking the truth merely because we're looking for it in a non-fundamentalist fashion.
That's ridiculous. But ridicule is one of the tools used by fundamentalists. In "The Guru Papers" this is one of the six strong indications of belonging to an authoritarian group:
No deviation from the party line is allowed. Anyone who has thoughts or feelings contrary to the accepted perspective is made to feel wrong or bad for having them.
So when a shaming tactic is used by a fundamentalist, throw it back at them: "Shame on you! For trying to shame me! Keep your guilt to yourself!"
Fortunately, I've found that most religious people consider their personal faith to be just that... personal.
A guy used to come to my Tai Chi classes who was a devout Christian. I enjoyed him a lot. He'd call me "Brother Brian" and bless me. He was so sincere, so humble, and so accepting of my own beliefs, we got along great.
It isn't differences in beliefs that is the problem.
It's holding onto a belief with such rigidity and certainty that alternative views are rejected out of hand, and any questioning by a skeptic is rejected as the devil's handiwork.
That's when it becomes next to impossible to talk to a fundamentalist.
Brian, thank-you for your wise and inspiring posts and particularly this one!
Interesting how Eastern fundamentalism rejects intellectualism and how a fundamentalist caught up in a master- disciple relationship struggles to see relationships outside of these boundaries.
I have also noticed that where people would naturally feel compassion,the response instead could easily fall into the learned, cruel and robotic.
Posted by: Catherine | March 20, 2009 at 04:15 AM
Thanks Brian that is a very nice post. Very clear and it makes a lot of sense. However, in my opinion we need to take care great care in how we handle a fundamentalist. Let me explain.
Fundamentalist are inherently very weak people. Hard on the outside, but weak on the inside is the way I like to think about them. In my experience I have found that some people apparently somehow need to be fundamentalist in order to maintain their mental balance.
During my lifetime (70 years) I have known two people who were saved from drugs by becoming a fundamentalist. Then they had gone on for many years leading a useful and productive life as happy drug free fundamentalist until one day they were talked out of their fundamental religious beliefs. Then, apparently because of their mental ability or view or something that I do not fully understand they could not cope with their life without the foothold of their fundamentalism. Thus they reverted back to drugs and totally destroyed their life and made their friends and family miserable in the process.
This is the reason that I generally avoid serious discussions with fundamentalist. Once you break down the hard outer shell and get them to listen to you they could just collapse. Not all, not many, but in at least 2 cases that I know of this did happen.
Do you have any wise thoughts on this?
Posted by: Turnertoons | March 20, 2009 at 05:52 AM
Catherine... yes, its annoying and fake'y to see someone desperately trying to appear humble and virtuous. Like you said, this is a contradiction in many Eastern traditions.
They claim to be non-intellectual, yet the essence of intellectuality is duality and separation -- not simply being, acting, or thinking, but also having an awareness of the self being, acting, or thinking.
When people are afraid of behaving naturally and spontaneously, worried that they'll do the wrong thing or transgress some commandment, that's when the robotic side of spirituality becomes evident.
Turnertoons, I don't know about "wise," but I've always got thoughts. Sure, I can see that fundamentalism can help people cope with life. 12 Step programs basically are fundamentalist. When you're stumbling and about to fall on your face, any sort of support you can hang on to can be helpful.
The difference is that I've never had a recovering alcoholic or drug addict come up to me and proselytize, or try to force their views on me. They seem to be focused on curing their own addictions, not on saving other people from theirs.
This relates to my observation that religiosity, even of the fundamentalist variety, isn't objectionable to me when believers simply express their faith sincerely, humbly, personally. It's like someone saying "I just love this song!" I may not like it, but their enthusiasm is enjoyable. Passion is what makes the world go round (along with gravity).
We all have crutches of one sort or another. It's only when someone wants to beat me over the head with his or her crutch that fundamentalist support structures become a problem.
Posted by: Brian | March 20, 2009 at 11:12 AM
Brian, this a mighty good article. In fact it addresses the issue so well, that I many times wish I could assembled and make copies of this current article, and several others that you've posted here over the years that deal with fundamentalism and RS fundamentalism in particular... and then print them all out in neat little pamplets and give one each to some very narrow-minded super-judgemental die-hard RS satsangis in my local area. And since you wrote them, you could probably locate and assemble most of the appropritate articles easier than I can.
In any case, I feel much the same way you do: I don't have any problem at all with people choosing and practicing the RS path. Thats their business. Its when they start getting judgemental and critical and authoritarian, and very uptight and unfriendly towards me, that I fight back.
I'd like to be able to give those types something to read and consider that would help them to reflect upon their own very fundamentalist outlook and attitude, and their own insecurity that is at the bottom of it.
When people like them are entrenched in a spiritual cult like RS, they never get exposed to any outside clear, open, and non-fundmentalist thinking. In RS, just as other in other religuous fundamentalism, they can't see the forest for the trees.
But make no mistake, I have no desire to change them.... only just to expose them to a more open rational non-dogmatic point of view, a clearer more objective way of thinking. The choice is always theirs anyway, yet if only they had a broader perspective.
Posted by: tAo | March 20, 2009 at 02:22 PM
I see a whole lot of churchless fundamentalists over here thinking they less fundamental than all the other fundamentalists on the planet, when in fact they far more full of themselves than possibly all the bigoted authoritarian religions put together.
ain't it just a hoot watching all these holier than thou enlightened ego strokers thinking they got it off pat and looking down their dainty egocentric noses at the rest of humanity.
Something tells me most of these two bit chicken run dandy's in here are actually just second grade lily livered snotty types that think a whole lot far too much of themselves to be any good to anybody let alone themselves.
Posted by: ashy | March 20, 2009 at 04:27 PM
If you are so right and wise, then why don't you tell us about yourself a little? If you are not stuck-up like you say that we are, then why don't you tell us more about your own experience and point of view, about where you are from and what your spiritual background and history is?
Why don't you participate and converse with us, instead of just throwing darts in a hit and run fashion. That sort of thing does not win any arguments.
I think that most all of us here are open-minded and would really like you to share your own story. So why not join the conversation and discussion? Thats all we are doing here - asking questions and discussing. I think Brian asked you to share too. So how about it? I am interested in hearing what you have to say. Thank you.
Posted by: tAo | March 20, 2009 at 04:55 PM
Now thats a far better approach towards a little humble introspective truth seeking than most the other spewed arrogance that gets chucked around from pillar to post around these parts, maybe you getting somewhere after all. Keep it up. There might still be some hope for you yet after all is said and done.
Takes a big man to recognize his own fallacy.
One little secret, see if you can go with it.
Its all about love... nothing else whatsoever.
Posted by: ashy | March 20, 2009 at 05:11 PM
ashy, read your previous comment -- just above -- and tell me if you really believe that it reflects your "its all about love" philosophy. I'll quote some from what you said:
"ain't it just a hoot watching all these holier than thou enlightened ego strokers thinking they got it off pat and looking down their dainty egocentric noses at the rest of humanity.
Something tells me most of these two bit chicken run dandy's in here are actually just second grade lily livered snotty types that think a whole lot far too much of themselves to be any good to anybody let alone themselves."
Moving on...as tAo suggested. He was right, in that several days ago I invited you to share your spiritual beliefs positively, rather than negatively. I said you could email them to me, and I'd include them in a post.
Or you could leave a comment, and I can copy the comment into a separate post -- which would make it easier to have a conversation about your views.
I sense a lot of anger toward this blog, and seekers of truth who question rather than obey or embrace blind faith. So I'm curious what makes you so upset. If you could describe why you think "churchless conversing" is objectionable, that'd be interesting to me and other blog visitors.
So far your comments have been in the vein of "I'm right!" and "You're wrong!" That's fine. Most people, including me, operate from this point of view a lot of the time.
I'm just suggesting that if you could explain why you think you're right, along with what you think you're right about, that'd help us move forward in a more courteous and intelligent fashion.
Posted by: Brian | March 20, 2009 at 05:46 PM
Brian, and yet....while upholding the hill people and telling initiates to leave their minds and sandals outside the door, they ensure that they are as well educated as possible eg: Charan and Jagat Singh; Gurinder's children are probably being educated in good schools and universities at the moment (Where? Does anyone know? Just curious). Kirpil Singh wrote that teachers and lecturers were unlikely to excel on the 'inner' planes.
Posted by: Catherine | March 20, 2009 at 09:43 PM
One thing I notice about you is that you never address who you are responding to or directing your comments toward. That, coupled with your continued anger, sarcasm and ridicule of people that you don't know at all, but whom you perceive as being wayward and heretical, tells me that you actually have a pretty significant lack of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional maturity. You fail to realize that others here are actually quite older and far wiser and more experienced than you are, and we are simply not impressed by your manner or your rhetoric.
I politely asked you if you would share a little about yourself and what your own views are, instead of acting like an impudent troll spewing your own arrogance.
But instead of the "humble introspective truth seeking" and "love" that you speak of, you come back with just more condescending bullshit and shallow ridicule.
You said: "Takes a big man to recognize his own fallacy." -- Well then you must be a very small man (or woman).
Then you said (awflly ironically I might add): "Its all about love... nothing else"
-- Are you sure about that? Because you sure could of fooled me.
Anyway, we are still waiting to see if you will grow up and drop the games, and join in the discussion as you were invited to do.
Btw Ashy, I have another question for you:
Are you in South Africa by any chance ? (isn't S.A. about 9 time zones difference from the west coast of the USA?)
Posted by: tAo | March 21, 2009 at 12:04 AM
I think the children of Gurinder are in England in London/nearby, the elder one is married and the younger one is still studying. Even in satsangs of RSSB, it is said that intelligence or knowlege or questioning is the biggest hindrance on higher planes, though majority of the persons giving discourses in India are teachers.
Posted by: Juan | March 21, 2009 at 03:39 AM
Remember the Brad commentor, from South Africa, a number of months back. Brad and ashy seem similiar.
Posted by: Roger | March 21, 2009 at 07:34 AM
My big problem with the fundamentalist mindset (particularly here in the US) is the fact they want to imbue all of society with their rigid beliefs. If they want to believe what they want to believe, fine. But when they want laws on the books that provide societal acquiescence for what they believe, then I have a BIG problem with it.
Posted by: The Rambling Taoist | March 21, 2009 at 09:07 AM
Thanks Juan. There are many specific questions I have that automatically follow on from your answer. You could probably guess them.
Posted by: Catherine | March 21, 2009 at 10:04 PM
tAo, I sort of like the notion of handing out churchless pamphlets to true believers, satsangis or otherwise. But wouldn't this be proselytizing? I'm not sure whether actively promoting churchlessness is the way to go, or what purpose it would serve.
People have to come to see faith differently in their own way. Forcing a faithless conversion likely wouldn't be productive. Still, if you ever want to pursue your notion, I could point you to some of my favorite posts,
Posted by: Brian | March 22, 2009 at 09:59 PM
Only by chance... i found the reference to your great article on facebook. Although it's a long time ago since you wrote it and it's sometimes hard for me to make myself understood in english...
This is great! It helps me a lot. Bookmarked it - and will read the story again tomorrow :)
Posted by: www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1093923898 | November 05, 2009 at 10:32 AM