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A friend of mine, Leila, suggested I read THE BATTLE FOR GOD, by Karen Armstrong, a former nun (I believe) and now an historian of religion, especially for the three monotheisms, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In THE BATTLE FOR GOD, which I should have read after I read the first book, the HISTORY OF GOD, a more general study of the three religions, she takes on fundamentalism as it takes its form in each religion. Her observation is, from the outset, that for all their obvious differences, they are remarkably similar.
I read the introduction and am in the middle of the first chapter. I have to read it very slowly, because I keep getting distracted, despite underlining almost every other word in order to keep myself attending to the text. (Which helps, by the way, but makes rereading a real pain!) And because it is simply hard for me to read anything these days, hard to read because of some vague distress reading causes me that I find hard to define or explain. It doesn't feel good to me, mostly and I don't feel as excited by it, though I want to know the material. Occasionally I can pick up an easy novel and enjoy what I read if I can get into the swing of it, but even that is rare. But I'm going to slog through this as far as I can, because Leila loved it and says it is very much worth reading.
But before I get too far into the book, which no doubt has a lot more to say with a great deal more knowledge and discernment about fundamentalism than I, I wanted as I frequently do, to try to clarify how I feel and think about fundamentalism right now, with what I know about it now. So that I can compare it with how I feel after having read the book.
First thing I have to admit is that in general I find fundamentalists as a group, as an example of group thinking and ideology, chilling. I speak mostly of Christian fundamentalists here. I do not know much about Jewish or Muslim fundamentalist beliefs, though in fact I do perceive the quite similar results in terms of behavior in the outside world. I'm not talking about the little snake handling church in the Appalachians. I'm referring to the congregation of largely middle to upper middle class educated professionals, who pay taxes (grudgingly) and send their kids to Christian private schools or home school them so they are not sullied by the filth of the world and work as doctors or teachers or accountants or nurses by day, blending in more or less, until they start talking religion...
I find them chilling, one, because they wield so much power politically as the major component of the Religious Right yet lack all democratic impulses, lack a larger community spirit, except in their own little band of fundamentalists and display a singular void when it comes to compassion and helping those less fortunate than they. They don't believe they should pay taxes to support public schools when they send their children to private schools, they don't believe they should have to pay social security taxes because they will have plenty of money and won't need it. They certainly don't believe the government should be in the business of helping the poor. Let them get jobs or let's resurrect the old poor houses for them. They are lazy, that's all. I worked my butt off to earn my money, they all say, if I can do it, anyone can!
I know, this doesn't sound very religious, and it isn't, but it goes hand in glove with the religious fervor of the Bible verse quoting that reverberates like a tennis ball volley. Back and forth, back and forth the ball goes over the net, each person "proving" her literal point by reference to a book that is largely couched in parable and poetry and other non-literal means of communication.
The fundamentalist believes he or she is saved, or otherwise somehow among the elect, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, and doesn't much care about those who are not, or if she does or he does, cares only insofar as they must convert to the fundamentalist's beliefs posthaste, and in some cases there is an OR ELSE implied. Hell, sometimes it is pretty obvious: when the Taliban is threatening to stone any woman who wears white shoes or doesn't don a burka, it doesn't take much convincing to get her to put on dark shoes and cover up completely. Belief cannot be forced but fundamentalist practice can, and sometimes that is all that is necessary. A child who is taught by fundamentalist teachers, in a fundamentalist society, whose family is not allowed to talk about other ways of thinking (Afganistan), will most likely grow up fundamentalist. A child who is raised in a fundamentalist home in a society of free thinkers, who is sent to religious schools and shielded from worldly contact, has little chance to break out of the mold of fundamentalism, not at least while still living within that comfortable enclave.
The thing is, it is comfortable. You know who you are and where you belong, and you know where you are going i.e. to heaven or paradise or somewhere the sullied rest of the world won't deserve. If you are a woman you are by definition secondary to your husband, and must cook and clean and serve him, and dress modestly, perhaps covering your hair and face in public, if not your whole body. Even as a Christian you probably don't wear the slinky dresses of the world or the bare midrifts or the skin revealing styles, but more modest, less fashionable ones, and some churches even have dress codes that dictate what a female may and may not wear. You also know that your husband will be a good Christian (if Christian) and will not stray and take a mistress (hah!) or at least should not, but if he does that you must forgive him and start anew, because forgiveness is a holy virtue.
And so forth. In return for all that, God will reward you with good health and wealth and a fair amount of happiness, because you deserve it. But most of all, he will reward you with a place in heaven, either after you die or after the final battle, Armageddon, where you will go along with your friends, leaving your pagan enemies on earth or in hell to suffer and burn.
These are the sorts of things that fundamentalists have told me to my face, and with great seriousness. If I am not saved, they say, God will wash his hands of me. Jesus won't love me. I won't be welcome in heaven on the last day. On and on and on. But these are the same people who don't feel the slightest need to pay taxes so the government can help the poor or the elderly. Why should we pay for other people's X Y Z? they say. As if they aren't even part of a democratic community that looks out for each and every member, including them. Oh, I dunno, maybe the problem is that the upper middle class fundamentalist Christians I have met have all also been Republicans, and the two clearly meshed with poor and to me appalling results. But the limited, completely uncreative and rigid, hidebound even, thinking of fundamentalist religion just doesn't sit right with me. The spirit should not be fettered and chained; why else call it a spirit? The spiritual state to my way of thinking must also not be kept in chains but allowed the freedom to find out where it needs to be.
Enough for now. More when I have read more in this fascinating book.
Posted by pamwagg at January 3, 2007 08:53 PM
I saw the gastroenterologist today and agreed to have a routine colonoscopy...ARGH! But he also wants to rule out certain reasons for my abnormal liver function tests and rule in what he thinks it might be, a fatty liver, which he says is a result of some people's glucose metabolism. It could go bad later on, so he told me, but is often quite benign. At this point I'm having an ultrasound tomorrow, and had bloodwork done today, which should tell him what he needs to know. I will get the results in two weeks. That's just about when the colonoscopy is scheduled for, so...Gawd, do I dread that. Anyone undergone this charming little procedure? Is it horrible? I've heard the preparation is the worst. He said I'd be asleep for the coloscopy itself and would not know or remember a thing, which is good. But I'm afraid of anesthesia, too, so I dunno which is worse, to be awake for it, or to have to be put out for it! Do they let you stay awake for it ever? Or would it hurt too much? Aah, I might as well take the anesthetic and sleep, but I'll fear it all the day before, right up until I fall asleep.