Fundamentalism is a Drug

I’ve been reading Chris Kratzer’s book Leatherbound Terrorism — a heartfelt diatribe about how thoroughly Evangelical fundamentalism has destroyed his — and everyone else’s — life. He writes with the fervor of an end-times prophet, except his message is an inversion of the usual religious pessimism: Evangelicalism is killing the vulnerable, oppressing minorities, destroying hearts and minds, and imperiling the whole world with their blunt denial of human diversity and scientific truth.

There is a great deal that is worthy of discussion in his book, but one quote in particular stands out, in which he describes how Evangelicalism acted on him like a drug:

Within a few puffs and injections of its seductive creed, conservative Evangelicalism became an instant drug of choice to numb the pains of inadequacy that had long been building in the caverns of my being. Never did there appear to be a better way to appease a conditional, loving father and heal the struggles, sins, and shame of my youth than to embark on a spiritual climb designed to satisfy the ultimate conditional, loving Father — the god of conservative Evangelicalism who promised to rid me of my demons if I pressed in hard enough and learned to traverse the tightrope of conservative faith. In my mind, salvation had finally come in an Evangelical deity offering me a spiritual track upon which I could race to right my wrongs, earn value to my condemned life, and render myself lovable at the finish.

There is much that resonates here for me. I, too, was once addicted to to conservative Evangelicalism, but I think for different reasons than Chris expresses here. It didn’t so much give me a deep sense validation — being gay, I experienced evangelicalism as deeply invalidating, no matter how hard I tried to experience it otherwise — but rather, it gave me certainty.

When I was a theist, I knew without a doubt that there was a God, and what sort of God He was. I knew where I was going after I died, I knew the purpose of my existence, and I knew where beauty, morality, goodness, and life came from. I also knew where sin, ugliness, brokenness, and evil came from.

My addiction to certainty was so great that, whenever I neared the blinding sun of conflicting information (compelling arguments to not believe in God, for example) I simply wanted to shut down, hide, run away. The fear of withdrawal, of life without my certainty, was just too great.

Eventually my addiction to certainty was broken. Now, I have existential questions that are indeed frightening: I don’t know if there is a God, I don’t know what happens after we die (though I suspect nothing happens,) and I’m still working through the complex philosophical questions of how I cultivate a meaningful, moral life. Where I once had certainty, I now have a great, humbling void.

I’m now on the receiving end of some Christians’ fear and loathing: when they ask me, “but where does morality come from?” and I say, “you know, I’m not sure — I expect it has something to do with evolution and culture, but I’m still figuring that out,” they lose their shit. They can’t imagine a world in which such basic realities are mysterious unknowns, and that frightens them. I see my former self mirrored in their panic.

H.P. Lovecraft once wrote that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

I think he might be right. Our fear is so deep, our ape-like ignorance in the great cosmic night so oppressively huge, that anything that alleviates that fear acts on us like meth. Hence the contaminating, addictive power of fundamentalism, which shields us from gazing into the stars and seeing anything other than mystery.

I’m grateful for how I was rescued from the addictive power of fundamentalism, and I now acknowledge that the best way forward is to embrace my fear of the unknown: to lean into it, accept it, be intensely mindful of it. Otherwise, the chances of falling into just another sort of fundamentalism are great. The path forward is mindful doubt and skepticism, not blind, compulsive fundamentalism.

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