Fundamentalism isn’t an ideology, it’s a habit of thought patterns. Fundamentalism is based in fear. Fear of not being heard, fear of being invalidated, fear of attack, of erasure, of silencing.
Fundamentalism can be present in any community regardless of ethics or system of belief.
The reason that I started questioning the Christian fundamentalism I grew up with was because I saw people valuing the system of belief as more important than having compassion for hurting people in our community. I was upset that our value system put being right over sitting with someone in pain and empathizing with them in their vulnerable place.
I think that’s why most of us left the system of legalism, fundamentalist Christianity, Christian patriarchy—whatever you want to call it. We saw the system steamrolling people in pain—either us or those we loved—and realized that the system didn’t work for outliers, for those who didn’t fit the boxes or couldn’t follow the rules. We suddenly saw the marginalized, and realized that we were in a broken system and needed a new paradigm to stop marginalizing people if we wanted to have integrity in our claim to love as an ethic of life.
And so we stepped out of the too-small shoes of whatever ideology we’d been living in, and tried to listen and learn and practice consistent compassion and fight shame. We learned about self-care and about boundaries, we learned to question authority structures and say no. We learned the value of listening to those less privileged than us, and we adopted the language of feminism and intersectionality—clumsily at first, for most of us, but with sincere desire to be different from what we’d been before.
But fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding you’re LGBTQ* affirming, or by reading bell hooks, or by finally expressing the anger you felt when you were marginalized in your former world.
All of these things are good, but being “feminist” or “progressive” or even coming out as atheist can’t really do a thing for unlearning fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is fundamentally a defensive position. It is not easily open to nuance, it uses synecdoche on first impressions to assume that one or two interactions is the sum of a person’s essence. It is too interested in self-defensive labeling of everyone and everything to have the patience to sit with someone and try to learn how much their good intentions are reflected in their actions over time—it doesn’t have time for those who are learning or need to ask a million questions before they can grasp concepts that may have come quickly to us.
In the book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Nathaniel is talking to a woman about teaching the sailors complex math tricks to navigate more accurately, but they’re not picking it up very quickly and he’s impatient. She chides him, saying [I’m paraphrasing] “Don’t kick the chair because you ran into it in the dark. It’s not the chair’s fault it’s like that.” She goes on to encourage him to try to get to know the sailors individually to understand how their different personalities might inform how he can best approach teaching them to navigate the stars well.
I think about this scene often, because sometimes I’m the quick one who picks things up intuitively, and I don’t always remember that not everyone else is like that. And sometimes I’m the one with clumsy emotional intelligence, and I step on toes without realizing it, and need to have things explained to me in nice, small words so I can understand.
I am not advocating re-traumatizing yourself for the sake of helping someone who you find triggering. That is not your job. Boundaries are good. Take care of yourself.
But: I think it’s inconsistent and a bit mean to have believe you’ve left Christian fundamentalism and to rail against its treatment of the underprivileged and to claim that you’re an ally—and to choose to publicly label someone as “unsafe” for some intent-to-action clumsiness despite evidence that they’re trying to change and learn, just like you. They may very well be unsafe for you or for others and I’m all for eliminating negative influences from one’s personal life. But I can’t help but think how grateful I have been for the kind people in my life who have chosen to sit with me in my ignorance and inconsistencies and help me unlearn my bigotry without labeling me or shaming me.
Compassion is an act of the imagination, right? Shame is the tool of fundamentalists to silence and control the borders of a community. I don’t want to be right and educated well about intersectionality and feminism and my privilege, and fail to have compassion for those who are not as far along in the learning curve as I might be. I remember what it was like to be there. Do you?
Leaving fundamentalism is more about a laying down an irrational craving to be right (oh, I love you my darling Gryffindors, but…) and a taking up of compassion and imagination and epistemological humility than it is about learning and using the right labels and theories. The ethics of unlearning fundamentalism must go much deeper than just jumping to the other side of your line in the sand.
Safe people aren’t relationally fundamentalist. Safe people are compassionate people.