The World of the Fundamentalist
The following is from the book:
Leaving the Fold: A Guide for former fundamentalists and others leaving their religion by Marlene Winell, Ph.D. (2006)

  1. Denigration of Self
  2. Discrediting of the World
  3. Group Pressure
  4. The Power of Authority
  5. Thought Control
  6. Limited Information
  7. Thought Stopping
  8. Distortion of Language
  9. Closed System of Logic

1. Denigration of Self

In the fundamentalist system, the self must be rejected because it is essentially bad and cannot be trusted. The first step in convincing new converts is to destroy their faith in themselves. Missionaries who confront other cultures begin by convincing people that they are failures and need God Thus it makes sense that people who are struggling with their lives are much more receptive to proselytizing. Hassan (1998) has pointed out that religious recruiters are adept at attracting people who are vulnerable because of great personal stress in their lives. Most people experience feelings of inadequacy at some time; these feelings are then exaggerated and exploited.

The assault on the self goes beyond guilt for sin. If that were the case, most people could reasonably be forgiven by virtue of their own remorse and willingness to make amends. Few of us deserve to be crucified. The key is that you are considered fundamentally wrong and inept, beginning with the doctrine of original sin. Everything about you is flawed, and you desperately need to be salvaged by God.

The damage to self is more than hurt self-esteem. Your confidence in your own judgment is destroyed. As an empty shell, you are then open and vulnerable to indoctrination because you cannot trust your own thinking. Your thoughts are inadequate, your feelings are irrelevant or misleading, and your basic drives are selfish and destructive. You cannot challenge the religious system because your critical abilities are discredited and your intuitions rendered worthless. Illustrating the dependence that is fostered, Jerry Falwell (1982) said, "Start your day off by ridding yourself of self-reliance."

Adding power to this manipulation is the ever-broadening definition of sin. The definition "falling short of the glory of God," makes it appear true that "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23). While the average person may claim feeling like "a good person" this idea is easily destroyed by evangelicals. Christ is used as the standard of acceptability, so any personal criteria you may have is irrelevant and further proof of your pride and error. When humans are seen as basically unfit to have contact with God, the chasm is huge. You can then be convinced that the plan of salvation through Christ's dramatic intervention is the only solution.

Once you are a believer and no longer have your own mind to rely on, it becomes possible to accept everything you are taught. You can accommodate incredible problems in the religion because you need to avoid cognitive dissonance, as discussed earlier. The stretching of credulity in fundamentalist Christianity is a frequent occurrence. Followers are expected to believe contradictory, nonsensical, and offensive "true stories" in the Bible and church teachings. This serves to strengthen blind adherence because your intuitive reactions have been annihilated. For example, you are supposed to believe you should follow the example of the widow who harassed the "unjust" judge to avenge her adversary (Luke 18:1-8). God is compared to a wicked and lazy judge and the believer is exhorted to pray marathon-fashion for selfish vengeance. If this were not in the Bible, the Christian would probably consider it blasphemous.

Another humorous, albeit pathetic, example is a common church teaching about the earth's fossil record. The line is that God created the supposed evidence of evolution. He planted the dinosaur bones and carbon-14 data in order to test our faith. The test is whether we believe the Word of God in Genesis or allow ourselves to be fooled by the wisdom of the world. That is, would we be so sinful as to trust our perceptions of what we see in front of us? Never is it thought that God's behavior is dishonest and crafty, hardly worthy of a god.

The most serious demand for unquestioned belief is, of course, the atonement. First the believer is to suspend familiar notions of justice, such as punishment of the guilty as opposed to an innocent party. You are then expected to accept the necessity of blood sacrifice for sin; that wrongdoing must be paid for, and not necessarily in proportion to the crime. A father's sacrifice of his innocent son is supposed to be not only just but generous and wonderful. Then the temporary three-day death of this one person is supposed to wipe out all the wrongdoing and ineptitude of a species. And finally, you should believe that all you need do to erase responsibility for your actions and enter a haven of eternal reward is to believe. It's no wonder that once a convert has wrapped his or her mind around this story, anything can be accepted as truth. The rest of fundamentalist doctrine can be easily swallowed, including Jonah.

(One reason the Christian message works in the West is the sheer familiarity of it. It is a cultural tradition that "Christ died for you." When missionaries preach to unindoctrinated listeners, the challenging part is explaining the atonement. For those not willing to give up their integrity just yet, the story simply lacks plausibility. People from other cultures have very similar stories in their own mythology.1)

2. Discrediting of the World

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

This imagery of being preyed upon illustrates the paranoia of fundamentalism. With its narrow, tunnel vision, most of human knowledge and activity is rejected.

The world of the fundamentalist does not allow for processing new information from the environment. The "Word of God," is absolute and unchanging. Thus while secular people think of the human race, and themselves, as individuals, as maturing and evolving, the conservative Christian believes that God has spoken once and for all time. To stay faithful then, the believer must discount worldly knowledge and be shielded from alternative, "ungodly" viewpoints. The more militant believer also finds it necessary to defend God from modernism.

The Church (the bride of Christ), is considered the repository of all that is valuable, waiting patiently to be "caught up with Christ." Believers are to be strangers and pilgrims on Earth, living cautiously among unbelievers who are under Satan's rule. In fact, the entire Earth is seen as fallen and under evil influence, including animals and the natural environment. The Earth is considered a temporary home for humans only, a location for the biblical drama. A popular church song says, "This world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through."

This controlled focus on the spiritual and the afterlife instructs Christians to maintain an aloofness from the world, and to withdraw any emotional investment from worldly affairs. Thus the first reason to discredit the world is because it is simply irrelevant. The things of this world are vastly inferior to "things above." For the devout Christian longing to be with God, this can amount to a death wish. Taken to the extreme, in cultlike groups it can even lead to suicide.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3)

The biblical image of the Christian life that fundamentalists recognize is one of total immersion. Believers are to turn to each other for support and reinforcement of their beliefs. Outsiders are discredited as sources of valid information or enrichment simply by virtue of being unbelievers. The substantive content of anything from a worldly source is immediately suspect, and often dismissed out of hand. Information that appears good is especially suspect because believers are taught that Satan can appear as an "angel of light." Worldly knowledge that seems reasonable is labeled "temptation."

In this framework, human wisdom is called folly. Even Jesus expressed an attitude of anti-intellectualism, thanking God for hiding truth from the wise and revealing it to babes (Matthew 11:25). The fundamentalist thus develops contempt for most human efforts.

This attitude effectively limits Christians being receptive to instruction only within their closed circle. The world, according to the Bible, is not only irrelevant but inherently bad. To be involved in the world—to be "worldly"—is sinful. Believers must choose between God and "the world." This attitude is much more than mere arrogance about a superior way of life; it means taking a life-and-death stand against the secular.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)

In the fundamentalist view, unbelievers have only two relevant attributes: They are potential converts and sources of temptation. As objects of evangelism, they are called "crops to be harvested," "sheep to be found," and "fish to be netted." Because of the danger of worldly influence (much like a contagious disease), relationships with "them" must be handled gingerly. Contacts must be superficial, geared toward evangelism only, and cut short if there is not a positive response. Since Christians are already full of truth, there is no need for them to listen, nothing for them to learn, and much for them to lose by admitting alternative views into their consciousness.

This tunnel vision might be summarized as trusting "the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible." Anything that is not strictly biblical, that is, anything from outside the fundamentalist group, is suspect. By this definition, the secular humanists—educators, mental-health professionals, liberal politicians—all offer a dangerous false gospel.

Believers are also taught to fear "false prophets." The Bible warns against other religious leaders with appealing messages who do not preach the true gospel. The Antichrist is sometimes considered a spirit, present in unbelievers and dangerous. The Bible's ambiguity, along with the danger of eternal damnation for making a misjudgment, effectively keeps believers relying on their church leaders for correct doctrine. Fundamentalism teaches that there is only one way. All others, no matter how attractive, or how strong the testimonials, are Satan's tricks (or sometimes God's, as punishment, for instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world ... They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. (John 4:1,5)

To make things more confusing (and controlling), there is constant debate in church circles over whether various teachings or practices are "of God." This is always an either/or argument because of the dominance of black-and-white thinking. For safety's sake, much is then relegated to being "of the world" and thus discredited. Consequently alternatives are cut off and rich human knowledge lost—most of science, social science, the arts and humanities.

The true believer, then, is to trust neither inner guidance nor any information from the environment. Conveniently for the Church, this paranoia leaves the person as vulnerable in the hands of religious leaders as a child in the home of abusive parents.

3. Group Pressure

A born again Christian gains entry into an elite society—the family of God. While the rest of the world is the out-group, the inner circle of believers becomes the crucial in-group. Particularly for the new believer, adhering to the expectations of the group is very important. Fundamentalists do not typically read and interpret the Bible on their own, leading private Christian lives. Rather the church group is considered vital and the minister or Bible group leader essential for "correct" interpretation of God's word.

Conformity is reinforced within the group. Members feel more secure when someone gives their testimony, when doctrines and beliefs are repeated. Self-criticism is encouraged, individual differences discouraged. Expressing doubts or ideas that are unorthodox usually means punishment of some kind, from silence to criticism to outright ostracism. This group approval or disapproval is powerful enough to manipulate behavior. Especially for those who are attracted to the social support of a religion, the threat of shame is an effective deterrent for any deviance.

Thus a major requirement in fundamentalist circles is "to fellowship." Going it alone as a believer is considered both dangerous and arrogant. Attending church, Bible study, and prayer meeting is expected, along with a willingness to participate in "testimonies." While not stated explicitly, you are also expected to socialize solely with Christians. The church group usually has behavioral rules for living daily life, and non-conformity with these rules has consequences of disapproval and censure. Believers are also expected to maintain a private religious program of Bible reading, prayer, and witnessing. Difficulties in one's life are chalked up to some failure of this regular devotion. These demands serve to keep the controlling influence of the group intact. One young woman who felt abused in this way by her church was Tasha:

"My church emphasized being part of God's army—not God's love—and that the church was only as strong as the weakest member. I felt shame because I knew I was the weakest and was always told what was wrong with me."

4. The Power of Authority

Normally, there are a variety of sources of knowledge in life. People look to the evidence of their own senses, the results of scientific study, life experience, their own intuitions and thought processes. Secular people assume that new information can be discovered through systematic investigation. In the fundamentalist Christian mindset, however, the only respected source of knowledge is authority. The ultimate authority is God, and the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, absolute and unchanging. This view of knowledge serves to further insulate and control the believer. Truth is not found; it is revealed:

Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)

Facts are irrelevant in this system. If a belief is in place, based on an interpretation of revealed truth, it doesn't matter what worldly discoveries take place. I recently listened to a radio talk show in which the host was discussing genetic evidence of homosexuality. A Christian caller disputed the data and insisted that homosexuality was wrong and that it was a choice, and he did so even after admitting he could not change his own heterosexual orientation simply by choice. Outsiders often find it amazing that believers treat facts as if they simply don't matter, but this style of thinking is internally consistent when you respect only authority.

In the fundamentalist system, the idea of being a "child of God" has a charm that many relate to. You remain a child, dependent on and cared for by your heavenly father. You never have to learn self-reliance or turn to yourself for strength and wisdom. And you have no source of knowledge but outside authority. Like the hymn says, you simply "trust and obey," much like a child should listen to a parent about bedtime or staying out of the street. Churches exploit this belief and extend their own control using the verse "Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will give an account" (Hebrews 13:17).

5. Thought Control

So tenaciously should we cling to the world revealed by the gospel, that were I to see all the Angels of Heaven coming down to me to tell me something different, not only would I not be tempted to doubt a single syllable, but I would shut my eyes and stop my ears, for they would not deserve to be either seen or heard.
Martin Luther
(Hoffer 1951)

True believers, like Martin Luther, must keep strict control of their thoughts. The Church helps them do so with both support for conformity and with threats. A number of thought-control techniques are used: Believers are indoctrinated with beliefs on every subject, they are taught to think in black/white, good/bad terms, information is filtered, words are controlled, truth is owned, and the system claims answers to all problems.

6. Limited Information

Fundamentalist churches, schools, and families do not provide information about other belief systems and usually discourage members from reading widely. In very conservative groups, college education is frowned upon. Christian groups are known for banning books and objecting to certain curricula, such as the teaching of evolution. Clearly there is a fear that too much outside information will threaten faith, so it should be controlled. Children grow up thinking that what they have been taught is all there is. If you control the information people receive, you restrict their ability to think.

7. Thought Stopping

A big part of the Christian's battle with sin is considered mental. Imagining evil deeds is sinful. Thinking in ways that are contrary to orthodox doctrine is dangerously sinful. Therefore, believers are taught techniques to prevent too much independent thinking. The open mind is considered to be vulnerable to Satan's influence. The faithful are told to "pray without ceasing," that is, to fill their minds with acceptable thoughts so that no others can occur. Another teaching is to say "Get thee behind me, Satan!" when you are feeling tempted. Doubts about the Christian gospel are considered temptations of Satan. Seemingly valid criticisms of Christianity are just Satan's lies.

Sandy was a member of my religious-recovery support group. As a bright, inquisitive college student, he was learning to respect his growing ability to analyze issues. He went to his pastor with questions about Christianity. The pastor reassured Sandy and cut the discussion short. Sandy went to him again and wanted to discuss serious doubts. He was in turmoil, afraid of what might become of his childhood faith. The pastor listened briefly and finally said, "You know, Sandy, it's time we call this what it is—sin." Sandy never went back, unwilling to accept a religion that made thinking a sin.

8. Distortion of Language2

In fundamentalist circles and in the Bible, many words are used in unique ways, with distinct meanings. Part of joining the culture is learning to use those words. The language changes may appear subtle and innocent in the beginning, but eventually, through repetition, believers' thoughts become controlled by the very words that are used to describe reality and the specific meanings that are assigned by the system. This manipulation of thought is powerful and nearly invisible. (Think about how difficult it is to describe something that has no name to another person—a sensation, an emotion, or a particular shade of color. You may not even be able to think of such a thing. Our memories and thoughts, as well as communication, depend on our having the right words.)

Specific words are usurped and misused, with the effect of changing and shaping basic assumptions. Edmund Cohen, in his book The Mind of the Bible-Believer (1988), calls it "logicide," the killing of words. He says that in Christianity, some key words that are also important in human experience generally, are redefined and become so overburdened with ponderous, contrived, and dissonant meanings that they are "put out of commission entirely as vehicles for articulate thought or communication." He examines the distortions of the words life, death, truth, wisdom, righteousness, justice, liberty, bondage, love, hate, will, grace, witness, and word.

For example, Cohen points out that wisdom is used so as to exclude any basis except divine commandment. Human wisdom is disparaged as "foolishness" and equated with wickedness:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:18-21)

The definition of wisdom in this system is a simple tautology: Since wisdom is the province of God, anything God does is "just," "wise," and "righteous," even though it seems wrong to humans. As Cohen points out, God is defined in terms of these words and they are all redefined in terms of him. Any wisdom from other sources is declared null and void. People who have contributed in art, science, and politics are absurdly called "foolish" and "wicked" because they brought something other than the Christian gospel. Likewise truth in the Bible does not refer to facts or sincerity, but rather to correct scriptural doctrine. And a lie is any deviation from such doctrine: "Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?" (1 John 2:22). The use of the word truth to mean acceptable doctrine makes the doctrine more attractive to a potential convert, while lie serves to alienate believers from the surrounding world.

Freedom3 in the Bible also means something very different from our usual notion of being able to make choices. It compares more closely to being free of lice. In the following verse, it is clear that the believer is no closer to having free will. Freedom simply means "available for subjection to God" instead of to sin.

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)

With these new definitions, it becomes interesting to look at that old favorite, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).

Another potent example of this manipulation of language is the use of love, which translates to obedience:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments ... He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. (John 14:15,21)

Cohen points out that just as truth is torn away from the realm of fact, love is removed from the realm of human affections. Human love is disparaged as frail and fickle, while agape—unselfish, altruistic love that is from God love—is held up as the ideal. This can appeal greatly to converts disappointed with their human relationships. Yet, it has little to do with what we usually think of as love: affection, sharing thoughts and feelings, caring, accepting, forgiving, empathizing, touching, listening, giving, respecting, helping, appreciating, supporting, and so on. It is a mental activity of adhering to code. A Christian "loves" a sinner because God "loves" the sinner and one must follow suit. Love to the evangelical is simply a willingness to put up with a sinner in order to obey the commission to preach the gospel. Thus the fundamentalist can say, without noticing the inconsistency, "I love the sinner, but not the sin." To the uninitiated, this is a strange kind of love, that tries to divorce persons from their activities and then judges those activities with amazing ferocity. In this type of love, there is no desire to know or be known, which in our everyday understanding, underlies the condition of love. Normally, the development of intimacy in human relations involves increasing levels of self-disclosure and mutual acceptance based on equal standing. In contrast, the Christian preaching the gospel is by no means acting vulnerable, while working hard to find a vulnerable spot in the potential proselyte.

Redefining words is also a way to control emotions. Hassan (1988) gives an example of this in the way happiness is used:

In order to control someone through his or her emotions, feelings often have to be redefined. Happiness, for example, is a feeling everyone desires. However, if happiness is defined as being closer to God, and God is unhappy (as He apparently is in many religious cults), then the way to be happy is to be unhappy. Happiness, therefore, consists in suffering so you can grow closer to God.

In the fundamentalist context, happiness usually means a kind of contentment or acceptance. Emotionality is muted. Because it is not acceptable to pursue personal pleasure in raw form, feelings of sheer exuberance are suspect. Certainly, a deep immersion in sensory experience is unacceptable. True happiness consists of simply being close to God, and the best emotion you can expect is serenity.

Another aspect of language control relates to the concept of mystical manipulation. Certain words are elevated to special status and take on a superstitious quality. Any references to God or Jesus are put in the category of "taking the Lord's name in vain" when used in ways that are not up to code. In conservative circles, this goes beyond using God or Jesus as an exclamation and includes slang words such as gee and golly. Words like damn are prohibited because of their religious significance, along with all the usual "bad language" condemned in polite society. The difference in the fundamentalist context is the strange degree to which words are treated as real. Christians become paranoid about the mere utterance of a word, worrying about the consequences of blasphemy, which carries a threat of eternal damnation.

Giving words a superstitious power works to unconsciously control people through fear. A phobia about words can continue even after believer leaves the fold, lending a residual power to the former belief system. One evening in my religious recovery group, we had a humorous time taking turns saying "shit." It was very difficult for one woman who finally laughed with relief.

9. Closed System of Logic

All scripture is inspired by God. (2 Timothy 3:16)

Fundamentalist Christianity rests on circular reasoning and pat answers. The belief system is brilliantly constructed to provide its own support—if you don't look too closely at the logic. It is a closed system, satisfied with its own internal evidence of truth. It is closed in that any information or argument from outside is rejected a priori because, as discussed above, it is a "lie," not of the "truth."

All questions are answered within the belief system itself, usually with circular reasoning, for example:

Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6)

The tautology in this passage is absurd when you think about it, but deceptive and powerful for the person fearing for salvation. In essence, it says "We're right and the world is wrong because we say so and the proof of being of God is whether someone listens to us, while the proof of being wrong is listening to them."

There is no question for which there is not some kind of answer, and these answers are nondisprovable, using the internal terminology and assumptions of the system and therefore appearing convincing to the person wanting very much to believe. This seeming defeat of all criticism constitutes a masterful manipulation. The new convert is often enormously impressed with the seasoned believer who can repeat all of the canned responses, most of which either "answer" simply by denying the validity of the question or by evoking the perfection of God and the sinfulness of mankind, as some examples show:

Q: I have accepted Jesus as my Savior, but I don't feel any different.
A: Being saved is not about feelings, it's about obeying the Word of God.
Q: How is it fair for millions of people who have never heard of Christ to go to hell?
A: God is just and we must trust Him to make those judgments. Just because you don't believe in hell doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Q: What if you're the one that's wrong about this? We can't really know for sure, can we?
A: I'll be okay either way, whereas you are taking a great risk. If you accept Jesus, there's nothing to lose.4
Q: I see a lot of Christians that are no better than anyone else.
A: Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven. You aren't supposed to look at other people for examples. Jesus is our only role model.
Q: What about other religions that also claim to know God?
A: Humans will naturally seek relationship with God, and many false religions have grown up. It only proves that man needs God, not that they are true.

Another aspect of this closed system is the way all of your personal experiences can be explained. If good things happen, God is blessing you. If bad things happen, God is teaching you. No matter what, you cannot fault God or the religion. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 you are told that nothing is too hard for you to handle. The God who tortured Job was okay because "He wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands heal" (Job 5:17,18). So if you are having a problem, it is you who are wrong and you must rearrange your perceptions. This is a masterful manipulation, sufficient to make you feel crazy if you do not mold you mind.

Fundamentalists are manipulated by:

It's very frightening to imagine that it's all wrong. The trap that people get into is being afraid—taught to be afraid—to doubt any piece of the wall. If any chunk appears in the wall, the damn thing is going to come down, and not only are you going to hell, but you're going to have enormous uncertainties about everything—what's right to do, what's wrong to do, what's smart to do, what's not smart to do, because it was all spelled out.

"Tear down the wall!"
—Pink Floyd

The above is from the book:

1. See Comparative Religion

2. See The Language War by Robin Tolmach Lakoff (2001)

3. See Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea by George Lakoff (2006)

4. See Belief, Not The Safe Side by Rev. Robert Taylor (1831 sermon)

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