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Hullabaloo


Sunday, December 05, 2004

 
Evolutionary Theology

Those of you who follow the religious beat more closely than I do have probably seen this article called The Fundamentalist Agenda, by Davidson Loehr. I may not have religious experiences, but I do have epiphanies and reading this was one.

From 1988 to 1993, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored an interdisciplinary study known as The Fundamentalism Project, the largest such study ever done. More than 100 scholars from all over the world took part, reporting on every imaginable kind of fundamentalism. And what they discovered was that the agenda of all fundamentalist movements in the world is virtually identical, regardless of religion or culture.


The five characteristics are

1) Men rule the roost and make the rules. Women are support staff and for reasons easy to imagine, homosexuality is intolerable.

2) all rules must apply to all people, no pluralism.

3) the rules must be precisely communicated to the next generation

4) "they spurn the modern, and want to return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed. (Several of the scholars observed a strong and deep resemblance between fundamentalism and fascism. Both have almost identical agendas. Men are on top, women are subservient, there is one rigid set of rules, with police and military might to enforce them, and education is tightly controlled by the state. One scholar suggested that it's helpful to understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and fascism as political fundamentalism. The phrase 'overcoming the modern' is a fascist slogan dating back to at least 1941.)"

5) Fundamentalists deny history in a "radical and idiosyncratic way."

All of this is interesting and it's interesting because it crosses all religions, cultural and regional boundries. When the scientists were presenting their abstracts, "several noted that all their papers were sounding alike, reporting on 'species' when studying the 'genus' was called for, that there were strong family resemblances between all fundamentalisms, even when the religions had had no contact, no way to influence each other."

Now, evolutionary psychology theories of the moment can be awfully facile because mostly they reinforce certain social norms that can easily be explained in other ways. (No Virginia, women do not necessarily practise fidelity and men do not "need" to spread their seed far and wide because of their alleged biological programming. It's a lot more complicated than that.) Still, this explanation for fundamentalism --- and more importantly perhaps, why it rears its ugly head from time to time is very thought provoking:

The only way all fundamentalisms can have the same agenda is if the agenda preceded all the religions. And it did. Fundamentalist behaviors are familiar because we've all seen them so many times. These men are acting the role of “alpha males” who define the boundaries of their group's territory and the norms and behaviors that define members of their in-group. These are the behaviors of territorial species in which males are stronger than females. In biological terms, these are the characteristic behaviors of sexually dimorphous territorial animals. Males set and enforce the rules, females obey the males and raise the children; there is a clear separation between the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is protected; outsiders are expelled or fought.

It is easier to account for this set of behavioral biases as part of the common evolutionary heritage of our species than to argue that it is simply a monumental coincidence that the social and behavioral agendas of all fundamentalisms and fascisms are essentially identical.

What conservatives are conserving is the biological default setting of our species, which has strong family resemblances to the default setting of thousands of other species. This means that when fundamentalists say they are obeying the word of God, they have severely understated the authority for their position. The real authority behind this behavioral scheme is millions of years older than all the religions and all the gods there have ever been. It is the picture of life that gave birth to most of the gods as its projected champions.

Fundamentalism is absolutely natural, ancient, powerful—and inadequate. It's a means of structuring relationships that evolved when we lived in troops of 150 or less. But in the modern world, it's completely incapable of the nuance or flexibility needed to structure humane societies.


Perhaps it is facile to suggest that these people are less evolved but well...if the shoe fits. I actually think this is a fairly decent explanation for the phenomenon.

The author goes on, however, to suggest that the reason for fundamentalism's rise is that liberalism has failed to properly incorporate progress into society which leaves many people uncomfortable thus "defaulting" to the basic human response.

But for the liberal impulse to lead, liberals must remain in contact with the center of our territorial instinct and our need for a structure of responsibilities. Fundamentalist uprisings are a sign that the liberals have failed to provide an adequate and balanced vision, that they have not found a vision that attracts enough people to become stable.

Just as it's no coincidence that all fundamentalisms have similar agendas, it's also no coincidence that the most successful liberal advances tend to wrap their expanded definitions in what sound like conservative categories.

John F. Kennedy's most famous line sounds like the terrifying dictate of the world's most arrogant fascist: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Imagine that line coming from Hitler, Khomeini, Mullah Omar, or Jerry Falwell. It is a conservative, even a fascist, slogan. Yet Kennedy used it to effect significant liberal transformations in our society. Under that umbrella he created the Peace Corps and vista programs and through them enlisted many young people to extend our hand to those we had not before seen as belonging to our in-group.

Likewise, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the rhetoric of a conservative vision to promote his liberal redefinition of the members of our in-group. When he defined all Americans as the children of God, those words could sound like the battle-cry of an American Taliban on the verge of putting a Bible in every school, a catechism in every legislature. Instead, King used that cry to include Americans of all colors in the sacred and protected group of “all God's children”—which was just what many white Southerners were arguing against forty years ago.

When liberal visions work, it's because they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory.


He's basically saying that in order to pave the way for change, liberals have to first be aware of the sacred symbols and rhetoric of traditionalism and then attempt to harness those symbols to advance our cause. I think there is some truth in that.

The Bible is one, of course, but so are the "sacred" texts of our nation, those that outline the rules and beliefs of our territory and tribe. Those symbols and totems are powerful mojo for the other side if we don't lay claim to them. They mean more than just surface martial nationalistic nonsense --- indeed, if this thesis is true, they may be more powerful than Christian fundamentalism. At the very least, liberals should embrace the symbols like the flag and the constitution and all the apple pie traditions with the knowledge that if we don't, a more pernicious force will. It's about the power of deeply held territorial impulses. Christianity and Islam are only a couple of thousand years old. As the author says, the [fundamentalists] have "severely understated the authority for their position." Perhaps we should stake that authority for our side in service of our ideals.

I can think of a few ways we might do this. The first that comes to mind is to pit fundamentalism against territory. If this retreat to fundamentalism is really a default to primitive biology, then we can frame this as America vs the fundamentalists. And lucky for us, it's easy to do and will confuse the shit out of the right. We have a built in boogie man fundamentalist named Osama on whom we can pin all this ANTI-AMERICAN fundamentalist dogma while subtly drawing the obvious parallels between him and the homegrown variety.

We start by having the womens' groups decrying the Islamic FUNDAMENTALIST view of womens rights. These FUNDAMENTALISTS want to roll back the clock and make women answer to men. In AMERICA we don't believe in that. Then we have the Human Rights Campaign loudly criticizing the Islamic FUNDAMENTALISTS for it's treatment of gays. In AMERICA we believe that all people have inalienable rights. The ACLU puts out a statement about the lack of civil liberties in Islamic FUNDAMENTALIST theocracies. In AMERICA we believe in the Bill of Rights, not the word of unelected mullahs.

You got a problem with that Jerry? Pat? Karl????

Pit American liberalism against Islamic Fundamentalism. Since it's pretty much exactly like Christian fundamentalism, perhaps at least a few people will draw the obvious conclusions. But more importantly, it places us with, as the author says, "one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in “our” territory." This way we define the territory as being ours while at the same time placing the fundamentalists firmly outside of it by using the symbols of territory instead of religion.

I am concluding more and more that we are dealing with a pre-modern political situation in a post modern world. It's not about issues, it's about tribal identity. We have to start thinking in terms of how to communicate our ideals and our vision in symbolic terms. Go for the gut, not the head. My view is that we can do this by using our sacred political symbols to illustrate what we believe in. People use the Bible and that's just fine. But it isn't the only game in town. "This Land Is Your Land" can bring a tear to the eye as well. And if this fellow is correct in that religion is being used in service of something far more primal than we realize then there is definitely more than one way to skin a cat.

I'd be interested in hearing other ideas you may have about how we might communicate by keeping "one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin," without compromising our principles or our agenda.

(And yes, I've read Lakoff. He's great, but we need to consider not only framing, but the context of the argument and the "feelings" into which we want to tap. I think this issue of territorial impulse and biological default settings in times of rapid social change is one way to think about it. There are, undoubtedly many others.)


Thanks to this exceptional rundown of the "abstinence only" story from Barbara O'Brien, from which I got the link to the article. I highly recommend you read both if you are interested in this topic.


Update: My apologies to Barbara O'Brien, whose name I got wrong and have since corrected.