As I define it, fundamentalist religion is the strict adherence to traditional beliefs and practices of a religion including, but not limited to, the literal interpretation of holy texts. The problem with fundamentalist religion is that it leads people to not only be immune to reason, but also to behave in ways which are harmful to themselves and others.
In its 2012 platform on education, the Republican Party of Texas made a statement that it opposes the teaching of critical thinking skills because it “challeng[es] the student’s fixed beliefs and undermin[es] parental authority.” Why would this be? It is because religious fundamentalists, such as those who hold political sway over the Texas Republicans, believe that unquestioning faith is a supreme virtue. This is also why many fundamentalist Christians fear sending their children to non-religious universities. As Republican Rick Santorum stated “62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it,” which as it turns out is not a true statistic.
Recall that faith is a belief in something which is not supported by evidence. Thus, to unquestioningly adhere to beliefs based on no evidence means that no amount of reason or evidence should be able to change a true believer’s mind. As I explained in my post regarding blind faith, humans naturally rationalize their beliefs and ignore evidence which contradicts them. However, this stubbornness is outright encouraged in fundamentalist religions, which makes them far more immune to reason than other ideologues.
Beyond being unreasonable, fundamentalists are also far more likely to be taken advantage of by politicians and religious authorities. Regarding politics, people often vote for Republican candidates even when they stand for policies that go against their best interest. Why? Because the Republicans use far more religious rhetoric and promote far more socially conservative causes than do the Democrats. As for religious authorities, consider televangelists and faith healers who scam their followers out of millions of dollars, and clergy who successfully molest children for years without ever being held accountable. Trusting those who put up a façade of religious purity leaves many strict theists vulnerable to being hurt and supporting those who do not have humanity’s best interests at heart.
Religious fundamentalists hold onto beliefs and ideas which were devised back when humanity knew much less about science, human psychology, and ethics than we do today. Consider this quote from Abraham Lincoln, the American President who was so progressive that he freed the slaves “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people… while [negroes and whites] do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Despite being far more enlightened than most men of his day, Abraham Lincoln was still a racist by our standards. Religious fundamentalists often adhere to beliefs which were formed far earlier than Lincoln, yet are just as backward as his historically moderate racism.
Fundamentalists have very concrete ideas about how people ought to live, and how society should be run. Those who do not fit their mold are despised as unrepentant sinners and/or agents of evil. Given their conviction, religious fundamentalists do not keep their disdain to themselves. Often, they lash out at those who they dislike, leading to much unnecessary suffering. Consider these examples provided by the ACLU:
The vast majority of successful societies throughout human history have utilized a patriarchal social structure.As such, the traditional view of women is that they are inferior to men, and are often treated poorly as a result. This perspective is reinforced by the world’s major religions, and stridently kept alive by their fundamentalist adherents. For example:
A recent study including over 8,000 people in 7 countries has found that religious individuals are more likely to be depressed than those who are non-religious. On top of that, the most religious tended to be twice as likely to be depressed. While it is probable that depressed people may be more likely to seek emotional benefits from religion, I would argue that for some, religion can do more harm than good. For example, gay teens are 3.4 times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. The homosexual teen suicide hotline “Trevor Lifeline” reported that nearly twice as many calls come from Southern US states than from Northeastern ones. For those who are not familiar, the Southern states are known for their religious conservatism, and the Northeastern for their secularism. Thus, it is likely that at least a portion of these gay teens committed suicide because they felt shame for their innate sexual preference.
Beyond gay teens, religion can also incite shame and guilt for doing or thinking things which are perfectly healthy (e.g. premarital sex, masturbation, doubting beliefs, etc.) This shame may also be coupled with the petrifying fear of spending eternity in hellfire for displeasing God. On top of that, fundamentalist religions prescribe many unnecessary rules of conduct, dress, cuisine, ritual, etc. that can be burdensome to the practitioners. Consider the plight of Islamic women, for example. Living in fear of sexual and physical abuse certainly isn’t conducive to psychological health.
How Fundamentalist Religion is Ruining the World
Radical Islam poses one of the greatest threats to the stability and safety of our society. In 2011, Sunni Muslim terrorists accounted for 70% of the all terrorist murders, and over 95% of suicide bombings are conducted by Muslim extremists. In addition to the violence perpetrated by Muslim terrorists, one of the major tenets of fundamentalist Islamic doctrine is that democracy is in contradiction with the sovereignty of Allah's law. The Hizb ut-Tahrir Movement in particular has gained significant momentum in much of Europe. This sect publicly eschews violence, but regularly holds rallies and protests accompanied by statements such as “Britain will be an Islamic state by the year 2020!” to promote its goal of overthrowing democratic governments in favor of a global caliphate.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution hasn’t set well with religious fundamentalists since its inception. Today in the United States, 35% of Americans believe God created humans in their present form around 10,000 years ago, and 26% believe God guided our evolution. This has led to many battles in religiously conservative states to include curricula regarding intelligent design and creationism as well as anti-evolution messaging in public school science classes. This isn’t a uniquely American problem either, as South Korea nearly passed a law to drop references to evolution in their public school textbooks. This isn’t only a Christian problem either, as only 8% of Egyptians, 11% of Malaysians, 14% of Pakistanis, 16% of Indonesians, and 22% of Turks agree with Darwin’s theory.
So why does this lack of acceptance in the theory of evolution matter? For starters, it is how humans came to exist in our present form, and misleading our children about it robs them of a full understanding of their own humanity. Beyond this, I personally know a person who went to a Christian college that teaches creationism in its biology classes, yet has both an accredited nursing and PA program. This has the potential to endanger public health, as evolution is central to the study of biology and thus medicine.
In addition to these issues, denying evolution undermines trust in science. This is why religious individuals are far more likely to deny global warming than those who are unaffiliated with any religion (Total U.S. population 47%; Unaffiliated with any church 58%; White mainline Protestants 48%; White, non-Hispanic Catholics 44%; Black Protestants 39%; White evangelical Protestants 34%). This matters not only because the vast majority of climate scientists believe it is a real threat, but also because it has the potential to severely diminish humanity’s ability to thrive on this planet.
Ruining our Political Systems
In the United States, the Republican Party has recently been taken over by religious fundamentalists. This means that half of the world’s richest and most powerful country’s government is being influenced by people who are both immune to reason and firm believers in harmful nonsense. This is why in 2011, 1,100 reproductive rights laws were introduced by state lawmakers during a time when the unemployment rate was 8.2% and over 400,000 children remained in the US foster care system. This is also why in 2013, the federal government was shut down in part due to provisions in the Affordable Care Act, which provided free access to contraceptives to women. Finally, it is also why in recent years, we have had one of the least productive Congresses in US history. In short, fundamentalist religion is ruining my country, and in effect, making the entire world much worse off.
Among all topics I’ve covered in my blog, the problem with fundamentalist religion is one of the most difficult to explain succinctly. There are simply too many examples, too many angles of approach, and too little room to fully detail the degree to which fundamentalism is awful for humanity. Ultimately, the problem is that fundamentalists stubbornly believe in harmful ideas and feel compelled by their religious fervor to make life miserable for the rest of us. Given their large numbers and political influence, their negative impact on humanity will likely be felt long after society fully moves away from such belief systems.