Having established that fundamentalism cannot be understood as a literal interpretation of religious texts or religious extremism, can it be understood as a strict adherence to a set of beliefs? This answer seems the most plausible to me, but I have yet to hear anyone explain exactly what this “set of beliefs” is and why it is universal to all religious (and secular) fundamentalists.
At this point, we need to shift our focus to comparative mythology, as my background in this field has guided me in exploring this question. For those unfamiliar with comparative mythology, it is the survey of mythological archetypes, beliefs, stories, themes, and narratives from across many different human cultures in order to discover possible continuities and shared experiences between them. In other words, the comparative mythologists are trying to find common myths and beliefs which are shared by many human cultures. This is fascinating and important work because it reveals the basic mythological framework that underlays all our beliefs about the world, which holds implications for every single field of science and academic inquiry. Every ideology in the world—philosophical, religious, or scientific—can also be understood as a set of basic beliefs, or myths. When a comparative mythologist looks past the surface of an ideology and examines these basic myths, comparing and contrasting them to other ideologies, some very interesting discoveries happen; many opposing ideologies are revealed to be almost identical in their mythology, while other seemingly similar ideologies are revealed as having vastly different mythic structures.
For example, the ideologies of capitalism and communism have been widely presented as polarities—two opposing political and economic worldviews. The Cold War(s) were financed and fought under the guise of these two ideologies duking it out on the global battlefields of history, and many people still believe this narrative. As a comparative mythologist, I see these two ideologies as almost identical in all their basic myths. Both ideologies accept the basic logic, structure, and processes of industrial civilization, they both employ rigid hierarchies to maintain their order, they both rely on Modernist assumptions of Science, and they both use oppressive State power to accomplish their ends. Neither of them question the institutions of Patriarchy or anthropocentrism, the role of technology, the realities of industrial agriculture, or the feasibility of building a system of production predicated on infinite growth while living on a finite planet. They both accept the constructs of linear time, a market economy, and private property, and the only areas where they actually diverge are in their interpretations of how this market should be regulated and how this property should be distributed. When these two ideologies are broken down into their basic myths and compared to other human myths, the differences are hardly discernible.
This is essentially a process of shifting perspective, of changing how we see these ideas. These two ideas may indeed look very similar if your nose is pressed right up against them and you can't see the larger context, but if you sit back and shift your gaze to encompass all the many ways that humans have found to live on this planet, the differences become hardly distinguishable. To return to the question at hand, what might comparative mythology reveal about fundamentalism? What do fundamentalists from Christianism, Islamism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have in common?
In comparing the basic myths of fundamentalist communities and cultures across the religious spectrum, there are striking similarities between all of these different religious groups. Fundamentalist Christian mythology is indistinguishable from fundamentalist Muslim mythology, fundamentalist Hindu mythology, fundamentalist Buddhist mythology, etc. In fact, if one were to examine fundamentalist groups based purely on their basic assumptions about the world, you would be hard pressed to find any differences at all.
All fundamentalists share a dedication to ten basic myths; these ten myths represent my attempts at summarizing and demystifying the basic philosophical assumptions of civilization: Anthropocentrism, Androcentrism, Objectification, Hierarchy, Power, Progress, Morality, Atomization, Dualism, and Property. As a full exploration of these myths would require much more time and space than this essay allows for and as I have already outlined the basic structure of these myths elsewhere, I will leave it up to the reader to explore the implications of these myths on their own.1
Although this list of ten myths may seem daunting to some, they are actually quite obvious when you see them playing out in your daily life, as they represent the most basic assumptions of civilization. As nearly every human alive today has been raised and inculcated in the logic and processes of civilization since your conception (a process known as domestication), these myths are not foreign to you at all. They are encoded into the language that I am using as I write this, they are reinforced with every economic transaction you participate in, they are hidden in every relationship you have ever had, they influence how you understand and create meaning out of the world around you, and they are the motives behind your every action. As a member of civilization, you are manifesting and perpetuating these myths all the time, whether you are aware of it or not and whether you intellectually agree with them or not. Of course, this is not to imply that everyone who participates in civilization is a fundamentalist, it is merely to point out the universal nature of these myths. The fundamentalists distinguish themselves from the rest of us through their unabashed devotion, acceptance, and dedication to these ten fundamentals of civilization.
Every fundamentalist culture is heavily Patriarchal and masculine (Androcentrism), every one of them relies on strict Hierarchy within their ranks, they each ignore and disrespect the sentience and value of other forms of life (Anthropocentrism), they all believe that certain places, people, animals, things, and ideas can be owned (Property), they always long for paradise and are terrified of their origins (Progress), they all rely on coercive and violent Power to control the actions and beliefs of their members, they are all committed to Objectification by establishing clear boundaries for membership into their community, they are fixated on dividing the world into two essentially distinct planes of reality (Dualism), there is always faith in an external Morality to guide their actions, and they all reject holistic thinking or ecological frameworks (Atomization).2
To put it simply, fundamentalists are simply those humans who are most firmly committed to the project of civilization, they represent the extreme boundaries of human domestication. Within this globalized all-encompassing culture of civilization, the fundamentalists have simply taken our myths to their logical conclusions. No matter what tradition someone belongs to, when someone is deeply traumatized and domesticated they end up bringing these experiences to the tabula rasa of a certain holy scripture and religious tradition and... sure enough, they are guaranteed to find validation for their beliefs therein. Religious traditions and texts allow these wounded humans to externalize their actions, give them a framework for projecting their trauma/domestication onto the world, and allow them to displace any accountability for their actions onto “God's will.” Many people do not even need a religious framework in order to enact these myths, as the recent rise of secular fundamentalism demonstrates.3
I realize that this mythological explanation may come across as vague to many, and I attribute that to the enormity and difficulty of describing these myths to those unfamiliar with this way of thinking, as well as a generally myopic perspective on religious issues that is rarely challenged. Whether or not you agree with my summary of the ten basic myths of civilization, I believe that the basic framework I laid out is fairly intuitive to most people, as the similarities between Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu fundamentalists is often used as a point of humor in pop culture.4 If you strip away all the trappings, costumes, rituals, languages, and surfaces of these groups, what they have in common is a striking dedication to all of the same basic ideas, and I think this is very important to understand. These various religions are merely different manifestations of the same basic belief system; they are different outfits on the same beast. Once we recognize this, we will realize that not only is fundamentalism a universal and systemic problem, but it is one that we all carry the potentiality for under the right circumstances. As domesticated humans, we are all potential fundamentalists, and I would posit that this is why the actions of these groups fascinate and horrify us. When the Westboro Baptist Church performs their homophobic antics, maybe they are simply holding up a mirror to our deeply Patriarchal, masculine, and sex-phobic culture. When Daesh publishes their grisly execution videos, perhaps they do so knowing full well that our culture cannot resist such spectacles of violence, as we are secretly fascinated by those who take our myths to their logical conclusions. When the Neo-Zionists carry out their violent rhetoric on Palestinian villages, maybe they are only carrying out the wishes of an entire nation who, no matter what leftist rhetoric they coat it with, still believes that there is something inherently different between them and other races/forms of life. When the 969 Movement Buddhists massacre entire villages of Rohingya Muslims, is it possible that they are merely playing out the mythology of not only an entire religion, but an entire civilization?
Due both to my personal experiences with fundamentalism and my academic pursuits in this field, I believe that this cultural mirroring is not only a possibility, but a sobering reality that holds vital information for anyone interested in understanding their own mythological processes and beliefs. When we look at situations that horrify us with the realization that we are looking at our own mythology being played out in the world and taken to its logical extent, we are granted a glimpse into our own beliefs, patterns, and narratives that we are participating in. This is not an easy or comfortable experience, but for those interested in what lies beyond the incessant lies and mystifying illusions propagated by corporate media outlets and religious demagogues, this can be a very valuable and meaningful process.
Jeriah Bowser is an autodidactic student of philosophy, sociology, psychology, environmental studies, religion, anthropology, and theology. His tumultuous upbringing and personal experiences with incarceration and injustice have given him a passion for social justice and equality, and he actively pursues his vision for a better world. His careers as a wilderness guide, survival school teacher, and paraprofessional therapist have given him a unique outlook on the world and how humans fit into it. Jeriah’s dream is to run naked through the woods, eating berries and roots, making primitive tools, tracking coyotes, and writing anarchist theory on birch bark. When he’s not lost in the wilderness, he loves spending time with his wife Angie and his cat Bruce.
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