Henry Reed is an author, lecturer, psychologist, and teacher. This book review appeared in the January 2010 issue of Venture Inward, the magazine of Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E. (www.EdgarCayce.org) It’s a good reminder that it’s always easier to see the mote in the other person’s eye than the beam in one’s own.
Let’s Tame our Inner Fundamentalist
by Henry Reed
In today’s news, we hear a lot about Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. The implication is that they are extremists, non-rational folks who’ve become carried away with their rigid views, creating consternation, at least, if not downright trouble, for the rest of us. What is it about fundamentalism that seems so contagious and yet despicable? One answer to this question can be found in examining the “open-minded” person’s condescending attitude toward other people’s fundamentalism: “It’s patently obvious that these fundamentalists are misguided, as I’m confident that if they only were aware of what most thinking people like myself know, they’d come over to my viewpoint.” Clearly, fundamentalism is contagious, often inspiring an opposing, fundamentalist perspective. It seems that fundamentalism is a fundamental attribute of human nature.
I’ve come across a book that spells out the nature of fundamentalism as it resides in every human brain and psyche. The Fundamentalist Mind: How Polarized Thinking Imperils us All (Quest Books). The author, Stephen Larsen, Ph.D., a psychology professor retired from SUNY and a transpersonal therapist of wide experience, presents the case for understanding fundamentalism as a defensive strategy of the human mind when it encounters fearful realities.
Looking first at brain function, Dr. Larsen notes that normally the two sides of the brain, left and right hemisphere, communicate with each other and balance their perspectives. Under conditions of high arousal, however, especially fear, the primitive part of our brain gets excited, and the hemispheric communication breaks down, leading to black and white, or polarized thinking. Often, one side of the brain becomes highly dominant, leaving the functioning of the other side repressed, leaving us highly vulnerable to fundamentalism.
Psychologically speaking, people tend to be more creative when relaxed, but more prone to habitual, rigid thinking when tense. In case you held the fundamentalist view that fundamentalism exists only among some Christians and Muslims, it’s time to open your mind to its universal presence, including, perhaps, within yourself. A simple way to observe it is to note that whenever you get uptight, you tend to engage in either-or thinking.
Being a long time understudy of Joseph Campbell (Dr. Larsen established the Joseph Campbell Foundation and was Campbell’s designated biographer), the author provides a transpersonal, mythical perspective on the development of fundamentalism. Do not underestimate humanity’s basic need for meaning, he warns us, for understanding our place in the world, and to make sense of our experiences in life. In stable times, we have our gods firmly in place and our life in the universe flows in an understandable fashion. But we are living in a time between gods, a time when our myths, our religions, no longer reliably contain our need to understand. It is a time of unsettling uncertainty, a time ripe for fundamentalism to shore up our crumbling worldviews. It is a time to fight for what we need to believe in, as a last ditch effort to ward off the collapse of meaning and the onslaught of chaos. We are the victims of the Chinese curse: we live in interesting times.
In his discussion of “secular fundamentalism, Dr. Larsen begins with a discussion of “scientism.” Although science began with the ideal of observation over belief, that founding idealism gradually has been lost. In its place, many scientists, and the majority of the population who learned about science in school, have become identified with the myth of a mechanical, clockwork universe. Inviolable rules of cause and effect drive atoms to bump into each other in predictable ways, resulting in the known universe. Only materiality is real, and all processes in nature are governed by, ultimately, the colliding of atoms. If you can’t observe it “out there” it is unreal. No matter how much evidence one can produce about the reality of telepathic effects among people, for example, such evidence must be faulty because telepathy is “impossible.” That’s scientism talking, a fundamentalist belief in causal materiality. Today we have powerful “PsiCops,” dedicated to proving that any intuition of supersensible realities is the result of deranged minds. They find easy proof for their position by pointing to “space cadets” who are fundamentally convinced in the reality of angels and UFOs. Larsen identifies today’s “culture war” as the polarized opposition between these two beliefs: God created man vs. man created God.
I’m reminded of a story that originated when the famous medium Eileen Garrett obtained a psychic reading from Edgar Cayce. She asked him to explain the nature of her “spirit guides.” His response was that it was up to her to understand her experience of them. So she hired a Jungian psychologist, Ira Progoff, to meet her spirit guides and psychoanalyze them. In his book, Image of an Oracle, Progoff recounts the ultimate surprising response he received from a high ranking spirit guide to his ongoing question, “Are you and these other spirit guides independent, autonomous beings from another realm, or are you sub-personalities of Mrs. Garrett’s unconscious?” The response came back (paraphrased here), “we are neither, and you will never understand us while you are stuck in either-or thinking—you are communicating with the transpersonal mind, which is being given personification by the operation of the channel by which we appear to speak.”
To allow the new myth to incarnate and bring us peace, we need to expand our minds beyond such polarities and become more comfortable with paradox.