2008-04-10

The GOOD legacy of the fundamentalist and cultic life: 12

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by Neil Godfrey

12: Healthy Skepticism

Concluding my notes from Marlene Winell’s (Leaving the Fold) encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories.

Hoo boy! When I finally broke free of the faith-based thinking of religion I naively expected to enter a world of sensible healthy sceptical citizens. I had, after all, seen myself as apart from “the world” because of my faith, so on leaving my faith as a wiser sceptic and aspiring to be a healthily critical thinker, I assumed to some extent that I was about to become a part of the smart crowd. They had clearly demonstrated their smarts by not being fooled into any of the fairy tale nonsense I had been a part of for so long.

Nope. Fooled again. It had to slowly dawn on me that healthy scepticism was not the default position of most people in relation to most public issues. This was another slow disillusionment. I did not want to be a light in a dark place anymore. I wanted to be normal. But knowledge and experience necessarily bring with them some level of responsibility. I was startled to see that so many of the dark things I had experienced in the cult were taken as the norm, although in less intense degrees or with less damaging immediate impact in most cases, in society at large. Power struggles and willingness to destroy others for the sake of maintaining or enhancing one’s own position or world-view are pretty much regular hammer blows one hears and that batten wayward planks to hold societies together. After some years of tasting the worst of authoritarian ways in a cult one can smell authoritarian and dogmatic systems as easily as a cat smells a rat across a room. No matter if those systems be political, religious, philosophical, social, whatever.

Having been “burned” by your former indoctrination, you are now more likely to be on guard against rigid belief systems generally. You are now more aware of the dangers when you hear some pronouncement of “truth” that implies omniscience, restricts perception, and eliminates alternatives. (p.110)

Beliefs are or can be a form of “selfish gene” — what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”. They can be the tools of shutting down thoughts and imposing power over others. Or they can be simply armour-plated shells one dons out of fear of all that is “out there”. Whatever, they narrow one’s range of permissible questions and licensed answers. Foreign thoughts and and unexplored experiences are their victims.

I personally sometimes like to quip: Answers bind; Questions liberate. Though I do not mean that in a nihilistic sense. Answers are necessary, but equally necessary is an awareness of their inevitable tentativeness.

With healthy skepticism, you can now be more open, flexible, and fair. These qualities are greatly needed in a world full of bigotry and arrogance. (p.110)

I still vividly recall the strange frustration I felt when discussing my questioning processes with others still embedded in some level of faith. They could understand my questioning my church. That was good, they thought. At first I said that though I would question religious doctrines, I would never question the Bible. They seemed to think that was commendable too. But later I asked why not continue to question the so-called foundation of my religion too, and some I spoke to could understand and accept my questioning even the Bible. After that, the next step was to question God, too, of course. Now that’s where almost everyone baulked. Questioning a dubious cult was good, but one must not take questioning itself too far. It must only be applied to demolish “the right targets”.

So it looked to me like the propensity to question was God’s gift if one was questioning a given heresy. But that same propensity was a tool of Satan if it went much farther! Maybe questioning, healthy scepticism, is the only tool that enhances the dignity and true progress of humanity.

The irony is that narrow fundamentalist or cultic belief systems encourage questioning of all general social values and systems. They have to, since these systems are claiming to be the only valid alternatives to the world as it is. All it takes is for enough experiences to finally trigger release valves in one’s head to turn that questioning back on the religious belief system itself. That’s not so easy to initiate, but that’s another story. The important thing here is that for those who do manage it, they are bequeathed a powerful legacy that they can use in many positive ways for their own and others’ benefits.

Marlene concludes, probably looking back on all these good legacies and more:

The strengths that you retain from your experiences with religion are very significant. In spite of the confusion, sadness, and discouragement you may be feeling, you have a breadth and depth of being that others do not have. You are likely to have important values, positive personality traits, and a spiritual capacity. You can now challenge yourself to use these strengths to help overcome your difficulties. (pp.110-111)

I’d prefer to speak of emotional and mental maturity in place of “spiritual capacity”, but I guess that’s merely a question of semantics.

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