Fundamentalism: Faith of the Lost and Fearful

By: Phoenix48

“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason.”

–Jon Meacham

Eradication of Doubt

Andrew Sullivan, in his controversial book The Conservative Soul, asserts that the fundamentalist makes one simple claim, a fountainhead from which all that follows emerge:

I know the truth.

This is the assertion of every fundamentalist, regardless of ideology, religious or otherwise. He doesn’t seek or question. He knows with certainty. The distinction between what he knows empirically and what he knows a priori does not exist. In other words, the difference between evidence and intuition is not relevant to the true believer.

Sullivan writes, “And what the fundamentalist knows is true. It isn’t a proposition, held provisionally, to be tested by further evidence. It isn’t an argument from which he could be dissuaded by something we call reason. It isn’t something that is ever subject to change: what is fundamentally true now, by definition, must be true for all time. For the fundamentalist, there is not a category of things called facts and a separate category called values. The values of the fundamentalist are facts.”

The Truth With the Capital “T”

The fundamentalist believes that the truth has been revealed and is without flaw or defect. But most importantly, he knows what it is. Whether the source of that truth is the Bible, the Koran, is written on stone tablets, golden plates, or is a book big or small is material only in that it cements legitimacy. What is paramount is that it contains truth and that this truth is known. And those who carry this truth forth, into the world, are, by the very nature of the truth they impart, infallible.

The less one knows how to command, the more urgently one covets someone who commands, who commands severely – Friedrich Nietzsche

Sullivan continues, “This truth comes from outside the human being who holds it. It is an external truth..” meaning it is a truth from a book, sacred text, cleric, guru, cultist, or populist politician. The acceptance of this truth is a passive act, not an activistic one. “The human being may internalize this truth, and it may come to seem a part of him, but it never emerges from within organically. It is not usually the fruit of the journey, but a moment on that journey.”

Crossing the Spiritual Rubicon

It may be a blinding light or a slower, educational experience. It may be a “born again” experience and riding a rocket into a new reality, or it may be secular, like white supremacy. Similarly, it may be some simplified total explanation of history requiring total submission and acceptance. But regardless of the initial experience, there exists a defining moment. A moment where one crosses a line, representing going all-in to surrendering self to the dictates of dogma.

Sullivan writes, “The truth embraced by the fundamentalist encompasses everything. It is truth with the capital T”. It is simultaneously the total truth and precisely the amount of truth required – not more, not less. Therefore, “It is not even something that a believer can seriously question – because the human being who could question such things is already defined by a truth that is far greater than he is.”

Supremacy of Belief

Fundamentalism is where faith meets ideology. While the primary characteristics of fundamentalism are absolute truths and strict literal adherence to dogmas, fundamentalist groups also have several commonalities. One commonality is the formation of an exclusive identity. Consequently, fundamentalists splinter into groups, factions, or cliques, distinguishing themselves from the larger community. This emphasizes ideological purity and the primacy of their faction, a superiority based on their beliefs being the only valid ones. Moreover, they may disavow the larger community entirely. There is frequently a development of customs and language specific to the clique that embodies that separate identity.

Fundamentalists possess, without fail, a visceral resistance to change or progress. Emphasis on the preservation of traditional values, texts, and practices lies at the core of all fundamentalist ideologies. Fundamentalists intensely resist modern or progressive changes or interpretations as straying from what they believe to be the true path.

Irri from Game of Thrones espouses fundamentalism
“Moon is no egg. Moon is Goddess, wife of Sun. It is known.” – Irri, “Game of Thrones”

To many non-believers, this type of unquestioning belief seems unreasonable and stifling, even unbalanced. How can a man who lived thousands of years ago be the most vivid and important relationship in one’s life? At the very least, extreme veneration of things inherently unknowable as if they are known fully seems extraordinarily odd.

But in their bafflement unbelievers overlook something crucial. To the fundamentalist, the experience is not one of bondage but of complete liberation. A liberation from a troubled mind and world, freeing the believer from fear and anxiety. And, as a result, grounding them in a deeply calm, comprehensible, and ordered place.

The Choice: Fundamentalism or Taking Personal Responsibility

We can live in a constant state of doubt, facing the uncertain with our imperfect bodies and feeble, unreliable consciousness. Or we can embrace a total explanation of life that frees us from the burden of our imperfections into salvation. To illustrate: “Fundamentalism, succeeds, in other words, because it elevates and comforts. It provides a sense of meaning and direction to those lost in a disorienting world. It does this by taking you into another world, immune to the corruptions and compromises of this one” “the subjugation of reason and judgment and even conscience to the dictates of dogma: these can be exhilarating and transformative experiences” Sullivan states.

Suffering is the plight of the addict; there are few who would not understand the appeal. To the addict, the choice may not seem irrational at all. For someone who has lost everything, it may seem the only rational course.

Comfort of Canned Truth and Certainty

And that’s important. The appeal of fundamentalism is not irrational. Life’s biggest questions, the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, our souls and what happens when we depart this earth – these things demand an answer. Consequently, to the addict, deferring any longer is not only reckless and self-destructive but painful. Fundamentalism offers immediate answers and the promise of a radical life reorientation. All that’s required is discarding everything once valued in exchange for the certainty and comfort of canned truth. For the hopeless addict, any life is better than the one they have. A life that is something – anything – else.

A New Set of Glasses

It is important to emphasize that fundamentalism is not a particular doctrine. Nor is it specific to the realm of religion. It is a mindset, a psyche. It is a way of intentionally looking at the world through a black-and-white polarized lens. For the fundamentalist, it is all or nothing.

“The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking of new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

–Marcel Proust

But there is an alternative set of glasses. The more moderate forms of religion recognize that Jesus (or Muhammad, etc.) spoke in parables not necessarily intended to be understood as literally true in every sense but nonetheless containing a moral or truth. Typically, church leaders interpret these nonliteral truths to translate them to lessons applicable to contemporary life. In other words, they provide biblical guidance for disciples to employ in everyday activities. This educational approach takes time, effort and patience, and leaves the believer with the burden of making his or her own choices. Individuals must resolve questions of faith and doctrine simultaneously with the incorporation of belief itself.

Particularly with regard to addiction, we must make a persistent effort to determine if we are rationalizing our actions to support self-sabotaging short-term thinking and desires. It is exhausting to sustain the application of conscience and contrary action and to question whether we engage in wishful or deluded thinking. However, these efforts provide fruit and amount to faith as a process, not as a single moment of deliverance.

The Calling

Regardless of where they fall on the religious spectrum, a common calling of many faiths is that of conversion. There is an alluring elegance to the enhancement of one’s faith through changing the life of others. Missionaries often employ literalism in the conversion enterprise as a substitute for a nuanced explanation. Furthermore, fundamentalists will not risk imprecision in carrying out their mission. Any ambiguity communicates uncertainty and may lead to interpretation (and misinterpretation) by the potential prospect. As Sullivan writes, “Jesus’ message needs to be tidied up, its ambiguities resolved, the gaps in it filled, and everything out of focus in the Gospels brought relentlessly into literal expression.”

The “Double Bind”

A coercion tactic in which the aggressor attempts to manipulate an individual to choose between two undesirable options. Usually, both choices lead to negative and unsatisfactory outcomes and consequences. This tactic intentionally puts the target in a lose-lose situation, leaving them feeling trapped and powerless. There are several variants, but all present a false frame of limited options and are a type of manipulation.

The intent is to limit the individual’s agency and force them to choose the least unfavorable option. Manipulators may use a double bind to control or confuse their targets. The victim has difficulty making a decision aligning with their interests because the manipulator does not frame that path as an option. This type of manipulation can be emotionally distressing and undermine a person’s confidence and ability to trust their judgment.

By presenting faith as absolute, fundamentalist faiths implicitly command loyalty. Missionaries of all stripes present faith as a vital, uplifting spirituality. But often it’s also framed as an opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves – to join the tribe. The spiritual elders purposefully force a precise truth into center stage, typically through the use of manipulative coercion.

The faith focuses on God himself, not on one’s awareness and conscience. And fundamentalist God demands total surrender in every aspect of one’s life, encompassing every decision and action. Typically, authoritative organizations do not grant prospects full autonomy immediately. They must earn their place by a consistent demonstration of loyalty to the ideological tenants of the faith over a period of time.

The Selfish Genie in the Bottle

Earlier we noted that fundamentalism is where faith becomes ideology. Because ideologies are intrinsically selfish, we should not necessarily take their objectives at face value. The primary aim of any ideology revolves around the survival and acceptance of the ideology, not necessarily the well-being of individuals, believers or not.

The principal goal is to reach an increasing pool of individuals to expand influence. Accomplishing the prescribed aims is necessarily secondary. However, ideologies that are more appealing, relatable, engaging, and efficient at accomplishing goals have a higher likelihood of spreading widely. In other words, their ability to transmit themselves effectively determines their social success in the culture they inhabit. For this reason, ideologies often contain a conversion agenda, an example of which is the “primary purpose” of Alcoholics Anonymous. For any readers unfamiliar, AA’s “primary purpose” is to “carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”

While ideologies are not “alive” in any scientific sense, a biological analogy would be they behave like a virus. This is one aspect of fundamentalism, that “[fundamentalist] Faith cannot exist alone in a single person. Indeed, faith needs others for it to survive – and the more total its infiltration of the world, the better” Sullivan writes.


For the fundamentalist, there is no grey. In addition to complete submission to God, it is necessary to seek purity, avoid evil, and accept the ever-present existence of evil in a “fallen” world – and the obligation of fighting it. Fundamentalist belief systems share a common reference to that which opposes God: The Enemy. An unseen world exists where the battle of good against evil unfolds against a hidden enemy. This conflict transpires in a spiritual realm separate yet co-existing with the material plane.

The Devil Must Be Terminated

The presence of this opposition exists across the broad spectrum of fundamentalism. The consequences of the necessary existence of the Enemy are most obvious where fundamentalism becomes politically active. A description of totalitarian societies could be the meeting of politics and ultimate meaning. The Marxists revealed the inexorable turn of the wheels of history toward a new dawn for humanity. Resistance to the verdict of Marxist prophesy could have no other explanation other than sabotage and treason by the Enemy. The communists had to stamp them out (the “counterrevolutionary” Enemy) by any means necessary. Global economic salvation depended upon it. Sullivan writes:

“Those who represented error had to be destroyed – regularly, aggressively, even preemptively. Purges of the priestly elites – the Politburo or the Gestapo or Mao’s murderous thugs – were cyclical and continual, like the constant purging of heretics in the history of the Christian church.

At times, as in China’s Cultural Revolution, or Stalin’s manic purges, or Hitler’s final solution, the need to extinguish treachery or deviation became a form of suicidal psychosis. The need for total purity, for the world to exist in fact exactly as it exists in a book, often requires mass murder. And when asked to defend the worst excesses, the fundamentalist can always cite the danger of the Devil” “Take any fundamentalism, and you’ll find a Satan somewhere.”

Some may think this a bit over-the-top for the average alcoholic. And they have a point. But on the other hand, be aware. Your disease is doing push-ups.

“It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.”

–Helen Keller

The Grand Strategy

The long-game strategy of fundamentalists, of both secular and religious varieties, is to:

  1. Create a separate society that insulates the faithful from contamination of outside ideas.
  2. Advocate for laws and policies that promote their vision of what is right.
  3. Reverse legal protections for behavior they regard as unethical or that otherwise impede the manifestation of their vision.

Fundamentalism: Twelve-Step Strategy

Twelve-step programs, in addition to creating a distinct parallel secret society, have pierced the veil between church and state by successfully redefining behaviors that more traditional religious organizations refer to as “sins” to addictive “diseases”, resulting in a cascade of policies and laws in lock-step with the convictions of the recovery movement. This movement has labeled the sin of intensional self-intoxication a disease, resulting in the incorporation of twelve-step religious ideology as “treatment”. Paying for this has, and continues to, require enormous allocations of money, both public and private, to create and support an industry staffed almost exclusively by members of twelve-step groups.

The more an organization leans towards fundamentalism, the more it relies on literalism and dogma, and the less it relies on experience and common sense. And the more citizens permit the state to define and wage war on sin, the more likely it is to exacerbate the problem, and some form of tyranny and catastrophe (i.e. the “War on Drugs”) will be the natural consequence. Consequently, our addiction treatment industry works in concert with the criminal justice system to coerce individuals to participate in religious indoctrination, that being twelve-step programs or their commercial counterparts. Typically, the coercion takes the form of participation as a condition of staying out of prison or retaining/reinstating various state-issued licenses.

Fundamentalism: Christian Strategy

For Christian fundamentalists, the implementation of this strategy has been a series of undertakings to create a macrocosm of schools, mega-churches, books, museums, films, music, and media outlets to provide an alternate universe that serves both as a protective bubble and echo chamber.

Christian fundamentalists have also leveraged these platforms to mount political campaigns to change laws or resist court rulings that violate their biblical views of right and wrong. For example, the most well-known campaigns include criminalizing the sale of alcohol, opposition to racial integration, opposition to homosexual and transgender equity, opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools, and criminalizing abortion.

Hindu Fundamentalism in India

Most Westerners are unfamiliar with Hindu fundamentalism, or Hindutva, which first came into power (briefly) as the BJP party in India in 1996 and claims current theocratic nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party as stalwart supporters. An analysis of fundamentalist influences in Indian politics and their consequences is beyond the scope of this post, but you can read an excellent article here (2019, Christian viewpoint). You can find a more current article documenting the rise of the BJP here.

Fundamentalism: Islamic Strategy

Christianity’s counterpart, Islamic fundamentalism, contrary to popular belief, is not simply a radical application of the Koran. Islamic fundamentalism partially emanates from fascism. The first occurrence of large-scale fascism was during the Roman Empire and the Germans further refined it in the twentieth century. However, it is inaccurate to describe modern Islamic fundamentalism as politically traditional in that Islamists oppose existing governments, monarchies, and established organizations.

But it is certainly correct to describe Islamic fundamentalists as deeply resentful of the West and its values. They believe the West has left the Islamic nations behind, deprived them of their voice, and not shown Islam its due respect and acknowledged its alleged superior position as the one true faith. They direct their anger at progressive Western nations but it is not truly nationalist or socialist in any traditional sense. Instead, it’s a modern transnational totalitarian movement better suited to tap into Islamic resentment using the internet than for recruiting in any individual nation or particular mosque.


Authoritarianism: Characterized by strong, centralized authority and a hierarchical structure. There is often a charismatic leader who holds significant power and influence over followers.

Totalitarianism: Regime seeks to control various aspects of society and limit individual freedoms in deference to the supremacy of the ideology.

Exclusivity: There is no room for competing ideas of any stripe resulting in a determined and unrelenting effort to extinguish them.

Violence: The incorporation of violent tactics against political rivals domestically and aggressive and militaristic strategies to achieve aims internationally.

Expansion: A tenacious desire to consolidate power at home combined with the practice of expanding territorial control and influence.

The Catalyst

What both the Christian and Islamic variants of fundamentalism have in common is tremendous growth driven by a backlash to progressive, modernizing societies. Western culture and the West itself have been massively successful; the Muslim world less so. In both the West and the Muslim world, the most pronounced achievements have been in technological urban centers. Centers which in most cases have been a cauldron of increasingly liberal attitudes and policies. This success, both materially and culturally, is itself the engine powering the growth and appeal of fundamentalist ideology.

For both the Muslim world and rural areas of America, when wealth, influence, and prestige have eluded them, when the ideas they oppose have become dominant, there is an instinctual reaction to double down and further purify their beliefs. Satisfying this compulsion is necessary to reassert the most unadulterated form of oppositional doctrines. It is also necessary to avoid the pain of any communal introspection or uncomfortable realities.

The Way Things Ought To Be

For the fundamentalist, the inability to reconcile the incongruity between the way things ought to be and the way they are is a source of much discomfort and emotional distress. They must come to terms with their belief that everything happens for a reason in God’s world and that God’s plan will ultimately resolve all inconsistencies – and the reality that this doesn’t seem to be happening.

The fundamentalist holds a vision for the perfection of the world and believes that God’s will and law control all. And yet it seemingly doesn’t. To the Islamists, the success and power of the West contradict this ultimate, and necessary, truth. To the Christian fundamentalist, the secular society seeks to strip the world of the second chance offered to humanity by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The only requirement is the willingness to surrender, but his countrymen continue to obliviously live their lives as if nothing has happened.

Violence is the Likely Consequence of Widespread Fundamentalism

Sullivan writes, “Against the sheer power of globalized capitalism and human freedom, only the power of an accessible, omnipotent God can keep you sane.” And this unstoppable satanic juggernaut represents extreme danger, a danger which can be “used to justify almost any action, including” “the use of violence.”

Most people do not fully grasp that fundamentalism itself is the root cause of the 9/11 attacks. In a delusion similar to the one regarding the mass shooting epidemic, the cause of which many believe to be solely originating from a particular individual’s mental health (vs. the mental stability of the culture at large), people want to believe that “this psychotic violence is somehow a function of a distortion of fundamentalist faith, rather than its logical, ultimate, extreme consequence” Sullivan writes.

Terror is not only a lashing out against a hated group or society but represents a complete liberation from the unacceptable conditions and contradictions of this world. “When we re-create in our heads the mind sets of those men who hijacked airplanes on a beautiful September morning, we recoil from thinking of them as embracing freedom. But in their minds, they were. They were part of a broader plan” The piloting of planes into buildings was an act of faith – but it was faith in the service of extreme fear.

We’re the Good Guys

It’s easy to dismiss the Inquisition or the Taliban or the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge any number of other groups as simply evil. It’s much more difficult to accept that they really believed they were acting in the best interests of, if not everyone, at least those they represent. The strange fact is that everyone thinks they are the good guys. And the good guys are in mortal danger from the bad guys. Which is why the good guys must do bad things in service of the greater good.

Those who mercilessly implemented the Inquisition acted out of what they thought was genuinely the best interests of everyone, including the witches. Burning at the stake was spiritually cleansing and a small price to pay to avoid eternal torment in Hell. The terror induced in the population created an environment, they believed, that influenced the weak-minded to denounce witchery and discover faith; burning people alive was actually godliness and grace all along.

Giordano burned at the stake
Giordano Bruno burned at the stake, Camille Flammarion

Secular Bad Guys

The Soviet Union was likewise in perpetual danger from the bad guys. Stalin faced a different breed of witches who would not hesitate to undermine the revolution: the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, military officers. They were obstacles that Stalin necessarily purged for the benevolence of Marxism to prosper.

Under Hitler, the Nazis truly believed they were creating an exhilarating new chapter for humanity: a one-thousand-year Reich, a place where freedom, doubt, and communists could be happily extinguished in a frenzy of racial purity and destiny. But there was a problem – the Jews – whose power, conspiratorial nature and Herculean (yet simultaneously subhuman) Hebrew skillset represented an existential threat to the new era. If any survived, they would reap terrible revenge on ordinary Germans. So each one of them had to be hunted down and incinerated before they could regroup and decimate the Aryan race.

Explanation of Good vs Bad Guys

“Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

–Hermann Göring, Nuremberg Trials

Rise of Victimhood

Fundamentalism: Christian Victims

The paranoia of the self-righteous is simultaneously absurd, self-evident, and expanding. Victimhood at the hands of “the Enemy” has become vogue as fundamentalists of all stripes proliferate. Despite being far and away the dominant religion in the United States, each holiday season Christian commentators seek to inflame the perception that there is a deliberate effort to secularize Christmas in an attempt to segue to their dominant victimization theme, that being that the country was on the brink of “criminalizing” Christianity. In 2006, the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, organized a conference in Washington, D.C. in an effort to stop the alleged persecution of Christians in the United States and included speakers Pat Robertson and John Ashcroft, among others.

Fundamentalism: White Nationalist Victims

Contemporary white nationalism had diverged decisively from the self-assured “manifest destiny” rhetoric of the 19th century. Increasingly, old-fashioned white entitlement has given way to appropriating the linguistic expression of the oppressed. Incorporating the language of oppression and subjugation are various alt-right provocateurs, including Richard Spencer. Spencer, a white nationalist poster man-child, made a declaration incongruent with supremacy. That “We [white people] are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.” Not to be sidelined, the former KKK leader and usual suspect David Duke made a demand of his own. That we “put a stop to the massive institutional race discrimination against whites.”

Fundamentalism: Leftist Victims

With the subsequent widespread use of the internet and social media, the potential to radicalize groups has greatly expanded. The internet has not only given extremists an amplified voice, but created spaces where contrasting points-of-view are effectively silenced. Society has rapidly self-imposed censorship beyond anything even Goebbels could have inflicted. We have done this to ourselves essentially because we dislike discomfort. We like opinions that agree with ours, and dislike contrary opinions that “make” us uncomfortable. University activists have embraced mass hysteria reminiscent of the Red Scare in what has become known as “woke” ideology.

Wokeness initially involved coddling the overly-sensitive and imposed an external populist value system on universities. However, its reach has expanded to society at large through the use of aggressive force both passively and directly. Intoxicated by the exercise of power, and sensitive to any opinions or grammar that veer from their self-righteous beliefs, any deviation from the “woke” party line results in the targeting of the alleged perpetrator. Targeting involves silencing the individual and blacklisting them (being “canceled”). The intent is to create adverse conditions conducive to those targeted losing their career permanently.

Fundamentalism: Rightist Victims

On the other side, the extremist right has launched an assault against federal law enforcement. This action is in response to the investigation of former president Trump for various alleged offenses. Federal institutions, and their annoying (and increasingly quaint) fascination with the rule of law, are an obstacle to implementing the unchecked agenda advocated by Trump and his acolytes.

But Trump has not framed the war in the context of a power struggle. He has falsely framed it as one of victimhood – the Feds picking on a hapless Trump. Nixon struck a similar tone of victimhood in response to what he regarded as unfair treatment by the press. In 1962 he moaned, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” (The same can’t be said for Trump at present.)

Claims of victimhood by an imagined or manufactured enemy are a routine practice of populist leaders throughout history. A battle is also underway, primarily in the southeastern United States. With zero awareness of the intense irony, there is an effort to silence the “woke” crowd. Silence and replace one group of fanatics with fanatics of a different stripe. There has not been anything approaching constructive reflection.

Dr. Christopher Dwyer wrote an intriguing essay on the emotional psychology behind social media virtue/value-signaling in Psychology Today which you can read here.

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist –Indira Gandhi

Fundamentalism: Fear, Denial, and Dishonesty

The critical aspect of these extremist exhibitions is insecurity and fear. Both sides find the prospect of losing the culture war appalling. The consequences of failure terrify both of them and they believe the world “is about to engulf and crush them. They speak and think defensively. They talk about renewal, but in their private discourse they expect damnation.” “Similarly, Muslims know that the era of Islam’s imperial triumph has long since gone.” “From the collapse of the Ottoman Empire onward, it has been on the losing side of history. The response has been an intermittent flirtation with Westernization but far more emphatically a reaffirmation of the most irredentist and extreme forms of the culture under threat” writes Sullivan.

Fear and Fundamentalism

So we come full circle to the cause of planes flying into buildings: Fear. Extreme fear fosters extreme denial. Extreme denial begins when reality proves the fallibility of the faith. One structural problem with absolutist faiths is that they boil down to a transactional bargain. Abandon everything you think you know, accept the teachings as infallible, apply them to your life to the best of your ability, and reap the (often specified) promises and rewards. And this makes subsequent failure all the more difficult to accept, own, and explain. If you’ve been saved, why do you return to sin? Often there is a pattern of sin, collapse, recommitment, and sin again.

Denial and Fundamentalism

Those under the spell of fundamentalism insist that their tenants are perfect. The fallen simply did not sufficiently incorporate the truth into their lives. They merely thought they were saved but in fact were not, as demonstrated by their personal failings. Failure is a result of and proof that the necessary sacrifices were not made. Thus, the recipe will always be the same. Intense indoctrination, more sacrifice, and more discipline regarding applying the tenants of the faith to every minutia of one’s life. Half measures avail nothing; the wayward soul must go all in.

The failure always rests on the individual because the system is divinely inspired and perfect, the knowledge infallible and unquestionable. The system, and those who administer it, are never at fault. If your instincts, reason, or conscience conflict with what the authorities tell you, it is your obligation to change your mind to align with the prescribed teachings.

Dishonesty and Fundamentalism

To those who have risen in station, there is a refusal to accept or acknowledge ongoing failures. There is often a systematic failure to recognize structural problems in the larger organization. They can’t acknowledge problems if acknowledgment could lead to criticism and criticism to disbelief. And this goes directly to one of the core dysfunctions in contemporary society – the paramount importance of appearances. There is a lack of interest in actually solving systemic problems, no interest in getting dirty and honest. It’s all for show. It’s a performance.

And part of that performance is to affirm faith, banish fear, and offer clear, simple, unequivocal answers to complex problems and a compartmentalized existence. This is salvation. It means being removed from one confusing reality and inserted into another more comprehensible one. If facts contradict that new reality, then it is the facts that must be altered, not the faith.

The Recovery Movement as a Mirror

In our more youthful lives, we primarily sought immediacy and comfort. In the moment, it felt good to live in a fantasy where the world revolves around us and our immediate desires, a place where the past and future do not matter. We instinctively moved away from things that felt bad toward things that felt good. We put on an act, for our benefit as much as for others. All of us liked being comfortable; it feels good. Superiority feels good. We liked instant gratification. We felt entitled to easy answers. And once we admitted to ourselves we were in trouble, we wanted someone or something to come save us.

And these are the “normal” people in contemporary society. For those of us with active addictions or alcoholism, it’s orders of magnitude worse.

Pink 'Penelope Pitstop' mirror artwork by Flavia Brilli
Pink ‘Penelope Pitstop’ mirror by Flavia Brilli, Ministry of Sound Nightclub, London.

Spiritual Boot Camp

AA’s original success hinged on two complementary practices. The first is written and formal; it is the program contained in the first 164 pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. The second is informal and incorporates group sharing of practical psychological and maturity topics, many of which will be discussed on this website. The process was analogous to military training: First, break down a recruit to have him unlearn beliefs and attitudes that are not useful in his new role as a soldier, then provide new attitudes and skills during basic training; and second, continue to instruct the soldier in more advanced tactics and military training in an effort to have him evolve into a more effective soldier.

In this analogy, boot camp is analogous to the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the socio-psychological discussions in meetings would be the advanced training. The Big Book references the true essence of sobriety as an ongoing spiritual journey, including a warning against “resting on your laurels” implying the necessity of consistent forward progress and spiritual evolution.

The Distorted Reflection

AA is a reflection of society. In asserting this, we acknowledge that such reductionist interpretations of an institution like Alcoholics Anonymous do not necessarily make allowances for the durability of institutional values and traditions. AA’s values are passed down from one generation to the next and will never fully be assimilated by the values of society. However, AA resists assimilation less effectively than other organizations because it relies upon a pool of authentically mature adults; adults who are increasingly rare. As page 164 of the Big Book states, “Obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got.”

The same social devolution process that is driving the national retreat to me-firstism, Karens, “we are right” online echo chambers, finger-pointing, and victimhood also affect the recovery world. Society at large is operating in a vicious circle. Immaturity and social narcissism drive comfort and status-seeking, which exacerbate social ills, which result in quick and easy pseudo-solutions to complex problems, the failure of which fuels blame and finger-pointing, which blocks meaningful social reflection and pragmatic long-term solutions, which incubates immaturity and narcissism.

Retreat to Basic Training

The recovery community has had to come to terms with, or perhaps not come to terms with, the opioid epidemic and large-scale mortality rates. It’s safe to say every person in recovery has been personally affected. In a double blow, some meetings with the most senior “old timers” have disbanded due to covid-19 restrictions and the danger senior citizens face from the lethal virus while attending public gatherings. Unfortunately, the predictable reaction has been to double down and retreat to the nucleus of core principles. Anxiety, the primacy of appearances, and a lack of collective awareness are pushing AA groups to increasingly adopt “solution” based discussions, meaning an increased fire and brimstone style literal emphasis on the steps.

This approach is often criticized in hushed tones by “newcomers” (lest the very serious people hear) with comments such as, “that meeting is too serious”, “the shares are bumming me out” etc. AAs are increasingly unaware of the actuality that you do not achieve spiritual transcendence by repeating boot camp endlessly. Unfortunately, most AAs have interpreted the avoidance of “resting on your laurels” as a directive to repeat the steps ad infinitum, not as a motivation to seek to transform ourselves and spiritual life by seeking knowledge outside the confines of the program as defined in the first 164 pages.

Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning –William Arthur Ward

Have the Courage to Pursue Enlightenment

Real answers that bring us increasing awareness of the world around us and our place in that world require us to actively seek, to embrace the attitude, behaviors, and lifestyle of pursuing enlightenment with intention. Spiritual progress is difficult work and requires a tolerance for discomfort. It requires us to open ourselves up to new ideas, consider alternative viewpoints, take time to ponder the mysteries of the human condition, and ultimately transform ourselves. It requires moving through fear and anxiety.

It requires, above all else, the courage to live in the grey of the unknown.

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