Fundamentalists are those who become extremely overconfident in the truthfulness of their radically oversimplified views of life. A fundamentalist is someone who is totally sure he or she knows exactly what’s going on in human existence. This typically includes knowing what we’re all here for, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil, where good and evil come from, and what precisely needs to be done to rid the world of evil and establish a good and just society. Their knowledge is held with extreme confidence that leaves no room for any real openness, questions, inquiry, or uncertainty. Their underlying motive is not so much authentic faith or hope as it is a dogged desperation to defend a total lifesystem they’ve become excessively and exclusively invested in. Like a gambler who’s bet too much, now they’re all in. So uncertainty becomes anathema. Doubt becomes sin. A psychoemotional upside of fundamentalism is that fundamentalists don’t need to honestly face the existential discomforts of living with uncertainties. They can rest easy because they have all the answers. The appeal of this shouldn’t be underestimated.
As far as I can tell, fundamentalists and ideologues both share the same tendencies towards becoming overconfident in oversimplifications. They are different labels for representing what seems to be essentially the same thing. Both tend to arrogantly and uncritically dismiss the views of others before giving them an honest hearing, let alone thoughtful consideration. Presently it is common for some to react to the inadequacies of one fundamentalism by creating or allying with a different fundamentalism. This drives a great deal of our culture wars, whether their garbs are religious, scientific, political, social, economic, or some combination thereof. An individual raised in a fundamentalist religious community may react to his upbringing by embracing some simplistic secular fundamentalism with the same level of overconfidence and zeal he previously possessed. This is just one possible conversion story in one possible context. It could just as easily be told in the other direction or in a different setting. The point is simply that sometimes individuals trade one fundamentalism for another fundamentalism, instead of moving beyond the narrow norms and mindsets that characterize fundamentalism itself. It is also a mistake to see the fundamentalist impulse described here as strictly a religious phenomenon. It is a human phenomenon.
I wonder if fundamentalism is a developmental stage in the process of growing up, like adolescence. I wonder if it is a stage that ideally should be journeyed through and beyond. I wonder if fundamentalism is a stage that some unfortunately get stuck in. An individual’s psychology and knowledge develops from simplicity to ever-greater complexity in the journey from infancy to adulthood. It is common for individuals to experience crises at major transitions of development that challenge established knowledge, meaning, identities, and lifestyles. These destabilizing, decentering experiences cause us to rethink and reform. This reforming process can be so scary and discomforting that some choose to avoid it. Growth would cause too much upheaval. So they remain desperately attached to whatever knowledge, meaning, identities, and lifestyles they have already formed as a result. This is sad whenever it occurs for many reasons. Such individuals have put a ceiling on their development. Their past development has become an anchor to their future development. If fundamentalism is indeed a common developmental stage then a lifelong fundamentalist would have a similar problem as an adult who never moves beyond her teenage psychology: arrested development.