I Could Have Been a Suicide Bomber

I could have been one of the hijackers in 9/11.

Luckily for me, there’s no culture of terrorism among young Christian fundamentalists (yet). But I believed it strongly enough that, if you’d shown me Bible verses that persuaded me it was God’s will, I would have blown up myself and other people for the faith.

Hopefully, you’ve been following my mini-series on Fundamentalists and conspiracy theories. To recap:

Fundamentalists think Global Warming is a lie, part of a New Age agenda.

Further, they believe this New Age agenda is an Illuminati conspiracy to destroy the church and create one world government. The Illuminati strategy is to attack the church through the ACLU and the public school system, and eventually create the conditions for the Antichrist to rise to power.

So, I imagine, you’ve concluded that these people are insane. I recently stumbled across this WordPress blog post:

The ACLU is a threat to our existence as Christians. They will not stop until we are homeless and have no place to go. By virtue of the fact that we pay taxes, they could ban us from even having an income. By virtue of churches being a public place, they could ban us from churches. By virtue of the promotion of our beliefs being in violation of their views of state and church, they could end up banning the Bible itself. By virtue of their view that religion should be separated from the political system, they will ban us from voting of any kind. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The existence of Christianity and the ACLU are mutually exclusive. This gets ten times worse when you consider how much of our land the government is going to own. We will be slaves to the atheists while they get special treatment in almost every part of the economy and government. That is the end result of “state church separation”.

The guy’s a nutbag, right?

Maybe, but probably not. I used to believe most of what I’ve explained in these posts, and a lot more besides. I believed Satanists performed miracles. I believed in demonic strongholds over cities. I believed giving money to a televangelist would make me rich. I believed the earth was less than 10,000 years old. And although my mental health did suffer a lot in my mid-teens, I was never insane.

I was not the worst. One of my teachers at Victory (my ACE school) came back from a missionary trip in Argentina, excitedly telling us how the city she’d visited was cursed by the devil because Freemasons had built it in the shape of an inverted cross. This kind of thing is common with fundies.

Stephen Law was correct to write that Creationism involves thinking “in ways that, under other circumstances, might justifiably lead us to suspect the thinker is suffering from some sort of mental illness.” Under other circumstances. But, under the present circumstances, we are not dealing with mentally ill people.

What we are seeing is the net result of a belief process that does not teach you to believe things based on evidence. Sure, some of the irrational beliefs I’ve exposed do not have any kind of Biblical foundation, but they are still the result of faith. You cannot be a fundamentalist and have a robust, critical way of thinking about the world. You cannot know how to evaluate evidence. You cannot know, in short, how to think. Fundamentalism is a cancer on the ability to think, and it leads to this level of extreme gullibility.

3 Ways Fundamentalism Stop Rational Inquiry

1) It puts certain matters beyond question.

Take Accelerated Christian Education’s claim, typical of fundamentalists: “If a scientific theory contradicts the Bible, then the theory is wrong and must be discarded.”

2) It uses distorted systems of thought which superficially appear reasonable, but which in fact aren’t. So believers think they are thinking logically, when they are not. See Stephen Law’s Believing Bullshit.

3) When all else fails, it simply denies that reason is a valid way to reach truth:

“Man should never trust his own reasoning – his reasoning may be incorrect because man’s reasoning is not God’s reasoning.”

Here is the core question:

Can a belief make a good person do evil things?

Of course it can. Just look at the superstition that raping a baby can cure AIDS. If you have AIDS, and you believe that, it’s more likely you’ll do it.

Once we accept that this is possible, we have to determine whether it does happen in practice. And, well, it does. Here are a handful from recent news:

The Brazilian Catholic church persecutes a 9-year-old rape victim for having an abortion.

A Pastor advocates locking homosexuals inside an electrified fence until they die out.

A Muslim cleric advocates death for a guy who posted 3 blasphemous tweets.

Another Pastor advocates beating the gay out of kids.

A doctor refuses HIV meds for a gay man, saying “This is what he gets for going against God’s will.”

And the evils of Westboro Baptist Church need no introduction.

Now, Christians (and Muslims), I am not saying these views are representative of your faith, or even that they are common. I am just saying that they have happened.

Christian apologists will say that these people would have done wrong anyway. They will argue that they may use religion as a justification for their actions, but the real reasons are not religious. That might be true of people who come to faith as adults (the beliefs have to originate somewhere, and no one sensible is claiming that murdering gays is God’s idea), but what about children?

The children of Westboro Baptist Church carry out digusting, repugnant actions. And they do these on the basis of the beliefs they were raised to have. And almost all fundamentalists are fundamentalists from birth. They were all raised this way. And it’s a way of thinking that’s virtually impossible to shake off. I’m not advocating sympathy for them. I think once you reach adulthood, you’re responsible for your beliefs and actions regardless of how you were raised. But let’s not lie to ourselves for the sake of appeasement: It is the faith itself that creates the abhorrent actions. And it’s the faith that stops people questioning the morality of this.

The reason I believed all this crap is because I was raised from birth to believe it, with the accompanying faith-based system of thought that is necessary to support it. I mean it when I say I could have been a suicide bomber. I had no support network of rational thought to defend against it. And I am not an evil person, and I was not insane. I just had absolute, unshakeable belief.

These people are probably not insane.

But how can you tell? Fundamentalism leaves sane people entirely indistinguishable from insane people.


Come back tomorrow, when I’ll explain how I think a Christian terrorist could act, based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture. UPDATE: Here it is.

Related posts:

Further Reading:

About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on June 19, 2012, in Christianity, Creationism, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. This post is really GOOD. I feel as if I am on the edge of my seat, waiting for the next post!

  2. “Fundamentalism leaves sane people entirely indistinguishable from insane people.”

    Heck, RELIGION often leaves sane people entirely indistinguishable from insane people. They don’t necessarily have to be fanatical fundamentalists; the tenets of most world religions are patently absurd on the face of them. Any adult who takes even a so-called “mainstream” religion any more seriously today than the ancient Egyptian or Norse or Greco-Roman mythologies he or she dismisses is, in my opinion, badly lacking in even basic reasoning skills. As a child, I enjoyed the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, the battle of David and Goliath, and the tales of Samson; but even as a child, I didn’t think of them as true — only stories. (I will admit to having believed in Santa Claus, but even then my parents had to come up with lots of faked evidence to convince me.)

    • Well, anyone who believes those Bible stories are all literally true is fairly close to fundamentalist anyway. Most Christians in the UK would regard them as myths, I think.

      Although I’m an atheist I refrain from attacking liberal Christianity here for two reasons. The first is that I was raised fundamentalist, and I only gave liberal Christianity fairly brief consideration on my journey to atheism. I don’t have the expertise to criticise it. It’s something I want to study later. I don’t expect to be converted, since I have what I regard as good reasons not to believe in God, but I want to give it fair consideration.

      Second, I want liberal Christians to be my allies in the fight against fundamentalist education (and most of them are, when I’ve spoken to them). Liberal Christians well know the dangers of the ‘mentalists – especially Anglicans who have to deal with them at the Synod. As far as I’m concerned, if we can ensure all children get a good, predominantly secular, education, all the harmful strands of religion will die out anyway.

  3. Hi Jonny – I think this post is very important. I’d love to have a chance to talk sometime, and also let me suggest a book that is very congruent with your thoughts here: “Christian Jihad: Neo Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America”, by Colonel V. Doner – one of the architects of the modern religious right who has reconsidered things.

    See: http://www.christian-jihad.com

    I had a chance to talk at length with Colonel Doner (“Colonel” is his name, not a title) a few weeks ago (he cites my work in his book). Doner has two chapters on Sarah Palin and the NAR which draw heavily on the material Rachel Tabachnick and I have put out since 2008. However, Doner’s work is far from derivative – he knows the movement, and he knows his theology.

    As a side-note, I can tell you what was probably going on re your Argentina reference – that would be the “transformation” of Resistencia, the birthplace of “spiritual mapping”, a key set of ideas and practices in the evolving New Apostolic Reformation.

    Bruce Wilson

  4. Jonny,

    I am not a fundamentalist, and in fact, as a christian, I believe God is using the “new atheist” movement to refine the church and get rid of some silly things. So I have no problems with most of what you say, and I’m not really interested in the details. So I don’t comment all that often. But a few things here caught my eye.

    “You cannot be a fundamentalist and have a robust, critical way of thinking about the world.”

    I think you are wrong here. Mostly this may be true, but certainly not always. Rational people know that strictly rational thinking isn’t always appropriate. Examples include falling in love, personal experience that seems to contradict what other people say (i.e. the weight of evidence), and trusting a person when you have no alternative and no evidence(e.g. finding a way out of a smoky unfamiliar building). The most rational person who believes in God knows there will be times when his/her senses and logic cannot, by definition give a full understanding. There are many very intelligent and rational people who you would call fundamentalists (I’m not sure if I would, although I might disagree with them). In the end, calling people of faith “delusional” (which I’m pleased to compliment you on avoiding), or questioning them as you do here, is just a copout from really understanding them.

    To your list of atrocities supported by religious people, perhaps you could add atheist Sam Harris: ”Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” He argues that if Islamic states get nuclear weapons, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own” and he also wrote about torture: “in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible but necessary.”

    Then we could add atheist Peter Singer (a person who in many ways I admire): “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” He qualified that statement somewhat, so his views are more complex than that, but he acknowledges it is a fair quote.

    Should I also dig out some juicy quotes from Stalin, Lenin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot (all atheists) about how killing is justified?

    So I wonder why you didn’t present both sides of the story? I understand your blog is about fundamentalism, but surely that includes fundamentalist atheism too???

    But of course, once we round out the picture, your diatribe against fundamentalist religion loses a little force, don’t you think?

    None of this is written to be nasty, or to defend silly or nasty thinking, but just in the interest of fair play. Best wishes.

    • “Rational people know that strictly rational thinking isn’t always appropriate.”
      Of the three examples you give, I would argue that only one of them (falling in love) is valid. But that is a side issue. My argument was “You cannot be a fundamentalist and think rationally,” and your counter-argument is “Nobody thinks rationally all the time.” That is a non-sequitur that does not refute what I said.

      I know there are many intelligent and rational people who are fundamentalists (you seem to be forgetting that I was one), but this rationalism collapses when it comes to their beliefs. It must do, because fundamentalism involves believing irrational things. Therefore, those who believe them are not thinking rationally. QED.

      I’m not copping out from understanding them. I was one. For 18 years. And I talked to a lot of them, then and since.

      I don’t agree with Sam Harris about the nuclear strike. I don’t agree with Peter Singer, although I haven’t read his full argument. Stalin, Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot all behaved in ways that I would absolutely condemn. That in no way lessens my argument. At what point did I say, “Only fundamentalists do evil things?”

  5. ” your counter-argument is “Nobody thinks rationally all the time.”

    No, my counter argument was different to that. It was: It is rational to recognise the limits of one’s rationality. Thus, using other modes of thought sometimes doesn’t necessarily mean a person is irrational, but may mean they are behaving in a rational way. And belief in God (like falling in love) is, IMO, one of the times when that happens. Thus a person can be rational and a fundamentalist, which is contrary to your statement. Your statement was too black and white.

    “At what point did I say, “Only fundamentalists do evil things?””

    I never suggested that. What I said was “once we round out the picture, your diatribe against fundamentalist religion loses a little force” Your blog is specifically about christian fundamentalism, so if you criticise that viewpoint using examples that have parallels in other beliefs, then you are presenting a one-sided picture. You are making christian fundamentalism look bad without making it clear that such extreme behaviour is so widespread that it can’t really demonstrate the point you are trying to make.

    I appreciate that you are a reasonable and fair-minded person, but I suggest that in your enthusiasm generated from escaping a viewpoint you believe is terribly wrong, you make statements that are stronger than the evidence suggests, and ignore evidence that weakens the comparison between your target and “normal people”. I am probably one of the liberal christians (not my preferred identity, but using your words) you want to keep onside, but I suggest you will do that by being more even-handed and less extreme in what you say. If you can’t honestly do that, then I can’t honestly be the ally you are looking for.

    • UnkleE, thanks for staying in this discussion. I welcome a serious debate on this.

      Belief in God was not the irrational belief I was criticising here. That’s a separate discussion and I want to make it absolutely clear that, whatever my own views, I am not attacking faith itself or religion in general here.

      Examples of irrational belief I have given include paranoid conspiracy theories, young earth Creationism, the Word of Faith prosperity gospel, spiritual warfare and demon possession of cities, and taking the Bible literally. Those beliefs are irrational. They are examples of irrationality where rational thinking is required. I can see no need for nuance or shades of grey in that statement. Fundamentalists believe irrational things about subjects where it is sensible to be rational.

      What I am attacking is irrational belief of this nature in all contexts, so the fact that it is not limited to Christian fundamentalists is not a criticism. In fact, my article starts from the presumption that people already acknowledge that this exists outside of Christianity. I am examining whether it can take place within a Christian context, and I find that it can, and does.

    • Making choices on the basis of incomplete information is something we all do, all the time, every day. We have complete information in just about no circumstances outside of coursework in a maths class. This is a dance between how strongly you feel the need to make this choice rather than waiting for more information, and how you apply prior biasses – generalizations or rules of thumb. Making rational choices on the basis of incomplete information is a more tricky thing to do – indeed, what constitutes rational in this situation?

      I have a strong suspicion that fundamentalist thinking both provides a very strong aversion to withholding judgement, and also a psychologically compelling prior bias in the form of a paranoid, persecution complex with God as the only possible way out. While I’m not sure where the dividing line between rational and irrational belief on the basis of incomplete information lies, I am convinced that fundamentalist thinking will tend to cause you to make decisions that are very highly influenced by your biasses where it would otherwise be prudent to hold judgement, or even bring these biasses under question.

  6. Johnny, thanks for being positive about my disagreement, as I don’t want to be a pain who never gives up, and I was thinking I wouldn’t take this much further. But now I will try once more, because I think we are arguing at cross purposes to some degree.

    “Belief in God was not the irrational belief I was criticising here.”
    No, I understand that, and I wasn’t responding to criticism of theistic belief.

    “Fundamentalists believe irrational things about subjects where it is sensible to be rational.”
    I agree with this too, and was not disputing such a statement. But I did point out that other people believe irrational and repugnant things also, not to disagree, but to give balance. And I also disagreed that this was necessarily so, as one of your statements implied.

    “Those beliefs are irrational. They are examples of irrationality where rational thinking is required.”
    They are irrational if you make the assumption that naturalism is true. But some of them may be quite rational if theism is true. And a rational person could believe them if they had rational reasons for being a theist and for believing in a supernatural world – both of which I believe, and (IMO) on rational grounds.

    So you see, I think you misunderstood me because:

    (a) You write from an assumption of naturalism, which I contest. Only if you can prove naturalism have you the right to make such definite statements. (That is why I put the occasional IMO (= in my opinion), to not make the same overstatement).

    (b) Your concern is christian fundamentalism, a subject of little interest to me. (I don’t think they do any more harm in the world than many other people, and while I think they harm christianity, that is not a perspective I will find in your writings very often.) I criticised you because I thought you made broad general statements you couldn’t justify, and presented an unbalanced picture. Those are my concerns. But you seem to have reacted as if I was attacking your other statements on fundamentalism, which I have little interest in.

    So I think you have been defending something I haven’t been attacking, and I have been aiming to correct matters that were not your central thesis. Does that adequately explain everything? Best wishes.

    • Best wishes too. I don’t think we are going to agree on this, but that’s why I have a public comments section on my blog. Readers can see your points, as well as mine, and decide for themselves. I’ve enjoyed our debate (You’re *really* going to disagree with tomorrow’s post).

  7. “You’re *really* going to disagree with tomorrow’s post.”

    Maybe I shouldn’t read it then!? : )

  8. G’day Matthew, there is much that I agree with in what you say.

    “Making choices on the basis of incomplete information is something we all do, all the time, every day. ….. what constitutes rational in this situation?”
    This is a thoughtful understanding with which I agree.

    “I have a strong suspicion that fundamentalist thinking both provides a very strong aversion to withholding judgement, and also a psychologically compelling prior bias ….”
    I think these statements are often true too, although I think it often works in reverse – a person who wants greater certainty my become a fundamentalist.

    “…. in the form of a paranoid, persecution complex with God as the only possible way out. “
    But this seems pretty fanciful (pop psychology) to me. Most people in the world are religious (say 80%). many of these are “fundamentalist” and many more hold their beliefs quite strongly (as I do). It’s a bit of a stretch to say that they are all psychotic or abnormal. After all, normality is defined by the majority. That means your idea may be true of some, but I think you need a better explanation for most.

    “I am convinced that fundamentalist thinking will tend to cause you to make decisions that are very highly influenced by your biasses where it would otherwise be prudent to hold judgement, or even bring these biasses under question.”
    Yeah, maybe, but I honestly see it just as much in so-called “free-thinkers” (who are often fundamentalist as far as definitions go) as in religious fundamentalists.

    I don’t know where you sit on the theist-atheist spectrum, but (as I said to Jonny) I think most naturalists are no more able to see past their group of assumptions than are fundamentalists christians, and far less able than thoughtful christians. The assumptions naturalists almost always seem to make are (1) naturalism is obviously right, (2) empiricism is the only way to know things, and (3) God cannot communicate to people. Take a different view on those three unprovable assumptions, and most of what you and Jonny say on this falls to the ground. That doesn’t mean I’m right and you’re both wrong, but it does mean your (both) statements are waiting to be demonstrated.

  9. My mother is always telling me about depressing stories of people doing horrible things that she reads about in the newspaper, and usually follows up by saying that the people involved “must have been crazy.”

    I think this is a borderline dangerous way of thinking. Obviously some people do things because they have a mental illness, but I suspect the vast majority of people doing horrible things are 100% sane – as sane as you or I.

    They do horrible things because a) they lack self control (which all of us lack sometimes!) or b) they feel they are doing the right thing (fundamentalists generally fall into category b).

  10. Heretic Husband-

    I agree…I think sane people hold irrational beliefs all the the time. It’s my opinion hat most of us think emotionally first, rationally second (if at all…) . In other words, if we like and trust someone, we usually will not fact check what they say because of our personal warmth towards that person.

    It’s why children can be fooled to believe in Santa (Father Christmas). It’s why really good and caring people can hold such awful beliefs (because their pastor or good friend told them it was true)

  11. Herman Van Rijswijck

    ‘ Under other circumstances. But, under the present circumstances, we are not dealing with mentally ill people. ‘

    I beg to differ; Folie a beaucoup!

  12. If the minority of hardcore fundies out there strongly believe that they are accessing cryptic messages in the bible, only what ‘they’ can read, encouraging them to go out and play merry hell with everyone then I would be inclined in believing of such capabilities in those people.

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