Fear, Fundamentalism, and Moral Development (part 2)

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Last time I discussed human moral development, and how fundamentalism functions to keep people at underdeveloped levels of moral development, characterized by black and white thinking and fear. This time I wanted to look at how we can work to move ourselves and others away from moral immaturity and towards higher level moral thinking, based on understanding Jesus' message of enemy love.

Consider what goes on in our heads when we get mad: I stop seeing things in terms of "us" and instead see everything as me against you. I feel the need to defend myself, not to hear you. I need to have my side validated as "right." If I am accused of doing something to hurt you, my focus will not be on expressing care for you, let alone remorse. Instead I will focus on justifying myself. You misunderstood, I didn't mean it. I'm innocent, and I am the focus.

All of this is me-focused, rather than we-focused. When we feel threatened, our brain shifts into self-defense, self-protection mode. That self-focus has a valuable function (it preserves your life when there is danger), but it also means that if I switch into this mode when I'm having a disagreement with my wife that I will see her as the "enemy" through the distorted lens of my self-protective bubble. 

Sociologist Christian Smith has described American (conservative) Evangelicalism as "embattled and thriving," and both of these are true. In fact, Evangelicalism thrives precisely by fostering feelings of outrage and fear. Perhaps that's why it's growing, while the Catholic church under pope Francis is shrinking. Remove the fear and everyone heads for the exits. Sad but true.

Fundamentalism is all about maintaining that self-protective bubble. Those on the inside are good, those on the outside are seen as a threat. There is a strong need to be right. Because outrage and fear are fostered in a fundamentalist environment, being in that environment for an extended time is very much like being angry all the time. That us/them thinking has the positive function of creating a deep sense of belonging and identity within the group, but at the same time it moves those inside further and further from empathy--which is at the very heart of how Jesus saw those who were considered "outsiders" by the fundamentalism of his day.

In short, fundamentalism is a form of tribalism that fosters and perpetuates this anti-social self-focused state, stunting a person's moral growth. The longer a person spends in that environment, the more morally impaired they become--like living in a building filled with asbestos. Asbestos is meant to protect you from fire, but poisons your insides. Fundamentalism is the same.

This self-protective reaction can be a response to physical danger, and it can also come as a response to perceived threats to our self-worth--feeling disrespected, shamed, rejected, abandoned, unloved. Both of these are core needs. We might even call them primal. So when we feel that either of these are threatened we can "freak out." 

This "freak out" response is our body's response to perceived threat. When we are triggered, the social part of our brain (called the cerebral cortex) gets shut down, and our brain is driven by its fear center (the lymbic system). That's why you can't see the other, and become so self-focused when you're triggered. It's physiological. This physiological emergency brain shut-down function may be good for a caveman being chased by a woolly mammoth, but it's not so great for relationships.

We need to develop morally and socially beyond that caveman response. We can all become triggered when we feel our value is threatened--when we feel disrespected, shamed, rejected, abandoned, unloved. What we need to do when we feel triggered like this is learn to break out of our self-protective bubble. 

That begins by learning to recognize when we are triggered, and taking time to calm down so we can "see" socially again. This is again physiological. We need time for our brains to come back online. But what we can do is develop self-awareness, like a person who recognizes when they have had too much to drink and hands over their car keys, we can learn to recognize when we are socially impaired due to a lymbic reaction of our brain.

The next step is to seek to see the perspective of the other, too, to move from "me" to "we." That's empathy--which is both central to both moral development, and to the way of Jesus. If this is with someone we love, that empathy can kick in as soon as our cerebral cortex comes back online. So all we may need is to allow time for this. If we are talking about an "other," then we need to work to develop that empathy, to move from seeing them as an "enemy" or "threat" to seeing them through the lens of love. Jesus was all about pushing us to widen our circles to include those we put on the outside.

That's how we can work on ourselves, but what about when someone else is triggered and emotionally reactive? How can we help a person who is morally impaired to break out of that self-focus? To put it in gospel terms: How can we rescue them from the dominion of fear, and reconcile them to Christ and his kingdom way of love? Again, when a person is reactive, this is a response to a perceived threat to their value and worth. So communicating to them that you genuinely value them, and value their concerns can create a safe space for conversation rather than defensiveness. Love disarms. 

Of course a person needs to have insight and self-reflection themselves. They need to take responsibility for their moral growth. But "disarming" a person by affirming and validating them can create the safe space to help make that possible.

What also is often necessary when seeking to reconcile two parties in conflict is the help of a trained mediator. A mediator, who is both neutral and validating to both parties, can work to repair trust. 

That's pretty much the opposite of the approach of Christian apologetics which is not set up to seek to understand the other, to disarm with love, or to reconcile the other. Apologetics seeks to win an argument, but in the process loses the person. Again, that whole antagonistic "I win, you lose" approach is one of low moral development. We need to learn to win people, not win arguments. 

Here's an amusing thought experiment: Imagine a debate--say between an atheist and a Christian-- where instead of each  speaker attempting to "win" the debate by "proving" that their position was superior, the moderator instead worked to get them both to understand and validate the other's feelings and concerns, so that in the end the two grew closer.  I want front row tickets to see that!

"God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20).

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At 8:13 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Reconciliation is the key Biblical and Jesus principle. But what if someone is not a Christian and they were bullied early on and they have a strong gun principle. Someone like that is in my life and they say basically, "If everyone had a gun then no one would dare to shoot up a school, break in a house, or even no country would invade our country!" Any thoughts? Every thought I could think of seemed like it was feeble. He also said that our prison systems fail because the criminal just get out and do the same things again. "Our prisons need to be like the Mexican prison system;" he said, "they get one meal a day, if they're lucky! We need to harder on our prisoner, not coddle to them." Any thoughts on how to respectfully disagree while keeping our friendship?

At 6:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good article. Just one thing: the assertion that fundigelicanism is growing is, at best, questionable. Many surveys over the past few years show that the numbers are declining and that the numbers for baptisms, altar calls etc are very overstated. The main exodus is centred on younger people.

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Anon,
I was referring to the Pew report. What surveys were you referring to specifically? For the record I share your skepticism for surveys.

At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


It would be relatively easy to demonstrate that the approaches your friend is proposing would be terribly ineffective and would instead make things worse, increasing violence and harm rather than reducing it.

However, what's important to understand is that this really is not about rational arguments, it's about a reaction to fear. You say your friend was bullied, and it sounds like they were traumatized by that and this is now shaping how they respond reactivity to things that make them feel threatened and afraid now.

They need to become aware that this trauma response is driving them so they can deal with it. Otherwise it will drive all of their responses "under the radar" and rational arguments will just be drowned out by their fear/trauma reaction.

If you want to help them do that, it would be important to validate those feelings, validate their desire for safety. Then you might from there guide them into recognizing the fear and trauma behind this.

This is a form of deescalation.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

With your prison analogy, I might suggest active listening a bit. Those strong feelings of disagreement came from somewhere. Jim Wilder talks about anger as our desire to make something painful stop. So I imagine repeating back his position and feelings will draw him out and away from the scapegoat he has picked to take the blame for his hurts in life.

The issue is often not the issue it is about taking back control to protect ourselves from being hurt. So it might play out like this.

You feel prisoners are cottled, that they did the crime and now they need to feel the full weight of their penalty. Wow! That is pretty strong. You feel they are being cottled and that cottling is bad. Do you feel the same way about parents and their kids... And you will let them move away from the defensive position, let their guard down a little, and share why they feel that way.

At the end he may not be any different but you may find greater compassion for him as an individual and he may enjoy talking to you again. Overcome evil with good. Eh?

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Maybe it would maybe it wouldn't. All I know is that my friend knows he had a harsh schooltime with bullies. He knows it! He doesn't need me to be his therapist and counselor. He's had many. I would just like to engage with his arguments as a fellow equal male (which also fights against bullying, because bullying tries to subjugate people into inferiority and inequality).


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