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Faith-healing: A Modest Proposal on Religious Fundamentalism

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Author and WMC Co-founder Robin Morgan struggles to understand the faith-based madness that seems to surround us.

For years, I’ve been barking up the wrong steeple, confronting the misogyny that defines all religious fundamentalists: Islamists (the only ones most people bother to hate), ultra-Orthodox Jews, Christian Bible-thumpers, Hindu militants, even Buddhist and Shinto extremists. “Take back the law!” I cried, citing the UN Charter and Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which disallow any religious law being the source for or impediment to international rights. “Just feed them all!” I pleaded, when I thought economics drove the phenomenon. “It’s really cultural!” I argued, trying to be reasonable.

And back when I believed we were facing willful ignorance (because affirmed stupidity seems all the rage), I produced Fighting Words: A Tool Kit for Combating the Religious Right (Nation Books). It offers “verbal karate” for arguing, facts and Founders’ quotes like “Question with boldness even the existence of a god” (Jefferson). Stuff like that.

Now I see this crisis is worse than willful ignorance. Religious fundamentalists are blatantly, commitment-to-the-funny-farm-ready, lunatic, cuckoo wingnuts. Serious people suffering from cognitive or emotional distress have everything to gain by getting help. But religious fundamentalists have everything to lose by becoming healthy, so they’ve embraced willful madness.

It has an epidemiological range from petty crazy (ubiquitous dating-service TV ads vowing to “find God’s match for you”) to scary psychoses (our home-grown Taliban exerting wildly disproportionate influence on our political system).

Fundamentalists have their fundaments—the Koran, the Shuras, the Pentateuch, the Bible. This last, for instance, has texts handy for justifying Inquisitions, Crusades, lynchings, apartheid, indentured servitude, racism, poverty, polygamy, war, wife battery, child marriage/abuse/murder, homophobia, and other holy terrors—plus some exquisite 17th century English poetry in the King James Version. An important new book, Fatal Self Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese (Cambridge University Press), exposes “family based Christian enslavement” as the cornerstone of the institution of slavery. It quotes Joseph Wilson (a 19th century Southern Presbyterian clergyman and, incidentally, father of President Woodrow Wilson) on how his deity devised slavery as an organizing element in the family so it could serve as the model for the state, emphasizing that a household under the gospel must “contain all the grades of authority and obedience, from that of husband and wife, down through that of father and son, to that of master and servant.”

Anyway. Sorry, I digress. That’s the naïve me surfacing again. After all, however much integrity an individual’s private spirituality may have, organized religion has always been about power. And all fundamentalisms share a political agenda and method. But there’s a madness to this method.

The evidence was there all along. A study by evolutionary scientist Gregory Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society (Vol. 7, 2005) found that greater degrees of social dysfunction in a society correlated with higher religiosity. Contrary to claims that secularism produces moral decay, secular societies—e.g., France, Scandinavian countries, Japan—have far lower rates of homicide, STDs, teen pregnancy, and abortion than the United States with our uniquely high rate of religionists. The American “blue states” also have lower rates of divorce, infant mortality, homicide, and violence than the “red states,” where religiosity bellows.
When I finally recognized the religious right as a global pandemic, evincing identical symptoms in disparate populations, I was as you can imagine quite alarmed. Should I rush out and warn everyone? Should I hide and gibber? Where could I safely hide and gibber? Then I decided that, being just a layperson, I needed to test my analysis against objective science. So I researched psychiatric authorities, including the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for the categories of clinical disorders (Axis I). The DSM is the standard reference for mental disorders. It was so helpful. Fundamentalisms were diagnosable!


Consider a recent New York Times story about women being the flashpoint of Israeli anger at the growing sociopolitical influence and numbers of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) community: women barred from speaking from the podium at a conference on women’s health and Jewish law; women’s faces blacked out on Jerusalem billboards; ultra-Orthodox men screaming “whore” while spitting at a terrified 8-year-old girl on her way to (religious!) school, because they decided she was immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigning when the army wouldn’t excuse Haredim soldiers from events featuring female singers; Dr. Channa Maayan, attending a Health Ministry ceremony to receive an award for her book on hereditary diseases, being forced to sit separately from her husband in a sex-segregated audience and having to watch a male colleague accept the award for her since she wasn’t permitted onstage. Israeli discourse is reportedly now dominated by the phrase hadarat nashim, the exclusion of women. By the way, though Israel boasts women heading political parties and the Supreme Court, feminists there have long decried the descent of what was founded (albeit on already inhabited land) as a secular, socialistic state into a swamp of capitalist, militaristic patriarchy. Now, already accused of practicing apartheid on its Arab population, Israel’s government is permitting an insatiable religious right to inflict de facto gender apartheid? That’s a drift toward theocracy.

But I forget! They’re daffy. Potty. Loony. Demented. So back to the DSM.

Delirium, Dementia, Amnestic and Other Cognitive Disorders

Take the folks who tote Down with Government! signs while yelling, “Hands off my Medicare!” or denounce government “intervention” through safety or environmental regulations, but applaud invasive laws that violate a women’s rights and body. Once I would have called that hypocrisy. But hypocrisy requires an ethical context and we’re dealing with ding-dongs, so Dissociative State fits better. Or take the Haredim living off Israel while denouncing its right to exist (because the messiah hasn’t touched down yet). More than 60 percent of these black-garbed guys, white dishtowels flapping at their waists and sideburns-gone-wild, gobble welfare subsidies to do full-time religious study, and a vast majority get exemptions from military service required of all other Jewish Israelis. Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox women do work in the labor force—in addition to bearing and raising an average of 6.5 children. What are these women thinking? No, they’re too exhausted to think. Must be Cognitive Dissonance.

Messiah Complex

Speaking of messiahs, we should stop enabling delusional behavior. Why have we largely sacrificed use of the word “fundamentalist” to the Christian right’s “evangelical” or “pentecostal” as their self-styled terms of (respectful) description? Sure, we wanted to be inclusive, not judgmental, of the women. And we’re pluralists. But evangelizing means not just “bringing the good news” but “seeking to convert.” We should defend their right to proselytize, but we don’t have to defend their content, terminology, or tactics. Torquemada “evangelized,” too, you know.


A whopper category. Endless lists. Just three samples: Repressed Memory Syndrome (I figure that comes from the childhood trauma of finding yourself in a fundamentalist family), and PTSD (that must come from realizing you’re stuck in that family). Amnesia? A growth industry. Like the infamous coalition of extremist Christian groups, Islamists, and the Vatican (Crusades? What Crusades?) working to kill gains women were making at UN conferences throughout the 1990s. Or the recent collaboration of evangelical and Mormon leaders—forgetting their mutual loathing in service of a greater harm—to pass California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage.

Anxiety Disorders

Paranoia, often with attendant Hallucinations, crops up here. Religious zealots interpret resistance to being imposed upon by zealots as an attack on zealots. Any noncompliance with such incursions is defined by the incursers as a direct assault on their way of life. It’s a through-the-looking glass, best-defense-offense reverse-reality expressed in phrases like “Your saying ‘Happy Holidays’ threatens Christianity!” and “Your same-sex wedding destroys my heterosexual marriage!” If expressed with enough outrage through Anger Management Disorder, it temporarily paralyzes ordinary people in sheer disbelief. Haredim men and boys now curse the police as “Nazis” during confrontations, and they’ve paraded young boys wearing Holocaust yellow stars. (There’s a ready-made Repressed Memory Syndrome for you). The apparent inability of such fathers to care about the effect on their sons is a characteristic of Sociopathy, a personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy, shallow emotions, and egocentricity. Sociopaths are prone to antisocial behavior and abuse of others, and are disproportionately interested in or responsible for violence, though they sometimes can pass themselves off as average individuals. That could describe a whole range of guys, from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to Randall Terry.


So many ravings, so little time. We see delusions of persecution (the defense-offense syndrome above); of righteousness (dogmatic, solipsistic refusals to imagine that others might not want to share the same view); and of grandiosity (certitude that they alone speak for a god who watches over their every move—String Theory to the contrary).

Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders

Oh please. Scientific observation of the subjects’ definitions regarding “woman” and “man” proves the pathology. Last December, an Islamic cleric announced that women should not be allowed near bananas or cucumbers, so as to avoid “sexual thoughts.” (When I posted that on Facebook, people thought I’d made it up). All fundamentalists afflicted under the DSM categories present with this disorder, in addition to any other symptoms. This is clearly the root cause of their multiple derangements.

There are too many categories for this space. But feel free to add your own. Like keeping Jewish kosher or Muslim haram laws, sensible customs thousands of years ago when desert heat rotted certain foods to toxicity, which today—since the Ark of the Frigidaire was given unto us—might qualify as Eating Disorders. Or the proposed recategorizing of Autism as a “social and communication disorder” in need of services “promoting cultural tolerance and a degree of self-understanding.” Now that sounds promising! However, the fundamentalist population also displays Addictive Behavior, habituated dependency on “tradition” plus petrified resistance to change.

And all this time, citizens like you and me, believing in our species’ capacity for transformation, have been trying to deal with fundamentalists through reason, persuasion, and organizing, expecting some eventual response. We must have been suffering from Narapoia—the illusion that people are out to do you good.

It’s said that the correct diagnosis is a step in the right direction, so you know what you’re dealing with even if you don’t yet have a cure—line in the sand and all that. And I confess I don’t know how to heal these folks, short of putting anti-psychotic meds in the water of most states south of the Mason-Dixon line, throughout the Middle East, and across swaths of South Asia. Yet even that wouldn’t cover all affected populations. Where is Big Pharma when you really need them?

One thing I know for sure.

It’s time for an intervention.

Author’s note: Robin Morgan assumes that some readers of this essay will denounce her as anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, anti-male, anti-American, and even anti-mental-illness-patients. She apologizes only to the last group, if they felt understandably insulted by being lumped in with fundamentalists. The others she refers to Jonathan Swift. Everyone else can rest assured that no zealots of any kind were harmed in the writing of this piece.

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Robin Morgan
Co-founder. Women's Media Center, Host & Producer of WMC Live with Robin Morgan, Writer, Activist
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