But from that great herd — that single wild creature hurtling into nowhere across the sunset-crimson plain — one bull will at last break free from the rest. One bull who will not run with the others — into nowhere, or into the gorge, or into the sea. He does not fear the herdsman or their whips. He reclaims his heart, his mind, his soul from the headlong rush of the many. He runs apart, he runs alone, in a direction of his own choosing…
This MIGHT be the fighting bull. For the herdsmen take him far away, far into the mountains, far away from his brothers, far away from anything the bull has ever known. There they leave him, lost and alone in a strange new land, and they go…
One week later they go back to find the bull. If he has turned thin and dull and crazy, and runs away because he is afraid, or towards them because he is lonely, then they kill him at once with their spears and eat his meat for supper… But if he is strong and shining and proud and eating much grass, and he stands without motion and stares at them, and snorts and kicks the dust with anger, as if they have entered a kingdom where they don’t belong and are not welcome, then they know…
…Then they know that THIS is the fighting bull.
— Mattias Tannhauser’s paramour, the Seer Amparo, in The Religion by Tim Willocks
I gave my mother a lot to worry about when I was a teenager. Like many an adolescent boy in a hurry to be a man — but kinda clueless about how to get there — I often failed to channel a perpetual torrent of testosterone, anger and aggression into constructive paths, and I sometimes tilted at authority just for the hell of it and to my cost. Also, I drank a lot.
But I distinctly remember Mom telling me,
“The one thing I never have to worry about is that you’ll join a cult.”
Cults were a BIG THING when I was growing up in Southern California. Hell, the church my folks left when I was around four years old had some mildly cultish aspects. Parents feared losing their child to some crank or guru or sex fiend. There were people who actually made a living “de-programming” people who had escaped or were rescued from cults. ’Twas a full-blown moral panic — which is not to say there wasn’t a real problem, just that it wasn’t as pervasive a threat as the media made it out to be. Imagine that.
Mom knew me well; I wasn’t the kind to surrender my autonomy to any doctrine or leader, no matter how much sex , drugs and rock and roll they might have on offer. I ain’t no kind of fundamentalist.
Fundamentalism is having a big moment in Western culture. The “Great Awokening” as some wag tagged it, has all the hallmarks of the kind of fundamentalist fervor that periodically sweeps through civilizations like wildfire. Anti-racism is a tenet of faith in the Great Awokening. And who would challenge it? Racism is, after all, a bad thing, right? The danger lies not in the principle — which is more broadly accepted in the 21st century than at any point in human history — but in the fundamentalist fervor by which its enactment is pursued.
In an essay in The Atlantic, John McWhorter notes that:
“(T)hird-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will ‘come to terms with race’ is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is ‘problematic’ are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with ‘problematic’ thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called ‘virtue signaling,’ then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus. There is even a certain Church Lady air to much of the patrolling on race these days, an almost performative joy in dog-piling on the transgressor, which under a religious analysis is perfectly predictable.”
This is not a phenomenon of the political Left; it’s a phenomenon of American political culture writ large. American conservatives — with notable and honorable exceptions — have abandoned their principles in favor of “Trumpism,” a cult of personality that forces them to excuse, explain and enable behaviors and actions that run counter to their previously stated concept of civic virtue. Conservative evangelical Christian columnist David French writes:
“Spend any time around the new Trump right, and you’re immediately seized by how closely it tracks that ‘ole time religion — with Trump serving as the charismatic circuit-riding evangelist. People wonder about his deep bond with so many millions of rural Americans, but it’s obvious to observers who grew up in the South — even if Trump’s a New York reality star, he’s still connecting with a deep (and idealized) rural cultural memory.
The result isn’t just enthusiastic political support (political rallies and preacher-style rhetoric are nothing new in American politics) but a sense of identity, fellowship, and religious passion that’s syncretistic with Christianity, with Trump serving as the Lord’s mighty instrument of justice and righteousness…
…And if you think religious Trumpism is sweetness and light, you haven’t been paying attention. In fact, right-wing Trumpism is trying its best to build its own cancel culture, aimed at purging right-wing institutions of anti-Trump voices—or at least abusing them and hounding them online and in real life. Cruelty isn’t just a means to an end. It’s often the point.
For now, burning at the stake remains figurative, but the impulse to destroy those who challenge orthodoxy is the same as it was during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the 1500s, or during the Soviet purges, or during China’s Cultural Revolution or…
The fundamentalist cannot accept what French describes as the “immovable, irreducible amount of uncertainty in this world.” I was born accepting that uncertainty, perhaps even reveling in it. The fundamentalist outlook is so profoundly alien to me that I find it almost impossible to understand. I am virtually allergic to it. Yet understand it we must, for it is a shaping force in the world at this moment. As always, it is necessary to recognize that everyone has their reasons, even if those reasons appear incomprehensible to thee and me. For fundamentalists, certainty is critical not only to a sense of comfort and control, but to their very identity. And people will fight to the death to preserve and protect their identity.
Samantha Field, a writer who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian sect and now considers herself a “progressive” Christian, notes that:
“(F)undamentalists are ruled by logical consistency before any other consideration. What may seem like utter nonsense to you or me makes perfect sense if you understand the premise they’re working with and follow it to its conclusion.”
The trouble starts when the fundamentalist must impose his or her logical consistency upon the rest of us. That’s when things get dangerous. The arrogance of certainty asserts itself when you know that God is on your side. Or that History is on your side. Or that Natural Selection is on your side. Dissenters are sinners and blasphemers who must not merely be opposed but eliminated. Error has no rights. French describes a culture in which any sense of “existential humility” has been stripped away by the searing heat and glaring light of certainty:
“In a culture stripped of existential humility, the only valuable speech is the speech of those who speak existential truth. Dissent harms the body politic by introducing error. Thus “free speech’ —as an independent liberty interest — cannot possibly be in the common good. The common good is advanced only by truth, and thus only truth has rights.”
In a dark moment a few days ago, I reflected on the hard truth that I have never felt so alienated from my own culture as I do now. That’s saying something, because, like my musical hero Waylon Jennings, I’ve always felt like I was “winding up somewhere one step ahead or behind.” I came to realize that my deep sense of alienation — accompanied by a state of hypervigilance that was at once exhilarating and acutely uncomfortable — stems from feeling increasingly surrounded by fundamentalism, being dunned with demands to accept one kind of harsh binary choice or other, with the threat of opprobrium implicit in the judgements of all.
And, perhaps most importantly, I fear and loathe the mob.
Of course, all of this merely amps up the instinct to break from the great herd — that single wild creature hurtling into nowhere across the sunset-crimson plain. I will continue to strive to do so, though I recognize that I will pay a certain price. It is a dangerous time to be a skeptic of all fundamentalisms, for when lines are drawn and sides chosen, you are left alone, caught in a crossfire. True, you won’t follow the mass into the gorge or the sea, but the mass may turn upon you and trample you. Or, you may find another fate, as Amparo’s parable in The Religion reveals:
Tannhauser didn’t know whether to whether to burst into tears or into laughter of inexpressible joy. He found that he loved this extraordinary beast, unknown yet present in his innermost heart, and looming large before him in his mind’s eye, as if even there — as a phantasm — it might bear down and gore him if he looked too long.
“It’s a rum tale,” he said. “The bull has the largeness of spirit not to live — or die — with the common mass. Yet by that act he marks himself out as the one who must be sacrificed by Fate.”