In 2007 Dr. Larsen published The Fundamentalist Mind: On how Polarized thinking Imperils Us All. The book was awarded the Gold Medal in Psychology and designated Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine.
In the early chapters of my book: The Fundamentalist Mind, I tell how my mentor, Joseph Campbell, saw it all coming: Gaza in Flames, the so called "holiest" places on earth the loci of untrammeled violence, pain and despair; people frozen in attitudes of paranoia, defense, and aggression, all in the name of the highest good. How could these things be? Is the very idea of God incendiary for human beings?
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
Though I wrote the book, published in late '07, in less than a year, my ongoing and painful study of this subject goes far back into my youthful contemplation on genocide. As a (I suppose thoughtful) kid, I couldn't wrap my mind around large-scale human cruelty. The Native Americans, for example, weren't just wiped out in a series battles; the dominator culture (ours), insisted on also killing the very core of their beliefs, the gods along with the people; devaluating an ancient and dignified spirituality, and in the bargain, losing thousands of years of accumulated indigenous lore on how to live sustainably on this continent.
And why would a religion with the image of a gentle, nonviolent Savior, torture, murder, enslave those weaker and less technologically advanced: (Wouldn't it be a kind of mental sadism, or spiritual chauvinism, to tell someone that their religion was worthless?) Moreover, serious scholars have suggested that the "Devil," who haunts the European imagination, was the previous deity, a positive figure for an older culture, often shown horned and hoofed, to indicate his mastery of the animals and the world of nature. But it took the Christian shadow imagination to make him the incarnation of Evil. (I will explain more about that oppositional faculty presently.) Studying what the Holy Inquisition did to millions of women (the film The Burning Times suggests over six million-spread over several centuries) was extremely traumatic for me even as a young Christian male. (I can't imagine what it is like for thoughtful modern women-as they imagine themselves in the place of those poor medieval herbalists and midwives.) The infamous Malleus Malificarum, the "Witches Hammer," explores the full range of the Inquisitor's sadistic fundamentalisms on how to "detect" witches-by such anomalies of nature as birthmarks, moles, extra nipples, fingers or toes, etc., or how they scream when pricked, prodded or burned. Campbell knew that mythologies address the dark and the destructive elements in life, as well as the visionary and creative. He saw that with secularism emerging, the mythologies themselves (especially the ones that took themselves most seriously-that is, literally) would begin to thrash about and engage in violent and fanatical gestures to survive.
So as the world turns, and untried new culture-forms emerge, we have equal and opposite reactionary forms pulling backward, atavistically: the Islamic Taliban, the Rapture-bound Christian fundamentalists. (Some theorists think they deserve each other: the Ayatollahs and the Popes, the Ahmadinejads and the George Bushes, each listening to the invisible, but omnipotent whispers of the Most High, while blundering and making fatal errors in the world of social realities.)
Any life form wishes to survive. People and animals do. Why shouldn't religions, even ideologies, since their substance is also biological? Aren't human beings the meat, the blood and the nerves, of churches, of nations? Humans are exquisitely receptive bio-computers. But culture and myth (religion) are the organizing patterns; software imprinted on the vulnerable bio-hardware: The "phantom rulers of humanity": "These forms," writes California poet Robinson Jeffers, "to whom labors and wars, visions and dreams, are dedicate…" These forms endure–or try to endure-even as the world tries to slough them off.
Campbell and his old friend, religious historian Mircea Eliade, posited that human beings have a basic dichotomy in their thinking: That timeless one between the "profane" and the sacred (the secular and the sacred, the ordinary and the holy). For many people it is useful to keep the two kinds of mentality apart. This was probably the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when asked if it were legitimate to pay taxes to the Roman overlords: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's."
But what if God and Caesar are mixed up? You think (and Caesar thinks) that Caesar is a god. Or, it works in reverse: any god worth worshipping has to have a Caesar, an earthly vicar, a plenipotentiary, to make absolutely certain that you fall on your knees at the right time, and in the right way. Then you begin to glimpse what Campbell was thinking about (as well as the founding fathers of the US). Church and state, sacred and secular conflated.
Perennially, in a kind of spatial perspective, the divine hovers over the human, even as Jehovah hovers over the Jews, Indra over the Vedic Aryans, Zeus and Athena over the battle on the plains of Ilium. Humanity seems unable to disentangle myth from its doings. Some of my most interesting courses at Columbia were in mythology as well as psychology-this led me to Campbell and the awareness that psyche and myth were inextricably entwined. Later, meeting Campbell, studying with, and having many conversations with him, I became aware how intimate and potent the psyche/myth connection was.
He thought the most dangerous kinds of mythologies were the literalized ones-the ones where myth and history are confused, imagination and perception. Campbell, like the rest of us, loved many things about Creation mythologies: gardens, serpents, falls from Grace. These are perennial myths which instruct the spirit. But, he said, if you want to find out where the world as we know it really came from, go to the physicists, biologists and archaeologists. It is amazing, that we are almost ninety years after the Scopes trial, and still the debate with the creationists vs. evolutionists rages. (God put those trilobites and Juraissic fossils out there to test our faith, brothers and sisters.)
We all know that religious Jewish people have anticipated a Messiah, a chosen one, who will vindicate and bless the faithful among his people. It is a powerful mythogem (a unit of mythic meaning). We all learned as children to wait for the goodies–and there can be no doubt that the messiah is a good thing-at least for his people. But the world is very bad (it hurts and persecutes his favored ones, his Chosen People). On a psychological level, somehow waiting for the good thing enables us to endure the bad-and still believe! In Christianity, the offshoot religion of Judaism, the Messiah already came–in the form of Jesus. But the inner expectation that something wonderful is coming is, well, almost indispensable to messianic religion-so to preserve that inherited mythogem, we are told that Jesus is coming again.
In The Fundamentalist Mind I have a section of a chapter on this theme of "The Second Coming of Christ." In Matthew 24:21-30 (the so-called "Little Apocalypse") Jesus did in fact predict his own return in "glory and the clouds of Heaven." But he also predicted the time: "Before this generation shall pass." The historical record shows no such epiphany (or if he did come, he met a similar fate to the first time, but without anyone writing it all down). Nor did he come in the next century or two-the early church father Irenaeus (2ndc. CE) was sure the coming would be in his own lifetime. (His student Hippolytus, who also, in fact, codified and popularized the mythic lore of the Antichrist, thought so too.) Both were disappointed, but unshaken in their beliefs, sorry to say. In the early stages of Christianity, the predictions of Christ's return were so rife, that by St. Augustine's time, this important Church Father insisted that they be stopped-or the failures of so many prophecies would discredit and ruin the Church. But such was the obsessional power of the expectation that it kept springing up. Thus was formed a kind of Fudamentalist "shadow Christianity," based on the expectation of an historical Second Coming. That mythologized "Antichrist" theme was too good to put down too; it gave frustrated millenialist Christianity a diabolical enemy to project on its many persecutors.
Since by now the Second Coming has been predicted for twenty centuries–without apparent fulfillment-Joseph Campbell presumed to call it "the great non-event!" A destructive mythology, indeed, to persist so…and yet it keeps being predicted. People have given away all they owned and stood on hilltops or the roofs of houses or churches, waiting for the End Times, for the heavens to part and the Absolute to intervene in time and space. In the year 1000, for example, there was a great divestiture of earthly portfolios for divine ones-people gave away all they had to the church, in expectation of eternal reward. Around this time also, as I have written, there emerged a potentially far more serious practice: of "forcing God's hand." Since Jesus failed to stage his second coming in the (calendrically auspicious) year 1000, surely if the Crusaders marched on Jerusalem, he would deign to come down, like he was supposed to, and rule as an earthly king for a millennium (a thousand years) Hence the "millenialists" are people who believe this will come to pass. The three and a half crusades, over two centuries (one was an ill-fated "Children's Crusade"), enacted unimaginable violence on everyone unlucky enough to be in the way.)
The Crusades brought violence in the name of the Holy
As my study in the book moves on to pre-millenialism in nineteenth century America, it seems that for believers, disappointment and failure are mere bumps on the path to the awaited fulfillment and salvation. Major American denominations (Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists among many others) are based on this same messianic expectation-which must never really happen because then it would eliminate the expectation on which the church is based. (Being invisible seems to give God a really good excuse to bow out of such puerile human scenarios.) Don't get me wrong, though; I am not saying this is God's problem. It's an eminently human problem: one of projecting our power, our creativity and our spirituality onto a historically-manifesting sacred person, and waiting around for that person to make our lives perfect. Likewise, seeing history as the tangible theater of a divine Will, and the various blunders, catastrophes, and even human-caused genocides and horrors as the doings of this Will, seems a dead end street.
The one thing that thus divides what I have called Shadow Christianity from more authentic variants, is this waiting game-while in fact the world goes to hell in its proverbial hand basket. The Fundamentalist historical fallacy is pernicious because it ignores all the psychologically and spiritually instructive things about Jesus' life–as an inspired prophet and healer who lived in Galilee, and laid down some pretty amazing guidelines for humanity. (I believe we accomplish more as a spiritually-empowered species if we do not sit around waiting for a projected God or Messiah to do everything for us, but take the inspiration into ourselves.)
Expecting the messiah within would guide you to save yourself and (your piece of) the world at the same time, by your spiritual efforts. Then you will have brought about the "new age," or entered the "promised land," in an inner, psychological, way. But culture forms that project their literally-held psychological states onto history are bound to reap disappointment-and waste a lot of creative effort. (And why would a literal Jesus want to come back, considering how he was treated last time?)
Human beings have the most exquisite and complex hardware in the known universe in their skulls, the cerebral cortex, with its billions of neurons and immeasurable trillions of possibilities for combinations. But culture, with language and customs, mythologies (some use the term religions) are imprinted on these receptive, organic human computers at a very early age. Thus habits of thought, drilled and inured, heard, recited, enacted, and which refer to ultimate things-beyond which there can be by definition no further thinking, no visualizing-seem to trump all secular tropes, any rational rhetoric. Emotion-imbued myth prevails. We remember stories of good and evil, heroic deeds and grand destinies, even sin and evil, and their redemption. These spirit-impregnated things eclipse all rational categories of thought: The manger and the baby Jesus; miracles, crucifixions; the prophet Mohammed's great winds and angelic voices; the dark, beautiful apparition of Kali to Ramakrishna.
Secular thinking, contrarily, is based on the evidence of the senses, and rational thought processes that pertain to predictable and known outcomes. At its best it is pragmatic, and uses the available evidence to make choices that are "realistic," in the sense of a practical benefit for all concerned. It worked for our Paleolithic ancestors as they considered the perils and the rewards of slaying mastodons and keeping the fire going. It worked for the Neolithic planters anticipating years of drought or famine and how much food they might need to feed their constituents. But historically, we all know how few decisions were made according to rational guidelines because of the enigmatic, perennial figure of the shaman.
The Christ figure
While the tribal leader-a political role–evolves into kings, emperors, prime ministers, presidents; the shaman evolves into prophets, soothsayers, priests and priestesses. This latter figure offers the mysterious logic of a greater (usually mythic) perspective, a spirit-flavored destiny in which the secular events are merely embedded, and beside which they are dwarfed into insignificance. So Joseph interprets Pharoah's dreams, so the astrologers and thaumaturges urge kings to war or peace. Julian Jaynes' Bicameral Mind is activated, wherein the gods voices are heard.
So ultimately we have Rev. Jerry Falwell assuring President Ronald Reagan that Armageddon and the Rapture Times would be unfolding in their own lifetimes (neither man is with us any more (and there is no news of either being "Raptured"-even, as far as I know in The Daily Inquirer.) But, the world still needs fixing worse than ever! Pragmatic social and economic thinkers then marvel at the president's enthusiasm about an impossibly expensive, and potentially world-destroying, project like the "Star Wars" space program, simply because the good Reverend has convinced the (mentally aging) President that God has a plan which trumps all ordinary human plans–though He might just need a little help from a human nuclear arsenal to bring about the Biblical prophecy. (Just a little "forcing God's hand".) Remember that the Sacred, since the time of the shamans, claims ontological superiority to all secular considerations. (What men say is limited and full of error; what God says, goes.) Reagan could also appoint a Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, in charge of Parks and Forest preserves for the entire country, who believes "every tree should be cut down" because then the promised Messiah will come and the End Times begin. The public jaw drops as such myths are shown to influence major decision-making.
Supernatural authority does not try to rest on its own merits, but that of a hypostatized Divine Being. In The Fundamentalist Mind I show how nicely this theory fits into the hierarchy and authority-susceptible primate mentality. We look upwards in the pecking order for our instructions, and our orders. And we disregard and denigrate those below us. As psychoanalysis shows us, people are eager to give over authority, and along with it, the fear of genuine freedom, and the responsibility for making one's own choices. When an invisible, spiritual reality and power system is adduced, ordinary logic falters and fades. Bin Laden gives the credit to Allah for bringing down the Trade Towers. General Boykin says America "triumphed" over Iraq (not because it was an unequal contest to start out with) but because "I knew that "My God was bigger than [the Muslim's one]. "My God was a real God and his was an idol." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/Americas/3199212.stm) (The unbelievable naїvété of the general's assertion is underscored by the fact that Islam is an aniconic religion, smashing idols wherever it finds them. Nor does it believe that any representations of Allah, or his prophet should be promulgated.)
Considerable sectors of the American populace began to shudder when the President told them he was taking counsel about the war in Iraq, not from his experienced and pragmatic father ('41), but from "a higher father" with whom he had secret and privileged communications, in the early morning hours of each day.
A joke in response was making the rounds in recent years. A genuinely bewildered American dies and goes to Heaven, where he meets God. "Lord," he says, the country is in disarray. The poor have no health care; we started a war and are killing innocent people; we are pampering the rich, while we squander our natural resources. But the President says he talks to you every day. Is it true?"
"Yes it is," says God, "It is true. But he does all the talking!"
Myths and fairy tales, often with a timeless wisdom, show us the following situation: The land is falling apart, crops are failing, towns in disrepair, and enemies threaten the borders. The king (or the president) has been listening to a corrupted or demented counselor. In The Lord of the Rings, Rohan of the Horse-lords sinks into ruin as the ensorcelled king Theoden listens to Grima Wormtongue, the evil counselor. In Star Wars, hidden and disfigured Darth Vader is under the spell of The Emperor, who wants to control the Universe.
Vader from Star Wars
Theoden and Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings
With whom, then, is the President really conferring, in his private sessions?
It is very dangerous for the king to consider himself the mouthpiece of the god; or that he alone knows the will of the secret power. That is a form of hubris, and he will surely then become the god's victim. (Oedipus' land is falling apart, and in a state of decay because he has violated fundamental laws of the Universe through patricide and incest-whether knowing or unknowingly. When the truth comes out and is faced, the king blinds himself for what he failed to see, in front of him all along. Then the land is gradually restored.) Archetype always transcends man-and brings the immature or inflated one to ruin, say the Greeks. Or in our time, an immature leader brings disaster on the land itself.
Fundamentalism is dangerous, because, almost constitutionally, the fundamentalist tries to project myths and archetypes into history, into three-dimensional reality: Evil is not a subjective quality of self-aggrandizement or egotism with which we each must grapple, Evil is an inevitable quality of "evil-doers"-and we know what to do with them! With Fundamentalism as a way of thinking, not only is there a supernatural warrant for doing what one wishes, it is beyond question. All dissent is discouraged, and any commentary falls into the logic of: "You are either with us, or against us." In just this way, enormous evil gets enacted on earth.
The crusades, for example, were enacted by people with a holy mission-to take back Jerusalem, a sacred city, for God's people. Because of the intensity and monolithic thrust of the mission, anyone inadvertently caught in the way, be he Jew or Saracen-was automatically a "godless" heathen or infidel, and subject to God's wrath-but administered by my sword. During the Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century-the North of France against the South–one zealous general, Arnaud Amalric, a former Cistercian monk, put the entire town of Bezier–almost 20,000 people-to the sword. When he had been told, before beginning to slaughter, that there was a logistical problem about this city-many "good" Christians (Roman Catholics) were mixed in with the hated "Cathars" (very peaceful, often celibate and devout Christians with a different, hence "heretical" belief system) he had a simple solution: "Kill them all! God will recognize his own!" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnaud-Amaury). Rome was later so impressed by his work that he was later named Archbishop of Narbonne in 1212.
Fundamentalism seems a monster with many heads. In my book I try to show how there are secular, scientific, and political varieties. (Chairman Mao, a secular leader in a mostly a-theistic culture (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist China) was promoted to almost the stature of a God, beyond criticism. Even to speak against the ideology of Maoism could get you a terrible beating.) Here Jung's psychology is more useful than Freud's. A secular figure becomes imbued with the archetype of the "divine-right king." It is not the content (perhaps even secular) of the belief system that makes it fundamentalist, it is the style: rigid, intolerant; absolutist.
Once we name the beast, how do we deal with it? This is where my book, for all its dark-seeming earlier speculation, finishes on a hopeful note. We find it in ourselves, the first technique to avoiding projecting on others. Owning your inner fundamentalist-the one who thinks he is God's gift to the earth, and hence is never wrong, or the one who thinks he is constantly being punished by God for bad thoughts-is indispensable. Catch yourself projecting stereotypes onto other people, or clinging to unworkable solutions with a death grip. On the group or collective level, I propose that religions do their own examination of conscience. Where have they capitulated to morally questionable points of view, or knuckled under to corrupt secular authority-for example in helping to beat the drums of war when a country was already poised on a cusp. Has the religion dominated or denigrated others. Is there a place for nature in God's plan-or is it only about humans? And so on…
I have been inspired by the work of both Charles Kimball, in his When Religion Becomes Evil, and George Lakoff in There's an Elephant in the Room. Kimball says that it's not just rigidity of viewpoint, but intolerance of any and all other viewpoints, and refusal to have a conversation. Behaviorally, that rigid attitude then devolves into unilateral action or violence, and the feeling that "the end justifies any means" (and the logic of Holy War assures the warrior his cause is sacred and has sanction from the top levels in the known universe.)
Lakoff teaches techniques for engaging others with different beliefs and points of view in a conversation. We all have a one-sided point of view, perhaps based on our genetic imprint, our upbringing, and our idiosyncratic emotional style. We must train our introspection, like the early psychologists from the time of Wilhelm Wundt and William James. Recognizing the demon in the self, we may learn to smile and tip our hat when we find it in others: "I see you there; I recognize you. Now, how do we use this occasion to grow together?
My own addition to this process goes back to Campbell: The contemplation on many mythologies leads to the ability to see myths as metaphors. (This is the subject of the book Campbell finished just before he died: The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth, and as Religion.) We train ourselves in transparency of vision, develop depth perception, and a nuanced and paradoxical understanding of the nature of the universe as it unfolds around and within us. We train ourselves to think symbolically as well as literalistically-using whichever fits the circumstance.
We must look within to reach the outer spaces of reality
Painting courtesy of Alex Grey
One of Campbell's favorite stories illustrates the point. An Indian guru was giving a discourse on how, all things are God, and so there need be no separation from God. A student bowed and left the ashram, only to return a few hours later, disheveled, battered and terrified. He told his pathetic story:
"I was in the street, and along came a procession, and I realized it was God. So I stood there. In the parade there was an elephant, with a mahout on his back, screaming for me to "Get out of the way! But I thought, "This elephant too is God."
You told us, master, "All is God: me, the procession, the elephant, even the stone wall he threw me against, after seizing me with his trunk-and almost trampling me. And here I am! What did I do wrong?"
The saint bowed and smiled. "You failed to listen to God screaming from the back of the elephant, to tell you to get out of the way!"
America (like India, Iran and Pakistan) is one of the most "religious" countries on Earth, estimated from the numbers of churchgoers in the population, and people who say they "believe" in God (a slightly lesser number than those who "believe" in the Devil.) But one gets the sense that the churches which are flourishing the most, are the Bible-belt Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations-not the intellectual, liberal or tolerant varieties of Christianity. It would seem to be comforting to flee back to simplistic, comfortable ideas, rather than embracing the paradoxical and awesome nakedness of existence, as science seems to be revealing it. These groups overwhelmingly voted for a conservative agenda, and GW Bush, who seemed to incarnate this wish to embrace simplicity and put an end to ambiguity. The feeling was that somehow, with a "god-fearin'" man in the White house, blessings would shower down from above on the whole nation.
But for most Americans, this recent administration may be one of the most expensive lessons, ever, in why our Constitution has provisions for keeping church and state separate. We have needed-and need–a leader who keeps his religion private: inward, spiritual and symbolic, but casts a cold and clear eye on the economic, military, ideological, health and education realities (and for things he doesn't understand, he seeks the counsel of human experts, knowledgeable in those areas.) God did provide! He (She) gave to our diverse, fragile and wonderful species, minds sophisticated enough to deal with most of the problems humanity faces, as well as-in our spare time-continuing to work on the ever-unfolding enigmas of the universe. But for all this we need to be clear-headed and compassionate, not self-important, nor caught in clouds of theological delusion. The universe has never been humanity's biggest problem. We are it!
Stephen Larsen received his B.A. (1964) and M.A. (1968) from Columbia University and his Ph.D. from the Union Institute (1975). He completed clinical Internships at Maryland Psychiatric Research Center with Stanislav Grof, M.D. and in New York with Edward C. Whitmont, M.D. (Director of training at the C.G. Jung Institute). He also trained extensively with professor Joseph Campbell in understanding the psychological dimension of mythology, until the latter's death in 1987.
He is Psychology Professor Emeritus from the State University of New York SUNY Ulster, where he held a faculty appointment from 1968-1996. While at SUNY he directed a program in consciousness studies and biofeedback, that for twenty-five years gave students a hands-on opportunity to train themselves and do research on the health benefits of biofeedback training. During the years 1978-85 he was a staff psychologist for Ulster County Mental Health Department. From 1975 to 1989 he was also consulting psychologist and staff member for the Green St. Center, a humanistic private practice in Kingston NY.
In 1990 he opened his own center for psychotherapy, biofeedback and training called Stone Mountain Counseling, PC, for which he continues to serve as director. The center specializes in LENS neurofeedback in which Dr. Larsen was certified in 1996. In 2003 he was certified in HeartMath, after training in Boulder Creek CA. Dr. Larsen is also certified in Qi Gong, the Chinese energy discipline, by Master T.K. Shih. He also holds a second degree black belt in So Ryu Karate Do, and taught both karate and yoga for many years. He has been an avid rock climber and trapeze amateur.
Stephen Larsen is author of The Shaman's Doorway, The Mythic Imagination, and with his wife Robin, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, and The Fashioning of Angels: Partnership as Spiritual Practice, as well as many scientific and scholarly papers, articles in journals, and book introductions. In 2006 he published The Healing Power of Neurofeedback: The Revolutionary LENS method for restoring Optimal Brain Function. In 2007 he published The Fundamentalist Mind: On how Polarized thinking Imperils Us All.