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Fundamentalism and Fear

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One rainy day, we shut down the World Economic Forum.

This is an article I wrote in late 2002, that was published in Honi Soit, the Sydney University SRC newspaper. It arose out of my experiences in the (formerly progressive) IMCSA, the organisation of Australian Catholic University Students.


Fundamentalism: an unquestioning following of particular rules or beliefs. Fundamentalism comes not from being on the far end of a political scale: rather, fundamentalism lies in a lack of critical thinking, in taking on information through assimilation, without a genuine education process. As Paulo Friere, a South American educationalist, says: Each feels threatened if their truth is questioned. Fundamentalism is especially dangerous in a university context because it can create a climate of fear that discourages personal and institutional growth.

Fundamentalist Christianity is obvious on campus these days. A few weeks ago, I cringed as a narrow interpretation of my religion, Catholicism, was displayed as the only way. As cardboard figures laboured over stalls at Carslaw, I fumed at the waste of social potential that happens when humans take on the sectarian mindset of party-building.

I say party-building because I see a similar attitude in politics. In the smooth conversations of the Labor party hacks, and in the frenzied stalls of the Leninists. The attitude that fuels opportunism and number-crunching, rather than honest human development. Only this time it is the business of building a power base within the Catholic Church. Its quite ironic that such people defend Jesus Christ, a dissident, using the tools of control.

The Society of St. Peter has a proud 5-year tradition of power games. It has led two coups in student catholic groups. The first time was several years ago, when they tried to stack the AGM of the Sydney Uni Catholic Society, claiming to 'catholicise' it. When unsuccessful, they split away to form the Society of Saint Peter, jumping on the EU (Evangelical Union) bandwagon of top-down learning.

Then, last year, in collaboration with the University of Queensland (UQ) Newman Society, they stacked the national council of the (mostly progressive) student Catholic movement, IMCSA. Pink-faced conservatives were flown into Newtown from around the country. With ridiculously suspicious rhetoric about their noble intentions, they thought they could somehow save our souls by taking us over.

Whilst many Protestant fundamentalists take the bible literally, Catholic fundamentalists tend to revere the hierarchy, the symbols and the dogma of the church as if their very unchangeability were sacred. In both categories, the human, fallible, dynamic dimensions are lost, and the religious person becomes an observer rather than a participant in the thinking process.

During the Society of St. Peters Catholic-I believe, I Belong theme week, the paranoia of Pre-60s catholicism resurfaced. Fire and brimstone once again colonised the minds of the pious.

During forums, it was comforting to sit back upon the soft lounge of conservatism, to know that I could have all my hard questions answered without even having to think!

A case study in political domination: George Pell, the Chaplains and the SSP.

Unlike Jesus Christ, who hung around with social outcasts and outlaws, the Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell enjoys the company of the doctrinally obedient, the morally pure and the politically powerful. Yet members of the Society of St. Peter, and indeed, many good conservative Catholics, serve George Pell as if he were the divine incarnate.

Its a win-win relationship, as Pell has consolidated the power of the Society of St. Peter at Sydney Uni. Last year, George Pell asked the Sydney Uni Catholic Chaplains, Brad Taylor and Jacinta Sinclair and Smudge, their 2 year old, to leave. Whilst his official reason was that they were lay people, and he wanted a priest, this reason lost its weight when Pell replaced them with another lay person. The new chaplain came from a small sect called Lumen Verum Apologetics, an obscure group from Belfield.

An apologist is a person who defends the faith with standard answers for everything, often losing any kind of intuitive or human connection with their own beliefs. The need to control and to refute questions with stock answers is symptomatic of a deep insecurity that many people in The Society of St. Peter hold. With this comes the suspicion of any person who differs even slightly in belief.

Until Jac and Brad left, Sydney Uni Catholic Chaplaincy was full of students who sat on the cushions between lectures with coffee and biscuits. Jac and Brad were (and still are) earthy people; good at listening and supporting students in thinking and surviving life. They encouraged people to question their assumptions and to build new ways of relating with each other. They were like the centre of a wheel, where many people, as spokes, met. (this dependence was also a problem with the catholic society)

Jac and Brad also encouraged critical thinking, as a process of informing ones conscience. Of course, critical thinking is dangerous: it might lead a person to question particular Church teachings or structures. The Sydney Uni Catholic Society was a space of questioning and thinking, sustaining diversity and respectful dialogue.

Yet Pell intervened in this: he opposes conscience- informing. He has spoken publicly on this on several occasions. Fr Ted Kennedy quotes Pells speech to a university seminar in Melbourne over a decade ago:

The doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly ditched, at least in our schools, or comprehensively restated, because too many Catholic youngsters have concluded that their values are personal inventions, that we can paint our moral pictures any way we choose
Who is Worthy pg 28

Here, Pell confuses freedom with license: through fear of dissent, he creates a zero-tolerance platform that leads itself to fundamentalism.

Critical thinking processes also help to destabilise unnecessary hierarchies. The Catholic system entrenches arbitrary authority, by enshrining power in positions, rather than encouraging flexible authority: in valuing different people for their different abilities. As the hierarchy stands, there is little flexibility or respect for dissent. It seems that if Jesus Christ were around today, he would probably be excommunicated by the political heavyweights of the Catholic Church, as his words and actions undermined the arbitrary authority of the chief priests.

Fundamentalism provides people with a refuge from a cruel world. It allows them to deny their existence in an unjust system by blaming evil. By resorting to dogma, a person can be comfortable in her or his inaction, insulated from reality by rose-tinted and sanitised bible stories.

At its best, religion can be a vehicle for engagement with reality, rather than the opium of the masses. If religion is to maintain any relevance to our lives, its future lies not in denial but in engagement. Religious reflection at its best holds within it huge potential for personal and social transformation, because it encourages people to empathise with others and to reflect upon ones own actions without becoming egotistical or defensive. Religion also provides a cultural framework of support for choosing to live ones life by values outside consumerism. This is important in our time.

At Students and Sustainability, a national environment conference in Perth this year, I met some deep ecologists who advocate engaged Buddhism. Rather than withdrawing from society, they emphasised sustaining the gaze upon the world and ourselves. I have always thought similarly: that it is fake to seek positivity through denial. Real positivity comes from challenging and immersing ourselves in the situations around us (however hopeless), listening and acting, building hope for fundamental change.

I believe that spirituality should help us to act. Its not about fixing up our own backyards so that we can be saved. Empowerment through a balance of reflection and community action (praxis) helps people to recognise the essential humanity in everyone; including themselves- by breaking down barriers of fear. It also helps to escape the machine mentality of action for its own sake.

Historically, the subversive content of Christianity was filtered out, as the Church became more aligned with the state, and hence, economic privilege. (I use the word subversive to mean threatening to the status quo) Unlike the modern-day citadels of power, the early Christian communities lived in communes: following Jesus Christ meant a radical commitment to transformative relationships.

This quality remains in the liberation theology of South American catholicism, which, I guess responds to the oppressive material conditions of the people.

Paulo Freire, who came out of this radical Catholic Brazilian tradition, wrote:

the more radical a person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.
(P 21 Pedagaogy of the Oppressed. )

I guess Im lucky that my experience of Christianity has been quite different from the polarising effect experienced by many people: who end up either in bitter resentment or fundamentalist certainty. I think that religion and religious ideals can be compatible with radicalism. Religion can sustain radicalism as long as it maintains hope- hope not in passive salvation, but in active salvation- using ones agency to effect positive change in society, whilst guided by the 'spirit'.

Crucial to this is an empowering learning process: rather than imposing ideas on people, encouraging critical thinking and the informing of ones conscience. I know that in my experience, I have learnt much more from people, who live their lives authentically, rather than from dogma.

Since publication, the conservative chaplaincy has relocated to a site off-campus, in the Legion of Mary building on Broadway, leaving the room we used to meet in empty. They have had many forums on campus hosting George Cardinal Pell. There have been cool relations between the Society of St. Peter and what is left of the Catholic Society.

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