How can someone who knows the Bible well enough to quote from it at will—usually from the Old Testament—support the killing of drug suspects or the manifestly unfair shuttering of an entire TV network?
As I have written before, Bob Altemeyer has the answers. The scholar, who is now 80, devoted his professional life to one question. “The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom? So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem.” HIs scholarship is largely based on the RWA Scale, a test he designed and used over many decades to measure “right-wing authoritarianism” personality traits.
What did he find? “Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:
1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.”
In “The Authoritarians,” which is available online for free, Altemeyer devotes a chapter to religious fundamentalism. (He uses a broader definition of fundamentalism, applicable in both theory and practice to all religions.) His conclusions should make all of us, not just religious fundamentalists, flinch with the shock of recognition.
“The first thing I want to emphasize, in light of the rest of this book, is that they [religious fundamentalists] are highly likely to be authoritarian followers. They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. They bring strong loyalty to their in-groups, have thick-walled, highly compartmentalized minds, use a lot of double standards in their judgments, are surprisingly unprincipled at times, and are often hypocrites.”
“But they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. They are blind to themselves, ethnocentric and prejudiced, and as closed-minded as they are narrow- minded. They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. They are also surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in, and deep, deep, deep down inside many of them have secret doubts about their core belief. But they are very happy, highly giving, and quite zealous. In fact, they are about the only zealous people around nowadays in North America, which explains a lot of their success in their endless (and necessary) pursuit of converts.”
That last sentence shows some of the limits of Altemeyer’s research; he has conducted it only in Canada and in the United States. Would his conclusions apply outside those two countries?
Despite, or maybe because of, his gift for schematic thinking (three personality traits of an authoritarian follower, seven deadly shortfalls of authoritarian thinking, etc), Altemeyer is persistent in injecting cautionary notes throughout his work. But the real source of the descriptive power of his research are the tests he administers.
“This is not just ‘somebody’s opinion.’ It’s what the fundamentalists themselves said and did. And it adds up to a truly depressing bottom line. Read the two paragraphs above again and consider how much of it would also apply to the people who filled the stadium at the Nuremberg Rallies. I know this comparison will strike some as outrageous, and I’m NOT saying religion turns people into Nazis. But does anybody believe the ardent Nazi followers in Germany, or Mussolini’s faithful in Italy, or Franco’s legions in Spain were a bunch of atheists? Being ‘religious’ does not automatically build a firewall against accepting totalitarianism, and when fundamentalist religions teach authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism, they help create the problem. Can we not see how easily religious fundamentalists would lift a would-be dictator aloft as part of a ‘great movement,’ and give it their all?”
A faith that puts a premium on obedience (one of the driving themes of the Old Testament is the human struggle to follow authority) rather than on mercy (in the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets in a radically unexpected, indeed subversive manner, making the first last, and the last first) can help make the believer susceptible to becoming an authoritarian follower.
The seven deadly shortfalls: “illogical thinking,” “highly compartmentalized minds,” “double standards,” “hypocrisy,” “blindness to themselves,” “a profound ethnocentrism” (dividing the world into in-groups and out-groups), and “dogmatism.”
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