Reality Maps and Fundamentalism

John Smith—11/2004
For many of us in the West, the face of fundamentalism is the fanatical Arab who is driven to destroy everything for his Islamic beliefs. But when we examine fundamentalism from the deeper perspective of reality maps, we find it rife in our society too… and even more dangerous. Without a program to reduce Western fundamentalism, civilization is doomed to bloody conflict and oppression.

WHEN THE SAUDI'S attacked the World Trade Centre in 2001, they did so because their belief of Islamic fundamentalism and the sanctity of Saudi Arabia had come bang up against America 's belief in its right to meddle in foreign politics and base its troops in other countries. Like all conflict, this one was a clash of irreconcilable beliefs. It resulted in the terrible terrorist acts of the 9/11 attack and the invasion of Iraq, And it demonstrates the violence with which many of us will defend or confirm our beliefs.

Belief Systems and Reality Maps

Each of us has a whole spectrum of beliefs ranging from our core fundamental beliefs, often called truths, to peripheral beliefs held so loosely that it is more accurate to call them working hypotheses. Our core beliefs define our relationship to reality — our place in the world — which is why they are difficult to change (most hardly change their core beliefs over a lifetime). On the other hand, we have little invested in our peripheral beliefs which is why are much easier to change. Core beliefs are likely to include our religion (including atheism) and our politics; peripheral beliefs would involve basic facts such as who the leader of another country or whether a shortcut to work really is quicker.

As our core beliefs define our reality and our relationship to it, they also define our identity — who we think we are. The more of our identity entangled in a belief, the harder it is to change. After all, it is natural to cling in an ever changing and capricious world to the notion that we are one particular person or individual — that our identity is a constant over life (and, for many, beyond the grave). Challenge a person's core beliefs, and you are directly challenging him or her… which is why many are prepared even to kill to defend those core beliefs.

Core beliefs are occasionally modified by life experience. Usually, those changes are subtle, but sometimes a new identity can be dramatically born, but this usually involves some traumatic or miraculous event — something so egregious that it challenges the very core of who we think we are. Examples might include religious conversions, war, a terrible injury or the death of a spouse or close friend.

Why do we need to have beliefs? Our lives are exceedingly complex, and every day we are bombarded with much more information than our conscious minds could ever comfortably handle — life's bandwidth is overwhelming! We avoid the confusion that results from information overload by forming a construct of outer reality in our minds — an internal map or shorthand version of reality. These reality maps are constructed from our beliefs. We might believe, for example, that strangers are not to be trusted, and in holding this belief we no longer need to examine the signals from people we do not know… we can effectively block out this part of life's cacophony. What a relief! In other words, our beliefs create blind spots, so there is less intensity reaching our minds. (That is why belief systems are also called reality tunnels — they produce tunnel vision.)

We all have a natural propensity to create reality maps from the moment we are born; our brains are hardwired for mapmaking. Before the age of about seven, we are laying down the core beliefs about ourselves; early childhood, therefore, has a huge influence over the rest of our lives. Children can be easily molded at a young age, which is why we the Jesuits used to say, "Give me the child before the age of seven, and I will give you the man." However much a rebel or black sheep a person appears to be, it is likely therefore that his or her core beliefs actually reflect those of the parents. (A rebel is most likely rebelling against his or her own core beliefs, which he or she has labeled as undesirable.) As we gain more experience of life, we modify the maps that we have and add to their number.

Our inner maps of reality, of course, involve much more than a single belief. Those who believe that strangers cannot be trusted are likely to also hold many other beliefs consistent to that position: for example, the world is a dangerous place, everybody is always trying to take something from us, only close friends and family can be trusted, etc. In this way a whole internal reality of consistent beliefs is painted. These groups or collections of beliefs are called belief systems — these are the particular maps. (Grand scheme belief systems are often called paradigms.)

So this process of selective perception allows us to practically deal with reality and to keep some level of equanimity (without the information overload). However, systems of reality simulation and approximation come at a price: when using a particular map, we only see what the map or mapmaker shows us; we only see what fits with our beliefs. And that can leave us completely blind to many aspects of our experience (actual studies of perception indicated that we actually filter out about 99.5% or more of experience in this way — we are only consciously aware of 2000 bits of of the 400,000 bits of information that impinge on our perception per second). The classic (and perhaps apocryphal) example of "map blindness" is the reaction of the islanders on Tierra del Fuego to Magellan's ships when they first arrived and anchored out in the bay. Because ships of that size were not on their maps of possibility, they could not see them. They were beyond comprehensibility and therefore perceptibility. They had to learn to see these ships.

A more mundane example of "map blindness" might be a doctor's inability to understand the fundamental cause of a particular illness because he is too focused on local organic causes rather than being able to see his patient as a whole and understand that perhaps the mind is likely also to be involved. Or a businessman who is so focused on the competitive business map that he is unable to see how maximizing his company's profits might be harmful to a community and the environment.

We each use a whole collection of belief systems or maps, many of which contradict each other. For example, our businessman above, whose ruthless use of his capitalist map destroys people's lives and the environment, will happily use the paternal map when he gets home: he will love his child and hope that she has a beautiful unspoiled world when she grows up. He does not question the contradiction because he learns to compartmentalize his life by using two contradictory maps of reality at different times and in different contexts.

Another example might be the military commander: she sings lullabies to her children in the evenings; she makes love to her husband; she is very kind to her friends. And yet, she is a professional killer: she will not hesitate to pull the trigger. Her whole professional training has been to lose the natural inhibition that we all have to murder. Taken to the extreme, this is how the Nazis operated: they were not necessarily monsters; they used monstrous maps. And whilst this does not absolve them of responsibility — we are responsible for consequences of the maps we choose to use — it allows us to understand the complexity of the issue, without merely dismissing the participants as evil. (Understanding how ordinary men and women can end up doing heinous acts is essential for preventing such acts in the future, and merely quarantining such behaviour under the label of "evil" is completely unhelpful to this end.)

Few think through the consequences of the beliefs they hold, especially when distracted by negative emotions such as fear and hatred. The majority of Americans, for example, believe in "Gentle Jesus" and yet have no qualms in re-electing a leader who has murdered over a hundred thousand innocent men, women and children in far-off countries on the back of the lie of weapons of mass destruction, and then "liberation". Bush and his government use the "politics of fear" to instill in the majority of Americans strong negative emotions to help numb responsible choice. The result is that few ordinary men and women who voted for Bush will accept full consequences of their election choice: most will dismiss the murder of 100,000 Iraqi citizens (a huge proportion of which were women and children) as a necessary evil or, more likely, deny its reality altogether — just as many Nazi sympathizers did with the holocaust. (Blair's reaction to these statistics was to dismiss them out of hand, even though they were compiled by US independent academic research.)

Fundamentalists and Relativists

Those who confuse their maps with the territory are known as "fundamentalists". Fundamentalists tend to have a single central map by which they try to navigate every facet of life, and as reality is so clear-cut and singular for them, they tend to dismiss anyone using a different map. In fact, it is true to say that nobody can be as cruel as a fundamentalist: they will fight tooth and claw for their "reality". When we hold on to our maps this tightly, confusing them with reality itself, we will even kill to maintain our delusion — as recent events in the Middle East have shown so graphically. (The Islamic fundamentalists kill for Allah, and the Christian fundamentalists kill for "Democracy" and "Freedom".)

Fundamentalism is unconsciousness: when people are fundamentalists, they are not aware of their belief systems or maps. They are focused entirely on the reality their maps describe. We all have some fundamentalist belief systems — very few of us have conscious awareness of ALL our maps. As a result, most of us have some level of in-built intolerance to others with different maps, which is why we "stick with our own kind". Our families tend to share our maps (even if our children rebel against them to begin with), and so do our friends — which is why they are our friends. And we tend to vote for political parties that promote our maps. Fundamentalists, however, will often take this intolerance to dangerous extremes.

Those able, on the other hand, to distinguish their primary maps from the territory are called relativists. Relativists are more conscious of the perceptive process; they understand how beliefs colour our perception. These are the people who have the imagination to look past the different maps that each of us use to the shared experience of humanity. These tend to be the peacemakers and the champions of free democracy. It takes a deep understanding of our mind maps to understand that, underneath all this dross, we all have the same intrinsic value, the same human rights. (Of course, this position can also be held in a fundamentalist way as well, but that is unlikely.)

Many writers and thinkers have seen the conflicts of modern times as a clash between fundamentalism and relativism: the fundamentalism invariably of Islam, and the relativism of the Western world and, primarily its icon, the United States. However, more recent events have shown this not to be true. Whilst there is certainly serious conflict on the domestic and world stages between fundamentalism and relativism, much of today's conflict in the Middle East and other parts of the world is between different groups of fundamentalist — Islamic, Christian and Jewish. The Iraqi war, for example, was a crime precipitated on a third party sovereign nation by a clash between the Christian fundamentalism of the American Bible Belt and the Islamic fundamentalism of a relatively small group of mostly Saudi Arabians.

Fundamentalism sees no compromise because it does not have the imagination to step back for a more balanced perspective. There is a natural propensity in every fundamentalist to spread his or her delusion; the fundamentalist is driven to stamp out any threat to his or her reality, because that reality defines the self (here, the map is the territory). So the struggle of the ego for survival — a fundamental part of the human condition — is transferred to fervent defence of a particular belief system or belief systems. (Generally, if someone is a fundamentalist in their main outlook on reality they tend to be unconscious of ALL their belief systems or maps.)

As life gets more complicated, as communication channels increase, and as society becomes more tolerant (at least in some places in the West), we are all being exposed to more and more different belief systems. How we react to this depends on our relationship to our own belief systems. If we are fundamentalists, we will feel threatened, and threatened people tend to elect oppressive leaders. It happened in Nazi Germany and it is happening today in the United States. (It is also happening in Europe, but more by the stealth of Brussels rather than the fear of the electorate.) The fascist Neocons would be never be elected by an electorate that did not feel threatened, and so fundamentalist leaders generate the perception of perpetual danger, and this allows them to take away the liberty of the people. And then fundamentalists bask in this tyranny, for liberty is always suspect to them.

From a psychological point of view, the main reason that fundamentalists feel so threatened is because life is so complex now that we need more than one map. If we are unable to distinguish the map from the territory, then this multiplicity of perception can literally driven us to psychosis. This is why fundamentalists are increasingly becoming psychotic in modern times. Being responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Iraqi civilians and believing in Gentle Jesus is enough to drive anybody to psychosis! Extolling the virtues of freedom and democracy, whilst voting for leaders that disrespect and erode them, causes mass psychosis. Reveling in violently aggressive US foreign policy, whilst sincerely believing that the "meek shall inherit the Earth", is a recipe for psychosis. And so is aggressively playing the capitalist game whilst holding the Earth sacred. With so much confusion and contradiction in our perceptions, it is no wonder that numbers with mental disorders are going through the roof.

Reducing Fundamentalism

It would be true to say that moving from fundamentalism to relativism is to progress towards greater consciousness or enlightenment. On a larger scale, it is the process of civilisation. Whilst it is tempting to take refuge in fundamentalism, especially during times of perceived danger and confusion, we must realize that it is always a step backwards into unconsciousness. When we encourage fundamentalism, we play with energies that can sweep a country to war, and a democratic society to a state of terrible oppression. Even "the land of the free" can very quickly become a prison.

Tolerance is a direct product of being aware of different reality maps and belief systems. If we understand the mechanism of perception, we are not threatened by someone with a different reality map. Whilst tolerance is not essential to democracy per se — the majority may well be fundamentalists who vote in an oppressive government — it is essential to a free democracy. If the people, the government, or influential special interest groups (such as corporations, religions, the plutocrats etc.) do not respect the reality maps of other people, then they will do everything they can, consciously or unconsciously, to stamp them out. They will unduly influence the process of democracy in their own favour, which will not be for greater good of society.

When a human being has a relativist perspective, he or she is generally more tolerant. Human rights tend to be respected because we can see past the diversity of belief systems to the common experience of humanity. However, it is important to remember that there are always a small percentage of any human population that has psychopathic tendencies, and unfortunately, it is these pathological people who often have the ruthless drive necessary to become leaders — whether in government, religion, business or the military. For these people, the end always justifies the means. If one of these psychopaths happens also to be a relativist, he or she is likely to use knowledge about maps and mapmaking to become an expert of manipulation and propaganda. (Hitler was one, and so is the Bush administration, although Bush himself is a fundamentalist.)

However, as the general population of any nation becomes more aware of maps and mapmaking — as as they move from fundamentalism to relativism — it becomes much harder to manipulate them. Propaganda is always more obvious to those who are conscious of belief systems. For this reason, psychopathic relativists are always trying to whip up fundamentalism; they are always pushing the population back towards fundamentalism. The greatest defence against these pathological relativists, therefore, is to reduce fundamentalism in the general population. This must become our focus, for the fundamentalist herd is a terrible beast when ridden by sociopathic leaders. The other boon, for such leaders, is that a fundamentalist herd is much easier to steer because it is predictable.

If a society freely chooses to become more fundamentalist, as seems to be happening in the US today, that is its democratic right. We must all respect that, provided of course that that US fundamentalism does not affect others who were never part of the voting system — i.e. the rest of the world! Non-Americans rightly begrudge the US for choosing Bush because the fundamentalism he encourages is destroying the global ecosystem, and his aggressive empire building in oil-rich Arab countries results in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. And whilst it would be naïve to think that any nation can be self-contained, especially the world's remaining superpower, the impact of US policy outside its borders is so destructive that the rest of the world has to be involved in the process of taming US fundamentalism. In fact, it is fair to say that many of the roots of global fundamentalism can be found in within American shores, and with true doublespeak, the "land of the free" currently only brings servitude to the rest of the world. If the US truly spread freedom and democracy, individuals like Saddam and Osama would never have been in positions of power in the first place, for the support of real freedom, peace and democracy automatically cools hot-beds of fundamentalism.

So, for the sake of world peace, the global ecological system and the health of our societies, we must reduce fundamentalism. We must bring people out of the dark ages of certainty and teach them that living with more than one reality map is perfectly possible and safe, provide we do it consciously. Here are some suggestions of how to reduce fundamentalism:

  1. Change ourselves by moving further up the scale from fundamentalism to relativism. This requires an understanding of reality maps and exposure to belief systems different from our own, so that we realize that what we believe about the world is just that — a belief system. Bertrand Russell used to recommend that we read material that is completely opposite end of our political spectrum so that we gain flexibility. Another method is to travel to other countries: those who expose themselves to other cultures are far less likely to be fundamentalist.
  2. Focus more on human rights and the environment, rather than political expediency. When human rights and the environment are the focus of attention — fundamentalism, which tends to put ideology above people and ecosystems, takes a back seat. Humanity must focus on what it has in common, not on the belief systems that divides it.
  3. Teach our children at school a variety of different maps. And most important of all, teach them about the process of mapmaking itself. If we try to mollycoddle our children by giving them the security of a singular view of reality, perhaps dictated by a book like the Bible or a science book, then we unwittingly create a fundamentalist Frankenstein monster who will despise free democracy. The appreciation of diversity must start at school.
  4. Keep religion and state separate. However much we might be tempted to blend the two for a more "Godly" society, the Founding Fathers of America knew the potential dangers when the two are mixed. This is particularly concerning now that the fundamentalist Christians in the US have been manipulated into voting for a government that acts in ways that would undoubtedly shame Jesus.
  5. Bring diversity to the media by preventing media monopolies and encouraging alternative media outlets. If the media only gives one message, then fundamentalism is assured. We must each encourage others to listen to alternative viewpoints and to understand that theirs is not the only perspective.
  6. Stop polarizing debate. Media outlets give the illusion of diversity by having polarized and heated debates on various topics. This is for entertainment reasons and does not serve in any way to bring an understanding of diversity. We have forgotten that the art of debate is to try to understand where the other person is coming from and to see if there is any common ground. It is not an excuse to strengthen our own fundamentalism.
  7. Stop interfering in other countries' politics. By oppressing people in distant lands, or supporting oppressive governments, is to set up the perfect hothouse conditions for growing angry fundamentalism. (There are now orders of magnitude more fundamentalists in Iraq than there ever were before the invasion.)
  8. Help the world step out of poverty. Poor, desperate people are far more likely to turn to harsh fundamentalist belief systems that often offer rewards in an afterlife for sacrifice in this one. Reduce global poverty and you reduce fundamentalism.
  9. Stop political party donations and favours. These allow special interest groups to unduly influence the democratic process, skewing proportional representation and allowing fundamentalists to spread intolerance.
  10. Stop the centralization of power. This process, which is rapidly underway across the globe, wants to stamp out diversity and institute the control of fundamentalism. (Remember that fundamentalists are far easier to control en mass than relativists because they are more predictable.)


Fundamentalism is not just a problem in Eastern countries; it is growing in the West as a backlash to the life's increasing uncertainties and complexities. Whilst it gives us the security of a single belief system, the singular map it offers is woefully inadequate for the complexity of modern living. If we unthinkingly try to navigate life's journey using such inadequate mapping, we invariably end up putting ideology before life itself, with cruel and destructive consequences. All just to force reality to agree to our map, rather than having the humility and the wisdom to redraw our map as we go along, or use multiple maps in different situations to better approximate reality.

Fundamentalism was never a global problem in the past as the destructive potential of nations was far less than it is today. But allow fundamentalism to grow in a country such as the United States that spends trillions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction and you have a recipe for terrible global oppression and destruction. It is our duty to humanity and all other life-forms on this planet to tackle fundamentalism here in the West, and to succeed in this task we have to first understand reality mapping.