Last summer there was a cheesy ad for the latest Exorcist film, and the tagline epitomized and exploited a key twist of twisted religious logic. The film’s tagline was “If you believe in God, you have to believe in the devil.” What’s the idea behind this?
I think the idea is that if you want to truly believe in something fantastic, like the existence of an invisible loving saving omnipotent God without thinking you’re just making him up as a projection of your own wishful thinking, then then you have to accept every other part of the Bible too, not just those parts you would wish were true. If you’re really accepting the authority of the Bible when it tells you these great things you want to hear about God, then intellectual consistency demands that you have to accept the Bible’s also true and authoritative when it tells you about realities you wish were not true.
If you realize you are only believing the convenient parts, then your belief is exposed as intellectually insincere wishfulness. When you accept the inconvenient stuff too, this assures you that you’re not just picking and choosing what you want to believe and ignoring the stuff that it logically entails, which you would rather not believe.
The religious person—or at least the fundamentalist sort for whom truly believing in literal, absolute truth claims in the Bible is paramount—wants to say, I am not just projecting my wishes here, I’m believing in stuff I wouldn’t rather believe in too. I am accepting a reality with all its good and all its bad, just like any other engagement with reality involves. Sort of like how in the film The Matrix the human beings were unable to accept a reality in which there was no pain and conflict without seeing through it as fake, some of the awful and inconvenient parts of religion strike the believer subconsciously as proof it is not just made up—because who in their right mind, simply dreaming up something perfect would come up with something this weird.
The very illogicality, counter-intuitiveness, and moral challenge of the Bible psychologically makes it more compelling for the religious believer.
So, when I was a believer, I felt like if I went around just ignoring whatever parts of the Bible struck me as crazy or morally offensive, then what did I need the Bible for in the first place? Just to back up what I already thought wherever that was convenient? How could I trust this as the Word of God which would give me insights into salvation if it was saying morally or metaphysically false things in some places? If sometimes it was morally and metaphysically wrong, then why not think that the highly speculative parts that I was banking on being right were also wrong?
In short, if it could be wrong in the parts I didn’t like, then it would be wholly arbitrary to believe it was correct in the parts that I did like. To have the parts that I wanted to believe, I had to accept the whole thing, including the parts I did not want to believe. Anything short of that would be wishful projection and a Gospel of convenience.
And I think this either/or logic is crucial in many other fundamentalists’ minds. They cannot accept the liberal’s or the moderate’s willingness to judge some things the Bible says as false or immoral because to do so would admit that it was not a perfectly true and moral book and they need it to be perfectly true because if it can be false anywhere then it is most likely false in the most important parts. Only if it is a perfect expression of a perfect God’s will, can we have any hope that its most outlandish offer of hope, for life after death, could possibly be true and not just one of the first parts to be discredited as obviously false.
And it is this either/or logic that explains why former fundamentalists like me have atheism as our only other option when we stop accepting on faith that the Bible is a perfect book. Either the Bible presents a true reality which we accept completely, with all of its good and all of its bad, as much as one accepts any other reality, or it is fallible and, in that case, most obviously false in all the most important places.
Religious moderates are the truly dishonest, wishful thinkers as far as the fundamentalists are concerned since they refuse all unpleasant truths about God or ethics a priori and pick and choose what they believe for apparently arbitrary reasons of their own feelings. They’re not consistent rationalists who reject faith altogether and chuck the whole Bible (at least as a source of truth, if not an admirable literary work). And they are not true believers who accept the full reality the Bible presents with all its complications (which make it as real and objectively indisputable as any other true and binding external reality). The religious moderates just have a religion which, supposedly, just endorses their own feelings.
Ironically, it is a certain weirdly admirable logical consistency that drives some of the fundamentalists who are most disconnected from broader reality to their extremes. They understand the full implications of what biblical reality would entail, psychologically commit themselves to fully accepting that reality, and they need desperately to accept all of that reality to convince themselves that they are not just making it up but coping with an absolute truth regardless of what counter-intuitive places that truth takes them.
Unfortunately, the fundamentalist is threatened with a tremendous amount of potential cognitive dissonance due to the myriad conflicts between biblical (or Koranic) reality and modern reality (which includes all sorts of knowledge, moral advances, and methods of belief formation that thoroughly undermine all sorts of supposed biblical knowledge and moral rightness). Hence, the Islamic fundamentalists’ desperate attempts to escape from everything that manifests modern reality and (therein) encourages modern habits of thinking, valuing, and behaving. And hence also the invention of “presuppositionalism” as an epistemology that tries to rationalize the vices of biased, prejudicial, faith-based thinking as ideals for best attaining to truth, all the while rationalizing away every fact that threatens them as easily dismissed because it comes from an alien and arbitrary modern “presupposition”.
I will end this post here, just as an analysis of fundamentalist psychology and epistemology, without going into everything that is wrong with it. Elsewhere, against the fundamentalist’s perspectives on moderates, I have already written a dialectical defense of moderate religion that shows how, if done right, moderate religion can actually be much “truer” and rationally defensible as in harmony with broader truth than fundamentalism is. And in another post I have explained in depth why it is only rational and morally serious, and not just wishful, for believers in God to use their own consciences in evaluating supposed claims about what God wants morally.