The Epistemology of Post-Fundamentalism

A friend of mine, formerly a devout Christian who is now an atheist (and, unfortunately, a rather bitter and cynical one at that), wrote this to me recently:

I got into religion as a literal believer, and I became disappointed when I discovered that I was repeatedly lied to (the earth is not 6000 years old, for instance, and now I suspect that Jesus is not God in the flesh, any more than anyone else is anyway).


I understand his feeling of being lied to. But I am reminded of Meister Eckhart, who defended himself against charges of heresy by saying, “I am able to be in error, but I cannot be a heretic, for the first belongs to the intellect, the second to the will.” So, did my friend’s teachers lie to him in the sense of willfully deceiving him, or did they merely pass on the contours of their own limited and erroneous beliefs, which eventually led him to concluding that he had been deceived, once he had amassed enough data that challenged their religious worldview?

I think the latter is the more likely scenario, but either way, the result is the same: a man, disillusioned and angry, when he considers alternative ideas and decides that those who had taught him must have been unethical because they themselves had not sufficiently considered — let alone presented to their students — these conflicting worldviews.

I suspect this righteous anger at “having been lied to” might be fueling many of the militant atheists in our society. I think it represents an interesting inversion of the fundamentalist mind: fundamentalists often anchor their theology in a strong demonology that not only asserts the literal existence of a Satan, but argues that Satan is in the business of deceiving human beings — and that souls will be lost merely for being deceived (don’t believe me? Pick up a Chick tract and read it. That’s a common theme of Jack Chick’s). In the scary-clown funhouse of ultra-conservative Christianity, gullibility is a mortal sin.

Somebody once quipped that the god of an old religion becomes the devil of a new religion, and perhaps this is the dynamic at work here. Having been taught that evil is particularly bound up with deception, the person who leaves literal religion might conclude that, because he was deceived by his religion, that it is in fact evil — and so my friend does not say he was “misled” but that he was “lied to.” Bamboozled by the Bible-thumpers; conned by the Christians.

Twenty years ago I thought that goddess religion was the archetypal spirituality of our times. These days, however, I think that distinction goes rather to militant atheism. Jim Marion, following the ideas of Ken Wilber, writes about ” the death of the mythic God,” which of course is an echo of the radical “God is dead” theology that emerged in the 1960s, following the writings of Nietzche. We are all called to surrender God-as-Santa Claus, or, for that matter, God-as-enraged-father-figure. Those of us who insist on holding on to our childish images of God collapse into fundamentalism. Many others will let go of these immature God-images, but only by rejecting the Divine Mystery altogether, retreating into a kind of anti-religious scientific positivism that has its own internal logical coherency but, as far as I can tell, seems to be consumed with bitterness and anger. When it comes to emotional tonality, Richard Dawkins has more in common with Jack Chick than he’d like to admit.

But what lies beyond mythical-literal religion and ideological atheism? Ignoring for now the rapidly-shrinking and theologically timid varieties of liberal Christianity, as well as the various consumer spiritualities that have emerged over the last fifty years (buy this crystal to enhance your aura), I believe that ultimately, the heart of any kind of sustainable post-fundamentalist religion can only be in what I call holy agnosis: the landscape of the Divine Mystery, where mythical religion need not be entirely dismissed but rather can be rehabilitated into a narrative of personal and collective transfiguration, even if its old truth claims must be re-evaluated in the light of science. But holy agnosis is not merely an arena where the truths of science finally triumph over the myths of faith; for this is likewise a forum where science must be evaluated not only in terms of its claim to truth, but also in terms of its efficacy in promoting what is good (nuclear bombs?) and what is beautiful (toxic waste?). In short, I believe holy agnosis requires science, and religion, and for that matter art. Knowledge in search of truth does not lead us to solid “things” to be grasped or an unchanging reality “out there” to be mapped, but rather functions as a tool for exploring the realm of unknowing, always with an eye to balancing truth with goodness and beauty. Fundamentalist religion will not long survive in this environment, any more than will ideologically dogmatic atheistic science. A more humble religion and a more humble science will find that they need each other, with art (which includes storytelling) functioning as the uniting element which will allow them to come together.

I called this post “The Epistemology of Post-Fundamentalism” not because I have any words of wisdom on such a topic, but mainly because I’m not sure how to promote a world where theists and atheists, both of whom know that they know “the truth,”  can transcend their limited/partial perspectives and embrace the profound mystery that lies beyond the limits of their knowing. I wish I did, though: for the sake of everyone I know who is bitter and cynical because they’re tired of being “lied to.”

Pentecost and Ecstasy
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Liz

    I think I am oversimplifying, but it seems to me that militant anything stems from feelings of betrayal and feelings of betrayal come from an inability or unwillingness to see the bigger picture beyond our own preferences.

    Like I said…probably oversimplified and overgeneralized.


  • Michael

    OK, Carl, “misled” is more like it. My teachers were good people, full of grace, trying to make the world (albeit, a very young 6000 year old one) a better place.

    I’m thankful to have been born again years ago, because that probably saved me from prison or worse. Am I angry now? Angry that I once believed such non-intellectual foolishness in such a literal way? Probably more angry at myself, but not as angry as I once was. Not that there isn’t plenty in this world at which to be angry. Like the bumper sticker I saw recently: “If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention!”

    I think my main emotion today, believe it or not, is relief. Relief and gladness to be more accepting of folks than I once was (even of fundamentalists on both sides of the theistic divide, and of myself too) and also more accepting of intelligent and defensible perspectives, and that makes for a more peaceful existence. Transcend and include, as Wilber says. However, as you are suggesting, I do have a ways to go in that regard … but don’t we all.

  • Carl McColman

    Yes, indeed, don’t we all.

  • Jaliya

    Meister Eckhart’s words are eye- and heart-opening … I felt something in my chest go “pop!” as I read them … Thank you …

  • phil foster

    When I went to seminary in the early ’70s there was a SMALL cadre of us who referred to ourselves as “reverent agnostics.” After all these years it still feels pretty close.

    I think the relational/covenant/Trinitarian piece is what continually nourishes/challenges me in this shift to more compassionate, Godlike sensing.

  • Obie Holmen


    Thanks for a great post. I like your idea of “holy agnosticism”, which I think is delightfully honest. I have quoted from, referenced, and linked to your post in my own blog at: Of course, I have added further commentary as well.

  • Graceful Yoga

    Thanks for this post, it is much needed today. I live with an athesit (I don’t have a label for myself at this point), and could say a lot more about this, but suffice it to say, it can be difficult.

  • PrickliestPear

    I was reminded of another saying of Meister Eckhart: “We ought not to have or let ourselves be satisfied with any thought of God. When the thought goes, our God goes with it.”

    Fundamentalists probably spend so much time hearing about how wrong other religious perspectives are that this attitude persists even after they imagine they’ve thrown off the shackles of their former faith.

    It’s quite striking how many books there are by former fundamentalists who have become militant atheists. One doesn’t find as many by writers from less extreme Christian backgrounds.

    The perversely moralistic identification of “communicating mistaken ideas” with “lying” is pretty common among fundamentalists, I find. If Adam and Eve were not historical people, then God is a liar. If Jesus was not God incarnate, then he was a liar. I remember once reading a fundamentalist critique of Disney’s The Lion King, which accused it of “lying” because animals don’t talk! (Tell that to the serpent in the Garden of Eden!)

  • Mark

    I have heard it said (and repeat it) that there are 2 types of atheists: Philosophical atheists who do not believe in the concept of God and the reactionary atheists who do not believe in THAT God. And they go from the specific to the general and claim to have no belief in any God. It might have been William Sloane Coffin who has said, “Tell me about this God you do not believe in. I bet I wont believe either.”

    How do we (can we) KNOW what it is we do not believe in? How does gnosis interplay with belief? Do we really need to make knowledge statements about the realm of unknowing?

    I am not convinced that faith needs to be based on knowledge of the intellectual sort. I have been feeling/sensing (as in not strongly knowledge based) that Christian Epistemology is a through going Modern Era interest. Trying to move into a post-modern era, I hope (tinged with only some thinking) that spirituality is our main highway for er.. “Knowing God”. There may be limits inherent in our language (or my skill with it) in just talking about truth, knowing, and belief if I want a less left brained infused epistemology.

    With Carl, if I understand him correctly, I would love to see a greater value on the arts in opening/leading our awareness of God. Not as a rejection of reason/knowledge/science/intellect. More as an equal partner so that the arts do not only take concepts of knowing and make them beautiful, but that our intellect takes the beauty spirituality brings out and then forms concepts/knowledge of God from them.

    Sigh. Maybe all I have done here is use a lot of words to distinguish the knowing of God from knowing God when the topic was loving the realm of unknowing. My initial instinct was to quote “Knowledge in search of truth does not lead us to solid “things” to be grasped or an unchanging reality “out there” to be mapped, but rather functions as a tool for exploring the realm of unknowing, always with an eye to balancing truth with goodness and beauty.” and then to simply give a Heinlein reference and say, “I Grok.” as way of implying that knowledge is not simply intellectual.

    I should at this point close my browser and delete this entire comment, but I have a hunch I am going to hit “Submit Comment” even though most of this needs more time in the incubator.

  • Michael

    Similarly, two types of atheists: (1) those who passively care not to believe in god(s} — we’re all atheists with respect to some god or another, and (2) those who actively believe in a purely naturalistic universe, who sometimes militantly promote that belief. “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in,” probably better applies to the former than to the latter.

    • Carl McColman

      I don’t know, Michael. I think “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” might be just as enlightening if posed to the militant atheists, who often, I suspect, base their knowledge of the “God they don’t believe in” on fairly obsolete theology.

  • Michael

    I suppose the militants could come up with a list of names and such, telling you about each god in turn and the reasons for their disbelief (hmmmm … disbelief: actively not believing; unbelief: passively not believing). But likely they would not believe in the god that the questioner affirms either, whether that faith is according to a more recent theology or not, don’t you think?

    Having said that, Andre Comte-Sponville, in his “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality,” describes the Universe, the All, as the “God” of sorts on which even atheists and mystics can probably agree.

  • Carl McColman

    Forgive me if it sounded like I was saying “all atheists would immediately become believers if only they had access to better theology.” By the same token, I think it might be interesting for the militants to consider those currents within religion that seek reformation from within, often in response to the very problems within religion that arouse the ire of the militants. Maybe it won’t make believers out of them, but perhaps it will serve to lessen some of the hostility. One can only hope.

  • Michael

    Reformation from within? Are you referring to more progressive and inclusive brands? The militants don’t like those either, as according to them liberal Christians and Jews are guilty of aiding and abetting. But that’s to be expected, I suppose — they are militants, after all!

  • Carl McColman

    You’re right. There’s no pleasing them. Mythic-membership consciousness takes no prisoners — whether it is theistic or atheistic in its orientation.


    I suppose the same impulse that keeps me from giving up on fundamentalist theists demands that I offer the same degree of hope to the militant atheists. After all, both groups equally despise what I stand for! :-)

  • Michael

    That’s why I love you, Carl!

    But atheist mythologies? Like theories of evolution or the Big Bang? Human beings think in terms of narrative; we tell stories. Is this what you mean? Surely you are not saying there is not a substantive difference between the stories of scientists and those of conservative Christians? Is a 4.5 billion year old earth and a 6,000 year old earth equally yarns of fiction? You must be saying something else.

    Mythic-membership consciousness? Maybe you’re simply referring to pig-headed, judgmental ass-holes.

    • Carl McColman

      Yes, from a postmodern perspective the narrative of science and the narrative of faith are therefore both “myths” subject to revision as new data emerges and/or new levels of consciousness are attained. I’m always amused at non-believers who insist that their “scientific” worldview is much more open to revision than the cosmologies of those benighted believers, and yet they get hostile when its pointed out to them that their narratives are, therefore, “mythic” just like everyone elses. Maybe it’s a mythos grounded in rational thought — but it’s still a mythos. Rationalist consciousness usually rejects myth as “not true” because pre-rational myths don’t hold up very well to rationalist inquiry. But they miss the fact that their own myths likewise don’t hold up very well to trans-rationalist inquiry…

      According to Wilber’s theory, human beings have different “lines” of consciousness development. I see a “militant atheist” as an example of this: while their cognitive world-view is rationalist, their emotional and power needs, particularly as projected/directed toward theists, is more indicative of mythic-membership: in which those in “my” tribe (i.e. the non-believers) are seen as inherently superior to those outside “my” tribe (i.e., believers).

  • Michael Noyes

    I see. So, up the intellectual “line” the new atheists have reached levels as high as anyone, but their emotional and/or social development is rather more adolescent. A “trans-” perspective not only transcends levels but lines as well.

    Hey, I cooked your mushrooms this evening, with some spinach and brown rice. I looked ‘em up — they’re called “morels”. Thanks again!

  • Carl McColman

    Yep. You got it.

    And anyone who wants to go trans-rational has to go through rational consciousness — no bypassing allowed. Which is why “the death of the mythic God” (which is what atheism usually is about) is a necessary prerequisite to encountering the Divine Mystery (read: the trans-rational God).

    Regarding the mushrooms: the hallucinations should kick in after about an hour. Enjoy the trip. (JUST KIDDING!)

  • Michael

    Darn! And I was counting on their entheogenic qualities to assist me in encountering the Divine Mystery. Oh well, I’ll just have to do it the longer and harder (but more interesting) way … by being alive. Peace.