Fundamentalism Is Alive and Well: A Reply to John Shelby Spong

I recently finished reading two books by the Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Spong is infamous for his near-total rejection of the tenets of Christianity, despite being a member of the clergy, and these books witness to that: he doesn’t believe in miracles or an afterlife, denies the Trinity, denies the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and in fact, doesn’t believe in God as an external supernatural being at all. In place of all these things he proposes a nontheist form of Christianity, similar to some forms of Quakerism or Buddhism, in which God is understood as the ground of all being or the impulse calling us to love one another, and Jesus as a person who uniquely manifested that attitude of universal love.

There are other aspects of this theology I want to discuss later, but for today I want to focus on just one point: Spong’s insistence that Christianity’s evolution into a nontheistic form is inevitable. This is necessary, he says, because traditional theistic religion is losing its power to command educated human beings’ allegiance, and if Christianity does not adapt, it will die out. In fact, he says, the demise of fundamentalism and literalist religion is coming very soon:

“Organized religion as we have known it in the Western world is considered by many a friend and foe alike to be sick unto death. The periodic revivals of fundamentalism are momentary blips on the EKG charts of religious history.”

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p.107

On this point, Spong couldn’t be more wrong. He envisions fundamentalism as a dying movement, one that’s losing its strength and vitality. In fact, fundamentalism is still a powerful force, and there are signs that it is gaining strength at the expense of more traditional, liberal denominations such as his.

Although Spong alludes to the appeal of fundamentalism, he seems not to grasp its full force. Fundamentalism’s great strength is that it offers easy answers, a reassuring sense of certainty in an uncertain world, and a promise of wish-fulfillment for the believer. Spong writes that these advantages are counterbalanced by the fact that the fundamentalist view of God is “naive at best and unbelievable at worst” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p.140). But what he really seems to mean is that he, himself, can no longer take these stories seriously, and he assumes that his skepticism is widely shared.

In reality, there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who see no difficulty in believing that creation happened six thousand years ago, that God does miracles on behalf of the faithful, or that Jesus rose into the sky because that’s where Heaven is. Some of these people have never been exposed to rational thinking; others have consciously chosen to reject it in favor of a simpler, older, and more reassuring vision of the world.

For all its virtues, Spong’s theology is weak and colorless. His faith of homogenous, universal love is well and good, but the fact remains that there are other, powerful motivating factors in human psychology that he never attempts to tap. The desire to obey one’s superiors, and the sense of righteous judgment at those who break the rules; the sense of privilege and exclusiveness, belonging to a community that is united against the world; and its opposite, the xenophobic sense of hate and rage directed against the outsider – these are extraordinarily strong psychological impulses which his theology does not speak to or address. Fundamentalism does, which is why it’s no surprise that it finds willing converts in the millions who are driven by their baser instincts.

Spong’s mistake is a common one: he assumes that everyone views the world the same way he does. (Ironically, religious fundamentalists often do the same thing, which leads them to conclude that every nonbeliever must be a stubborn sinner who willfully denies their own knowledge of the Truth of God.) Since he personally finds supernaturalism unbelievable, he thinks everyone else believes the same thing, which is why he predicts the imminent demise of theistic religion. But the truth is that, although the world’s religions have been forced to adapt in various ways to modernity, they are alive and vital all the same. Fundamentalism is a highly adaptable creed, able to accommodate itself to almost any era. The rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

In the long run – and here we’re talking several hundred years or more – I do believe that religion will die out. As we become more and more able to understand and control our world through reason, its inadequacy will become more obvious, and the secularization of humankind will accelerate. But that doesn’t say anything about which kind of religion will survive the longest. I strongly suspect that some form of fundamentalism will be among the diehards. A watered-down, contentless theology like Spong’s, on the other hand, offers nothing to compete with a robust philosophy of humanistic atheism, and as the atheist movement grows more influential, such faiths will probably be the first to go.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew

    Realy, although Spong’s books regularly hit the top of best seller lists, ‘liberal’ churches that support his theology havent grown any. They remain(as they were when the bulk of his work was publishied), a tiny minority of Christians.

    I think the problem with Spong’s theology is that he offers nothing that cant be obtained by a purely naturalistic worldview. So unbelievers have no reason to seek his church, and believers(or people interested in belief) will find his belief unable to provide incredible stories/experences that fundimentlist churches do.

    I dont think liberal churches will be going anywhere anytime soon. I think there will always be a few people who will find this kind of theology compelling. But I also think we’ll see fundimilitsm faiding away. Indeed the Christian right is already losing their power in the US.

    What we’ll see is something more moderate, a belief which acknowldges the existance of God, the possibilty of miracles, but doesnt hold its doctrines as strictly as fundies do. In fact thats what the vast majority of Christians DO follow.

    Also, if I may speak as a Christain for a second, I dont believe Spong even deserves the title ‘Christian.’ I prefer to call him and his ilk ‘apostates in denial.’

  • http://www.danielholter.com/about Daniel Holter

    Could not agree more… with Spong being wrong about the decline in fundamentalism or its nefarious reach.

    And, fwiw, I don’t care if Spong is considered “Christian enough” by the church… the fact that he isn’t actually makes me be a bit more interested in what he has to say, I guess.

    Reading Spong was an early rung on my ladder toward agnosticism. Small wonder the official Church hopes to marginalize his writing and views.

  • Andrew

    oh here’s an excellent review of Spong from the ‘other side’ I dont agree with all of it(particularly the reviewer’s rejection of evolution), but he makes a lot of valid points, and the overall tone of it I can endorse.

    http://www.tektonics.org/qt/spong01.html

  • http://religiousliberal.blogspot.com Dwight

    I’m a Christian today because of Spong. And a good deal more orthodox then he is. But he gave the ok for me to question everything, to wrestle with my faith without feeling like I needed to leave the church. I agree that he’s wrong when it comes to fundamentalism..it isn’t dying. And yet notice in the US context as the religious right has grown so have folks who don’t identify with any religion. I think a case can be made that the success of fundamentalism drives the rise of the irreligious. That may be good bad or indifferent. But for Spong and for myself who is invested in the constructive possibilities and resources of the Christian tradition and its communities to see fundamentalism kill off the long term prospects of the religion sucks. Liberal folks may or may not be able to win (so to speak) in the long term. Obviously folks do the bit they can. But I think fundamentalism in the end cannot grow as much as cannibalize a smaller and smaller piece of the pie.

  • http://godlessgirl.com GG

    “A watered-down, contentless theology like Spong’s, on the other hand, offers nothing to compete with a robust philosophy of humanistic atheism, and as the atheist movement grows more influential, such faiths will probably be the first to go.”
    I hate to “ditto” and run, but I absolutely agree with you here, and suspect that the more fundamentalist theologies will stay resolute in response to the growing influence of secularism and atheism. Perhaps I’m cynical, but polarities like this seem to make the world go round.

  • Leum

    A watered-down, contentless theology like Spong’s, on the other hand, offers nothing to compete with a robust philosophy of humanistic atheism, and as the atheist movement grows more influential, such faiths will probably be the first to go.

    And here’s where I disagree. Once religions water down (or purify into, depending on how you look at it) to the point of providing little more than rituals, community, and ethics they serve as an attractive source for those things among atheists who still find the religion of their childhood meaningful, and for those seeking such things who associate them with religion.

    Even as Humanist societies grow in number, the older religions will be established. Unitarian Universal fellowships are already popular among a significant portion of the atheist community seeking rituals, community, and ethics, and a number of Reform and Reconstructivist synagogues and temples perform a similar function for atheist Jews.

    And the thing is, I don’t really have a problem with that. In terms of the triumph of rationality, there’s little difference between people gathering together at the local Humanist society and gathering at the UU fellowship.

  • Andrew

    Daniel:

    I wasnt expecting you(or any other athiest) to care if I think of Spong as a true believer. I was just throwing my $.02 out there. And really it was more of an afterthought.

    Also I have no particular interest in margalizing his writings or views. As far as I’m concerned he can speak them to anybody who will listen. Doesnt mean I have endorse them, or accept him as a Brother in Christ.

  • existentialdrift

    It has always seemed to me that Spong and the fundamentalists represent the polar extremes of Christianity. And there are far more adherents on the fundamentalist side than on Spong’s side. Most Americans at least are very familiar with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but would have no idea who Spong is. Moreover, the fundamentalists have been overly successful in identifying their beliefs with Christianity in general, while Spong remains an obscure figure in all but a few limited circles. None of these things suggest that fundamentalism is losing its appeal or its strength.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Fundamentalism’s great strength is that it offers easy answers, a reassuring sense of certainty in an uncertain world, and a promise of wish-fulfillment for the believer.

    I think this is very true. I would also add that fundamentalism is very effective at being self- perpetuating. Because it discourages questioning and views outsiders with suspicion at best, it’s very well- armored against doubt. As memes go, it’s a tough one to crack.

    This is something Daniel Dennet wrote about at length in “Breaking the Spell” (a book Spong would do well to read, if he hasn’t already). He points out that moderate religion tends to break down in a couple/few generations… but extremist religion is much more resilient.

    If he really thinks fundamentalist Christianity is irrelevant, I’d like to ask him who he thinks it was who got Prop 8 passed in California and torpedoes same- sex marriage there. That was one lean, mean, marriage- banning machine.

  • Andrew

    I wonder how Dennet is defining ‘moderate religion.’ Because from what I can see moderate forms of most every major religion are not only the longest lasting, but currently the largest.

  • Leum

    Andrew, not having read Dennet (nor any of the “Four Horsemen”) I can’t be sure, but I suspect he doesn’t mean the religion breaks down, but that after Jack and Jill start going to a moderate church, their kids are more likely not to go, and their grandchildren even more likely not to attend services there, but to have departed either for full-blown atheism or to have gone to a more fundamentalist religion.

    I have no idea if this is true.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Andrew

    Also, if I may speak as a Christain for a second, I dont believe Spong even deserves the title ‘Christian.’ I prefer to call him and his ilk ‘apostates in denial.

    So exactly how much water can you put in your whisky before you stop being a Scotsman.

  • http://friendlyhumanist.blogspot.com Timothy Mills

    I wonder if the prevalence of Spong-type “religion” is under-perceived because, like atheism and humanism, it tends to produce free-thinking people who are reluctant to associate with big-name groups. A Baptist is a Baptist. A Catholic is a Catholic. They will proclaim their allegiance proudly – moreso the more fundamentalist they are within those communities. But a humanist, or a liberal Christian, is much more likely to question and doubt even those conclusions that place them in the category of atheist or liberal Christian. That means they are less likely to actively participate in organizations representing their beliefs, so they are less likely to be noticed when heads are counted.

    This is not to say that the basic objections raised above are wrong – I think there is a basic (and unfortunate) tendency in the human psyche to want simplistic answers such as the fundamentalists offer, and it will always be an uphill battle to educate people out of such mindsets.

    But the landscape may not be as bleak as it seems.

  • Jim Ebsary

    I’ve just recently been enjoying your blog and the comments here. I listened to an interview with Spong on CBC radio earlier this year. He referred to the recent rise in atheism as ‘fundamentalist atheism’, and said that he really feels sorry for atheists, as our existence is somewhat pointless.

  • Johan

    “… and as the atheist movement grows more influential, such faiths will probably be the first to go.”

    What atheist movement? It seems to me that the “atheist movement” is rather diverse. We have – for instance – everything from communists to Objectivists, both of whom hate each other.

    Isn’t a lack of belief in gods too vague to form a movement of?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I think a case can be made that the success of fundamentalism drives the rise of the irreligious.

    I think you’re quite right, Dwight. I believe the influence of the Religious Right during the Bush years particularly energized secularists such as myself who feel we have to counteract them. And then when we raise our voices, the Religious Right will point to us as a threat to try and mobilize their base.

    He points out that moderate religion tends to break down in a couple/few generations… but extremist religion is much more resilient.

    Greta, fundamentalist religious beliefs also are key to strengthening group solidarity. I have read that this was one of the reasons for the Jewish religion adopting so many strict commandments to govern one’s daily life. Abiding by all the rules was a sign of one’s devotion to the group.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Because from what I can see moderate forms of most every major religion are not only the longest lasting, but currently the largest.

    Andrew, as a former Catholic, I would say that with regard to Catholicism in America, the moderates probably make up the largest bloc. In a religious denomination that is so large, you can expect that believers will break down into segments from extremely pious Catholics to those who only go to church on Easter Sunday, with the bulk of them being those who generally go to church once a week but don’t necessarily follow church doctrine on abortion, birth control, the death penalty and so forth.

    You see the same thing with Lutherans and Episcopalians too.

    But you are not going to really see that with evangelical Baptists, because they define themselves as being more literalist in interpreting the Bible.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Leum raises an interesting point:

    Even as Humanist societies grow in number, the older religions will be established. Unitarian Universal fellowships are already popular among a significant portion of the atheist community seeking rituals, community, and ethics, and a number of Reform and Reconstructivist synagogues and temples perform a similar function for atheist Jews.

    I’ve never been to a Reform Jewish service, but I do occasionally attend a Unitarian Universalist church with my fiancee (who’s an ex-Catholic). Coming from that perspective, I don’t think UUs are in quite the same boat as Spong.

    The point of Unitarian Universalism is that it’s not founded on shared beliefs, but on a shared set of moral principles. If you follow those principles, you’re free to believe anything you want. I think an atheist could join a church like that without qualms, and I’m not the only atheist who sometimes shows up; if anything, I think a plurality of the members are atheists.

    Spong’s case is different. Watered-down though it is, his theology is still based on a set of specific beliefs, even if his God is a mushy, insubstantial abstraction and his Jesus was just a really swell guy. If you don’t believe what he believes, if you don’t draw inspiration from the same sources as he does, you’re not likely to feel at home there. In this respect, I think Spong’s case is more like those of the mainstream Protestant churches, which have also seen their membership in decline.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Andrew, not having read Dennet (nor any of the “Four Horsemen”) I can’t be sure, but I suspect he doesn’t mean the religion breaks down, but that after Jack and Jill start going to a moderate church, their kids are more likely not to go, and their grandchildren even more likely not to attend services there, but to have departed either for full-blown atheism or to have gone to a more fundamentalist religion.

    Yes. That’s basically what Dennett is saying. Moderate churches may be large, but they have strong a grip on their followers, and that grip loosens with each generation.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    If only we could all be around in the next millenium to witness the fall of religion.

  • Andrew

    Dennet might be right about Children raised in moderate religion households not keeping up the faith. However I think he fails to take into account people who turn towards moderate churches AFTER growing up. Either from fundimentlist churches because they have found irreconcible issues with their faith, and moderate beliefs answer these issues. Or from unbelievers/liberal churchs.

  • Alex Weaver

    Or from unbelievers/liberal churchs.

    From the original article:

    Spong’s mistake is a common one: he assumes that everyone views the world the same way he does.

  • Virginia

    I very much agree with your assessment on why Fundamentalism or the theist view in religion still have it very strong appeal — not because we are wired to religion, but because we operate on our natural instinct to survive and run away from uneasiness or things we perceive as threat to us.

    We underestimated human psychological instinct and yearning that shaped the religion in the first place — plus the Fundamentalists do a lot of things which Liberal won’t do — their “evangelism” and “marketing” to gain a lot of exposure.

  • Wayne Essel

    The point of Unitarian Universalism is that it’s not founded on shared beliefs, but on a shared set of moral principles. If you follow those principles, you’re free to believe anything you want. I think an atheist could join a church like that without qualms, and I’m not the only atheist who sometimes shows up; if anything, I think a plurality of the members are atheists

    I can’t speak to the plurality as I haven’t been there in awhile, but at least one local UU church is routinely the host of new age fairs (complete with psychics, healers and crystal magic). Seems there are quite a few members of new age and buddhist background.

  • Dale

    Belief in a God of all things and religious fundamentalism are more cultural and even tribal than rational. If rationality determined such things, religion would have dried up and blown away long since. I don’t think it will go ever go away and all predictions that “the opium of the masses” will disappear have proved premature.

  • Eric

    Spong is a moron. Why doesn’t he come out of the closet as a New Atheist?

    And no,vthe fundamentalists are not weak. They have suffered setbacks, but they are still strong. They’ve openly stated their agenda and will not stop until we have the power to make them stop. They want all fags and dykes to be bashed. They want women’s sexuality to be slut-shamed into nonexistence. They want atheists driven from the public sphere. Fundies are THE ENEMY. We will never be free until they are weak and marginalized. We have no other hope.

  • Andrew

    Fundimentalists may still be pushing their agenda, but fewer people are listening. Enough that, for now they are still a political force, but I suspect that will change within all of ourlifetimes.

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    [Daniel Dennet] points out that moderate religion tends to break down in a couple/few generations… but extremist religion is much more resilient.

    I’d like to know how Dennet defines “moderate religion.” If he means it as a synonym for “moderately religious,” he’s probably right. However, I’d suggest that any religion that doesn’t claim to have an exclusive hold on the truth qualifies as moderate. Some of these (Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism) have been around for millennia.