Creeping Fundamentalism VII: A rotten Easter egg

ndgargoyleDuring the church season of Easter, some modern minds naturally turn to a quixotic crusade: How to rid religions of all that is supernatural and embarrassing to moderns.

The headline says it all in an essay that The Observer published on Easter Sunday: “Heed not the fanatics.” Its author, Will Hutton, sings all the notes beloved of the “More inclusive than thou” tribe:

• Some people’s religion is so primitive that it affirms a world of supernatural presence.

• These people are not simply deluded but obsessed with “imposing” their beliefs on others.

• Their extremism must be resisted with such weapons as name-calling and misrepresentation.

“Protestant evangelism [sic] in the United States and Islamic fundamentalism are the two fastest-growing religions on the planet,” Hutton writes, and “even Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalism are on the increase.” What unites these disparate belief systems — two monotheistic religions, a polytheistic religion, and a religion that requires no gods? — is not a question Hutton answer with clarity, other than that he finds fundamentalism of any stripe offensive.

Hutton expends his energy applying adjectives — religious fundamentalism is “one of the most pernicious and hateful phenomena in human association, ranking with political fundamentalism of Right and Left in its destructive and poisonous influence” — instead of providing evidence for his superlative-laden insults.

For all his condemnation of fundamentalists as promoting “the values and myths of the pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment, pre-democratic, barbaric and primitive Middle East,” Hutton indulges in logic-defying non-sequiturs.

Try to follow the reasoning in this sentence:

We are invited to enter the value and belief system of early Christianity with its unmistakable conclusion: Jews bayed for the death of the son of God, for which Jewry suffered millennial discrimination that ended in the Holocaust, and whose consequences are playing themselves out in the revival of Jewish fundamentalism and its calamitous impact on the Middle East.

What, precisely, is the straight line that runs from “the belief system of early Christianity” to the Holocaust? Is Hutton seriously proposing that the early church fathers would have endorsed pogroms or the Holocaust? What texts would he cite to justify such claims?

Here is the forward-looking sense of religion that would satisfy Hutton:

What is needed is a rediscovery of politics and a belief that purpose is best attempted in a secular guise underpinned by universal values, and that religion is a moral code to live by, rather than a purpose in its own right that gives believers the right to deny rationality and humanity.

If Hutton wishes to reduce any of the world’s major religions to a wan credo acceptable to any member of an Ethical Society, fine. But if Hutton wishes to become an oracle of “inclusion and love, not exclusion and irrationality,” he might ask how inclusive or loving it is to write with such unrelenting contempt — even for fundamentalists.

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  • Dan

    He is contemptuous of them because they promote ignorance, superstition and harm. Tolerance and inclusiveness do not require one to respect those values.

    Fundamentalism may be growing in the developing world, but in the developed world the fate of religion is increasing secularization.

  • Ed Jordan

    I like your analysis of Hutton’s invective against fundamentalism, Douglas.

    But is it even fundamentalism he is railing against? Or is it traditional, orthodox (with a small O) Christianity?

    Here are some things Hutton seems to find objectionable:

    1. Believing that the New Testament gives an accurate picture of Easter

    2. Thinking “that life is worth living because God exists”

    3. Believing that the Holy Spirit is present

    4. Believing that Satan exists

    5. Evangelization

    6. Believing in the real existence of souls and Heaven

    Aren’t these among the _traditional_ beliefs of Catholics, the Orthodox, and Protestants? Isn’t Hutton using the term “fundamentalism” as a club to beat all believing Christians over the head? Shoudn’t he be required to define what Christian fundamentalism is, and shouldn’t that definition comprise something more than a willingness to recite the Apostles’ Creed with conviction?

  • Anonymous

    While fundamentalism as a theological term continues to carry some meaning, as a sociological one it’s increasingly meaningless thanks to writers like Hutton. It’s a handy insult, is all.

  • http://www.jonswerens.com Jon S.

    And Hutton somehow thinks he ISN’T “obsessed with ‘imposing’ (his) beliefs on others”?

    What is amazing is how anyone could call such a funda-secularist “inclusive.” Does Hutton really not see that he is just as dogmatic as those he castigates, or is he just a big liar?

    I think “Dan” actually said it best below: “Tolerance and inclusiveness do not require one to respect those values.” But of course, Dan thinks “fundamentalists” are required to respect HIS values. Blinds guides all.

  • Dan

    I don’t think anyone is, or should be, required to “respect” anyone else’s values or beliefs. As the saying goes, one man’s theology is another man’s belly-laugh. The point is that tolerance and inclusiveness do not require one to respect values or beliefs one considers irrational and evil. For me, and presumably for Will Hutton, that includes religious fundamentalism.

    Doug LeBlanc’s claim that it is hypocritical or contradictory for secular proponents of tolerance and inclusiveness to attack fundamentalism is just nonsensical. It’s like saying that tolerance and inclusiveness require one to respect Nazism, or pedophilia.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    Hutton’s essay is rather flawed, and frankly I find it distasteful that he would choose Easter as the time for publishing a piece that is rather mean-spirited in tone. Beating fundamentalists with a stick for not being tolerant does strike me as contradictory. Still I’m inclined to think that the evils of religious conservativism don’t need to be argued or spelled out in a short op-ed piece. Aren’t they self-evident? Perhaps the better point isn’t to blather that fundamentalism is evil, but to articulate WHY specifically modern day Christian fundamentalists are perpetrating specific evils (to be balanced by showing the many good things that they do in spite of their fundamentalism, to give a more balanced perspective). Christians tend to project all the evil of fundamentalism onto the Muslims, and vice versa.

  • Dan

    “Beating fundamentalists with a stick for not being tolerant does strike me as contradictory.”

    So tolerance precludes one, on pain of being “contradictory,” from attacking or criticizing any group of people, does it? Nazis? Child molesters? White supremacists? Members of the Christian Identity movement? Radical Islamists?

    If one may criticize these groups and still legitimately claim to believe in tolerance and inclusiveness, why may not one also criticize religious fundamentalists, including Christian ones?

    This idea that tolerance implies acceptance and respect for anything, any religion, any philosophy, any ideology, no matter how hateful or harmful or irrational, is just nonsense.

  • steve h

    It is strange, I have yet to meet a code of tolerance that tolerated strictly everything…

    Any comments on the proof-text for the claim? That support of events like pogroms and genocide ran rampant through the writings of the Church Fathers, from Paul to Polycarp to Ignatius to Clement?

    Not to say that all of church history is innocent with respect to Anti-Semitism. But finding the evil all the way down to the roots?

    This author has learned many things about the history of Christianity from somewhere. Trouble is, it just doesn’t match with the reality of Church history. And he doesn’t know how (or where) to check.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Dan writes:

    {Doug LeBlanc’s claim that it is hypocritical or contradictory for secular proponents of tolerance and inclusiveness to attack fundamentalism is just nonsensical. It’s like saying that tolerance and inclusiveness require one to respect Nazism, or pedophilia.}

    I would not argue that tolerance requires one to respect Nazism, pedophilia or, for that matter, “fundamentalism,” however vaguely defined it is.

    I do, however, consider it transparently hypocritical to use contemptuous language about people, all the while presenting one’s self as a champion of inclusiveness and love.

    I have yet to meet a fundamentalist who deserves being in the same category as a Nazi or a pedophile.

    Thanks to all of you for a lively discussion, and please keep at it!

  • Ed Jordan

    It’s not very helpful of Hutton to excoriate “fundamentalism” without providing a definition that distinguishes it from non-fundamentalist Christianity. I also think it’s misleading for him or anyone to blindly equate Muslim fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. If fundamentalism means (among other things) going back to fundamentals, then whether fundamentalism is bad would depend on what the fundamentals are. If I lived next door to a commune of neo-Nazis who had decided to go back to fundamentals, I would be upset. If I lived next door to Quakers who had made the same decision, I would be sanguine.

  • RyanH

    Maybe this blog needs a “definitions” page. Or maybe those who post comments can explain what they mean when they use a “label”. Since there seem to be differing ideas about what tolerance really is, I looked it up. Does anybody disagree with Merriam-Webster’s definition of tolerance?

    a : sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own

    b : the act of allowing something : TOLERATION

    I’m a Christian (Calvinist reformed tradition). At least I’m consistent with my belief system–I don’t classify myself as “tolerant and inclusive”. Therefore, I’m not required to have an indulgence or sympathy for other belief systems. However, I AM required to follow Christ’s example (as witnessed in “The Passion”) in the way I treat and love my neighbor, praying for my enemies and those who persecute me. But the way of secular humanists is not the way of Truth, and I make no apologies for that statement.

    One who claims tolerance can say, “Christianity is not the way of truth.” But to be vindictive, mean-spirited, and insist that Christians accept that we’ve simply got a decent moral code, like Hutton’s essay suggests, contradicts the tolerance label. Christianity – like its Jewish roots – proclaims that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Christianity is an exclusive belief system. We’re not contradicting ourselves.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    Dan: I think you misconstrued my comment that “Beating fundamentalists with a stick for not being tolerant does strike me as contradictory.” I do not believe that tolerance requires acceptance and respect for ANYTHING. But when I am arguing that something is wrong and evil, I am precisely being INTOLERANT of it. Intolerance can be a very good thing, in my opinion. But to advocate intolerance under the rubric of tolerance, as Hutton does, is disgustingly self-serving. It allows Hutton to take the supposedly high moral ground on tolerance without acknowledging his own intolerance. I’m actually quite sympathetic to Hutton’s criticisms of fundamentalism, but don’t think this essay is very good.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    Ed: “It’s not very helpful of Hutton to excoriate “fundamentalism” without providing a definition that distinguishes it from non-fundamentalist Christianity. I also think it’s misleading for him or anyone to blindly equate Muslim fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism.”

    Ed, I think you’re being unfair to Hutton. He did not specifically define fundamentalism, but he gave enough clues that leave no doubt that he would regard virtually all except the most liberal and modern versions of Christianity as fundamentalist. Hutton is pointing out that Christianity is a mythic belief system. I happen to fully agree with him on that score, along with just about every influential intellectual since the Enlightenment. The mythic motifs of Christianity–the incarnated god, the miracle working divine prophetic figure, the divinely inspired sacred text–are common motifs in virtually all pre-modern societies based on myth. The mythic nature of Christian beliefs is evident to anyone with a knowledge of cross-cultural religion. Now you may believe that Christianity’s myths are the ONE TRUE myth and may use reasons to argue that’s so–and that is the essence of mythic-rationalism, another universal phenomenon across cultures. And you may disagree with Hutton that traditional Christian beliefs are irrational. But Hutton is not particularly unclear in his dismissal of myth (and he is characterizing all fundamentalism as belief in myth, if I read him correctly). And the differences between Christian and Muslim fundamentalism are relatively minor, mere details, when you consider their common basis in myth and mythic-rationalism.

  • http://www.tmatt.net Terry Mattingly

    Author Stephen “Battleground” Bates once gave me a great line for all of this: “You know, there are people who just don’t love everybody the way that they should and I hate people like that.”

    There is also a remark that I have heard attributed to Chesterton (anyone out there know a source? A corrective?. It goes something like this: We are entering an age in which “nothing will be forbidden except to forbid.”

    Bingo.

  • Ed Jordan

    Joe,

    “[Hutton] gave enough clues that leave no doubt that he would regard virtually all except the most liberal and modern versions of Christianity as fundamentalist.”

    Well, I find it helpful to get that stated so plainly. But I have to point out that that is a redefinition, or an expanded definition, of fundamentalism as it’s commonly understood. There are many millions of Christians who believe in the Resurrection, for example, but who don’t call themselves fundamentalists — who even think of fundamentalism in a pejorative sense. Is it part of Hutton’s rhetorical strategy to accuse these people of fundamentalism, and somehow prejudice them in favor of his point of view? Or prejudice others against them? If so, I think it’s crucial (so to speak) to contend for clear definitions.

  • Marinda R.

    I don’t know about the “forbidden” quote, but the one that sprang to my mind was:

    “There are two kinds of people in the world: the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.”

    –G.K. Chesterton, Generally Speaking.

    Along with definitions of “fundamentalist” and “tolerance”, this essay owes its readers a definition of “fanatics”. Can anyone who has lived through a century which saw Stalin, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot, and Hitler, honestly believe that dangerous fanaticism depends on believing in “the values and myths (sic) of the pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment, pre-democratic, barbaric and primitive Middle East” ??

  • Joel B

    Steve H asks where the issue of Christian Anti-Semitism comes from. I don’t know much, but I know that Justin Martyr’s Dialog with Trypho contains an important shift from Pauline thinking. Paul said that Gentiles were “grafted onto the vine” of Judaism–like they were lucky to be included. Several decades later, Justin’s rhetoric frames the issue as more that Christians are replacing the Jews as God’s chosen people because of the Jews’ various failures. In “Chapter XXIV.-The Christians’ Circumcision Far More Excellent.”, he even seems pleased that the Jews have been kicked out of Jerusalem so that the Christians can take over. Anyway, some of his statements are just good Christian doctrine, but some ought to make us feel uncomfortable.

    http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-48.htm#P4043_787325

    Another thing I’d think to know more about is how many Jews today have been called a Christ-killer at some point in there life? I suspect it’s a higher number than we would think. I think we Christians have a responsibility to help correct these false interpretations of the Bible.

  • Dan

    Doug LeBlanc:

    “I do, however, consider it transparently hypocritical to use contemptuous language about people, all the while presenting one’s self as a champion of inclusiveness and love.”

    You mean like the contemptuous language the Catholic Church and other conservative Christian sects use about, oh, say, abortion providers? Or gay families? Or politicians who identify themselves as Catholic but dissent from certain Church teachings?

    I guess you must believe, then, that the Catholic Church is also “transparently hypocritical.”

    Why don’t you post about THAT?

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    {You mean like the contemptuous language the Catholic Church and other conservative Christian sects use about, oh, say, abortion providers? Or gay families? Or politicians who identify themselves as Catholic but dissent from certain Church teachings?

    I guess you must believe, then, that the Catholic Church is also “transparently hypocritical.”

    Why don’t you post about THAT?}

    I cannot answer a question based on a generalization without any examples. What I have seen from the Catholic Church does not show evidence of contempt — but, then, I know that contempt often is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Dan

    “I cannot answer a question based on a generalization without any examples. What I have seen from the Catholic Church does not show evidence of contempt — but, then, I know that contempt often is in the eye of the beholder.”

    I just gave you examples. The Catholic Church describes abortion providers as murderers. Mass murderers. The Catholic Church describes gay people who raise children as doing “violence” (yes, violence) to those children. An American Catholic Cardinal publicly announced last year that homosexuality “mocks” (yes, mocks) the family. If that is not contempt, I don’t know what is. If “inclusiveness and love” preclude expressions of contempt for fundamentalists, why don’t they preclude expressions of contempt for abortion providers and gays?

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Dan:

    I should have been more precise in what I meant by “examples”: I mean direct quotes, full sentences, preferably citing the publication source of what you find contemptuous.

    So far you have offered your own summaries of other people’s words. There is a difference between summaries and specific quotations. I’m asking for specific quotations.

  • Marinda R.

    Dan,

    A more apt (although admittedly extreme) comparison would be the individual who is fanatically opposed to abortion opening fire on a clinic, killing doctors, staff, patients and passersby indiscriminately, and claiming that his actions are in opposition to “murder.” Please note, I believe this is a parallel in the logic behind the actions, _not_ the actions themselves; murder and intellectual dishonesty are not the same thing.

    Using murder to stop “those murderers” or using hateful, intolerant language against “those hateful intolerant people;” yeah, I’d say “transparently hypocritical” (as opposed to the usual, furtive, opaque kind of hypocrisy) is a good description.

  • http://www.tmatt.net Tmatt

    To “Dan”

    The last time I checked, the Roman Catholic Church was not a democracy.

    The current debates about JFK and others in public life are linked to their ACTIONS AS CATHOLICS, not their actions as political leaders. They are free to act however they wish. It’s America.

    However, the bishops are free to use their powers to affect life IN THE CHURCH. It’s the Roman Catholic Church.

    There is nothing a bishop can do to affect what happens on the floor of the US Senate. There is something the bishop can do about what happens at his own altar.

    “Dan” — are you suggesting that we need some kind of LAW to control the actions of a church in terms of how it defines and controls ITS OWN SACRAMENTS? Or to even limit the free-speech rights of religious leaders?

    I see no way to silence the Catholic bishops, in the manner you seem to desire, without doing that. I am afraid that you may need to learn some tolerance for the viewpoints of others.


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