Fundamentalism Ruins Religion for Conservatives and Liberals

The Last Acceptable Prejudice hit a chord, not only with religiously conservative folks but with liberals who balk at the notion that we should give religious conservatives any hearing at all. Like so much in our culture we seek enemies and enjoy destroying them, and so we are at loggerheads on religion. The New Atheists, buoyed by a new sense of confidence and numbers, are feeling their oats and will not be silenced, and I say rightfully so. Liberals, whether religious or not, are fed up with accommodating religious conservatives on GLBT rights, and I say amen to this as well. In fact, it appears that religious conservatives are under the weight of an American culture that is moving away from their more traditional moral norms. We are in an open religious and cultural market where there are fewer dominant moral traditions. And so let’s get used to it, and let’s respond to each other with tough arguments and without bullying and may the best arguments win.

I wrote the Last Acceptable Prejudice to reflect on a liberal and secular public university that ignores religion and on occasion bullies students who are from conservative religious backgrounds. And some have asked, “Do you have evidence for this bullying?” Well, I do. Multiple conservative students have said that their faith has been unfairly stigmatized in ways that are more about name calling than an argument. Conservatives are called “ignorant, naïve bigots and their thinking is judged as superstitious.” Now, this is not so much an argument as a form of silencing, which I think is the mark of prejudice. Civil discourse adjudicates evidence and makes plausible claims; it resists name-calling.

Now, this does not mean that arguments can’t be attacked. Recently, Bryan College came out with further restrictions on how to identify Adam and Eve. Bryan College claims that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms.” Bryan College students in fact protested this change, and anyone with a background in evolutionary biology would find that these statements can’t hold water, and that they should and must be addressed by better arguments and evidence.

More recently, an article came out on Huffpost, a young woman argued, “Why I had to Lose My Religion before I could Support Gender Equality.” She explained that she was brought up in a fundamentalist background and that certain proof texts simply barred her, as a Christian, from supporting gender equality. More than anything this seemed unfortunate to me. It was assumed both by this young woman and I imagine, by readers, that religion(s) always operate out of a naïve hermeneutic in their approach to scriptures, and that to be religious one has to hold to these simplistic approaches to scripture and tradition.

For me this kind of fundamentalism is one of the most dangerous and devastating developments to the study and appreciation of religion in the modern era. And I think it impacts both conservatives and liberals, both religious people and the non-religious.

What is wrong with fundamentalism for religiously conservative people?

  1. It has created a mode of interpretation that damages religious texts. In no way can the Bible make any sense using a literalistic approach. Jesus told stories; they weren’t literally true. Paul used metaphors, for instance describing the church as the “body of Christ.” The Old Testament is made rubbish by fundamentalism: God literally kills people and mountains jump about the earth. It creates a kind of insanity.
  2. It produces a lust for certainty that closes down options for interpretation. We are told that we must know the correct theory to understand the incarnation, when scripture is not clear on it at all. Moreover, there must be one right way to understand the atonement. New Calvinists argue that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement is the only true interpretation. This drives people to excommunicate anyone who think differently.
  3. It forces people to think that gender and forms of sexuality do not change over time and cannot change from two thousand years ago, and so they mutilate texts to create terror for anyone outside the conventional domains of their culture.
  4. It creates sin finders and faultfinders: those who spend their time identifying people to purge. The church becomes small and violent.

Can liberals be fundamentalists and how does it hurt them?

  1. I think so. Liberals take the most simpleminded people in a religion and then generalize to the whole of that faith. It’s a mistake. They think that Protestant fundamentalists are the only Christians that have thought about the Bible over a two thousand year history. And they forget there are many Christianities, and many better and more brilliant ways to interpret the Bible. They come to think that since God or any reality beyond their senses has not been proven then any reality outside the five senses must be illusory or false by definition. They forget what quantum physics has taught us, that the universe is much more complex than our simple observations might imagine and that there are more dimensions to reality than we know with our five senses.
  2. They make accusations against forms of religion that are false but make them feel good. As a professor of Comparative Religion, I hear people doing this so frequently that I simply have given up on trying to correct it. One of the great misconceptions by liberal Protestants is that evangelical Protestants don’t do much for others; they worry only about their salvation. I showed in my research that evangelicals far out give liberals in money and service; the comparisons are not even close.

So, what’s the answer?

  1. Become radically empirical. This is phrase that I love from William James. James was aware of our psychology of closing down options and he suggested going in the opposite direction—radically expand what is possible to discover in the universe.  Remember, he studied séances and he gave them credence. He wrote sympathetically of early Pentecostal experience, and he suggested that the universe may be plural. Liberals and conservative too often close down options and don’t realize how multiform the universe truly is.
  2. Check your prejudices. I often say in teaching that our task in education is to become aware of our prejudices and then test them against empirical reality. I think of research as just that. I did this on Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago; on Evangelicals vs. Liberals in the Pacific Northwest; on Rob Bell and his new form of American Christianity, and more recently on American Megachurches. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in all of these cases. Test your prejudice you might be wrong, but you might also be right!
  3. As a religious person myself, I trust the universe. As a Protestant Christian humanist, with broad interests in the Christian tradition, I trust that God is found in what is good, true and beautiful. And so, for me, whatever is discovered to be good, true and beautiful must in some form be a part of that divine intention. In that sense, the University of Washington is producing a lot of divine knowledge, in fact, it is not as secular as it might seem—if one believes in a God who makes all things, then where the good, true and beautiful is found by an atheist or a believer, it’s God’s language, God’s DNA, God’s healings, God’s theories, and that makes my life thrilling. The universe is not closed, but is wildly open, and the truth is waiting to be found. So, I say, let’s go get it, and God bless all who do so.


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