The all-or-nothing lie of fundamentalist Christianity (part 1)

I wound up having a lot of fun at the Slacktivixen’s 25th high school reunion. It was kind of like going to a wedding reception without the wedding beforehand — a big, friendly party where everyone just happened to be one year younger than me and a lapsed Catholic. Good times.

I think 25th reunions are more relaxed than 10th or 15th reunions, where some folks are still competing and comparing. By your 25th, everybody can admit they’re on Plan B or Plan C in life and no one seems to have the desire or energy to pretend otherwise. (Church, I think, should be more like a 25th reunion in that regard.)

I haven’t been back to Jersey for any class reunions or homecomings in a long time, but hearing all those stories of the ‘vixen’s high school years got me thinking again of my alma mater, Timothy Christian School.

TCS, which I attended from third grade all the way through high school, is a fundamentalist private school. It’s not “evangelical,” but full-on fundie. I’m talking a literal reading of an inerrant, infallible King James Version Bible, with young-earth creationism taught in science classes and Hal Lindsey and Josh McDowell books used as textbooks in Bible class. It was about as effing undie as fundie can be.

And that meant I was taught the very same house-of-cards construct of faith that I’ve often criticized here.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a package deal — an inseparable, all-or-nothing bundle of teachings and ideology that says every piece depends on every other piece. If any one piece of it isn’t true, fundamentalism insists, then it all falls apart and none of it is true.

That’s a cruel construct that sets you up for a miserable future. It guarantees an eventual crisis of faith that can lead either to a lifetime of white-knuckled denial and desperate pretense or to the abandonment of the whole enchilada.

Viewed from the outside, this all-or-nothing claim doesn’t make much sense. From the outside, the separate components of fundamentalism’s package deal do appear separate and separable. From the outside, it just seems kind of silly to insist that, for example, belief in the Golden Rule requires and is somehow dependent on belief that the universe is only 6,000 years old.

But from the inside, within fundamentalism, this all-or-nothing message is pounded home again and again with such frequency and urgency that it seems true to those shaped by that world. Belief in Jesus, in forgiveness, or in faith, hope and love, really does come to seem contingent and dependent upon all those other beliefs in inerrancy, literalism, creationism, and whichever weird American variant of eschatology your particular sub-group of fundies subscribes to.

And that means, for those shaped by fundamentalism, that belief in Jesus, faith, hope and love are all constantly imperiled by even fleeting glimpses of reality. Some such glimpse will eventually penetrate the protective fundie shell — the recognition that maybe all sedimentary rocks didn’t come from Noah’s flood, the realization that the Synoptic Gospels can’t be easily “harmonized,” the attempt to evangelize some Hellbound Episcopalian that results in them getting the better of the conversation. And when that happens, the whole edifice threatens to topple like some late-in-the-game Jenga tower.

At that point, the reality-punctured fundie is trained to believe they have only two choices. Either they can fiercely decide to pretend it never happened and that they never caught such a glimpse — thus becoming the sort of person who is increasingly capable of such pretense and denial. Or they can chuck it all and embrace the nihilism and meaninglessness that they were always taught was the only alternative to this fragile fundie faith.

We were taught that at TCS too. Such all-or-nothing fundamentalism was what we were constantly told was true.

But we were also shown something healthier.

This was, I think, an accident — an unintended fluke of providence or luck. But for me and for others who were shaped by Timothy Christian, it was a saving grace. It was something that equipped us and enabled us to escape the all-or-nothing lie at the center of the house-of-cards fundie faith.

In part 2, I’ll discuss what this saving grace was, and why it mattered for me even if, at the time, I barely noticed it.

(Part 2 of this post is here.)

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  • Madhabmatics

    Haha it’s fine I’m always just curious, at least it wasn’t Mohammedan or Musselman. >:P

    That’s a pretty good question, I think the waters are actually a bit muddier than a lot of people on both sides want to think. I usually differentiate by “Accepts that Mohammed (pbuh) was the last of the old-testament style prophets” – that also helps differentiate Islam from say, Baha’i, who are really really close but think that there was another prophet after The Prophet.

    (This is one of the fun things about watching Shia argue – if you ever see someone talk about “Twelver Shia” or “Seveners,” it’s because Shia sects differentiate themselves based on how many Imams [who are kinda prophet-like but also kinda not] they think there were before the last one went into Occultation. So some sects think there were 12 and the 12th is in occultation, some think there were 7, etc.)

    [occultation is a really cool word that is surprisingly confusing when used with modern people who don’t know what the root of the word “occult” means]

  • Tricksterson

    Which forms spontaneously from the ether?

  • Tricksterson

    So where does “It’s wrong to kill/steal/lie” fall?  Objective truth or aesthetic/subjective?  And why?

  • esmerelda_ogg

    modern people who don’t know what the root of the word “occult” means

    Oh well, I guess it’s hidden from them ;)

  • Tricksterson

    What if the adult (regardless of ethnicity) has something to gain from the death (or at least temporary absence) of the child (regardless of ethnicity).  Now self interest, that is a universal constant, although the details may differ.

  • Tricksterson

    It could also be argued, probably more effectively, that you’re both Jewish heresies.

  • Madhabmatics

     I dunno, our claims kind of rely of Christianity being mostly right, so maybe Christians are the Jewish Heresy and we are the Christian Heresy and Baha’i are the Islamic Heresy

    but whose heresy are the Cao Dai????

  • If you say God exists it’s not my job to prove God doesn’t exist.

  • Amaryllis

     .. and many of the Psalms, and large chunks of Isaiah and some of the other prophets …

    …not to mention all those poets, ancient and modern, who were inspired by Biblical language– where would T.S. Eliot have been without Ezekiel?

  • Madhabmatics

    Yeah but it’s also not your job to turn everything into a knock-down drag-out fight about who is ~right~ about life, the universe and everything?

    It’s also not the religious persons job. Preferably everyone whose job that was would remain unemployed, alas.

  • Madhabmatics

    Like the whole “You believe in God, and therefore implicitly say it exists, and therefore must spend every waking moment justifying it to to me” is hella annoying

  • Madhabmatics

    Look at the path that lead us to this place. Ellie is an atheist who basically said that (correctly) that “Objective Truth” is a pretty touchy idea and perhaps getting rid of a bunch of people based on what our limited human understandings of truth are might be jumping the gun.

    This lead to her being told that the onus is on the atheist to prove that God exists.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    That’s sort of where I was going: I suspect that Othering is a phenomenon of enculturation, not something intrinsic to our biological species.

    Unfortunately, there’s no real way to test this without hermetically sealing children away from society from the moment of their births, which might be, you know, a wee bit problematic.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    That’s swell and all, but I suspect you still brushed your teeth this morning, set your alarm clock last night, and stepped on the accelerator to make your car go at some point today? Post-modernist or not, treating certain provisional truths–brushing prevents tartar buildup, time will proceed linearly while your sleep, and stepping on the accelerator produces forward momentum–as if they were 100% objectively true is the most reasonable and safest way to go about our daily lives.

    As someone once said, we’re all scientists. We just don’t recognize most of what we do as science.

  • B

     “Like the whole “You believe in God, and therefore implicitly say it
    exists, and therefore must spend every waking moment justifying it to to
    me” is hella annoying”

    Yes, this. 

    I don’t care if other people believe in God or not, but the idea that theists are under some sort of obligation to justify their beliefs by proving to random atheists that God exists is annoying to say the least.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Good summary. I might be atheist now, but my background is in the Lutheran (Missouri Synod) and Southern Baptist world-views, so I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the either the fundamentalist’s or theologian’s perspective on the Bible.

    I wonder if you surveyed contemporary Christians as to whether their beliefs “come from” the Bible, what proportion would answer “Yes”?

    It is interesting that more lay Christians don’t strive to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic so that they can read the Bible in its original language. For all the fetishization of the King James Version’s linguistic idiosyncrasies in some evangelical circles, there’s nothing like fundamentalist Islam’s insistence on the original Arabic version of the Quran as its “purest and truest form.” (I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that some Salafist / Wahhabist sects regard non-Arabic Qurans as intrisically lesser.)

    Are there any major world religions that are not rooted in part in a holy text of some kind? Even a pseudo-animistic faiths like Shinto has its Kojiki.

  • Madhabmatics

     You don’t have to be a “post-modernist” to know that thinking that you have the monopoly on “Objective Truth” leads to pretty shitty things, like thinking it’s a-okay to mistreat people because they are “Objectively Wrong”

  • Carstonio

    Theists, and atheists, are only under obligation to justify their positions if they insist that these are irrefutable fact. Most don’t but some do.

  • Carstonio

    Taking a full leap into No True Scotsman territory, I suggest a true recognition of the concept of objective fact includes the admission that one doesn’t have a monopoly on it. 

  • I wonder if you surveyed contemporary Christians as to whether their beliefs “come from” the Bible, what proportion would answer “Yes”?

    Didn’t somebody do a study back in the ’80s in which they discovered that 60+% of American Christians thought “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” was a quote from the Bible, and 80+% attributed “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “God helps them that help themselves” to the Bible as well?

  • Andrew Wyatt

    How would you prove I exist?

    I think that the more relevant question is: What is the consequence of you existing in this scenario? If there is no consequence external to the (apparent) fact that you are speaking to me, my situation would be indistinguishable from that of a mentally ill person who is hearing voices in their head.

  • The onus is on the person claiming the existence of an otherwise not obviously physically verifiable phenomenon to prove the claim.

    The onus is NOT on anyone else to DISprove the claim.

    I wish I could like this a thousand times.  It is on my personal list of “arguments” I hate: “Well, you can’t prove that there isn’t a god!!”

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Which forms spontaneously from the ether?

    Moral conscience seems to be a intrinsic property of our social intelligence, quite independent of any particular set of cultural rules. Why this is so is debated, although there is compelling evidence that there is an adaptive advantage to being altruistic in a highly social species such as ourselves. We know that moral reasoning has a neurological basis, as experiments have shown activation of particular parts of the brain during moral stimulation and decision-making. There have a few interesting studies of children with particular types of frontal lobe damage that show they lose the ability to absorb and live by moral codes.

  • B

    “Theists, and atheists, are only under obligation to justify their
    positions if they insist that these are irrefutable fact. Most don’t but
    some do.”

    Oh, I agree completely.  I’m just disagreeing with the proposal that theists have a special obligation to justify their beliefs, whereas atheists can just be assumed to be correct without any justification whatsoever.

  • Carstonio

    You would have a point if we limit atheism to the position that no gods exist, which is different from simply not believing in the existence of gods. But I haven’t encountered anyone who says that the latter should “be assumed to be correct without any justification whatsoever.”

  • Madhabmatics

     Ellie, an atheist, was not claiming that god exists, which is why it’s really silly to go “Well the onus is on Ellie to prove that God exists.”

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I believe that Meng Zhu’s thought experiment was presented abstractly for a reason: It was about the intrinsic moral imperatives that exist independent of the particulars of social obligation, material advantage, and so forth. The scenario is presented such that the child and adult have no connection other than their shared humanity. So, in the same way that the scenario becomes null if the child is a blood relative of the adult, it’s null if the adult has anything to gain from the child’s death.

  •  The phrase that always makes me come to a full stop for a second before going “Yes yes I know what that word means” is ‘Occult bleeding’.

  • Cor Aquilonis

    So something has to be good art to be art at all?

    Did I say that?  No I didn’t.  I’m saying that the Bible is terrible in comparison to other, more recent pieces in genres in which it is claimed to be an excellent example.  I made no sweeping judgements of its status as art, or what does and doesn’t define art.

    Recorded oral tradition is of no literary value, and due to its lack of scientific rigor, no historical value?

    Did I say that?  Again, no I didn’t.  I said that, when compared with the wealth of available literature in many genres in which the Bible is said to be a paragon, the Bible comes up short again and again. Also, the Bible contains many accounts it presents as historical fact that are not supported by archeological or historical investigation.  I will trust your Google Fu and intellectual honesty to be strong enough to find some examples. 

    Really? You find things like the beginning of Genesis, Job’s speeches, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Ruth’s speech to Naomi, Jesus’ sayings, the Gospel of John, St. Paul in his more poetic moods and the Book of Revelation aesthetically disappointing?

    That’s what I said, sort of.  Compare any passage from the Bible to comparable selections from even high school literature textbooks, and anyone would disappointed.  The characters are unbelievable, the story rings hollow, it insults the audience both intellectually and morally, and the pacing is wretched.  You’ve been reading Fred’s LB posts, right?  Do your own criticism of the books of the Bible in comparison to other books in the same genre – honestly.  Do books of the Bible really stack up?

    Anyways, I didn’t realize that my opinion on the Bible’s quality as literature would get other people here so… defensive.  I probably should have.  Originally, I thought that my post would add to the discussion, but I can see now that it’s only causing devisiveness.  I will continue to lurk, but unless someone wants me to contribute and asks me to, I’ll hush up now, and not derail the discussion any further.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I never said I had a monopoly on objective truth.

    I do, however, think it’s entirely appropriate to take certain kinds of statements more seriously than others. Specifically, statements that have some basis in observation and reason should be taken more seriously than statements that… aren’t.

    This tends not to be controversial when one is talking about the banalities of daily life. Most of us don’t go around touching stoves we have reason to believe might be hot.

  • EllieMurasaki

    But thinking of it as bleeding related to some arcane ritual is so much more fun!

  • P J Evans

     I was also told that I was sure to go to hell for playing cards with my grandmother.

    My father’s father was sure that playing solitaire was going to send you to Hell. (Scrabble was all right, though.) My father did eventually play solitaire himself, but it took a while.

  • B

    I was responding to the comment below: “The
    onus is on the person claiming the existence of an otherwise not
    obviously physically verifiable phenomenon to prove the claim.  The onus is NOT on anyone else to DISprove the claim.”

    Unless I’m trying to proselytize I don’t agree that the onus is on me to prove anything.  Nor do I agree that if an atheist is trying to persuade me that God doesn’t exist, I’m still the one who’s supposed to prove the existence of God (if indeed that’s what was meant by the original comment).

    I generally thought atheism WAS the position that no gods exist, whereas having no beliefs one way or the other was agnosticism.  But, perhaps I am mistaken about this.

  • Madhabmatics

     There is a difference between “Yeah I don’t take this thing seriously at all” (even “I think giving credence to this is dumb”) and “I know the Objective Truth”

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Interesting. I haven’t heard of those aphorisms being ascribed to the Bible. The one I’ve heard about is “God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves,” which the Barna Group’s polling has shown to be commonly misconstrued as a Bible verse.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, see, what you said isn’t that the Bible is bad literature. (I disagree but I do not care to debate the point.) What you said is that the Bible is valueless.

    Literature has value. We can argue over how much value any given work has, but given the number of literary allusions to the Bible, I think it’s safe to say that it’s fairly high-value regardless of its quality.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    You comment was in response to my assertion that it’s most appropriate for us all to operate as if certain thing were 100% objectively true, even if we can’t prove as much. I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying, “I know the Objective Truth.”

    That said, there are plenty of things that are so close to Objective Truth that I would bet $1,000 on them in a heartbeat. The fact that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, for example.

  • hf

     Come on,  now. The Bible is like the Star Wars films: you wouldn’t expect it to supply good public policy today (because nobody intended it to). And if you draw ethical lessons from it, make sure they have some secular (aka real) basis. At the same time, anyone familiar with probability would expect the Bible to get something right. And given its popularity, only superhuman wrongness could prevent someone, somewhere from reading useful lessons into it.

    You could disagree with any of that, but doing so would be wrong and silly.

  • Actually, I was agreeing with IN’s comment that the onus is on any person making a claim to show that something exists.  The onus is not on the other person to show that it doesn’t exist.

  • hf

    Burden of proof seems like a distraction. A better argument against theism would be, ‘Where does all this detail come from? Do you realize how much variety exists in the space of possible minds and mind-like processes that shape the future? At least go read Friendship is Optimal and admit that you’re talking about something less human than CelestAI.’

    Somewhat related, with emphasis in original:

    If we ask who was more correct—the theologians who argued for a
    Creator-God, or the intellectually unfulfilled atheists who argued that
    mice spontaneously generated—then the theologians must be declared the
    victors: evolution is not God, but it is closer to God than it is to
    pure random entropy.  Mutation is random, but selection is non-random. 
    This doesn’t mean an intelligent Fairy is reaching in and selecting.  It
    means there’s a non-zero statistical correlation between the gene and
    how often the organism reproduces.  Over a few million years, that
    non-zero statistical correlation adds up to something very powerful. 
    It’s not a god, but it’s more closely akin to a god than it is to snow
    on a television screen.

    In a way, Darwin discovered God—a God that failed to match
    the preconceptions of theology, and so passed unheralded.  If Darwin had
    discovered that life was created by an intelligent agent—a bodiless
    mind that loves us, and will smite us with lightning if we dare say
    otherwise—people would have said “My gosh!  That’s God!”

    But instead Darwin discovered a strange alien God—not comfortably “ineffable”, but really genuinely different from us.  Evolution is not a God, but if it were, it wouldn’t be Jehovah.  It would be H. P. Lovecraft’s Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.

  • Katie

     Tricksterson: Meng Zhu actually brings this up.  According to him, what is important, because he’s concerned with setting the lower limit for ‘this person has a moral sense’ is that when the person sees the baby crawling towards the well, that their first impulse is to save the child.  The *second* impulse may be ‘if this child dies, I will inherit a fortune’ or ‘OMG!  I must save MY BABY’, but what matters is the first impulse.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That seems like an oversimplification. Suppose it’s a certainty that Adam would leap to save baby Zoe from the well. If Zoe is endangered not by the well but by the fact that the local municipal water system is crappy or nonexistent, or by the fact that Zoe lives in a food desert, or basically anything where part of the solution is Adam being more charitable and/or paying more taxes, then it’s a lot more iffy whether Adam will do anything to save Zoe. If he does nothing–and remembering that if he saw her crawling for the well, he’d rescue her–what does that indicate about whether Adam has any moral sense?

  • People who are religious and believe in deities often implicitly talk as though everybody listening shared their assumption that their deity exists.

    It’s a really irritating habit, and it’s one that leads to people like me insisting firmly that they are not taking onboard that assumption up front.

  • vsm

    Have you read the parts I mentioned? I’m asking because I don’t think your criticism really applies to any of them. True, if you pick a passage at random, there’s a chance it’s something that’s exactly what you describe, but that’s hardly surprising. Not every part is meant to be poetry, and not all poetry is equally good. The parts that are good are rather impressive, at least to me, and I don’t think any supernatural beings were involved in writing them.

  • Carstonio

    evolution is not God, but it is closer to God than it is to
    pure random entropy. Mutation is random, but selection is non-random.

    That sounds a little like the central assumption of intelligent design, which is that order can only be designed. Apparently the author views any large, powerful natural process that involves order or non-randomness as godlike, and that may arguably be simple anthropomorphism.

  • AnonymousSam

    But outside of a philosophy class or a late-night pot-brownie feast, I don’t regard it as particularly productive to get fixated on epistemological wankery along the lines of “Yeah, but how can you ever, like, really *know* anything, man?”

    I find I need that epistemological wankery to better define objective truth. I’m not keen on embracing the truth along with a rule never to question it — that’s kind of the point of this blog post.

  • AnonymousSam

    I would argue that the previous statement is objective truth. What does harm at an individual level inevitably affects others around them. That this is Truth for me and the cornerstone of my reality makes it part of my religion.

  • AnonymousSam

    Ah, but most of us don’t treat these as true, we just don’t think about them as being false. One could argue that it’s a state of constant dissociation from the universe, a way of going about life which entails a mental truce with chaotic butterflies by not acknowledging physics and chemistry until they become a problem.

    For some reason, the above strikes me as hilarious. Must be the hour.

  • Beroli


    I generally thought atheism WAS the position that no gods exist, whereas
    having no beliefs one way or the other was agnosticism.  But, perhaps I
    am mistaken about this.

    Like most or all words, “gnostic/agnostic” and “theist/atheist” have multiple definitions. The ones I prefer, personally, are:
    Theist: Belief in some manner of deity
    Atheist: Not a theist
    Gnostic: Knows, or believes s/he knows
    Agnostic: Does not know
    Gnostic theist: “God(ess)(es)(s) exist(s), in exactly form X, Y and Z.”
    Agnostic theist: “I believe the divine exists in some form.”
    Gnostic atheist: “There are no gods, NONE.”
    Agnostic atheist: “I don’t believe in any religion I know, but I don’t rule out the possibility that one or more gods exists in some form, nor do I rule out the possibility that there are no gods.”

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I have no objection to epistemology per se. The wankery that I allude to it the sort typified by the original comment to which I was responding: That would be EllieMurasaki’s apparent assertion that there is a vast substantive gulf between a truth that is known with perfect (100%) assurance and a truth that is provisionally “known” with 99.99% assurance. I would contend that such a gulf might matter for philosophers, but substantively, it’s non-existent.  Both types of truth lead us to make the same sort of judgments and take the same sort of actions.

    Is it accurate to say that there’s no way to *really* know whether or not my sense are being constantly manipulated by a Cartesian daemon? I suppose so. Does it really matter, in any way that can possible affect how I go about my life? Not really. So I tend to think of it as wankery: An interesting basis for Brain-in-a-Jar science-fiction blue-skying, but not really useful.