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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  • EllieMurasaki

    I think you misunderstand me.

    I know with 99.99% certainty that there are no gods. Our host knows with 99.99% certainty that there is a god, and further that this god has a record, check the Gospel of Matthew. Neither of us can prove our case, and we can’t both be right. We can be, and are, both right on the subject of which way is magnetic north.

    And given that believing in a god is not itself harmful, and for bonus points has produced beneficial effects for Fred and his readers, I do not think it is wise to slam him for being wrong on the subject of whether gods exist.

  • The_L1985

    During college, I felt so hampered by insanely oppressive Catholic ideas of right and wrong WRT sex, modest clothing, and reproduction, that I felt like I pretty much had to throw it all out and start from square 1 in determining what I do and do not believe about the topics. I wasn’t yet sure which of my former beliefs were helping and which weren’t, so I started by asking myself the “in this situation, which is worse and why” question and going from there.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    On the contrary, I’d say that theists’ claims can be rejected for lack of evidence or because they aren’t really claims at all.  We would need to be clear about what exact claim we’re discussing before we can go down that road.

    I think it’s self-evident how much harm religious thinking has and can cause–particularly to children–but whether or not there are harms is beside the point. Is it really controversial that we should generally strive to describe reality accurately? Holding on to a description of reality that we know to be inaccurate seems unwise. (Although it is a comfortable position for those whose power is predicated on the maintenance of that inaccurate description.)  People survived pretty well for tens of thousands of years while also believing in lava-spirits, but it doesn’t follow one should reject plate tectonics in favor of lava-spirit-belief.

    I wouldn’t read Fred’s blog daily if I didn’t value his writing and insights–but he’s still a theist, and therefore he and I (and many of his theistic readers) have very different first principles.

  • The_L1985

    But that’s not the appropriate context for a religious text. The Bible falls rather nicely under the category of “Ancient Religious Texts,” and is fairly representative of that genre.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I think it’s self-evident how much harm religious thinking has and can cause–particularly to children–but whether or not there are harms is beside the point. Is it really controversial that we should generally strive to describe reality accurately? Holding on to a description of reality that we know to be inaccurate seems unwise.

    For the fifth time, you and I may know there are no gods but we (meaning rather broader than just ‘you and I’) know no such thing. As evidence I present the world’s proliferation of religions. And whether harm is done is MY ENTIRE FUCKING POINT.

  • The_L1985

    Wicca is hardly big enough or old enough to count as “major” (at least in this century–who knows what the future will bring). But it also doesn’t have any equivalent to the Main Religious Text. There are books about Wiccan ritual, written by Wiccans, but they’re more along the lines of a lectionary.

    Also, WRT original languages, reading part of the Torah in the original Hebrew is a pretty big part of Bar Mitsvahs (are they in Bat Mitzvahs as well? Am I pluralizing that wrong? Jewish commenters, I’ll leave further elucidation to you, because I’m a wee bit out of my depth).

  • The_L1985

    I’m surprised you still haven’t mentioned any creation myths. “Creation myth” is a genre. So, for that matter, is “regional folklore.”

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Erm. Pointing to the widespread nature of unsound beliefs doesn’t really constitute a case for those beliefs. Argumentum ad populum and all that.

    Otherwise known as “50 Million Smokers Can’t Be Wrong!”

    I’m not sure where you’re going with this, since you seem to agree that theistic claims are unsound.

  • And it can get even more complicated: I’m an atheist, but gnostic or agnostic depending on the god.

  • vsm

    The thing is, many theists have evidence for their belief in God. Google “I felt the holy spirit” and you get half a million results. It’s not scientifically acceptable evidence, but science is just one system of knowledge. Granted, it’s quite effective at what it seeks to do, but that doesn’t prove other systems focusing on different kinds of knowledge are invalid.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I am not trying to present a case in support of theistic beliefs. I am trying to present a case in opposition to attacking theistic beliefs. If you can present evidence that theistic belief–the belief itself or things that always accompany it regardless of the denomination of the believer, not things that accompany it in some denominations but not others such as creationism and faith healing and sexism/heterosexism/cissexism and child abuse–is harmful, I’ll shut up and go away. But I sincerely doubt you can.

  • hf

    She implies that de-converting Fred and his theist readers (specifically) seems like a poor use of your time. I sort of agree – I think they might benefit, overall, but I wouldn’t expect the gain to justify the effort.

    I still think people should know the underlying correct epistemology, hence my harping on the question, ‘Where does all this detail come from?’

  • stardreamer42

     Being able to separate the baby from the bathwater is important. There’s a great deal of wisdom and good advice in the Bible; there’s also a lot of pernicious nonsense, and some stuff that’s downright toxic. But the thing is, the wisdom and good advice are not exclusively found in the Bible, whereas a lot of the not-so-good stuff is Bible-specific. That’s a problem, because where and how do you draw the line in discussions with the devout?

  • stardreamer42

    “The problem with oaths of the ‘death before dishonor’ variety is that, given enough time, they inevitably divide people into two groups: the dead and the forsworn.” – Miles Vorkosigan

  • Carstonio

    What do you mean by “different kinds of knowledge”? The question is not whether some people have such experiences, or whether they’re justified in believing that these are caused by a god or holy spirit. If that were the case, this thread probably wouldn’t exist. The question is whether the experiences are caused by a god or holy spirit as objective fact. Assuming that such people are telling the truth about having the experiences, we shouldn’t flatly rule out other possible causes. What you’re describing might be called subjective knowledge. Also, there are deists and others who believe in gods without having such experiences. 

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I don’t think Wicca rises to the level of “major”. I suppose Wiccans can dream, though.

    It seems as though modern organized religions, even animistic ones, require some kind of text in order to propagate themselves.  No faith can succeed in the contemporary age via oral transmission alone.

    I suspect that some Chan / Zen Buddhist sects would say that the first step  to True Enlightenment would be to take your treasured copy of the “Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices” and burn it.

    One could also imagine a mystery cult that has a holy text which the faithful are *forbidden* to copy, because the physical text itself has a sacred quality that cannot and should not be replicated. However, this would seem to work against the widespread dissemination of the faith. Mystery cults don’t really fly in the digital age. Religions don’t want to be exclusive clubs, but worldwide cultural forces.

  • B

     “Holding on to a description of reality that we know to be inaccurate seems unwise.”

    Well, I agree, but that could be an argument by theists against atheists as easily as it could be an argument by atheists against theists.  Many theists believe atheists are holding on to an inaccurate description of reality just as firmly as atheists believe the reverse, after all.

  • Not really. 

    Or, that is only true if the theists are using definitions of “accurate” and “reality” that differ drastically from the definitions being used by atheists.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I’m not sure what that “different system of knowledge” might be, other than a cavalier reliance on logical fallacies like, “I once felt warm and tingly, therefore the Holy Ghost is real.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which doesn’t actually rule out the possibility that some of those instances are people interacting with entities on another level of existence, which interactions we cannot or cannot yet predict with any accuracy.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I think there’s a intrinsic value in letting go of beliefs that are false, whether or not the perpetuation of those beliefs result in tangible, proximate harms. The maintenance of any false beliefs always requires mental effort and results in invisible costs–lost opportunity costs, if you will.

    Regardless, I’m not sure how a belief can be removed from the “things that accompany it.” What belief has *no* effect on the believer’s behavior? The only way that can work is if the belief itself is nonsensical, or content-free, or descriptive of a universe that has no relationship to this one.  I might declare that I “believe” that All Flurrborxes Have Six Yungblatts, for example.

  • B

     How so?  Is the argument that theists know that there’s no God(s) but are deciding to believe in him/her/it/them anyway?  Because that’s no more true than the reverse argument by RTCs that atheists know there’s a God but have decided not to believe anyway.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I’m not trying to “de-convert” anyone (least of all Fred), but I do think it’s worthwhile to point out fallacious reasoning, *especially* when the people peddling it otherwise make lots of good points or write eloquently. Discussing these matters with theists at Patheos is a much better use of my time than discussing them with, for example, the average comment denizen at Free Republic, or a random selection of family members and acquaintances on Facebook. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m not sure how a belief can be removed from the “things that accompany it.” What belief has *no* effect on the believer’s behavior?

    You’re misunderstanding me. “Jesus Christ is Lord” is a belief that is sometimes but not always accompanied by “gay sex is sinful”. The latter is harmful and needs to be done away with; the former is not harmful and can be let be. For some people, convincing them that gay sex is not sinful requires convincing them that Jesus Christ is not Lord, but the number of queer and queer-friendly Christians out there indicates that that is not true of everyone.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Well, I agree, but that could be an argument by theists against atheists as easily as it could be an argument by atheists against theists.

    Um, not really. Just because a theist finds purely reason-based descriptions of the universe’s phenomena personally unsatisfying doesn’t mean that those descriptions are wrong.  A theist might *believe* that a reason-based description is inaccurate, but unless they have a basis for that belief beyond “I wish it to be so,” then they’re just hocking loogies into the wind, so to speak. If wanting a description to be true is all that is needed to make it true, I need to start wishing for all ice cream to be fat-free.

  • That’s not my argument at all.  You said that theists can say, just as easily as atheists, that theirs is the accurate view of reality.  Well, on the areas in which theists and atheists differ, this is not true.  Not unless the theists are using different definitions of “accurate” and “reality,” in which feelings count just as much as evidence, and things need not be verifiable.

  • vsm

    You can dismiss religious experiences if you wish. I don’t put too much stock in them myself. However, deciding you only accept valid knowledge to be something that can be gained via the scientific method is not the default position and it is not something that is accepted by all humans. Thus, calling religious beliefs objectively false will simply not be convincing to anyone who doesn’t share your epistemology.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    When you find a “system of knowledge” other than empiricism that provides results, let the rest of us know, because you’d be the first.

  • B

     Well, there we get back to the problem of proof.  Unless you’re claiming that the non-existence of God is not only empirically verifiable but HAS been empirically verified, then someone who believes there is NO God isn’t acting on evidence any more than someone who believes that this IS one.  Both are extrapolating beyond the available evidence.

    (Aside: I personally consider the fact that many other people have reporting seeing/hearing/communing with God to be a piece of evidence in favor of God.  Sure, they could be hallucinating, but now we’re back to the problem of epistemology: anyone who says they see anything could be hallucinating, but we don’t automatically dismiss eyewitness reports on those grounds.  However, I’m not claiming this constitutes “proof” as given the inability to systematically replicate them, the possibility that they are hallucinations does clearly exist.)

  • Given which part of your body tends to be involved, that really does not make it better.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    “Jesus Christ is Lord” is just as nonsensical as All Flurrborxes Have Six Yungblatts. A Christian might attest to a deep belief in that statement, but it’s not really descriptive or informative. What does that belief even mean? Some Christians would attest that it *contains* a belief in the divinity of a historical human being known as Jesus, that he was (somehow) an omnipotent, omniscient being (and also that being’s son… somehow). However, not all self-identified Christians believe this. That’s the rub of nonsensical belief statements: They can be changed on a whim and deformed into whatever any individual likes.
    “Gay sex is sinful” is a actually an interesting example. Since “sinful” doesn’t really mean anything outside of a worldview that accepts “sin” as a concept, it probably needs to be re-framed to have any meaning. Perhaps “gay sex is deviant”. That’s *kind of* of a statement of belief, but it shades into a subjective / aesthetic statement, like “gay sex is icky” or “gay sex is awesome.” However, if one believes that gay sex is deviant,  it likely has consequences on one’s behavior, and in particular how one treats gay people.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    [S]omeone who believes there is NO God isn’t acting on evidence any more than someone who believes that this IS one.

    Sure they are. Just like someone who goes about their daily life as if there are no leprechauns is acting on evidence.

  • No.  First of all, if anyone is claiming something exists, they have the burden of proof.  If they meet that burden, then and only then does the burden fall to those who say it does not exist.

    You are also defining all atheists as those who believe there are no gods.  This actually ties back into my earlier comment that it is possible to be an atheist who is agnostic as to some gods and gnostic as to others.

    An atheist, someone who does not believe in any gods, is not “extrapolating beyond the available evidence.”  He or she is concluding, based on the lack of evidence, that there is not enough there to justify belief.

    As to your aside: yes, there are people who report communing with God.  There are people who report communing with many types of supernatural beings, many of which contradict the existence of the others.  In other words, this argument ad populum does not work: the reports cannot all be right.  They can, however, all be wrong.  And absent any corroborating evidence, it is irresponsible to take them as evidence of anything beyond what is taking place inside the reporter’s own mind.

  • vsm

    What kinds of results would you like? The same kind being produced by the scientific method? That’s not really what modern theists think revelation is for.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Curing medical ailments, predicting thunderstorms, putting remote sensing probes on other planets. Things like that.

  • B

    Because God is a
    leprechaun?  I don’t think that’s a
    widespread theist belief.


    Because neither leprechauns
    nor God exist?  That’s your belief, not
    mine.  (The God part, that is.  I don’t believe in leprechauns.)


    Because neither the existence of leprechauns nor the existence of God is empirically
    verifiable even in principle?  That would
    depend on what the claim being made about the nature of leprechauns and God, of
    course.  However, if neither leprechauns
    nor God are empirically verifiable, then beliefs concerning their existence or
    nonexistence can’t be based on evidence. 
    That’s what it means to not be empirically verifiable.


    Because there is can by empirically
    demonstrated that neither leprechauns nor God exist?  I’m unaware of such a demonstration with
    respect to God.  (Re: leprechauns – well,
    that would depend on the claims being made about the leprechauns.)

  •  > What kinds of results would you like? The same kind being produced by
    the scientific method? That’s not really what modern theists think
    revelation is for.

    That’s an excellent question.

    In the view of modern theists, what kinds of result is revelation for?

    A related question: in the view of modern theists, does revelation in one religious tradition (say, Christianity) get different results than revelation in another religious tradition (say, Zoroastrianism)?

    (If, as seems likely, modern theists vary in their views with respect to these questions, feel free to restrict yourself to the subset of modern theists you were speaking for in your comment.)

  •  > Well, there we get back to the problem of proof

    Well… perhaps that’s moving too far too fast.

    Let me back up a step and ask you, on your view, what is proof for?

    That is, why is proof valuable, if indeed it is valuable; why should we care whether we have proof for an assertion, if indeed we should; why ought we prefer assertions we can prove to assertions we can’t prove, if indeed we ought to?

  • Andrew Wyatt

    As you point out, the answer depends on the claim in question, but I would say that the most common claims about God are as self-evidently false as those regarding leprechauns.

    You keep asserting that belief in the non-existence of something that can’t be empirically verified is not an evidence-based belief, which I suppose is strictly true. However, non-belief in a thing whose characteristics are entirely beyond the realm of proof is a perfectly reasonable boundary to place on human understanding. Otherwise we could spend eternity dreaming up hypothetical things that cannot be verified, instead of, you know pursuing sustenance and pleasure. Are we to treat all those hypothetical, non-verifiable things as worthy of our time? And if they are unverifiable, what possible effect can they have on our reality? Why are we even bothering considering them? 

  • vsm

    I’m afraid I’m getting rapidly out of my depth here, never having had a religious experience of any kind (unless Touhou Zen counts), nor being particularly knowledgeable about them. All I know is that several people report having them and their life being improved by them. I probably shouldn’t have talked about revelation in this context, since it implies new knowledge is received when religious experiences seem to mostly confirm what is already known or at least suspected.

  • B

    “First of all, if anyone is claiming something exists, they have the
    burden of proof.  If they meet that burden, then and only then does the
    burden fall to those who say it does not exist.”

    as I’ve said before, I strongly disagree.  I think the burden of proof
    falls on the person who’s proselytizing.

    I’m not trying to convince anyone there is a God, or that their lack of belief
    in God is irrational.  I think it’s
    perfectly fine and reasonable not to believe in God, or to believe there is no
    God.  (Though I don’t think the latter
    belief is any more strongly based in evidence than theism is.) 


    – correct me if I’m wrong – the reverse doesn’t seem to be true.  That is, it appears that some commenters are
    arguing that the belief in God *is* irrational.   Personally, I don’t see that I’m obliged to
    respond to the charges of irrationality by proving God exists (something I
    agree cannot be done, at least at this time).


    far as the difference between “not believing in God” and “believing there is no
    God” (for any particular value of God) I will readily agree that these are
    different with respect to the current state of empirical evidence.  So if you’re saying that believing in the existence
    of a given God and believing in the non-existence of said God are going beyond
    the existing empirical evidence, but that holding no belief concerning the
    existence of God is not, then I agree.

  • AnonymousSam

    For that matter, how can we know that something having been caused by a hallucination also makes it invalid evidence? My most meaningful conversation with God occurred during a hallucination brought on by severe illness and sleep deprivation.

  • AnonymousSam

    Speak for yourself. I have, on and off, made a modest living as a writer of categorically fictional events which have been described to have made an impact on the thinking and perceptions of others. :p

  • B


    “As you point out, the answer depends on the claim in question, but I would
    say that the most common claims about God are as self-evidently false as those
    regarding leprechauns.”


    How can something be both commonly claimed and self-evidently false?  Commonly claimed and false, sure.  But if it’s commonly claimed than its falsity
    apparently isn’t that self-evident after all.


    At any rate, clearly anyone who makes claims about God would not agree that
    their claims are self-evidently false.


    “You keep asserting that belief in the non-existence of non-verifiable
    things is not an evidence based belief, which I suppose is strictly true.”


    true?  It is true.  One can’t assert both that the existence of
    God is unfalsifiable and that it can be shown to be false.  Those are mutually contradictory statements.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Don’t forget all the people whose behavior is dictated at least in part by their beliefs on the existence and (if applicable) nature of the afterlife.

  • B


    I don’t
    know that I necessarily agree that revelations from God only confirm what is
    already known (at least if you mean what it already known to the individual having
    the experience).  One of the best-known
    examples of religious experiences is Paul’s experience of communing with Christ.  Prior to that Paul was an opponent of the Christian
    movement: if he were only going to see what he already believed or wanted to be
    true presumably his vision would have urged him to continue to oppose it.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    You seriously can’t imagine a commonly held, yet self-evidently false statement about God (or anything, for that matter)? People (theists and otherwise) believe all kinds of things that are facially untrue. Heck, their self-evidential falsehood of a belief is often held up as a *virtue*.

    I didn’t assert that the existence of God can shown to be false. I asserted that we can proceed as if it can. Because unfalsifiable things can be safely disregarded.

  • vsm

    Hence the “mostly”. Paul appears to have indeed gained new knowledge, assuming everything happened as described.

  • AnonymousSam

    Which is a category that can be further split several times, for good and ill.

    I can understand not being particularly thrilled to learn that someone was only doing good because they thought they would get more personal reward out of it later on, but it’s more preferable, to me, to not doing good at all. That would be my dislike/hate relationship with the Salvation Army, who regularly seems to be hunting for an excuse to leave the homeless and poor high and dry.

    Meanwhile, like the Salvation Army, there are people who seem to hold a lot of absolutely horrible views because, hey, them’s the rules. Some of them even seem to be relatively good people outside of certain subject matter, but with a lot of others, I doubt whether or not their belief is supported by religion really makes a difference.

    I’m utilitarian enough to conclude that I’d rather have any excuse to do good, even if it were based in nonsense, at least until I can trust people to stop doing ill for any reason of which they can get ahold.

  • B

    I don’t see any reason to believe it didn’t, at least not from Paul’s point of view.  Paul talked about the conversion experience in one his believed-to-be-written-by-Paul letters, so the alternative is that he lied.