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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  • Unless you’re talking (in the context of theism/atheism) of a very specific and uncommon event in which an atheist accosts a theist on the street and starts trying to deconvert him or her, the burden of proof logically lies with the person making an affirmative statement.

    It is not your job to show me that the invisible elf that lives in my chimney does not exist.  It is up to me to show that it exists.

  • B

     Um… no, I can’t.  I can imagine beliefs about God that *I* think are self-evidently false, but if the person who held the belief agreed that it was self-evidently false, presumably that person wouldn’t hold it to begin with.

    At any rate, I don’t really think this discussion is going anywhere except in circles, so I think I’ll drop my end of the rope now. :-)

  • vsm

    I don’t really think he lied, either. As much as I sometimes wish he’d kept his views to himself, he seems like a sincere guy in his letters. It’s just that he may have misremembered or failed to report some unconscious event or there may have been some other psychological factor in play, which is why I added the disclaimer. People are notoriously bad at reporting events that happened to them. Of course, everything may have indeed happened as he wrote.

  • vsm

    very specific and uncommon event in which an atheist accosts a theist on the street and starts trying to deconvert him or her

    Indeed, that happens very rarely on the street, but one does see it on the information superhighway.

  • mattias marois

    and whast up with “liberal” christians or any liberal (i fail to see any difference between a christian liberal or athest liberal) bashing conservatives for killing in wars, but will ignore the genocide they support?????????????????

  • mattias marois

    wll if the morals of the bible is so bad, then go murder people, go rape woman, and go steal stuff, obviously all that is bad because its in the bible

  •  And why is “proof” always “scientific proof”? What about *legal* proof?

    Because, as I alluded to before, under the law, eyewitness testimony is not considered as reliable as forensic evidence. But the eyewitness testimony of *many thousands of people*? That carries some weight.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What genocide do liberals support?

    If your answer includes the word ‘abortion’, you need to explain why you do not support mandatory organ donation by anyone who has a spare kidney or a whole liver or whose corpse is in good enough condition for the organs to be reusable. You also need to explain why there is nothing objectionable in forcing someone to endure months of discomfort followed by dramatically increased household bills, or horrible physical health problems followed by death, or nasty mental health problems followed and/or accompanied by dramatically increased household bills and enforced contact with the rapist and/or domestic abuser. Note that the months of discomfort followed by heavy financial burden is the best-case scenario. Oh, and explain why you do not support measures that will reduce unwanted pregnancies, measures that will reduce the burden inherent in caring for a child, or research into the causes of spontaneous abortion shortly after fertilization.

  • Gotta watch out for those Evil Internet Atheists (TM).

  • vsm

    Exactly. Mostly I just wanted to type out information superhighway, though.

  • Katie

     All of which are perfectly valid objections to using this as a baseline.  I was trying to explain the point that Meng Zhu was making, not to endorse it.

  • EllieMurasaki


  • How very Buck Williams of you.  ;)

  • Mark Z.

    When you find a “system of knowledge” other than empiricism that provides results
    You mean “produces results that can then be verified by empiricism”, right? I just want to make sure we know how this deck is stacked.

  • Mark Z.

    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

    If anyone is claiming anything, they have to provide evidence for it, or else nobody’s going to believe their claim. That’s how argument works. You don’t win on a technicality because your claim happens to be phrased as “X does not exist” rather than “X exists”.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Awesome. So the results of non-empirical systems of knowledge cannot be verified or judged or observed, except by non-empirical systems of knowledge. As someone once said, “Well isn’t that convenient?”

  • Having the burden of proof when you argue for the existence of something is not a technicality–it’s logic.  It is not enough for me merely to assert that the invisible elf lives in my chimney.  I have to provide evidence and if I can’t, then yes, you win, because I have not met my burden of proof.  The onus is not on you to prove a negative.

  • Carstonio

    The issue with religious experiences is that they can’t be independently verified. We have only the person’s word for it. That’s not sufficient for deeming the experience to be objective knowledge, although it could be considered subjective knowledge.

    It’s very possible that many people have such experiences and don’t consider these to be religious and don’t believe these to be the work of gods. I don’t even know what “a religious experience” means, partly because the term is so vague. Perhaps similar to how I would have no way of knowing what it’s like to be a woman.

  •  You keep saying that God’s existence is self-evidently false.

    So – am I stubbornly clinging to what I know is false, or am I simply insane?

  •  It is not your job to show me that the invisible elf that lives in my
    chimney does not exist.  It is up to me to show that it exists.

    Why? Why should I be entitled to proof about your invisible chimney elf one way or the other?
    Just because you happen to believe something weird and implausible, that doesn’t give me the right to yell at you, to storm into your house and demand to see your chimney, or to do anything beyond roll my eyes and think you’re weird.
    Should you begin making elf-related requests to me… well, that’s another story.

  • I’m not saying anyone has the right to yell or break into my home. 

    And I don’t recall too many news stories about believers being subject to home invasions, church invasions, or even simple yelling, from atheists who think they’re wrong.

  •  Yes. But if you assert the nonexistence of said elf, the burden is on you. It’s not the “does exist” part that makes something a positive claim; it’s the you asserting part.

    Atheists who simply don’t believe in gods aren’t making a positive claim and have no onus to prove anything. But the atheist who says “Your god does not exist” is making a positive claim, and is the one with the burden of proof.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Now that I ruminate on it, “self-evidently” is probably the wrong phrase, and I concede that I’ve abused it in my comments above. It implies a priori reasoning, which isn’t necessarily the case. I would substitute, “False Upon Trivial Inspection”.

    To answer you question…. /shrug. I don’t what specific claims you would make, and I don’t know your mind. Generally, I don’t pretend to know why people believe strange things. I don’t know why I sometimes find myself believing strange things for no real rational reason. But I do try to set those beliefs down and walk away from them when I encounter them.

    Perhaps a good opening question would be: What is specific claim you would make about the nature of God?

  •  Empirical systems can be proven by emperical systems. And the bible is true because the bible says so.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    False equivalency. Double awesome.

    I’m still not clear on why one would cleave to any knowledge system that has no better chance of producing knowledge than would random darts flung at a wall.

  • vsm

    Believing in God because of a religious experience is a form of empiricism. The scientific method and empiricism are not the same thing.

  • Mark Z.

    Yeah, well, what if I don’t agree that I haven’t met my burden of proof? Who has the burden of proof when arguing about that? Telling me that I have the burden of proof isn’t going to change anything.

    And “proving a negative”, oh, the worms in that can. I believe that the Tigers won the World Series this year. But tactically, it’s far superior to claim that the Giants did not win the World Series, or even that the Tigers did not lose, because, ha ha! now I’m asserting a negative, and I don’t have to prove it. The onus is on you to prove that the Giants won, and I simply don’t think any of your evidence is good enough. You disagree? Well, now you claim that you’ve met the burden of proof and I claim that you have not. Once again, the onus is on you. And so it goes.

    A formal burden of proof pretty much requires a neutral third party to judge (1) who has the burden of proof and (2) if they’ve met it. We don’t have that. If I’m trying to persuade you of something, then you are the arbiter of whether my argument is sound. You decide what counts as valid evidence; you decide how much evidence is needed to establish my claim, and you decide how much skepticism to apply versus how much to accept on good faith.

  •  Yes, that’s true. Though I still think that it’s moving too fast. Until we can establish why proof is something we would prefer to have than not have, and what we use proof for, I’m not sure how useful it is to talk about different kinds of proof.

    For example: I would say we require legal proof to control when and in what way the machinery of state is permitted to exert its power on citizens, and I don’t think that goal is relevant to claims about divinity in a secular jurisdiction. So it’s really not clear to me what legal proof has to do with evaluating claims about divinity where I live.

    But someone living in a theocracy might have a completely different take on it.

    Mostly, I think talking about what is and isn’t proof when we don’t have a common understanding of what proof is for is kind of like talking about what is and isn’t green when we haven’t figured out if we’re talking about painting the living room, reducing carbon emissions from a smokestack, or throwing moldy leftovers out of our fridge.

  • And I don’t recall too many news stories about believers being subject to home invasions, church invasions, or even simple yelling, from atheists who think they’re wrong.

    Didn’t say there were.

    What I’m saying is – if you tell me your favourite colour is green, you don’t have to prove it. If you tell me your sister’s name is Felicity, you don’t have to prove it. If you tell me there are 537 episodes of Doctor Who, you don’t have to prove it. If you tell me there’s an invisible elf living in your chimney, you don’t have to prove it.

    If I don’t believe that your sister’s name is Felicity, and you want me to believe it, then… yes. You have the burden of proof. Likewise, if I want you to stop believing that your sister’s name is Felicity, I have the burden of proof.

    But just saying something, either way, doesn’t mean you have the burden of proof. No matter how weird the thing you’re saying is.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

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

    Heretics all!

    I may be, as far as I understand it*, a trinitarian heretic. I welcome all others with my outstretched heretical arms.

    *that is, not very.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

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

    Thank you for chiming in with this. People say “oh yeah, Song of Songs is poetic” but forget the prophets. Man, the prophets will kick your arse and leave you with a metaphor to roll your tongue over in one swift movement.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    My father’s father was sure that playing solitaire was going to send you to Hell.

    Wait, I thought it sent you blind?

  • Carstonio

    I agree to a point. None of the items in your second paragraph would be high on a critical information list, unless the invisible elf would suffer burns when you try to light your fireplace.

    Suppose you tell me that if I don’t say Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit on the first day of the month, an innocent person on the other side of the world will die. And then, say, Sgt. Pepper tells me that this person there will die if I do say Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit. Both of you say that these words have inherent power over the innocent person’s life or death, but this power cannot be detected scientifically. Both of these claims can be false, one or the other can be true, but both can’t be true. In that situation, it would be natural to want to know for sure without risking the person’s life.

  • Carstonio

    Keeping to himself he plays the game,
    Without her love it always ends the same,
    While life goes on around him everywhere,
    He’s playing solitaire.

  • “(Church, I think, should be more like a 25th reunion in that regard.)”

    Fred, I hope you won’t mind if I make a meme-graphic out of this. I’ll give you attribution. :-)

  • Tricksterson

    Every night it’s all the same
    And so it must be all a game
    Of chess he’s playing

    “But you’re wrong Steve. You see  it’s only solitaire.”

  • A negative can’t (usually) be proven. Especially in the case of beings asserted to exist that may or may not have physical extent into our plane of existence, for which no reproducible proof exists.

    It’s like the difference between the prosecution and the defence. The prosecutor has to make the case. The defense isn’t actually obligated to have the defendant say a word.

  • Andrea


    I WANT to believe that. :(

  • It’s like the difference between the prosecution and the defence. The prosecutor has to make the case

    Except that it isn’t. The prosecution is the one making a claim. The claim could be positive or negative. It’s still the prosecution even if the claim is “You didn’t pay your bill.”

  • vsm

    I should probably start reading them, then. I recently became interested in reading the Bible, but have been mostly keeping to the first half of the Old Testament. There’s just something intimidating about the prophets. It’s like getting into a new genre of music you know little about.

  • Anton_Mates


    A negative can’t (usually) be proven.

    A universal negative can’t usually be proven.  But that’s because of the universal part, not the negative part.

    “There is no money in my wallet right now”–easily proven.
    “There is no flying pig anywhere in the universe”–not easily proven.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I strongly recommend it. I like reading the prophets so much more than the earlier books (mostly–Haggai is not crash hot!) There’s so much depth, fiery passion, and beautiful imagery in there. It’s such a shame that they seem to be largely ignored or glossed over.

  • KevinC

     I think that, rather than the atheist being a fundie, this phenomenon has more to do with fundamentalism trying to treat the Bible as a scientific treatise.  Many atheists, particularly the ones that get involved with debating fundies, tend to have a scientific bent, or at least exhibit a high regard for science.  In science, a hypothesis or theory makes certain testable predictions, and if those predictions don’t pan out, the model is wrong, period, at least to that degree.  If we found fossil bunnies in the Cambrian, then evolution by natural selection goes down like a Jenga tower.  If the orbit of Mercury does not accord with Newton’s equations, then Newton’s equations are wrong, at least with regard to planets orbiting deep in powerful gravity wells.  Scientists have to go in search of a new theory that incorporates the new data, like relativity.  Scientists don’t get to say, “Well, sure, but St. Newton didn’t mean us to take his equations literally!”  They don’t get to cling to phlogiston as a beautiful metaphor or a meaningful allegory, no matter how much they might like it.  Jenga tower.

    Fundamentalism basically took the notion of “orthodoxy”* and recast it in quasi-scientific form, in an attempt to counter the prestige of science.  The Bible (as read by fundies) makes various testable claims (recent, special creation, Noah’s global Flood, miraculous Exodus, etc., etc.) which, as with any good scientific model, must be true if the model is to be held as accurate.  Unlike scientists, however, fundies can’t update the Bible if parts of it should turn out to be in error.  Instead, they have to cheat and will themselves to believe that its (alleged) claims do, in fact, match reality.  All evidence to the contrary is a liberal conspiracy.

    The fundies do have a logical basis for their approach, even though it does lead them to error.  It goes like this:

    1) There is an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and morally perfect God
    2) This God desires to reveal itself to humankind
    3) Hir chosen method of revelation is a book

    A God as described in Premise 1 cannot fail to communicate effectively, by definition.  Whatever human flaws and foibles there might be cannot (again, by definition) overpower omnipotence and omniscience.  Such a God cannot make mistakes, again, by definition.  Nor can it lie, whether by commission, omission, or dissimulation.  It follows then, that any communication from an omnimax, morally perfect God must be both infallible and effective (i.e., able to be accurately received by its target audience).  From this, the all-or-nothing approach of fundamentalism follows.

    Liberals can point out, accurately, that the Bible is not that sort of book.  It’s not even a book, but an anthology of different genres written by and for people of different times and cultures, and few if any of the authors even imagined that they were writing an infallible scientific treatise.  That kind of literal, testable-claims approach was not part of their world-view.  It would seem that liberals would question or reject Premise 3, but I have yet to encounter a liberal who can state plainly what, if anything, they would put in its place.  How can we know that (as Fred has argued) the Book of Jonah (more or less) accurately reflects God’s nature, and the Book of Joshua doesn’t, and not the other way around?  How do we know that Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery is the “real deal,” and Jesus talking about everlasting weeping and gnashing of teeth (not to mention the TurboJesus of Revelation!) isn’t?  Maybe mystical experience (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, etc.) could be the way, but what to do with mystical experiences that validate fundamentalism (e.g. those of fundamentalist Charismatics)?

    The God/Jesus of liberal Christians like Fred is certainly nicer than the God/Jesus of fundamentalism, but it seems to me that liberals have to ignore the entire long history of Christian “orthodoxy” with the same fervor that fundamentalists have to ignore fossils, in order to sustain their position that traditional Christian doctrines can be abandoned at will without toppling the doctrinal structure.

    *Ever since the Council of Nicea, Christians have been writing up lists of “the True, Infallible Doctrines” which one must believe in order to be a Real, True Christian.  It’s also present, if not so formally stated, throughout the New Testament.  RTC’ism was not invented by Southern Baptists or “New” Atheists.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Suppose you tell me that if I don’t say Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit on the first day of the month, an innocent person on the other side of the world will die. And then, say, Sgt. Pepper tells me that this person there will die if I do say Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit.

    Indeed, if you say Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit on the first day of the month, an innocent person on the other side of the world will die. And if you don’t say Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit on the first day of the month, an innocent person on the other side of the world will die.

    And that’s pretty much the extent of what I have to say about this whole thing.

  • KevinC

    Fred: 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.

    I think the apparent confusion here comes from the fact that “belief in the Golden Rule” means different things “from the outside” vs. “from the inside.”  From the outside, “belief in the Golden Rule” means something along the lines of “The Golden Rule is a good guideline most of the time, but I wouldn’t want to have a masochist or a suicidal person take it literally and practice it on me or other people.”  Of course this has nothing to do with a 6,000 year-old Earth. 

    From the inside, “belief in the Golden Rule” means “belief that the Golden Rule is an eternal moral absolute, handed down directly from on high.”  It’s the absolutism, not the Golden Rule itself that is dependent on “Biblical infallibility.”  If the Bible is fallible, then any particular part of it, including the Golden Rule, may also be fallible.  It becomes just another human idea, rather than Divinely-Inspired Holy Writ.  I think they keystone of the fundamentalist project is the belief that their ideas aren’t merely human, but divine in origin.  In this, I think they are trying to imitate and counter science.  In science, the goal is to set up your observations and experiments in such a way that Reality itself acts as the arbiter of whether or not a given hypothesis or theory is correct, rather than “human factors” like bias, popularity, an advocate’s charisma, group politics, and so on.  Even though this doesn’t always work, it works pretty well, most of the time.  This gives science a certain “solidity.”  There is not going to be some new fad or sect of science that restores the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth.  Questions like that aren’t matters of human opinion, the way questions of theology ultimately are.

    IMO, fundamentalism seeks to “one-up” science by holding up the Bible as a divinely-created, infallible data-set that (putatively) validates their beliefs.  If (your interpretation of) the Bible is infallible, then for whatever areas it covers, you are infallible.  A pretty appealing idea to anyone with a fundamentalist or authoritarian mindset.   

  • KevinC

     IMO the argument that people can’t have m0rality without religion is just a cudgel fundamentalists use to club unbelievers with.  Ask anyone who says that, “If you stopped believing in your religion tomorrow, would you immediately start killing annoying people and setting kittens on fire?” and see if you get an “Oh, hell yeah!  I would totally run amok if I didn’t think God was hovering over my shoulder with a lightning bolt in His hand!”

    I think any real unhinged bloodthirsty murder-person who’s held back only by belief in the Bible would just turn to the copious parts of the Bible that sanction the murder of annoying people.

  • KevinC

    Would it do for UFO aliens, faeries, djinn, angels, demons, everybody else’s gods and goddesses, Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts, the Chupacabra, the Night Hag, witches and wizards (not people who believe in Wicca, but people who actually cause plagues, miscarriages, milk to be sour right out of the cow, etc. with their spells and fly around on brooms), vampires, shapeshifters, and so forth?

  • Carstonio

    Heh. The analogy only works if it’s the same innocent person in both claims. It’s about one person’s life hanging on a decision and lacking any way to find out which decision will save the person’s life. 

    Fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam both say that people are doomed to hell based on what position they take about Jesus, whether he was mortal or divine, but they take opposite positions. There’s no way for an outsider to know which position would avoid hell, so it would almost amount to flipping a coin. Most Christians would probably agree with Fred that their fundamentalist colleagues are engaging in bad theology. But whether a theology is sound or unsound has nothing to do with its factual accuracy. 

  • ‘If you say a word I will cut off your heads; and if you do not say a word, I will also cut off your heads.’

  • Tricksterson

    Does for me.  But then I admit I’m crazy.