I’ve argued in another post that, like all wars, the culture wars elicit different kinds of action depending on context. On the front lines, when face-to-face with one’s enemy, nothing less than confrontational attack will suffice. But when among friends, diplomacy and relationship building are the order of the day. At times like these it becomes crucial to know who your friends are, and who are your enemies. Full disclosure: As a member of the human race who feels a certain solidarity with the rest of my species, I feel that any person I meet is a potential friend because we are ultimately on the same side…the human side. Some don’t know which side they’re on because they’ve been led to believe that there’s something wrong with being human, and I find that tragic. But in those cases I see the ideology that they have been taught as my enemy, and not the people themselves.
Having said that, I do have enemies, and I’d like to explain why fundamentalism (and not theism, per se) is one of them. I feel the need to exclude theism itself from my list because I know too many people who hold to a form of it which I would consider completely benign. As I said in my “Interview with an Atheist,” there are at least two competing narratives out there, and only one of them teaches that we’re all going to burn for eternity if we don’t believe the right things. The other narrative quite frankly looks to me more like Humanism than historic Christianity. It can be found circulating among the more “progressive” (aka “liberal”) churches and among “emergent” and post-modern groups. As a side note, I’ve discovered over the last few days that many of my fellow skeptics find the second narrative so unfamiliar that they scarcely acknowledge its existence. To hear some of them talk, the first narrative is the only one…therefore all theism has to go.
Such talk is great for getting a rise out of firebrands and young people (i.e. anyone younger than me) but here in the real world we have to deal with the fact that something as deeply embedded as belief in the supernatural isn’t just going to go away in one generation. Sometimes our reasoning capacities fail us when trying to make sense of what’s going on around us, and in those moments people quite intuitively turn to the mysterious, the magical, and the supernatural for comfort and for meaning. I can acknowledge that and appreciate that impulse without having to agree with its conclusions. Because of this, I don’t think it’s realistic to attempt to suddenly and forcefully rid the human race of all belief in the supernatural. I think a more sensible strategy is to pick your battles and learn to discern between the various types of theism that are out there. There’s no sense in warring against forms of theism which aren’t doing anyone any harm, and might even be doing many people some good.
But some expressions of the Christian faith are harmful. Here is where I switch hats and address the things that I didn’t address in my interview. A church service in which I was invited to come and speak about being an atheist in my region was no place to confront these issues (despite the apparently absolute conviction on the part of some that I should have). Nor were the people who invited me to speak with them among the champions of the more exclusionary narrative. But those people are out there, and they are numerous. In fact they are the majority where I live, and I would be remiss if I did not speak to their narrative and explain what I see as a terribly destructive and hurtful tradition. I do not blame them for believing what they believe because they were taught these things from their youngest days. But the time comes when you must grow up enough to start questioning what you have been taught because you are still responsible for your actions. I have heard and have seen some terribly mean things said and done in the name of Christianity since I have left the faith, and it would be irresponsible of me to pretend like those things aren’t being said and done.
One more brief word about my usage of the word “fundamentalism” before I move on. For the purposes of discussion here, I tend to use the term “evangelical” as interchangeable with the word “fundamentalist.” Now, some may protest because historically there has always been a distinction. In academia, historians and scholars tend to associate “fundamentalism” with a more rural expression of the kind of “old time religion” that you heard in a Billy Sunday sermon, while associating “evangelicalism” with the emphases of a Billy Graham crusade (or more currently perhaps any book by Rick Warren). In fact, I recall one scholar (George Marsden) famously quipping that the best definition of an evangelical (in particular as opposed to a fundamentalist) is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”
But in reality what does a fundamentalist believe that an evangelical does not believe? I find that in practice they pretty much believe the same things. They both hold to a belief in an inerrant Bible, and everything else that is distinctive about their theology flows from that singular belief. In practice, the primary difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical is stylistic. I have often said that an evangelical is a fundamentalist with a bigger vocabulary. Evangelicalism (as personified by Billy Graham) is what you get when fundamentalist Christianity attempts to situate itself more favorably in the modern marketplace of ideas. Instead of saying you should live a certain way “because the Bible says so,” they will more likely quote research done by other Christians to validate what they believe. In practice, they still end up with most of the same hang-ups and weaknesses inherent in fundamentalism, even though they’re better at subtlety in their expression (the inferior status of women comes to mind, for example).
So in part two I’m going to take a whack at fundamentalism and spell out four beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity which are bad ideas. I believe that bad ideas need to be called what they are, and they do not get a free pass just because they are religious. As I said in my previous post, ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. So keep reading…