Why I Am an Anti-Fundamentalist (and not an Anti-Theist) Part 2

Why I Am an Anti-Fundamentalist (and not an Anti-Theist) Part 2 May 13, 2013

fundamentalismI am not a person who tends to be against things.  I often say that I am a pathologically conciliatory person. Maybe it’s because I’m a middle child. Maybe it’s because I grew up sandwiched between two girls, or because I’ve fathered four of my own.  Whatever the reason, I don’t like to fight.  But there comes a time when you realize something needs to be fought.  You see the damage it causes not only yourself but also those around you, and the time comes to speak up.  I’ve clarified in a previous post that I am not opposed to theism in general (and therefore I wouldn’t call myself an anti-theist), but now I’d like to explain why I am against fundamentalism in its various forms.

Incidentally, there are many kinds of fundamentalism.  Some would say that even atheism can be framed fundamentalistically.  I might agree and I might not…it depends on what they mean.  I suppose that could be said of almost any religion or ideology.  Islam certainly has varying levels of fundamentalism. But I’ve gotten to know the inside of the Christian faith well enough to say from intimate experience that both fundamentalism and evangelicalism contain decidedly harmful elements within them, and those things should be combatted without remorse.

Much has been said over the last few days about the gentleness of my (and the minister’s) approach during our conversation for the Interview an Atheist at Church Day.  I’ve been very encouraged by the appreciation that so many have expressed for our demonstration of charitable, friendly conversation even amidst major ideological differences.  I stand by that approach, and I believe we need a whole lot more of it.  I would personally like to see much better manners coming from both sides during these interchanges.  It is possible to discuss our differences without regressing into disrespectful name calling and shouting matches.  Two people do not have to agree with each other to be kind to each other.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t disagree.  To whatever extent anyone holds to the following four points, I will heartily disagree and I will do so in the most respectful manner possible.  Despite what many of my fellow non-believers seem to think, a church service is not the place to air those grievances.  But a personal blog is as good a place as any :-)  There is a time and a place for disagreement, and now is when I state mine.  Keep in mind that if a Christian can “hate the sin but love the sinner,” then I can certainly “hate the belief but love the believer.”

I see four main things in both fundamentalist and (in a slightly more sophisticated form) evangelical Christianity which I believe need to go:

1.  The notion that a book can be infallible.  This view is completely indefensible (despite the fact that several religions believe that their particular book is uniquely inerrant among all others). But more than that, it codifies and makes permanent the views of people from ancient cultures. It forces people in 2013 to see the world and each other the same way people saw them in 1200 BC, or 450 BC, or 45 AD (I have to list multiple dates because a book as diverse as the Bible isn’t from just one context and therefore it’s not even consistent with itself). This leads to innumerable prejudices and injustices.  It convinces modern Americans, for example, to work to outlaw marriage benefits for same-sex relationships primarily because a Mediterranean tentmaker in the first century AD would likely be against such things.  It leads men today to conclude that women should not be allowed to hold positions of leadership, and in some cases not allowed to work outside the home. Why not?  Because a particular culture two thousand years ago believed that’s how it should be.  American Christians think it’s silly for Muslim women to wear the hijab because they see it as a holdover from an earlier time and culture.  But then they do the same sorts of things with the Bible.  That’s just what you get when you consider a book above reproach or correction.

2.  The notion that people are fundamentally bad, or weak, or that something which is now natural to them by their birth predisposes them to do bad things. Once a person is taught to believe this, they will only look at those things which confirm the idea, thus reinforcing it for themselves. But this is a pernicious and hurtful thing to teach people, and it, too, leads to innumerable injustices and offenses.  It leads many Christians I know to always view themselves in the worst possible light.  The songs they love to sing speak volumes about how they view themselves.  The lyrics magnify personal weakness, shortcomings, failures, and neediness.  Today’s evangelicalism seems to positively wallow in it.  There’s something terribly unhealthy about this, and in retrospect I’m amazed I never saw it before.

Incidentally, some feel that if the doctrine of original sin were tweaked and framed in just the right way, it wouldn’t really say that we’re “fundamentally bad,” it would simply say that we’re neutral…but under the control of a malevolent presence called sin.  This to me is frankly a semantic game.  In the end, the effect is the same:  “You’re bad, and you should be ashamed.  You are unworthy without someone else coming in and making you worthy.”  Wow.  Please don’t teach that to my children, or anyone else’s for that matter.  What an awful thing to teach!

3.  The idea that eternal conscious torment is a reasonable punishment for anyone, even the worst imaginable criminal. It’s so intrinsically horrifying that even those who believe in it make exceptions for some (like small children), not because the Bible warrants the exception, but simply because it’s such a horrifying idea.  I know from my days as a Christian (remember, I’m not speaking out of school here…I was a committed Christian for twenty years) that most people who were taught to believe this wish it weren’t even a part of their doctrine.  It’s embarrassingly unjust even on its face.  It’s my observation that this particular belief can serve to excuse all manner of mistreatment on the part of concerned evangelicals/fundamentalists.  As long as you think someone is going to Hell, anything short of that is being merciful to them, right?  You’re just trying to warn them that things will be so much worse if they don’t straighten up.  I believe that this particular doctrine has led many a Christian to treat others in an awful manner, and has convinced them that doing so was an act of love.

If you’d like to hear why the very notion of Hell seems absurd to someone like me, you can read three reasons here.  I’ve put them in a separate post so this one won’t be so long :-)

4.  The notion that rationality, and critical thinking skills, cannot be trusted because see #2.  These concepts fit so well together, and the net effect is to cause you to distrust any thought process which would allow you to question everything else in this list.  Have doubts that an ancient book can be perfect?  Well, who are you to question it?  You’re just a fallen soul being led astray by (whatever).  You don’t believe the concept of eternal torment is consistent with a loving, forgiving deity?  That’s just because his ways are so much higher than your ways that you cannot fathom his actions.  You think the story you’ve been told about how the world came to be doesn’t fit with anything science has discovered in the last 100 years?  Well scientists are all fallen sinners who just wanna live the way they wanna live.  You don’t have to listen to anything they say.  Just believe the Bible.

This discouragement of critical thinking skills may ultimately be the worst effect of fundamentalism because those analytical skills are the very things that would expose the flaws in each of these four bad ideas.  I have watched as people have had their ability to question things filed down by the repetitive and daily grinding of religious indoctrination.  The evangelical “bubble” is an anti-intellectual sphere that celebrates not knowing and not understanding all manner of things in life (again, the emphasis is on our own weakness and shortcomings).  This makes for docile, moldable people who will think however you tell them to think and vote however you tell them to vote (don’t think the politicians haven’t figured that one out, btw!).  Surely we have not spent millions of years evolving only to begin regressing back into group think and gullibility?

Now here is where I pull back and say not all Christians buy into this kind of talk.  I’m grateful to know that many have a stronger commitment to following their instincts than this.  Maybe they were even taught to think like this from the time they were young, but they have too much sense now to let someone tell them this stuff anymore.  Those are my allies in this culture war we are in.  I’d like to see those folks stand up and admit that these things just don’t make sense, and that they lead people to behave badly towards one another (and towards themselves). These are the legacy of fundamentalism (and evangelicalism) and I have no qualms expressing my opposition to them.

So there.  See?  My agreeableness does have its limits :-)

I’ll be happy to support those expressions of the Christian faith which will not stomach these bad ideas.  I may not believe all the things they believe, but I don’t have to.  I can respect the believer without agreeing with their beliefs. And as I’ve said, I’m not personally against mere theism itself.  But these four things have got to go.  I don’t mind telling you so.

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  • Thank you, A, for putting these thoughts together in such eloquent fashion.

  • The Thinker

    Hey there again… sorry, I know I am some stranger commenting on most of your posts. Let me just say that I like the way you express things and on the most apart appreciate your thoughts being on a similar line to mine. I’ve said before I am an agnostic, so I haven’t come to all the same conclusions as you, but I have and am exploring similar tracks of thought. Your third last paragraph (starting with “Now here is…”) made me think of my own blog which is doing just that. I have been a Christian in the past but have slid across the bench toward agnosticism. I have had plenty of opportunity to hear the views of atheism (probably in too much of a fundamentalist atheist context) with my brother being an atheist. I have not drawn the same conclusions, but I haven’t drawn the conclusions that fundamental theists have drawn either. Nevertheless, I have and do ask the same things you ask. I like your approach. It’s refreshing after feeling like I was being slapped around by my brother all of the time because he assumes I am his inferior, which is quite annoying considering I am an educated person (Masters in Environmental Geoscience, Bachelor of Psychology, Bachelor of Philosophy, and a Bachelor of Theology/Anthropology). My brother just has a Bachelor of Ecological Science (not that it is inadequate but I find it infuriating that he assumes he knows so much more than everyone else when he clearly doesn’t: This really undermines his argument). But, anyway, I have some big questions that I am asking of the Christian faith, but for me it doesn’t necessarily rule out god/God. Presently it just rules out some of the fundamentalist weeds. I also (probably due to the words/actions of my brother) have serious questions/doubts about atheism too. But I am asking. We were both taught by our mother since we were children to be critical thinkers and that’s something that I have lived by. She is a Christian, but unlike you we live in Australia which is a secular country and it is mind-boggling to hear you have christian music and radio in public places. That would almost be illegal here! I can’t imagine what your environment is like. We instead get bombarded with secularism in the way you get bombarded with Christianity. A different ideology but with the same “over-the-top shove-it-down-your-throat” way of dominating the social sphere.To me knowledge is never static, but some fundamentalist seem to act like it is. As a scientist I am all too aware that knowledge is an evolving, growing, progressive “organism” and we need to be open to being wrong, and sceptical of being right, which is a healthy approach to science (weeds out confirmation bias).

    Anyhow, one of your points on your interview video said that you wish Christians would stop assuming you lost faith because something bad happened to you. I guess, I could say that I wish atheists would stop assuming agnostics or theists simply hold open the possibility of a deity just for comfort’s sake (my brother likes to assume this one). I find that assumption personally insulting. It assumes that none of us has ever thought critically about it, and that none of us is educated. And truthfully, the idea of a deity is not always necessarily a comforting one (depending on the deity of choice and the characteristics of that deity). As you alluded toward the end of your post today, there are many different kinds of theists and agnostics out there, and there are ones like me (an agnostic) who do think critically, and keep an open mind toward our fellow human beings :-)

    Anyhow, if you get a chance, you might like to pop over for a quick look at my blog where I am asking the questions that need to be asked. I am, like you, doing it in a “conversational” manner, as I too have friends, readers, family who are evangelicals (and who can be quite frustrating). But the questions must be asked, nonetheless, because we can’t keep pretending (for their sake) that everything makes sense.

    Cheers, and all the best

  • The Thinker

    P.S. just had a quick look at your post on hell and it sounds like it was hell being under the brand if Christianity you were in. It sounds quite different from the evangelical Christianity I have experienced. Yes I do have serious questions about evangelicalism and the behaviours of fundamentalists (which is why I am not one) but the brand you’re familiar with would do my head in. Clearly there’s different grades of evangelicalism too and different lines of Christian theology. I certainly never believed or was taught the things you brought up (even at the evangelical theological college where I studied my theology degree). Yet, some of my fellow graduates would bristle at my scepticisms while others are understanding and supportive. I am thankful for that much! By the way, even among Christians here in Australia, the “American Christian fundamentalism” is seen as an embarrassing amusement at best, and as a dangerous brand at worst. In some church circles here the american-christian-culture is viewed as an outrageously typical “American-all or nothing” way of doing things. Aussies just do things on more of a lower key. :-) sorry for long comments on your post. Cheers

  • Great article, Neil. I think many Christians, equally chagrined about fundamentalism, can whole-heartedly agree with you.