Sometimes my approach to writing about religion rubs other atheists the wrong way. They want me to come out with both guns blazing, using my otherwise useless seminary education to obliterate the religion of my youth at its roots, attempting to wipe out the entire thing. I think that sentiment underestimates how deep-seated the notion of invisible protectors/providers really is, and I just don’t see that as a winning strategy for me. I am not personally convinced that having imaginary friends isn’t wired into us by our own evolutionary past, with our need for companionship and our overactive sense of agency causing us to suspect sentience in places where there is none. I never taught my second daughter to have an imaginary friend, yet she still had ongoing conversations with her for years, writing long stories with multiple chapters about their adventures together.
Would I like to see the human race leave all religion behind and use rationality to find our way to a better world? Absolutely, yes. And personally, I believe humanism provides a way forward for that endeavor. I do not agree with those who argue that you have to believe in spirits and afterlives to make good choices—or even to know what “good” means. On the contrary, I think religion often causes people to call “good” things which are not good, like excluding loved ones because of their sexual orientations or simply because they don’t believe in the same religion. But I’m not personally persuaded that attacking every form of religion is a productive goal at this point in our history, least of all in a country still enamored with it. Ridding the world of all unfounded beliefs is a lofty goal, but pragmatically speaking I’d like to work on the most realistic targets first, taking the proverbial journey of a thousand steps one step at a time.
That’s why I consider myself an anti-fundamentalist and not an anti-theist. It’s not about what I believe, it’s about picking my battles. Call it a “divide and conquer” strategy. You don’t have to agree with me, although it sure would speak well of you if you could concede that geographical and circumstantial differences dictate differing strategies rather than telling me I’m doing it wrong just because my approach is different from yours. I’ll elaborate more on which elements of religion I feel are harmful in an upcoming post, but first I want to spell out the four main elements of fundamentalism I am dead set against.
FUNDAMENTALIST OR EVANGELICAL?
First a point of clarification: When I say I am anti-fundamentalist, some will wonder where in the spectrum of belief I would put evangelicals. I used to consider fundamentalists and evangelicals as separate subcultures, but I’m not so sure I can do that anymore. On the surface, there are stylistic differences to be sure. But beneath the most superficial level fundamentalists and evangelicals believe exactly the same things. The way they express their beliefs may be different, but the substance of their beliefs is virtually identical.
What the evangelical believes but keeps to himself, the fundamentalist shouts on the rooftops. Evangelicals keep their doctrines close to the chest while fundamentalists wear them on their sleeves. But try and find something a fundamentalist believes that an evangelical doesn’t. I haven’t been able to find anything. Most evangelicals I know have an “inner fundy” they only let out of the closet when they’re around their own people. They may use bigger words and have one extra degree on their wall, but it seems to me they are just as unwilling to critically analyze the same handful of assumptions. They may pay lipservice to having open-ended conversations about what they believe, but their openness to new ways of thinking usually proves only skin-deep.
This is a reluctant admission on my part. When I began my journey out of my faith, I had higher hopes that my more intelligent evangelical friends could walk with me through some of my own philosophical investigations. More often than not, however, I’ve been disappointed to find that they just can’t do it. Their commitments are fixed, and certain ground is just off limits for them. It starts out warm, open, and accepting, but in time it heads south. In time, I always hit those non-negotiables and find they are exactly the same as the dogmatic beliefs which their more obviously fundamentalist cousins espouse, albeit with less apprehension.
So when I say these are the things within fundamentalism that I oppose, to whatever extent evangelicalism embraces these things I will oppose that as well. With that subculture, I just have to work harder to peel off the many layers of obfuscating verbiage which disguise what it’s really pushing onto the rest of the world.
FOUR IDEAS I WILL OPENLY CRITICIZE
1) The idea that a book can be infallible. Several religious traditions share this belief even though the books they revere are different and directly contradict each other. I know the most about the Bible, so I will speak about that one.
First of all, this is patently false. I have studied the Bible enough to know it is riddled with problems which are irreconcilable for anyone not previously committed to denying they exist. “You’re just not looking hard enough,” one regular interlocutor tells me, as if I haven’t already spent years working through the contradictions and errors of chronology, history, science, and ethics. On the contrary, that’s exactly what I did, and it’s one of the main reasons why I realized I had to give up this belief.
Second of all, it leads to a laundry list of egregious problems. For starters, it codifies and makes permanent the views of people from ancient cultures. It forces people in 2014 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 seems to have been 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 be allowed to work outside the home. Why not? Because a particular culture two thousand years ago believed that’s how it should be, that’s why. 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 on other issues. That’s just what you get when you consider a book above reproach or correction.
You can’t approach 21st century problems with a 1st century book and expect not to make a mess.
2) The notion that people are fundamentally bad, or weak, or that something natural to us by our birth predisposes us 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. 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. This is a semantic game, and it doesn’t really improve the situation to just think up new words for sinful like “broken,” or “incomplete,” or “unfinished.” These are all efforts to find a prettier way to say the same self-deprecatory things they’ve been saying all long. In the end, the effect is the same, but I contend that we are not broken.
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 that many 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, plus it doesn’t really make intellectual sense.
I’ve also discovered through bitter experience that this particular belief can serve to excuse all manner of mistreatment on the part of concerned evangelicals/fundamentalists. It produces highly dysfunctional behavior on the part of the believer toward the unbeliever and can seriously damage their relationship. 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’ve seen for myself how this particular doctrine can lead Christians to treat others in an awful manner, and has convinced them that doing so was an act of love.
4) The notion that our rationality and our 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. Do you doubt 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, so 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 the culture wars 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 toward themselves). But these indefensible beliefs are the legacy of both fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and you’ll find that I have no qualms expressing my opposition to them whenever they come up.