Why I’d love to be a fundamentalist (guest post by @kirstyevidence)

Why I’d love to be a fundamentalist (guest post by @kirstyevidence) June 12, 2013

Kirsty Newman blogs over at Kirsty Evidence, where she battles the forces of ignorance by advocating an evidence-based approach to international development and education. You’d think that someone with such a cozy relationship with science (and reality) would have little time for fundamentalism, and you’d be right. But in the post, Kirsty wistfully remembers the simpler times when the world was black and white, and thinking wasn’t required.

This weekend, my devout Catholic father-in-law is visiting. Before he arrived, my husband and I had our usual ‘little chat’ where he pleads with me to at least try not to antagonise his aging dad. And as usual, I set out with the best of intentions to be a respectful daughter-in-law…

I managed a good thirty minutes before, apropos the Woolwich murder, my father-in-law came out with this statement: “The problem with Islam…” (always a worrying start to a sentence) “…is that the Quran is so ambiguous that it can be interpreted in many ways and this leads people to violence”.


I couldn’t stop myself. I had to respond that this was just like the Bible – after all, the Bible is riddled with contradictions and contains a fair amount of violence. “Yes”, responded my father-in-law, “but the message of what you need to do in Christianity is clear” “Really?”, I asked, “But surely you just pick and choose what bits you follow? For example, you eat pork which is banned”. “Ah but the Old Testament was overruled by the New Testament” he replies. “So what about the rules in the New Testament that you ignore?” I query “For example, I note that people in your church have braided hair – was that not also banned?” “Well yes, but that was what Paul said, not what Jesus said”. “OK”, I rejoin, “but what about when Jesus said that you need to give all your possessions to the poor?” “Well that was just a message to one person” he replies “And in general we need to follow the spirit of that suggestion rather than the rule…”.

And so it goes on…

What is interesting about these discussions is that along with a sense of incredulity at the complex manoeuvres that fundamentalists engage in to make sense of their scriptures, I have another emotion: envy.

You see, as a teenager, I had a brief fling with fundamentalist Christianity. I got caught up in what I can now see was a cult-like movement and, for a while, I fully subscribed to all its beliefs. I would love to say that during this time, I was miserable, but the honest truth was that it made me really happy. It provided me with meaning and certainty. I felt sure that I was loved and that I would be protected by an all-seeing, all-powerful God. I had no fear of time passing and eventual death since I ‘knew’ that I would go to heaven.

Unfortunately for me, this phase didn’t last long. Perhaps I just have too much of an enquiring mind for religion because I soon began to feel worried by a lot of it. I began to realise just how ‘man-made’ the religion of Christianity was. I noticed that the bible was strangely inconsistent and that actually the churches seemed to pick and choose which bits of it they wanted to follow. Most of all, I just couldn’t understand why a God would have provided a route to heaven which was theoretically open to all but then not bothered to tell everybody about it in a compelling way.

My religious period ended and I became a scientist. My job now is to promote use of evidence in policy making. My field of work is international development, and I believe that we have a moral imperative to ensure that the decisions we make are informed by evidence so that we have the best possible chance of improving the lives of poor people.  I spend a lot of my time trying to support decision makers to look at empirical evidence and use this to inform what they do.

I encounter non-religious fundamentalism frequently in my job – from adherence to unscientific teaching practices to feverish opposition to the use of experimental evidence. I don’t have much time for such views and think they are usually based on ignorance. However I have a slightly different view on religious fundamentalism. As you can see from the discussion with my father-in-law described above, I do still find it baffling that people choose to believe in something that seems so inconsistent and made-up. And I worry that adherence to religion reduces people’s ability to make moral decisions since they are guided so rigidly by their movement’s interpretation of scripture.

But I also retain a grudging admiration for believers. I know that their worldview – however delusional – might well be making them happy and secure as individuals. My father-in-law, for example, has found a way of explaining the world that works for him (and for millions of others) and gives him hope and security. I, in contrast, have no all-powerful being to believe in and am wracked with existential angst! It does beg the question – which of us is the idiot? Unfortunately, I don’t think I am going to be able to persuade myself to believe in something just because it would make me feel happier, but if I could just take a religious pill to make me believe in it all, I would be sorely tempted…

Check out Kirsty’s blog. Those of you who follow me because of an interest in education will find lots of relevant stuff, like this on learning styles; those of a skeptical bent might enjoy this on the use of evidence.

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