Samantha Field, my favourite Christian blogger by a distance, has written about fundamentalism and (some of you won’t like this) atheists who think like fundamentalists.
Unfortunately, it seems like there’s a lot of atheists out there who gave up on their religion, but didn’t give up fundamentalism. A little while ago I remarked on Twitter that it seems like atheists have more in common with Christian fundamentalists in their views on the Bible than they do with me …
It’s perpetually frustrating to me, though, that there’s a certain movement of atheists that brand me as an idiot because I’m religious, or that I’m incapable of being reasonable or logical because I have faith. To this type of atheist, if I don’t accept fundamentalist Christianity as the Only True Way of being a Christian, I’m being inconsistent. Over the course of many conversations, I’ve usually found out that they were at one point Christian fundamentalists.
They may not believe in god anymore, but many never stopped to examine the root claims of the belief system they were raised in. They still think the fundamentalists are right about Christianity – and about how to parse evidence. Part of the reason many argue the way they do is that they’re still operating inside of a fundamentalist mindset, only without religion. To many, Modernism is the only “correct” way to reason, and Truth and demonstrable, provable, physical fact are inseparable.
It may surprise you to learn that I agree with Samantha. I’m not generally a fan of the term ‘fundamentalist atheist’, which is usually thrown around as a nondescript smear by church spokespeople opposing some piece of legislation that would reduce religious privilege in public life. But I do think a lot of atheist arguments against Christianity as a whole are weak, and I think Samantha’s diagnosis of the problem is plausible.
I often hear atheists say things like “Either every word of the Bible is true or none of it is”, a line straight from the Ken Ham book of fundamentalist claptrap. It is not a standard we would apply to any other book. Hell, we recognise that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species got a lot of stuff wrong, but that doesn’t mean the entire work is consigned to the bin. The idea that the Bible has to be the inerrant Word of God to have any value at all is a fundamentalist idea, and it’s clearly rubbish. And that’s before we even start interrogating the idea of what it means for the Bible to be ‘true’, and whether truth includes metaphor.
Here’s a way of considering the Bible which I think has more merit than the fundamentalist one: There is this thing we might call the Divine, which many humans have sensed and attempted to understand through history. The Bible is a collection of their attempts to understand this Divine. Their understandings are filtered through their own experiences, cultures, knowledge, and biases. As a result, some of it is completely wrong, some of it downright immoral, but some of it might resemble the truth, albeit partially. In this respect, the journey to understand the Divine is a bit like the development of science: lots of people are struggling to generate a clearer picture of the universe, and gradually we come to understandings which more closely resemble reality. I think there are many problems with this view of scripture too, which I don’t have time for here, but it is at least not ludicrous on its face.
I make this argument reasonably often, and whenever I do I’m struck by the fact that I didn’t give liberal Christianity a fair crack of the whip on my way out of faith. I looked into it a bit, I suppose, but I pretty much was in the fundamentalist camp. I felt if the Bible wasn’t true in its entirety—if I just got to choose which parts to believe—then faith was arbitrary and there was no reason to think I held anything resembling the truth. So I scrapped it.
That wasn’t logical. As a result, sometimes I think that I ought to look into liberal Christianity again, as an exercise in intellectual honesty. And then I have another thought: why is it this set of beliefs I am concerned about? Why do I never feel uneasy that I have not given Hinduism or Sikhism a thorough investigation? And of course the answer is cultural: I only care because I was raised a Christian. And that was one of the reasons I rejected Christianity in the first place. I couldn’t accept that God would create a world where your chances of finding the truth were so dependent on fucking geography.But again, the liberal believer might argue that the Christian tradition is but one of many attempts to understand the divine, and the other religions are attempts to discover the same thing. Like the blind people feeling an elephant, they’ve all found something partially true even if they seem apparently contradictory. Against this view, I find two of Jerry Coyne’s arguments particularly powerful. The first is that we would expect religious claims to converge over time as they come closer to the truth, whereas they do not (although I expect progressive believers would claim they do converge on the important points). The second is that we would expect new religious knowledge to be generated, whereas in fact all the religious ‘knowledge’ we have is really old. When new claims to religious knowledge do arise, we recognise them as absurd and call them cults.
But anyway, I said all that to say this:
Yes, I’m still a fundamentalist.
Assuming there is a divine thing who is all-powerful and all-good, the world should look like I thought it did when I was a kid.
If God exists, the world should be just, the sick should be healed, and prayers should be answered.
If God exists, everyone who earnestly seeks to discover him/her/they/it should do so.
If God exists, the lives of believers should be filled with joy.
The progressive Christians I know accept that these things are not the case. I can’t understand why they’d think God exists at all.
You know what else? If God inspires a book, it should be fucking perfect. I know all the arguments for why the Bible doesn’t claim to be and isn’t supposed to be the Word of God, and I don’t care. If an all-powerful being desires a relationship with humanity, it’s not too much to expect said all-powerful being to communicate clearly. The progressive believer thinks that God could have written a perfect book but somehow chose not to. And we just have to accept that there was a morally sufficient reason for this (because God also chose not explain why this perfect book has not been forthcoming).
Those fundies who claim that there’s no such thing as a true atheist, because deep down we all really know that God exists? They should be right. If God exists and is fair, and if believing in or knowing God is important, it should be close to impossible not to believe. Yet the world is full of people who tried to believe and found they couldn’t.
If God exists, creationism should be true. I’m not saying Genesis must be literally true, but the progressive believer says God could have made an excellent world instantly, but instead chose the wasteful and cruel process of evolution, which after three billion years produced some large-brained creatures who are moderately well adapted to walking upright. Humans are not even the final destination of evolution; we are just one of many currently successful species to have carved out an evolutionary niche. It is not even metaphorically true to say we are “made in the image of God”.
Engaging in the thought experiment “If God exists, what should the world be like?” gives a pretty thorough refutation of God’s existence, as I understood God. It doesn’t refute the progressive conception of God, but that’s because a universe featuring that ‘God’ looks exactly like one with no God at all.
Samantha Field’s Leaving Fundamentalism guest post: Relearning everything you know