A Fundamental Misunderstanding of Ex-Fundamentalists

A Fundamental Misunderstanding of Ex-Fundamentalists November 11, 2015

Christian blogger Allan R. Bevere recently wrote a blog post titled “Re-Formed Fundamentalists.” I came upon this post because it was mentioned on Exploring Our Matrix, a progressive Christian Patheos blog that I generally like. Bevere’s basic premise is that fundamentalists who consider themselves reformed are often actually “re-formed”—i.e., they have simply become fundamentalists of a different type.

Bevere begins his post as follows:

If there is one thing that can be asserted without proof (that’s a tongue-in-cheek comment meant for literary effect), it is that those who are reformed out of a habit or a movement tend to be the most rabid fundamentalists of them all. The most zealous anti-smokers are former smokers. Those who continually level angry criticism at Christian Fundamentalism are those who used to be Fundamentalists. Others who cannot resist taking continual shots at Protestant liberalism are often former liberals. In their obsession with the things they used to be, they put forth a fundamentalism all their own. Usually, the only people who cannot see such re-formed fundamentalism on display are those who are re-formed fundamentalists themselves. And yes, fundamentalists come in many forms– conservative and liberal, Democratic and Republican, religious and secular.

Let me state upfront that I am bothered by Bevere’s abuse of the term fundamentalist. Fundamentalists are those who embrace a dogmatic and often literalist approach to a specific religion and take an anti-modernist stance. Mainline Christians cannot be fundamentalists, and nor can atheists. Fundamentalist is also not a term we can apply to a political position, though specific political positions may be supported by fundamentalists. What Bevere is really talking about is dogmatism.

Now I do absolutely agree that people sometimes pivot from one extreme to another, and that people who are dogmatic in their approach to a belief may sometimes stay so even after switching which belief they hold. However, I have also seen people accuse others of still being fundamentalists in an effort to discredit them and without any basis. In fact, I myself have been accused of still being a fundamentalist even though I try very hard to give every idea a fair hearing and not be fundamentalist in my approach to belief.

I started Bevere’s post a bit nervous, wondering where he was going with it. He offers a list of ten “test questions” for determining whether you are a reformed fundamentalist or simply a “re-formed” fundamentalist. As I suspected I might, I have some serious problems with a number of Bevere’s questions.

Let’s look at them selectively.

4. When you think about the views of the “other” are you angry before reflective?

When you have been seriously hurt and known others who were seriously hurt by an idea, a belief, or a religious tradition, it is only natural to feel anger. When anger leads us to mistreat others, yes, it can be a problem. But anger itself is not the problem, and feeling anger does not make one a fundamentalist. In fact, stigmatizing anger and treating it as an illegitimate emotion can cause serious problems.

5. Do you truly believe (be honest here) that those who do not share your views are stupid and/or immoral?

Let’s leave aside the stupid bit and focus on the immoral bit. Perhaps here is where we need to differentiate between people and views, but the reality is that some views are immoral. For example, I very strongly believe that corporal punishment is immoral. I believe that people who spank their children are acting immorally. Does believing that some actions are immoral really make one a fundamentalist?

7. Do you find yourself having trouble getting to sleep at night thinking about all those evil people who are still caught up in their ignorance that you formerly held?

This question is a strawman. I know a lot of people who lose sleep worrying about siblings or friends they left behind, who are still stuck in toxic mindsets and harmful institutional structures, but I don’t know anyone who loses sleep thinking about “evil people” still “caught up” in “ignorance.” I have a serious problem with equating concern for those we left behind with fundamentalism.

8. Do you see your assault on the ignorant perspectives of others as an issue of justice?

Again this feels like a strawman. I agree that portraying Christian fundamentalists or evangelicals as “stupid” or “ignorant” can be problematic, though that is a topic for another post. What feels off to me here is that sometimes fighting specific views or perspectives is an issue of justice. You don’t have to be self-righteous to believe in opposing views and beliefs that cause harm. And sometimes specific perspectives are ignorant, based in bad science or faulty logic.

10. Have you answered “yes” to several of these questions, but are still convinced that the label “re-formed fundamentalist” cannot refer to you?

So basically, if we disagree that Bevere’s test is a good test of fundamentalism, we’re fundamentalists. Is it just me, or does that sound a little fundamentalist? 😛

There is a cure for re-formed fundamentalism and it does not involve giving up your basic convictions. Surround yourself with reasonable and intelligent people who do not share your perspective. Contrary to what you might think, they do exist in plenty. Talk to them, have coffee with them, and get to know their families, and engage them on a substantive level. Converse with them and listen as well as talk. In so doing, you may find that over time the anger that consumes you will subside and eventually relieve you of your “fundamentalism;” and you will then be truly re-formed.

If, however, you desire to stay in your (conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican, religious or secular) fundamentalist bubble, just continue to surround yourself with only those who are like-minded. Your world may remain small, but at least you can enjoy your righteous anger while being confirmed by your fellow fundamentalists.

Okay, nope, I can’t get on board with this at all.

Perhaps I should mention where I’m coming from, here. I grew up in a family, church, and community that was both fundamentalist and evangelical. I was homeschooled in order to ensure that I would share those beliefs. As a young adult I started asking questions, and over time those questions ballooned. I began to view many of the beliefs and practices of my community of origin as not only problematic but actively harmful. I am today part of a community of other graduates of Christian homeschooling, and their experiences have been similar.

Note that Bevere is not talking about the importance of liberals listening to conservatives and trying to actually understand their positions, and vice versa. If that were all he was saying I could agree, but it is not. Bevere has grounded his post soundly in speaking to ex-fundamentalists and others who have left a firmly held belief system, and that is how I am going to respond to him.

There are several problems to Bevere’s argument.

First, Beaver seems to assume that “re-formed” fundamentalists do not already have fundamentalists in their social circles. This is ridiculous. My parents are still in my life, and I have contact with other relatives or family friends who are current fundamentalists. There is no lack of personification here, and the same is true for essentially all of the ex-fundamentlaists I know—and I know a lot. Even those who have cut off contact with some family members or friends still have others.

Second, Bevere says that we need to converse with fundamentalists and “listen as well as talk.” Growing up, all I ever did was listen. The same is true for my peers, other ex-fundamentalist alumni of the Christian homeschool movement. We listened and listened and listened. The problem was never a lack of listening. We listened and heard and disagreed and left. We aren’t ignorant of what fundamentalists do or do not believe. We used to be fundamentalists ourselves.

Third, Bevere does not understand the realities of life as an ex-fundamentalist. Bevere says we should “surround” ourselves with people who are currently fundamentalist, listen to them, get to know them, and engage with them. Well I’m sorry, but I’m not going to walk back into a community that rejected and hurt me. If still feeling that pain and being triggered by the beliefs and ideas that caused me that pain is fundamentalist, so be it.

I agree that there is more partisanship in this country than is good for it and I agree that there are blog posts and news articles that misunderstand what fundamentalists believe or how they practice their beliefs. But those posts and articles are not generally written by ex-fundamentalists. Should we encourage liberals and progressives to get to know fundamentalists and see them as people? Yes, though I want to be clear that that should not get in the way of opposing beliefs that are in fact harmful—and I don’t think Bevere gets that. Should we encourage all people to be aware of the ways ideologically narrow social circles can contribute to dogmatism? Absolutely, though this applies to everyone, not just ex-fundamentalists.

But we don’t need to tell ex-fundamentalists that they have to spend more time with fundamentalists or they’re just “re-formed” fundamentalists and we don’t need to tell them that the pain or anger they may feel is illegitimate, or that if they don’t see fundamentalist positions as as valid or as just as theirs they’re still fundamentalists. And if not being a relativist makes me a fundamentalist, so be it.

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