Sunday, March 15, 2009

Unfair to the Fundies?

I paused today to consider whether I have been unreasonably critical of fundamentalists. In a previous post, I noted the traditional definition of Christian fundamentalist beliefs as including:

1. Inerrancy of Scripture
2. The virgin birth
3. Substitutionary atonement
4. Bodily resurrection of Christ
5. Supernatural nature of miracles

On the basis of this list alone, I'm not sure that I can sustain the argument that fundamentalism always results in violence. However, there are some related ideas that can create the kinds of problems of which we are all too well aware.

I think that one of the difficulties is an exclusive claim to truth. Whether the 'inerrancy of scripture' is cause or effect of this claim is unclear but there are inherent dangers (not to mention great arrogance) in thinking that God has been revealed only to our special group and that all other expressions of religion are misguided. This isn't just about the nature of truth as absolute or relative - it's about avoiding an extreme point of view that categorically dismisses any external challenge or dissident opinion. If God's will has indeed been communicated especially to us (or me), then who has the right to question what I do in God's name?

A related area is the claim to foreknowledge of people's eternal destinies. Whether or not you believe in a literal heaven or hell, does any human being really have the right to assign you to either? Based on a particular interpretation of scripture, some people firmly believe that they can predict the eternal destiny of others because of their beliefs or actions. I find such power a frightening concept, yet many are willing to wield it as reward or punishment to ensure that others 'toe the line'.

Ultimately, I'm more concerned about people's actions than their beliefs. However there is a dynamic relationship between these two things that cannot be ignored. I'd still prefer a fundamentalist that genuinely loves their neighbour than a liberal that was apathetic to human need.


David said...

Once, again truth takes a secondary role. Because you believe in one kind of mumbo-jumbo, you must feign tolerance for other brands of gibberish.

I see a pattern here. Liberal theologians ignore the question of truth value, in the interests of being all things to all people. Fundamentalists know they have the truth.

Liberals have brains and people-skills. Fundamentalists have neither.

JDK said...

The tolerance issue is intriguing me. According to Sam Harris, moderate Christians share a responsibility for the excesses of fundamentalists because they do nothing to stop them. On the other hand, if fundamentalism by nature is a reaction to feeling under attack (eg. by modernity) then increasing the attack only makes them stronger and more insular. Personally I don't think the answer is to 'ignore it and it will go away'. There is damage being done and to ignore it is to be complicit in it. My feeling is that we need to reveal the imbalance of fundamentalism and deny their claim to the 'middle ground'. I may not be in the middle either, but perhaps some balance will do us all good.

David said...

Should not truth be the first consideration?

Is it more important for a belief to be a motivator for good works, regardless of whether that is achieved by psychological trickery, and regardless of whether it is true?

I think you avoid this question because the methodology and argument you would use to disprove the veracity of fundamentalism would also dismantle liberal theology.

In the end, isn't it all bunkum? Which Christian is brave enough to admit that her belief system is not true in a way that is more meaningful than a psychological security blanket?

Why prefer a comforting myth to the cold, harsh truth?

Anonymous said...

Is it the subscription to the 5 points or the treatment of them? I believe in all 5 (number 1 requiring some wriggle room) but would be most opposed to being labelled a fundamentalist- and responsible for violence at that!

JDK said...


Disagreement about the nature and source of truth is a major contributor to this problem. I'm pretty sure we've discussed this before, but it is a philosophical difficulty which is not easily resolved. Scientific method is not the only accepted revealer of truth or understanding - something most scientists will agree to. Personally I lean towards a constructivist rather than a positivist epistemology but this is a subject for a much longer post.


The definition of fundamentalism is a rather slippery one - made even more complex by references to fundamentalists in non-Christian religions and even non-religious fundamentalists. I borrowed the 5-points definition from a self-confessed fundie but I'm finding it increasingly unsatisfactory. Will update it when I have something better. I think what I was trying to get across was that the tendency to some kind of violence was more related to knowing that you specifically held the truth and that those who disagreed with you did not (and therefore were against God).

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

anon again.
I can believe in a judgment without being the judge. I can believe in miracles without believing I have the monopoly on the Spirit. I can revel in the doctrinal beauty of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection.

I guess that not all that has been rendered as conservative is adhered to in some kind of superstitious and unthinking way.

james said...

"I dont believe in trucks, to prove this I am going to go onto the road and stand in front of one. It will pretend to drive towards me at 100kms per hour and nothing will happen. Let me show you."

JDK said...

James, I'm not sure what your comment is related to. Is it my comment about whether people believe in hell or not? If so, the truck notion illustrates clearly that some things are undisputable - if you get in the way of a truck like that, you will suffer some clear consequences. Of course, many people believe the same thing about hell but it is not something that can be proved outside of a faith construct.

Of course, my point was really about the way we place judgement, which Anon has picked up, and this is relevant to people of all faith traditions (and those of none).

Regards, JDK

jack said...

James, how about you prove hell exists. I suggested you read this some time ago - - did you do it, and if so what are your comments on it? If hell does exist, as a place of eternal torture and punishment for those that do not 'repent and believe', the god who allows people to go there is completely evil. Perhaps you could also provide a comparison of the proof of hell and the proof of trucks.

james said...

My point is to say that just becasue we have an exclusive claim to truth and/or a foreknowledge of peoples eternal destiny does not mean that we are arrogant. Is the person who warned the person about the truck arrogant or frightening? No. They just wanted to save!

In taht instance we would all agree that it is fair to warn and persuade someone to get out of the way of the truck regardless of their beliefs. We wouldnt care what their views on the reality of trucks was, we placed our belief of truth above not offending them...

I know your not saying everyone who believes in hell is arrogant etc, but what I am saying is that if someone believes that stuff, for them to be loving they need to warn others according to their belief.

"Hell is the truth seen too late."
- Mrs. Bramwell Booth

JDK said...

Hi James,

I understand what you're saying - if someone believes in the reality of Hell, how could they ignore the plight of people heading in that direction? I wrote a blog a while ago on the subject of Extortion where I talked about persistent pressure from life insurance salespeople. Perhaps there is a truck waiting for us all, but does that mean that we can never cross the road? For those that don't believe in the truck, it doesn't make sense to spend your life waiting by the side of the road. (I think this analogy has now passed its use-by date).

I also think that smoking is bad for people's health but I don't tell that to every smoker that I meet on the street. At some point it just becomes anti-social, despite my good intentions. This is a difficult one to work out in generalisations, so perhaps we'll look at some specifics at another time.

I don't agree that it's not arrogant to believe you have an exclusive claim to the truth but some people think I'm arrogant, so who knows?!

Finally, I do think Florence (Soper) Booth deserves full recognition for her quotes and should not be hidden behind her husband's name :-)

Regards, Jason

Anonymous said...

anon again,
here i am trying to reason a traditional faith without a fundamentalist superstition and in comes James with his size 13 boots!
(all said in fun of course)

Trucks hello?

David said...

I know this is a little late, but anyway, here is a further aspect of fundamentalism that might be of interest.

The blog entry illustrates the type of thinking reasonably well.

It's the argument that liberal theologies, contemplative spirituality, alternative explanations are "bad", are hertically wrong and guaranteed to get you to hell.

As the blog entry above illustrates, the arguments used are selective interpretations of scripture and comparisons with other religious practices. You've probably noticed that when a fundamentalist likens something to a "new age" practice or to "eastern mysticism" then he is condemning it very strongly. It's the combination of scary threats (not so much ending up in hell, as being isolated in your spiritual community), and the appearance of tightly and forcefully argued logic that makes this form of brain-washing so effective, and so difficult to escape from. More so if said thinking occurs in a strongly hierachical organisation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Jason,

I too had a pair of "fundies" and was very dissapointed when they got disfigured in the washing machine. But don't worry I'm on the lookout for another pair!