Friday, April 21, 2006

Philosophy Friday: Christian Fundamentalism

As a progressive liberal, one of the key ideologies that I often run into conflict with is that of religious fundamentalism, as any reader here for any length of time no doubt knows. Of course, in the United States, that religious fundamentalism is a certain set of beliefs couched in Christianity. The pervasiveness is clear, as a recent article in The New Humanist points out (link via 3Quarks Daily):

Consider these statistics: 95 per cent of Americans believe in God; 86 per cent believe in Heaven; 78 per cent believe in life after death; 72 per cent believe in angels; 71 per cent believe in Hell; 65 per cent believe in the Devil; 34 per cent believe that the Bible is inerrant. But then again only 40 per cent believe they have actually had contact with the dead (source Kosmin and Lachman and The Economist).

Now, while I oppose fundamentalist religion in terms of its social and political impact, I do try and be as open-minded as possible about folks' personal beliefs. I really have no stake in whether or not people want to believe in a particular religion, so long as they don't try and burden me or my family with it against our wills. I love discussions on religion and morality and encourage them. Because religious beliefs are held as sacred, I believe they should be vigorously debated, rather than treated as incontestable laws of nature. Certainly that's my humanist beliefs poking through, but I believe that such is better for our society.

And yet, I find myself being further and further intolerant of the presiding religious authority in our country, mainly because it is so pervasive. I find the weirdly overblown persecution complex of conservative Christians puzzling and, frankly, rather tedious. Trust me, O you of the Christian faith, you have no idea what persecution is living as a Christian in the United States. Try being an atheist some time, if you don't believe me. Being openly atheist in one's spiritual beliefs and openly humanist in one's moral beliefs is one of the few remaining aspects of our culture where tolerance for individual diversity has made precious little headway. At best, we of the non-faith-based persuasion are considered morally groundless, at worst, immoral and hedonistic. Neither is true, of course, but the acceptance of such views is so widely accepted that even I, liberal blogging bloviator that I am, keep my moral and spiritual beliefs very closely held among my professional peers. In an office where the Bible and social conservative talking points are fair game both in meetings and at the water cooler, sometimes the path of least resistance is best. Not very intellectually honest, I realize...

The article goes on to point out just want Christian fundamentalism is, in the strictest sense:

Fundamentalism is a term more often used than understood, applied in a rather casual way to literalist followers of many religious texts. In relation to American Christianity, however, the term does have a clear historical origin. The word "Fundamentalism" originally referred to a series of a dozen pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals which were distributed free of charge by the American Bible League between 1909 and 1915. The project was funded by two brothers, Lyman and Milton Stewart, who had made their fortunes in the California oil industry, and 250,000 were printed.

The Fundamentals emphasized two key points. The first was the truth of the infallible Bible, the conviction that the Old and New Testaments represent the complete and exact word of God and are the comprehensive and final authority over faith and practice. The second point stressed the concept of the "born again" Christian, the insistence that salvation and eternal life come only as the free gift of God's grace through a radical and sudden commitment to Christ.

I have to confess that I am as guilty as anyone of defining fundamentalism the way the above paragraph describes. I also tend to lump conservative social policy, particularly the invasive, anti-privacy type so common today, with Christian fundamentalism by definition, which is not strictly accurate obviously. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially when it quickly illustrates a point about conservative political excess.

I also have to admit that, by the definition presented above by The New Humanist, I am a former Christian fundamentalist. I attended a Pentacostal church for most of my formative years and even flirted briefly with the notion of divinity school. I can certainly testify that while being a fundamentalist Christian is hard work, being an atheist is many magnitudes more difficult, both for philosophical and practical reasons. My decision to leave the faith behind was not all mine, per se. One cannot pretend to faith, other than to convince others, and I certainly wasn't going to live Pascal's wager.

As for the true definition of Christian fundamentalism, I agree with Amanda at Pandagon. The "born again" aspect of the belief doesn't bother me. In fact, I think the idea of a symbolic washing away of those parts of ourselves which are destructive and unliveable is a good thing, though I question whether such a thing is possible in a moment of transformative prayer. Generally, such deep, life-affirming changes take time. Given that I am, technically, a born-again Christian, I can testify that the moment of "salvation" really didn't change my life in any meaningful way. The kind of transformative experience that can evoke long-lasting change that lasts doesn't seem to me to be something so immediate.

The Biblical literalism and inerrancy, on the other hand, I find to be a very dangerous theological belief and the source of a great deal of strife in our society. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the use of the Bible as an absolute law in our day tends to strip the scripture of its historical and cultural context. Morality should be determined by much more than a steadfast belief in a perfect source of absolute law. The practicable ethics born out of any moral code need to have a degree of flexibility, else human society never progresses. The moral laws written into the Bible reflect the days in which they were written and many of them simply don't apply well anymore. Absent a benefit to society, moral strictures of these kind must be held at least at arm's length, if not discarded altogether.

Many of the social restrictions that conservatives push today fall into this category. Opposition to homosexual rights, for example, have no benefit to society, regardless of how the authors of the Bible may have felt about the subject. Perhaps in primitive societies, infant mortality and fertility rates were such that homosexual relationships were prohibited because they didn't produce children. I don't know if that's true nor do I think that justifies such a prohibition; the point I'm trying to make is that there could well have been a practical justification behind such restrictions. No such practicality exists any longer, except in the fevered minds of men like Paul Cameron. Even further, certain of these literalist Biblical beliefs are actually detrimental to society, such as abortion bans. Even beyond all the practical costs for such ideology, the more abstract cost to our cultural identity is very steep as well.

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