Saturday, August 25, 2007

Fundamentalism Revisited

After a long summer break, I'm ready (I hope) to devote some time to blogging again. It is a spiritual discipline, isn't it? Since I'm not attending Meeting at the moment, it's about my only spiritual discipline, so I should get back at it...

Husband and I have been discussing fundamentalism a lot lately. Topics like this sit with me for a long time, walking along with me as I go on my daily walks. We find fundamentalism fascinating because it is so far outside of our worldview.

Husband just finds it nutty.

What is it about fundamentalists that makes them act in a way that is, while not exactly "insane," certainly "counter-sane"?


The collective, unspoken, but accepted perception of reality of an entire culture.

Fundamentalism juxtaposes itself against the worldview. Opposing a worldview in which you are immersed is remarkably difficult. Fundamentalism is high maintenance.

Hundreds of years ago, literalist religion was not high maintenance. Religion was just all there was to believe. There was no science. There were no facts. Reality wasn't knowable. The Old English root of the word "truth" is "trow"--which just meant "belief" or "trust." "Truth" did not convey any idea of "fact" at all. The "truth" was just something you believed.

Written religion provided a theory of reality that people could believe in, and that was enough to make them believable. Requirements weren't very strict -- that hadn't been invented yet. In a worldview devoid of science or facts, God made the wind blow, God made the tides come in and go out every day, God made the sun rise and turned the seasons, God made people sick. There was no other explanation.

It made religion pretty easy. Just believe what you already believe.

Fundamentalism today is hard work. To literally believe everything in the bible and the early doctrines, you have to deny the reality you already believe in. You can't choose not to believe in your worldview: it's part of your everyday experience of life. It's just there, like air or water.

This puts fundamentalists in a terrible dilemma. Even if you don't really believe in witches, the fact that the Old Testament makes a statement or two about witches means you have to believe in them (and condemn them). So you force yourself to believe in witches.

But you don't really believe in them. Witches (in the satanic sense) are not part of the worldview. People today don't believe in magic, flying broomsticks, evil curses, or potions--unless they're insane. Plus, the Old Testament doesn't exactly tell you what a witch is. So you have to revert to folklore and descriptions by medieval inquisitors. After all, if the bible mentions a witch, then it has to be a thing--and a definable thing at that. So hate literature from the Dark Ages becomes part of your required belief system.

And so the net of required beliefs gets larger and larger. It doesn't just conflict with your worldview on one or two levels (e.g. taking one book literally while scorning all others, ignoring historical research into the roots of biblical writings). It requires you to concoct an entire unbelievable worldview.

This kicks off what Thomas Carlyle called "our spasmodic efforts to believe that we believe." It's hard, hard work. You can't look anywhere. You can't read anything. It's dark and scary because all that has to happen is for one small Yop to cut through the spells you've woven around yourself, and the whole thing could cave in.

Fear that there's nothing there.

Fear that the whole promise of life after death is hollow.

Fear that if just one word of one book is shown to be untrue, then nothing is true but the sad, hard world we live in.

That's why fundamentalists work so hard. Our sermon to them should be "Don't be afraid. Put the trust back into truth. Let your worldview guide you."


At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I'm not sure, based on my own experiences with fundamentalists, that I can fully agree with your take on them.

For the fundamentalists I've personally known, fundamentalism is not, ultimately, about literal belief in the Bible. It is ultimately concerned with faithfulness to God and Jesus, the nature of which is spelled out in the Bible and in subsequent church teachings.

Faithfulness of that sort has always been "high maintenance"; it did not suddenly become "high maintenance" only with the rise of scientism in the eighteenth century. And faithfulness of that sort has always been opposed to the majority world-view; it has always required a belief in miracles and in life after death, and a discounting of present-day rewards, that the worldly could not buy into. As the apostle Paul said so long ago, it is foolishness to the Greeks. Scientism is merely the latest explosion of the thinking of the Greeks, which for two thousand years has always, always, always made faithfulness of that sort look foolish.

Biblical literalism — which is what you focus on in this essay — is not the whole of fundamentalism; it is only one of the things involved in the sort of faithfulness that fundamentalism is about.

Fundamentalism takes its name from a series of tracts published in the years just before World War I, later collected in a set of books, titled The Fundamentals. These tracts laid out a set of doctrines that the authors regarded as essential to Protestant faith. Biblical literalism — or, more properly speaking, (1) a belief in the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible — was only one of them. Others, equally important, included (2) a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, (3) a belief in the virgin birth and deity of Christ, (4) a belief in the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and (5) a belief in the bodily resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Christ. These beliefs are often referred to together as "the five fundamentals".

Since all five of these fundamentals are part of Christian orthodoxy as more broadly accepted by all mainstream Christians, most students of religion have come to believe that what distinguishes fundamentalism is not simply its belief in these fundamentals, but the strenuousness with which it opposes all things that could undercut or dilute such belief. It takes the war against principalities and powers to a particular sort of extreme, fighting those principalities and powers on all fronts where belief might be weakened.

You state that before the rise of science, "God made the wind blow, God made the tides come in and go out every day, God made the sun rise and turned the seasons, God made people sick. There was no other explanation." But actually, there is plenty of evidence that even before the rise of science, a large proportion of Europeans did not take the "God makes it happen" belief seriously, and were more inclined to the "shit just happens" belief. And today, there are plenty of people who still think, not in terms of "God makes it happen", and not in terms of "here's the scientific explanation" either, but in terms of "shit just happens". Not all that much has really changed.

In my experience, fundamentalists — and even evangelicals, who are a milder stripe than fundies — have no trouble at all believing in witches, and do not find it necessary to believe that witches fly around on brooms. They believe in magic, and some of them can describe instances they have witnessed, instances from the times when they or their friends dabbled in Wicca before their conversion to Christianity. Many of them who have not witnessed magic, have witnessed miracles; and their experience of miracles makes belief in magic easy, while making belief in the magic-and-miracles-are-impossible position of hard-nosed atheistic scientism utterly untenable. Their experience of miracles makes fear, of the sort you attribute to them, untenable too.

What you describe seems to me like a caricature of fundamentalism. I do admit, though, that my own exposure to fundamentalists has been limited to a fairly small number of people.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Marshall, I see your point...a caricature of fundamentalism is an interesting idea. I guess in my mind fundamentalism sort of *is* a caricature.

I guess my point is that fundamentalism is a fairly new religion, a post-Darwin, 20th-century phenomenon. Before that, literal religion wasn't something you had to work at. It was just normal thought.

The gulf between "normal thought" and "fundamentalist thought" has me concerned because it sparks militant action.

There is a new wikipedia-type online encyclopedia now called "conservepedia". It's maintained by conservative fundamentalists who oppose the definitions in wikipedia. They believe wikipedia is part of a leftist liberal conspiracy. But of course, it's not part of any conspiracy because it has no leadership. It's just "normal thought" as compiled collectively by the people of the world. However, conservapedia does have leadership--and censorship, to maintain the correct conservative focus.

It's not just a case of two worldviews in opposition. It's that fundamentalists (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, etc.) have to live in one worldview and believe in another. The result is a tension, a constant inner struggle, a closing of the mind, and a tendency toward extreme action or support of extreme action.

At no other time has religious belief required such an effort.

That's the caricature I see.


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