Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Evangelical Fundamentalism

My friend John at The Daily Detour recently asked the question, “Why do so many reject the Christian faith?” I thought I would post my comment here:

[That is a good question], John. You and I have talked at length about why I rejected the Christian faith, but as far as the “so many” out there that have rejected Christianity, it’s hard to give a complete answer. There are a variety of different brands of Christianity, and you may find that people have rejected Anglicanism in England for reasons totally inapplicable to evangelicalism in the U.S. My thinking along these lines has been influenced by George Marsden’s “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism”.

As you know, in my case, going to the university and getting a good grounding in natural sciences had a lot to do with me eventually rejecting the Christian faith. But according to evangelical fundamentalists in the United States, I was rejecting the Christian faith the moment I even considered evolution to be true. Marsden defines a fundamentalist as “an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology in the churches or to changes in cultural values or mores, such as those associated with ‘secular humanism.’” One of the things fundamentalists are “militantly” opposed to is evolution. So, if the only brand of Christianity I was familiar with was evangelical fundamentalism, then I was forced to make a choice in my young intellectual life: reject the foundational theory of modern biology or reject Christianity.

Of course, by the time I was considering this dilemma, I had become aware of more liberal Christianities that didn’t reject the validity of evolution. But I really didn’t know any of those people in the flesh. So the fundamentalist brand represented real Christianity to me, and I could no longer believe it.

What’s interesting about the history of this form of evangelicalism is that it didn’t develop out of a long history of opposition to science. In fact, just the opposite. It was a result of the natural theology of the 18th and 19th century, of the William Paley variety. Before Darwin, many Christians were confident that there was a complete harmony between Christian theology and natural science. Science merely confirmed empirically what the Bible already told us. According to Marsden, this was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, not a counter-Enlightenment. The Bible was perceived as a scientific book, which contained positive statements about the world that could be understood and believed in with certainty. Even the revolution in the study of geology in the first half of the 19th century didn’t produce much opposition from Bible believers. Most evangelicals who were aware of this development were willing to consider the “days” of Genesis 1 to be “ages,” since the earth appeared to be more than 6,000 years old.

Then Darwin happened. But, apparently, there wasn’t as vehement an opposition to it among evangelicals as someone like Dawkins would want you to believe. At the beginning, the “war between science and Christianity” frame to the debate was promoted and maintained by the Darwinists, such as Huxley. There was certainly a debate, but many respected evangelicals accepted a theistic version of evolution and were not rejected by the evangelical community because of it. In fact Darwin’s first big proponent in the United States was Harvard’s Asa Gray, who was a respected evangelical.

Fundamentalism didn’t show up in the U.S. until about the 1920s. What happened in the meantime (between the 1880s, when natural selection became widely accepted in academic community, and the early 20th century) was the birth of the modern research university: specialization, professionalization, and a concerted effort to keep theology out of the laboratory. This is about the time that evangelicals started seeing a much bigger trend of sending their children to the university where they subsequently lost their faith. The assumption that the natural sciences would only serve to provide evidence for the truth of the Bible seemed to be backfiring. But instead of maintaining that front (the warfare terminology is creeping in here) and redoubling their efforts to show that there was no real conflict between science and Christianity, some evangelicals rejected the foundational theory of modern life sciences altogether. They made it a condition of their Christianity. And they guaranteed the alienation of an even larger proportion of young people who would go off to the “secular university” and have to make a choice between the version of Christianity that they knew and their intellectual integrity in the modern world.

As I’ve said [
elsewhere], there have always been different Christianities, and some evangelical communities haven’t allowed themselves to be drawn into the battle between science and Christianity. Francis Collins’ book [The Language of God] is just the latest example of an evangelical who is trying to tone down the warfare rhetoric. I don’t know how well he’s been received among fundamentalist leaning evangelicals. Perhaps re-naming theistic evolution as bio-logos will do the trick. We’ll see.