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.


thecrazydreamer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sub-sub-librarian said...

Crazy Dreamer-

Yah, I did remove your comment, but only because of the link. I should have written this in the main post, but I've recently told some of my friends and family about this blog, some of whom are Christians, with the idea that they would be able to read some of my thoughts about religion and science. That being said, I think you are entitled to answer that question, since you once believed in Christianity and now reject it. [The Crazy Dreamer said, basically, that Christianity doesn’t make any sense]. I agree that a lot of what people believe in, be it Christianity or any other religion, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me any more either. But I do remember when it did make sense, and I don’t want to belittle those who do believe in a God.

The purpose of this post, I guess, was to look at Christianity from a historical perspective and put a name on the set of beliefs that I was taught: evangelical fundamentalism. It is a retrospective that helps me understand where my initial crisis with Christianity came from. At this point, I’m no longer in a position to ask, “What version of Christianity do I believe in?” I’m asking, “Is there a (personal) God,” and answering in the negative. However, I might consider believing in something like Spinoza’s God or Einstein’s. The universe is a pretty amazing place, and it may do me some good to show it some piety and call it God.

[By the way, CD, I’ve been keeping loose tabs on your blog. It’s hilarious (I mean the parts that are supposed to be funny). Keep up the writing. And good luck on your new business endeavor.]

thecrazydreamer said...

Hey sub², sorry about the comment. It was definitely out of line & a little intellectually dishonest. Just a little strawman tactic which I thought was funny, but I see no advantage in offending your readers who are christians.

Obviously, I am not a christian, but I was one for many years and I think I can give a first hand response to the question.

First, the simple answer is that people leave christianity because they find it to be untrue. This begs the question "why, now, is it more prevalent for people to find this belief untrue?"

My perspective on why christianity has become unattractive is that in order for any untrue belief to be preserved it needs an emphasis on censorship and the instilling of fear, distrust, and hatred of contrary beliefs.

This would explain why christianity is most successful amongst children of christian parents (who shelter them) and why islam is so successful in certain middle eastern nations (with rampant censorship, hate/fear mongering)... but in my opinion there's too much tolerance and open knowledge in america today for an untrue belief to maintain a long-term stranglehold among american adults.

Sub-sub-librarian said...

Crazy Dreamer-
No biggy. Like I said, I should have given you a heads up.

As far as an untrue belief being preserved by “an emphasis on censorship and the instilling of fear, distrust, and hatred of contrary beliefs,” I can see where you’re coming from. I don’t think it’s always the case that an untrue belief needs such an environment to persist, but I do think that one of the main points of tension between Christians and former believers like you and me is the doctrine of hell. For whatever reason, Biblically based or not, certain varieties of Christianity believe that God will be sending some people to hell, and that is a scary thought. It’s scary to think about your own soul being damned, and it’s heartbreaking to think about your friend or family member being damned. Because, after all, isn’t that the Big Deal? I mean, if there was a God, who was all love, who wanted to take everyone to heaven, then where’s the conflict? I have no problem if someone believes that, and they wouldn’t have a problem if I don’t believe that. But the conservative side of Christianity has decided that the doctrines of hell and inerrancy of scripture are to be held on to at all costs, and that any compromise with “religious pluralism” of any sort should be avoided at all costs. This is the alienating factor in American Christianity, I think.

I am not one to say that all religion is bad and should be phased out, as the New Atheists proclaim. But I do think that the doctrine of hell does instill unnecessary fear and is the source of much too much psychological pain. I know this is a touchy subject for Christians, because in their minds the stakes are so high. But looking at it now, from outside of belief, I feel sympathy towards those who are in anguish over the fate of their souls.

thecrazydreamer said...

You and I are pretty aligned in our opinion. In my case, the concept of hell and the concept of satan were the first two christian doctrines that forced me to reconsider my belief system. When I factor in both logic and my understanding of justice, it simply makes no sense for an ephemeral crime to suffer an eternal punishment.

Andy said...

If I may, I'd like to add to the conversation from my (sceptic christian) standpoint, on the subject of this post. I'll try to keep it short, (I appreciate no other way, as you know Nathan). :)

My viewpoint of hell is different. I don't believe that hell or satan is a correct reason to become a christian, although there are mighty amounts of people that do. I also do not think that that is the true intention of the bible (creating fear of hell so others will "believe"). Surely hell is something to fear, but that's not my motivation anyway. There are lots of things to fear if we let ourselves, I personally fear the NON-existence of God. I also fear my children getting hurt, or a meteor hitting my community, and snakes. You guys are making the existence of hell the big deal, not the potential amazingly changed life. But I'm getting off topic.

My view of hell is this. It's simply separation from God. It's more of a motivator for the Christian, not the non-christian, to keep my life in line with how God wants me to live. Many of us get the view of Dante's infernno in our minds of people burning or frozen up to their noses in ice (creepy!). But nobody really knows what it's like, or why you go there, except for pure, straight up rejection of God. Secondly, only God judges who goes to hell, others' fate is out of my control. I rest assured that the God who I believe in is (yes) all loving, knowing and truly wants the best for us. That his decisions will be fair, and that both he and the ones he judge will accept that decision as just. I may be a freak, but that's what I believe.

My next point I'd like to make is that the comments here seem a little extremist in nature. It looks that you would like to see it outlawed to worship, or at least impose some restrictions on how spirituality works. Let me warn you of the slippery slope that leads to. Freedom of religion (or non-religion) is one of the core freedoms we have in this country, upon which it is built. I appreciate Nathan's comment saying all religion is not bad. But the stuff about instilling rampant censorship, hate/fear mongering, and holding a stranglehold on america. I disagree that these things come from the majority of christians. I am no saint, I have censored what my kids watch, I have hated and feared things/people. But that surely is no habit (except censoring what my kids are exposed to, and if you have children, you would agree it's necessary).

I don't know where to go from here.

I appreciate the blog man.

thecrazydreamer said...

As a quick point of clarification, I am not anti-religion. My statement was that I think most religions will (but not necessarily should) dwindle without the use of subversive means. 95% of my friends and family are religious, and while I think they're wrong, I also think they're great people. There are obviously dangers associated with believing something untrue, but there can also be positives.

I also think the new atheism is guilty of the same subversive methods. There seems to me to be a new emphasis on contempt for the religious amongst atheists. I would argue that if atheism were true, it wouldn't need such means for propagation, but I find atheism to be untrue as well, so it really fits the same mold.

Essentially my theory is that atheism is growing because of the intolerance it instills while christianity is dwindling because of it emphasizes intolerance less these days.

Sub-sub-librarian said...

Sorry for the delay in responding. I was out of town for the long weekend. Hope you all had a good one.

I’m glad you’ve added your perspective here.

(By the way, I didn’t know you had a blog. I’ve been catching up on Bullock history for the past half an hour.)

You make a point that I should have made a little clearer. I think you are right by saying that most believing Christians don’t think all that often about hell, or even consciously articulate the prospect of eternal damnation as the main reason for evangelism. When I was a Christian I certainly didn’t think about hell very often (although I did feel unnecessarily guilty to an unhealthy degree). But my point is that, if there was no doctrine of hell, there would be no pressing motivation for The Great Commission. Yes, I concede that an evangelical might believe they are primarily sharing a Gospel of joy in Jesus, but is that enough of an explanation for religious crusades? Is that enough of an explanation for the fundamentalist rejection of religious pluralism?

For instance, there are many people who believe in astrology. I do not. I have no problem with these people believing what they believe, and I don’t think they have a problem with me. There is no crusade for converting people into astrologers, and why should there be? What’s the big deal if you don’t believe it? I’m suggesting that it is a big deal to my friends and family who are believers that I do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. And why is it a big deal? Because of the doctrine of hell. (I realize that there are other religions in the world that do very well for themselves without a comparable doctrine. However, I don’t think they are propagated by some sort of commission for the conversion of non-believers.)

I think The Crazy Dreamer and I agree with you about religious freedom.

Thanks for the comment Andy.

martilou said...

Nathan thanks for directing me to your blog. Interesting reading.
I don't believe you actually answered the original question. You seemed to have answered rather why many reject the Christian religion. The Christian Faith is based on being a follower/disciple of Jesus--very different than the Christian religion even though they may have come from the same roots. Fundamentalism does not fit into the life and faith Jesus set as an exampe for us. He probalby would even say to present day fundamentalists the same thing he said to the Fundamentalist of his day...