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Religion Class Essay 5
Without question, Steve Bruce’s Fundamentalism is my favorite of the texts we’ve been assigned so far and not because I agreed with the author previously. After having read it, however, some of his points are so well articulated and strongly argued, I’ve had to change my mind.

One of the most interesting passages is on page 120: “…most of what now passes for religion in the West is secularized but that fact, not fundamentalism, is the oddity. In the broad sweep of human history, fundamentalists are normal. It is not the dogmatic believer who insists that the sacred texts are divinely inspired and true, who tries to model his life on the ethical requirements of those texts, and who seeks to impose those requirements on the entire society that is unusual. It is the liberal who supposes that his sacred texts are actually human constructions of differing moral worth, whose religion makes little difference to his life, and is quite happy to accept that what his God requires of him is not binding on other members of his society, this is the strange and remarkable creature.”

I’ve spent a good deal of my life arguing that the simplicity and black/white philosophy of fundamentalists is alluring to folks who don’t want the messy grey result of liberal thinking. Bruce’s paragraph has sent me on a nicely uncomfortable introspective journey. I’ve been condescending to the fundamentalists for indulging in the neatness of the cut-and-dried and never looked at the waffling and rationalizations of the liberals to which I must claim membership. I usually delight in disagreeing with my assigned authors, but Bruce has delivered a devastating blow for which I do not yet have a response. Like a boxer taking an admirable punch from a worthy adversary, I am grateful and respectful for his insight, painful as it is.

Bruce goes on to ask how we explain fundamentalism and answers that “Fundamentalism is a rational response of traditionally religious peoples, to social, political, and economic changes that downgrade and constrain the role of religion in the public world. Liberals may find the tone of fundamentalist polemic offensive but fundamentalists have not exaggerated the extent to which modern cultures threaten what they hold dear (120).” In explaining fundamentalism, Bruce elaborates on the social changes of modern society and how even some fundamentalist Protestants, while agreeing in theory with the hard-liners, would not trade the benefits of a liberal society for a theocracy (121). Crushing my condescension, Bruce says “Why some people respond by becoming fundamentalists while others do not is a matter for the particulars of each circumstance. There is simply no need and no warrant for construing fundamentalism as a gross psychological abnormality that deserves an explanation based on the idea of abnormality (122).” So much for my dismissive “Those people are nuts” idea. This guy is thoroughly kicking my ass.

Bruce doesn’t fall into the trap of sweeping all fundamentalists as ignorant victims of economic injustice alone, as if somehow raised economic standards would eliminate terrorism, as is so often the liberal argument. He quotes Mernissi “Islamic fundamentalists ‘are not the most wretched but those who have had some contact with the West, who understand the horizons of possibilities denied them by the inequities of the world system’ (14).” So while it is still relatively easy for terrorists to convince teenagers to don explosive vests for a quick reward in heaven, the more effective terrorists and much more difficult to explain are the educated, such as the Jordanian doctor who was an al-Qaida double-agent who killed seven CIA agents in 2010. As one of the hijackers who flew into the World Trade center, Mohammed Atta came from a fundamentalist background of the intelligentsia threatened by warming relations with the West (Guardian). These examples fit perfectly with Mernissi’s argument that it is those with some contact with the West and who understand the disparities that become the biggest fundamentalist threats.

I would like to disagree with Bruce when he states that ”…science probably did little direct damage to religion (23)”, but considering how little religion has suffered in spite of repeated scientific refutation of fundamentalist stories of creation and astronomy, it is difficult not to agree. I am continually amazed at my Western culture’s ability to embrace technology and science while simultaneously believing in virgin birth and resurrection. The mental gymnastics of the dualists combined with emotionalism enable and protect religion from the otherwise threatening rationality of science and technology.

Addressing egalitarianism and sounding frighteningly like Oakland University, Bruce says “Dissenters need not be tolerated; they can be massacred or exiled (28).” His point is that a society that is more diverse and egalitarian must place social harmony above religious orthodoxy. This arrangement exacerbates the fundamentalist’s feelings of losing touch with traditional dogma by loss of power. This diversity also strengthens the separation of church and state, further adding to the fundamentalist’s problems (29). Republican presidential candidate Rick Santourm has gained notoriety with his recent comments that Democrat John Kennedy’s “absolute separation of church and state” makes him “want to puke”. It is always interesting when the assigned reading has a direct connection to current events.

It isn’t often that I’m administered such a brisk academic slap in the face as has been provided by Mr. Bruce. His writing and reasoning are clear and powerful which makes me think I’d better bring my best should I take him on in my next essay. I’m going to review again in the morning and hopefully something will come to me while I’m remodeling my bathroom all day. Good thing I’ve got a 6 days to go; I’ll need every one.

Citation:, accessed 2/27/12
Kowboy wrote:

In the broad sweep of human history, fundamentalists are normal.

I'm not convinced this is at all true. Based on my (albeit limited) understanding of Christian history fundamentalist, strict and literal interpretations of the bible are actually a relatively modern development. I was listening to a famous Catholic priest and scholar on NPR a few months ago and he was discussing this very point. Evangelical, literal interpretations of religious texts was not common for the first 1000 years of Christianity - in fact according to him it only became commonplace in "modern" time. It wold be interesting for you to dig into this question a bit more....
I suppose it depends on what you mean by "fundamentalist". I tend regard the defining aspect of a fundamentalist as being less about literal reading of the bible and being more about ridged, unwavering enforcement of what they regard their religion to be about. But those things aren't mutually exclusive.

In the earlier days of Christianity, the "bible" was many stories and traditions that had yet to be woven into one text. If you think its fractured now, imagine what it must have been then. Even when it was unified in some form, the very act of unification implied two things: One, the choices made were made to fit an agenda, and agendas are about control. Two, most people couldn't read. In fact, for a very long time the bible wasn't even written in the same language as the bulk of the populations that followed it, so even those who were literate probably weren't literate enough.

When people can't read, they tend to just take people's word for it in church. There weren't going to be a lot of dissenting opinions in the flock because they wouldn't have much to base an "alternative interpretation" on. These sorts of patterns can become awfully ingrained. Go to church today (just kidding!) and you'll see the same thing, right? No one actually reads that thing, and when they do, they assume it means what they were told it meant.

My point here is that all these sects down the line all pretty much do the same thing: they internalize what they're told and then defend that viewpoint to the hilt. What separates what we call fundamentalists and what we think of as "normal" religious people is the degree to which they are willing to tolerate people around them being different.

That being the case, if you want to evaluate fundamentalism in early times versus modern times, don't think about literal versus anything else, think about how unyielding they might have been. It's a function of how educated they were and how much that religion is used to keep people in line. With that in mind, you'll note that what we see in the middle east both historically and what is happening now in more developed areas should not come as a surprise.

I think the development of the "strict interpretation" form of fundamentalism is an illusion brought on by the fact that people today can actually read and thus have something to try to interpret, plus they have people to argue with about it and thus a reason to go back and haggle about it.

But you'll note that no matter how obsessively "literal" they try to be, they're really just doing what everyone else is -- taking someone else's word for it and then reading that meaning into it when they go back to read it. How else to explain so many ideas about what they bible supposedly says that cannot be backed up, despite their claims?
I have to echo IntractableAtheist here, I was watching The Big Question (UK TV show, every show has a question that comes back to religion, but this was specifically about Fundamentalism) and a crowd member (they have two banks of chairs sitting opposite other, a sort of for and against) explained that her studies (She lectures at some university) show that fundamentalism (literal interpretation, Bible as fact) is very new, a few hundred years at most.
To expand on Cynic's point, John Wycliff produces his English translation in around 1390. Martin Luther creates Lutheranism around 150 years later which, along with Calvanism and the Church of England become Protestantism. That all basically brings on the Enlightenment. Our current evangelical movement is largely Lutheran.

Before that time the Catholic Church is pretty much just making it up as they go along. Only after a significant number of people can read it for themselves do you see really extremist sects forming like the Puritans.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
I would call the Old Catholics (the sect that Mel Gibson belongs to) fundamentalist Catholics.
Cynic wrote:

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "fundamentalist". I tend regard the defining aspect of a fundamentalist as being less about literal reading of the bible and being more about ridged, unwavering enforcement of what they regard their religion to be about. But those things aren't mutually exclusive.

Yes that's an excellent point based upon the criteria by which you view "fundamentalist" as a definition. I would have to agree with you were we to stipulate that point and one could probably argue that today many Christian cultures are less rigid and are more open to leniency on some dogmatic issues.

I think however, that the reason the idea of "literalism" and "fundamentalist" were closely linked by the scholar I previously mentioned is that it has a quite different effect on modern society than if we looked at rigidity of the church as a measure. In the first thousand years the church certainly was rigid, and yet many priests, scholars, and leaders understood that much of what was in the bible and other texts was figurative and contained a lot of folk-lore. Apparently it was not unheard of for priests and scholars of the day to even doubt the literal existence of god and looked at it in more strictly religious and metaphoric terms.

Modern literalism changes things... there is a big difference in literally believing in the Rapture, End of Days, Armageddon, etc. and viewing it as myth and fable. We all know religion was invented to explain the unknown, concentrate political and economic power, and to subjugate/placate the masses but I think the shift to a literal interpretation makes it more radicalized - one measure of what we see as fundamentalism today.

Maybe it's a matter of semantics, but I think it is an interesting perspective and certainly literalism has created an interesting shift in the direction of modern Christianity.
I think that modern literalist reading of the bible is eventually unsustainable.

Part of the fanaticism of some of the overly religious types is ,IMO, the inability to resolve the differences between what we know and what the bible says. They increasingly end up having to choose between their beliefs and the real world.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
I agree, it forces them to double-down on their commitment to the fantasy universe they live in. It seems the more they are confronted with evidence refuting their beliefs the deeper they bury their heads in the sand. At least the run of the mill rigidly dogmatic type can always back-out when things get too messy by simply claiming that god works in mysterious ways. The literalist doesn't have that luxury.

I don't see how such an approach can be sustainable either - especially with ever-increasing scientific evidence contradicting their literalist dogma.
Don't forget the improbable dodges that some literalists resort to. They can totally redefine the definitions of words and the meaning of a passage to suit their viewpoint, or even apply 'God works in mysterious ways' to it, stating that a mere human cannot properly understand the Scriptures (but since The Bible is the inerrant Word, it must be true, yadda yadda yadda...). One grows tired of arguing with them since they always have an out, no matter how absurd or unprincipled their argument is.
I'm not sure that the Well of Ignorance has a bottom, really, as pertains to sustainability of what we're calling literalism. It's tempting to view modern literal-minded fundamentalists to be a product of Christians being increasingly backed into a corner with fewer and fewer moves left save insisting on their beliefs no matter what, as has been articulated here. While its true that in the current modern environment fundamentalists are fishing with no bait on the hook, I'm not at all convinced that bait is necessary.

First, the idea that a single literal interpretation is possible at all is wrong. The book contradicts itself and thus cannot be reconciled except through lazy or willful ignorance. As I alluded to before, it's only possible to be a sane fundamentalist (work with me here) if the ultimate basis of their beliefs are an unquestioning insistence that what they've been told is true, not what they actually read in the book.

I recognize that the above applies mainly to details, such as what their god might think about gays or women, and not overarching bits like age of the Earth or the biblical flood. But there again the bible, being a cobbled together mash-up of different things from different eras that sometimes contradict each other and sometimes are translated in many different ways very, very often are spare on details in a not-coincidentally Nostradamusian way... Well. I mean, you just have to fill in the gaps, right? There is no "literal" way to fill in gaps like that except fill them with what you already believe.

Or to put it yet another way, the only way to interpret most of the bible with any kind of integrity and honesty, even if you would like to claim that those things you can make out with certainty are literally true, is to admit that most of it is a big question mark. But they don't do that. EVER. And the reason is because (besides generally lacking the will, training, or capacity), doing so would conflict with their beliefs. It's all rather circular.

Finally, second and perhaps more importantly, in the old days religions actually had to compete or perish. Increasing along with scientific knowledge, however, is the establishment of religious protections stronger than the world has ever known coupled with a society so large and complex that many niches can exist without unduly affecting any others. Similar to how medically advanced nations often spare "bad genes" from historical means of eradication from populations (via death before breeding age), what might have once been unsustainable religious sects like the ones we're talking about are really in no danger from thriving because they don't have competition.

In fact, they thrive precisely because more savvy religions -- like the Catholic Church -- are adept at rolling with the punches of modern thought and science, taking a "science and religion are not at odds" stance (even though they provably are) thus creating two masses: those inclined to believe that science has value and thus swallow that contradiction like they do all the others and go on compartmentalizing, and those who don't and thus become disenfranchised as they stagnate and begin to gravitate toward the more literal sects as a result.
If I could offer another possible mechanism for the rise of fundamentalism...

There was a time when X number of churches operated at capacity and balanced the viewpoints of both the young and the old to progress in a relatively stable manner. The surge in baby boomers created a certain critical maximum, however, that is making what came next all the worse:

Younger generations are increasingly likely to leave churches for a number of reasons: separation from the flock because of college (both genders!), people marrying later, married couples waiting longer to have children, and both genders increasingly more likely to both have jobs, cutting out that surplus time that might have been given to church but is now necessary down time.

So now you've got a whole bunch of churches with capacities way in excess of their actual populations. Worse, these churches have minimum operating costs that are barely met by donations, and then only because these churches are mostly bought and paid for already, because they can elude taxes, and because if and only if they can avoid upgrades. So what happens? They hemorrhage even more young people because they want to go to a church where their kids will have other kids to interact with, where they will find others their own age, and where the attitudes more closely match their own. This willingness to move to other churches is helped along by an increasingly decentralized and migratory population base and the normalization of the practice in the workplace, where "loyalty" is something expected by companies and never to be given.

The ultimate result of this is an inexorable concentration of "old school" older congregations, unbalanced by younger members, unexposed to newer ideas. It's a vicious cycle and I think it's helping to drive conservatism -- but a new equilibrium is coming. This mechanism, at least, isn't sustainable and has a bottom.
Cynic - Its not that the well has a bottom so much as the route to get to the bottom. The single advantage religion has is that it offers simple explanations. Those explanations get less simple the more we know though.

Fundies who claim that homosexuality is harmful, for example, are confronted more and more with scientific evidence that it occurs in nature and is harmless in general. They end up having to make wilder and wilder claims to prop up their belief, ie Santorum comparing homosexuality to bestiality.

Similarly we keep seeing prohibitions against things like birth control become problematic with Fundies forced to ridiculous notions like 'Life begins at conception'. They end up forcing women to choose between their priest and their doctors on health issues.

For the most part I do agree with your contention that most any claim to a coherent biblical doctrine will involve some dis-ingenuousness. I would submit though that most fundamentalism isn't really so much about coherent doctrine as it is about hate and on that the bible is fairly clear.

The one thing the bible does do is target groups of people for hatred. Infidels, Gays, Adulterers, Fornicators, Atheists (see Infidels), etc all become labels that are so generic they can be applied to most anyone. More than anything else I would suggest that fundamentalism is really the internalization of those labels and the view that they apply to most of humanity.

Remember, the Judeo-Christian belief system supposes all people to be inherently evil. The one key tenet all fundamentalists must carry is the notion that good can only come from God. That central tenet is in question with every clash between the bible and science.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
Good analysis Cynic, I think you've got it pretty much right on. The problem of demographics (specifically the graying of the faithful flock) must be a terrifying prospect for the churches and much of this hard-right turn you see in politics and church rhetoric/dogma is a reflection of that tension.

Seeker, I agree it is about hate, or at least the manipulation of hate in order to divide and manipulate the flock.

Obviously there are many intricate forces at work influencing these fluid changes in fundamentalist movements and religion in general but it occurs to me (often actually) that it is America's particular brand of mixing religion and politics that has led us to this point. Throughout history of course religion has been a major political force but in today's multi-media, high-tech, 24hr spin-style culture the ruling class (plutocrats if you will) and church leaders have proven to have no problems with whipping up hatred using divisive cultural issues to help them maintain their death-grip on political power. Divide and conquer. It seems there really is a pitched battle between the forces of reason and those of ignorance and despite the extreme nature of the current presidential election primary I don't think the future looks very bright for the right wing. I think to too many people their radical rhetoric (forced to take in part as a result of their literalist position) just looks silly at this point... their anti-contraception position as an example. It may be a bumpy ride however until the demographic shifts start to manifest in the political arena.
Definitely a bumpy ride. I tend to think that this back-and-fourth between extremism and moderation will get nasty. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups and they seem to be on the rise.

When mainstream politicians are casually advocating violence you can count on things getting violent.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana
Technically, life begins before conception. Kind of depends on what you mean by "life" though. If a bacterium is alive, then so is a sperm, so is an ovum, and so is the zygote they produce when fused. And of course, all those things are alive and life by the usual definitions we apply to such things. Many people are uncomfortable with the notion that something so mechanistic can be considered "life" in the same way that squirrels and people are, but I am. In a very real way we are colonies (colonies of colonies, in fact) of individuals and though the arrangement of these cells creates emergent properties not found in its parts, the result is still mechanistic as far as can be shown.

Where it gets sticky is at what point is it ethically impermissible to extinguish it without "sufficient" cause? My point here isn't to start an abortion debate or to suggest that you don't understand this. I just think this is one of the classic forms of miscommunication that occurs between groups all the time, where because the implications intended to be placed on a statement are deemed to be wrong, the statement itself is also deemed to be wrong. What could be common ground on which to better inform the more science-deficient party about the technicalities is dismissed in favor of ridiculing people for imagining that humans somehow are fully formed intellects upon conception that are somehow cocooned in lesser organized flesh until they're the precise age of 18 years past birth. Again, just saying -- caught my attention is all. (And yes, any theory that relies upon "souls" is silly and deserves ridicule.)

Anyway, I'll certainly concede that our increasingly sophisticated understanding of many of the social issues presented in the bible has the direct effect of calling increased attention to the idea that the bible is simply dead wrong. This is more or less what I meant when I suggested fundamentalists are "fishing with no bait." Certainly they would get fewer nibbles on a hook, but they've still got a pretty good "net" in the form of our dumb way of acquiring culture first and knowledge second while also displaying an awesome and terrifying talent for rationalizing the latter to conform to the former.

It was my second point, that we've formed a society in which religion needn't compete to exist, that I think is is key; I'm not so much disputing your observation so much as suggesting that when bubbles in which people do not learn to think critically and have no pressing need to actually understand facts concepts, such stupidity can be assured a a long life, if only in a minority.

However, I think I'm coming around to what you're saying. (It takes time sometimes, but I like to think if it came too quick that I probably took the wrong path to get there.)

If we conceive of a continuum of explanations arranged from least to most sophisticated for phenomenon, we can easily see how the more primitive ones have been supplanted by ever more creative (if equally inaccurate) explanations that take into account the criticisms of those that came before it. I think you're saying that on a technical level of human understanding, Christian fundamentalism has reached that threshold of obsolescence that other theories, like flat Earth and bodily humors, reached long, long ago. And that furthermore, the bulk of people living today in populations exposed to a critical level of modern education have reached or will soon reach that tipping point. If so, I agree. There may come a time that Christianity is discussed in the same manner in which we discuss the theology of the ancient Egyptians.

It's difficult to counter such an inevitable thing, but I would point out that in the past societies had a tendency toward major disruption whereas today information appears to be very, very persistent. The very stability and protection we have achieved may have the secondary effect of allowing fundamental Christianity to persist far longer than it ought under similar circumstances in the past, especially given the rise of Islam and how that tends to cause other nations to act like the scared children we all are under the surface.

Dunno. Have to think on it some more. Seems like people have been advertising the demise of Christianity for some time now and it just doesn't get more simple than countering just about anything with "goddidit" and "yes, but goddontlikeit". I genuinely wonder if there will ever be a need to bring all the horses to the water to drink at all, let along if we could make them drink it if we did.
Well I'm glad my other homework generates such a productive discussion here.
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