Accountability in the face of fundamentalism
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his study into Christian fundamentalism.
As expected, I had lots of responses to my last message (about fundamentalism), with some people declaring support for my arguments, some requesting I join them on projects or assist them in raising awareness, and a few who believe I am making too much of that which divides us, and not emphasising enough those things which unite us. It is the latter point which prompted me to continue with this topic, because I have been made aware of some rigorous studies conducted which should bring elucidation in highlighting why this topic is so important.
One particular study that caught my attention was a study by Oxford University anthropologist Jonathan Lanman – he did lots of research on atheism and religious belief in the West. His particular area of interest was in finding two distinctive types of unbelief in non-Christians, so he separated them into the following categories, and conducted surveys to see the strength of each type in various countries:
- Non-theism (the lack of belief in the existence of supernatural agents)
- Strong atheism (the moral disapproval of and active stance against such beliefs).
When studying patterns of thought in various countries, Jonathan Lanman found a correlation between strong atheism and countries with a high creationist and politically active population, and a correlation between non-theism and the more rational forms of Christianity. As one might expect, the most extreme case was found to be in the United States where creationism and fundamentalism is ubiquitous, and counterbalancing that was the ubiquity of strong atheism. Places like Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Germany which have comparably high levels of intellectual Christianity had far fewer numbers of strong-atheists, but more non-theists. Britain was somewhere in between – but quite worryingly it has a growing number of strong atheists, anti-theists and sceptics whose intolerance for faith-based belief is growing all the time.
So one can see quite clearly that the question of Christian fundamentalism is not simply to be trivialised as ‘live and let live’ – there are serious alarm bells ringing, because this is affecting the reputation of the faith very negatively. Why does America have by far the greatest number of intolerant atheists, hell bent on looking to help eradicate religion from the world scene? The answer is straightforward – it’s because they have become fed up with fundamentalists dominating their political and educational scenes. Furthermore, they are fed up with anti-science nonsense and the crass extremism that so many Christians promulgate.
The response is there for all to see – we’ve had people leaving Christianity in their droves, we’ve had Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and the like hitting the top of the charts with their anti-faith books, and we’ve had tens of thousands of popular atheist bloggers finding easy support from the masses who feel despondent with a faith that contains so many extremists who continue to spout their nonsense, hold political clout, undermine honest and hard-working scientists (many of whom are Christian), and interfere with the education of the young, teaching them lies about a young earth, and about dinosaurs walking the planet with humans, and similarly facile miseducation.
If you hadn’t realised by now – this sort of activity is very damaging to the good, wholesome Christianity that the majority of believers support, and it won’t go away by simply pretending it doesn’t matter – it does, it matters a lot! My experiences of creationists is that most have an astounding lack of curiosity about the world in general – they stay within the parameters of creationist thinking, which self-imposes Biblical literalism to the point that they can hardly use their imagination to conceptualise anything else – meaning they continually miss the correct interpretation of scripture, and are oblivious to the true power of its message (what C.S Lewis calls ‘When myth becomes fact’). Their only interest in subjects outside their comfort zone seems to be based on how they can use them as fodder for proselytising, but sadly this limitation seems to filtrate into other areas of their faith, whereby they begin to question the sincerity of the faith of those whose views about the natural world do not match their own. I suppose the fact that we all rejoice in the grace of Christ despite personal foibles and the foibles of others is at least one cardinal point in favour of its truth.
The main driving force behind creationist’s anti-evolution vigour seems to be based on a literal interpretation of Genesis, where the 'You must read Genesis literally' brigade in the US are part of a powerful lobby that seeks to spiritually mandate literalism over and above a more creative interpretation (this is evidenced by the fact that about 40% (last figure I heard) of Americans are supposed to believe in this literal Genesis and YEC falsehoods). Sadly the underlying literalist malaise seems to be one of priding itself in demonstrating uncompromising faith in the teeth of contra evidence, via a kind of emotion-laden self-flagellation of one's hermeneutical resources. brigade in the US are part of a powerful lobby that seeks to spiritually mandate literalism over and above a more creative interpretation (this is evidenced by the fact that about 40% (last figure I heard) of Americans are supposed to believe in this literal Genesis and YEC falsehoods). Sadly the underlying literalist malaise seems to be one of priding itself in demonstrating uncompromising faith in the teeth of contra evidence, via a kind of emotion-laden self-flagellation of one's hermeneutical resources.
While this may be dressed up as an admirable assent to all things holy, I can't help but fear that the resultant literalist fundamentalism creates a peer pressure which helps ensure that nobody dare dissent into what they fear is ‘EVILution’, as that would be regarded as the thin end of the heretical wedge. Perhaps a reminder from St Augustine on the dangers of interpreting Genesis literally is in order...
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?"
St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis.
The tragic irony is that insisting on a literalist Genesis robs the imagination of something so much more wonderful – the power of an allegorical or mythical narrative that has the power to drive humanity towards realising the need for salvation. Moreover, it frees one up to experience nature with all her beauty and tragedy, without having to keep lying to oneself every time science produces a further discovery.
A literal Genesis 1 that's seen through a scientific lens causes so many problems; plain common sense shows that it isn't meant to be taken literally. It is actually scientifically inaccurate (the order of phyla is wrong) so if you take it literally you take it as a literal example of God (or the writer) getting facts wrong. Genesis 1 would preclude transitional forms, but science shows that many species have beautifully preserved fossils of many of their predecessors. Take the horse as an example - the horse evolved from a wolf-like ancestor, and the fossil sequence takes the form; Hyracotherium -> Orohippus -> Epihippus -> Mesohippus -> Miohippus -> Kalobatippus -> Parahippus -> Merychippus -> Hipparion -> Pliohippus -> Dinohippus -> Plesippus -> Equus (modern horse).
That constitutes several proto-horses, which if viewed through a Genesis 1 scientific lens shows God as a botched Creator who not only took several attempts to create a horse properly, but made phenotypic mistakes along the way. So by sticking to Genesis 1 through this strict scientific lens, creationists are not doing God any favours, because they are getting their facts wrong, and making God look like He got His facts wrong too. Taking the literal Genesis as being true science, whereby God created the many biological structures in unreachable isolation from anything that would precede them ancestrally has all sorts of difficulties which give the appearance that Christianity involves parting company with rationality – and that’s not good for our reputation.
A literalist Genesis interpretation has God creating complex stable physiological systems of mutually harmonised parts that were contrived all in one piece; that is, not with proto antecedents, but in complete and current phenotypic form as a fait accompli. But this causes an obvious problem because it involves clinging to the false view that science has never discovered any missing links between phenotypic traits. Frankly, creationists need to take the blindfold off - there are missing links for just about every species of animal you can think of.
Of course the usual favourite is for creationists to claim that there is no missing link between man and ape. Even if we ignore the scientific misunderstanding of taxonomy there, and the fact that biological classifications are human constructs, there are many missing links. By the way 'missing link' is a daft terminology anyway because for every find there will always be two further missing links, so creationists are shooting themselves in the foot because the more missing links we have the more intermediaries we have.
I'll give you an example by demonstrating with those 'missing links' between proto-humans and humans that creationists claim have not been found. We once found a fossil which showed a clear development towards human evolution, called Homo habilis. But all sorts of creationist falsehoods were spewed because they didn't want to believe that it was an intermediary fossil at all. Then we found Homo erectus - that's another intermediary. You can guess what the creationists did next, can’t you? They decreed that there's no missing link between Homo habilis and Homo erectus, so that proves evolution must be false. Trouble is, another intermediary is found, Homo georgicus, so now the creationists were getting desperate, so they had to twist the truth again. Even though yet another intermediary was found, for the creationists that's more scope for dismissal, because they say evolution must be false because there is no intermediary between Homo georgicus and homo erectes, or between Homo habilis and Homo georgicus. But guess what - there is ....between the first two we found Homo rudolfensis and between the latter two we found Homo cepranensis, and between them Homo antecessor and Homo ergaster, and so on - how many more? Every time a new intermediary is found - for example Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens idaltu, Archaic Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis.-- the creationists can simply suppress the truth and then add two missing links with every find - it's madness and objectionable.
With regard to the Bible, the intention of meaning shouldn’t be confused with science, and it is for the same reason that the intention of meaning of the works of, say, Keats or Tennyson or Blake should not be confused with the works of Newton or Kepler or Maxwell - different expressions are being conveyed. On hearing that a wife's love for her husband "Lifts her high above the clouds", only a very foolish man would say 'No it doesn't, because that contradicts Newtonian laws'. Yet some Christians too often fall into the mistake of doing something similar (as per above). The Bible contains everything one needs for having a relationship with God. It won't tell you about the age of the earth or evolution or gravity or electromagnetism because those subjects weren't studied in depth by Arcadian men. .
It’s not as though one needs to put God aside to study science; people just need to stop looking for scientific answers in scripture, because by doing so they skew God's intention, and miss the power of things like early Genesis. Don't put God aside when studying science; rather, look at science as the tool with which we assess the finer details of the beauty of God's 'physical' creation - nature! Moreover, an honest and unbiased pursuit of the facts might give you food for thought, regarding why creationists are in the minority, and why almost all of them have almost no knowledge of biology, chemistry, anthropology, and paleontology. To be frank, most of them copy and paste from the blogs of willfully ignorant and/or dishonest creationists or IDists (that’s Intelligent Design) who propagate their material because they have a heavy vested interest (often financial) in the creationist market.
I think another of the main catalysts for the proliferation of creationism has been that evolution is wrongly associated with atheism, with children of fundamentalist Christians believing they have to choose one or the other, and getting pressured to choose creationism.
I find that one commonality seen in evolution-deniers is their inability to see the power of the concept; that is, the power of ‘concepts’ in our understanding God’s narrative. Both the narrative of evolution and the allegory of early Genesis invite us to see the deeper picture in the power of conceptual thinking. So much so that a literal Genesis (as well as being scientifically inaccurate) is crammed into a box when its power is circumscribed through literalism. As I grew out my teens I tended to demythologise the notion of sentimental value being intrinsic to the physical composition of the objects, because the magic is in the memory or the feeling not the object itself. About 20 years ago I sold some vinyl in a period of financial hardship, and regretted it shortly after. Not now though. For me, regret doesn't often extend to valuable artefacts that hold high sentimental value, because I rationalise sentiment as a concept that holds its value outside of the atomic structure of the objects in question. This is a good pattern of thought regarding Genesis – the true sentiment of the magic is not in the literal events, it is in the powerful truths about mankind that the story symbolises. It ought to be noted that Christ Himself often spoke in figurative language (John 16:12,25), and parables (Matthew 13:34) and He warned His disciples the importance of understanding the context of His teaching (Matthew 16:7-12).
When it comes to the lack of basic scientific knowledge about the subjects related to evolution, it never ceases to amaze me how little creationists know. Consider this as a case in point. If you are a creationist reading this; how much do you know about, say, the human genome project, or taxonomy, or the phylogenetic tree, or DNA coding, or horizontal gene transfer, or allele frequencies? I’ll bet that for most of you, there is virtually nothing that you could claim to know about any of them. But those aforementioned sub-categories of evolution are among the very basics – they are equivalent to the first principles one would learn in any given subject.
Imagine if you were going to take your car to a garage to be fixed, and you found that the mechanic in question didn’t even know what spark plugs were, or pistons, or a sump, or a crank shaft – you would quickly turn the car around and find another garage, because you wouldn’t dream of letting such an amateur loose on your car. Yet with your anti-evolution views, this is precisely what you are allowing yourself to do; you are willfully adopting a viewpoint contrary to what 90% of your fellow Christians believe, and what 99.9% of scientists in the world accept as true. Furthermore, you are adopting strongly held views without possessing even the most basic knowledge of the facts – and this is a dangerous precedent which has caused humanity so many problems over the centuries. The human genome project, and taxonomy, and the phylogenetic tree, and DNA coding, and horizontal gene transfer, and allele frequencies are all as basic to a theistic evolutionist as spark plugs and pistons and sumps and crank shafts are to mechanics. Ask yourself why you don’t know anything about them, and begin to question your position with honesty and integrity – I think you’ll soon find the truth.
Creationism is a fringe group that would have St Augustine turning in his grave, and (as seen above), its influence is having not just a very negative effect on the individuals who subscribe to such views, but more severely, it is having a tremendously damaging impact on the reputation of Christianity in general, and a very positive effect on the growth and confidence of new wave atheism. This is why the alarm bells are ringing.
As a further point to consider, particularly if you are a creationist, think about why you subscribe to creationism and consider also from whence your views came to you. I would hazard a guess that you have simply inherited the views from your upbringing – either your parents or under the tutelage of your church leaders or elders. The upshot is, it’s only by sheer circumstance that you happen to believe what you do. If you were raised in a High Anglican environment in England’s Oxford, or a Catholic Church in Florence, or a Methodist Church in Sweden, or a Lutheran Church in the Denmark you would very likely be a theistic evolutionist now.
In closing, I should like to say, yes I'm all for encouraging each other with love - but it’s important to expose fundamentalism, because it is the fundamentalists who are impeding this process, and in doing so they give conceptual levers to atheists, and that catalyses more and more atheist propaganda, which makes a further mess of the great commission. The most appalling fact about all this conflict is that it is so unnecessary – the facts are there, and they are not difficult to grasp.
The point of this article is clear - the reputation of Christianity is in a mess, thanks to the fundamentalists and the atheists who feed off fundamentalism like vultures on dead skin. Unless we sort our own house out we will only continue to add to the problem, and those who declare Jesus as Lord but then set Him up as a Lord who denies evolution are disfiguring the integrity of a faith that is otherwise profoundly wonderful.
While I seek solace in the fact that there are lots of intelligent Christians who easily combine a worked through faith with scientific knowledge, that doesn't curb my enthusiasm for exposing the fundamentalist nonsense that pervades our faith and acts as a real barrier to many enquiring atheists – if for no other reason than the springboard it gives folk like Dawkins and Hitchens in their quest to win people over and lead them away from church.
Enough is enough, I think; and rest assured I will be bringing out a book which will help take Christianity to higher levels, and give hope for the future, while hopefully the fundamentalists are exposed more and more until their falsehoods all but disappear from public discourse. Many have no idea how much damage creationism and anti-science nonsense is doing to those of us who wish to spread the word with philosophical honesty and integrity. Enough is enough! It’s time to get real and take Christianity beyond the ghost of Galileo.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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