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Thursday, 20 March 2008

Against Preferring Fundamentalists

There are atheists who say they have more respect for fundamentalist believers than for liberals. At least the fundamentalists follow their own logic, even if it is horrible -- so the reasoning goes. Fundamentalists, supposedly, are consistent within their own worldview, they don't "pick and choose", they don't rely on fuzzy, feel-good reasoning. They have their picture and they stick with it, whereas the liberal Christian picture doesn't even make sense.

I want to speak up for the liberal Christians.

There's a sonnet by John Donne that begins "At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels . . . ". At the round Earth's imagin'd corners. You see, Revelations 7:1 says "I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth." The Earth has no corners, but we may imagine them, let our religion in this one aspect be an element only of the life of the mind, a flight of the imagination that makes sense on an emotional, poetic level.

I get that. And you'll note that it's hardly a new idea! Fred Clark the Slacktivist has a certain liking for John Donne. That quote below his blog title about "knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend" is from another of Donne's "Holy Sonnets". And yes, I like that poem, too. For me the whole thing is mere flight of the imagination -- a view which the author would not approve of, I'm sure! Worse still, I don't necessarily agree with the poem's stance, even as metaphor, for it views human nature as sinful and speaks of help only as coming from without, and its call to be completely overthown is too similar to calls made by Christians for their reason to be overthrown for me to be able to be comfortable with it. Nevertheless, it is such a powerful, visceral cry for goodness that I can't help but be caught by it. Thus I can understand religious humanists, and the others who do not liberalise themselves quite so far, who blend truth and tradition by means of metaphor, retaining the structure of belief as an aspect of their lives, and retaining the belief itself to various degrees.

Some Christians, of course, are afraid that they or others will go this far. They would read what I have written above and say "See? This is why we can't go around taking stuff metaphorically all the time." Many of them would then go on to explain that not taking the Bible literally might let you support abortion or (gasp) homosexuality. Of course, the abortion thing is ridiculous, because there isn't a single verse in the Bible that guarantees either that abortion is wrong or that the soul is implanted at conception. In fact, there's at least one passage (Exodus 21:22-23) that sort of implies otherwise. Moreover, if anyone's 'picking and choosing' with no obvious justification, it's the people who pick the invisible verse condemning abortion along with "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination" (Lev:20:13) and Paul's statement in 1 Romans referring to "women [who] exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural" and "men . . . [who] were consumed with passion for one another" as "errors" and "degrading passions", while completely ignoring some or all of the following:

Deut 22:5 A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.

How many of the people who speak against homosexuality also speak against women wearing trousers? I bet some of them are women wearing trousers.

Deut 22:11 You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.

Enough said. Nobody is demanding laws against wool/linen garments.

Lev 25:44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you [and not from the Israelites] that you may acquire male and female slaves.
Eph 6:5-6 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
(and many more from both Old and New Testaments)

People used to care about those ones, but people who liked those verses usually preferred to ignore this verse:

Deut 23:15-16 Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.

Small mitigation, I think.

I could go on until everybody is bored, but I won't (go to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible and you'll be able to pull out hundreds of verses that most of those who deride homosexuality don't follow, I'm sure). People over the centuries have used the Bible for their purposes and derided as "pickers and choosers" those who didn't come to the conclusions mandated by the verses they chose. Such people always ignore plenty of other verses. The reason those people -- whether railing against homosexuality, miscegenation, women's rights or the abolition of slavery -- seem to refer to the Bible more often than their opponents is very simple. It's because they don't have anything else to refer to. It doesn't mean that they actually take the Bible any more literally.

If you're going to pick and choose, by all means pick "love your neighbour as yourself"! Yes, to do so requires an extra-Biblical value judgement (oh, no!), but at least there is some justification! Unlike fundamentalists, people who pick "love your neighbour" aren't picking and choosing for no good reason. They have a reason. It's quite a good one. It's the common human sense of morality, not mandated by the universe, but felt by nearly all human beings in some form. To be sure, morality of this type can get fuzzy around the edges, but the Golden Rule has arisen independently in many, many cultures, and it's always considered crucial. It's not arbitrary, merely relative to humanity. Humanity in general, that is.

Don't feed the fundamentalists. Don't tell them they actually take the Bible more seriously. They'll just say "Yes, that's right, the Bible forbids abortion!" (It doesn't. Remember?)


Lifeguard said...

Very thoughtful post. I especially liked you point about fundamentalists resort to literalism more often than liberals, because that's all they have-- not necessarily because they take the bible MORE literally.

Ebonmuse said...

I'd put the argument somewhat differently. It's not that religious liberals pick and choose from the Bible and religious fundamentalists don't. Both groups do that, as you noted.

No, the real difference is that fundamentalists, for all their moral flaws, don't apologize for their belief in the Bible. They stand behind the book as a whole and say it's all the product of unique revelation from the same god. That position is consistent; it's wrong, but at least it's consistent.

Quite often, on the other hand, I've seen a liberal or moderate theist explain that yes, the Bible is flawed, it contains errors, it has many parts that are morally unacceptable - and then they go right on believing in it anyway. That's the part I really don't get. If your sense of ethics is sufficiently developed to understand why many of these passages are repugnant, if your view of history and science is sufficiently non-dogmatic to judge the veracity of the text by an independent standard, then why do you need the text at all? Why treat it any differently than any other book, or show it any special reverence you don't accord to other books?

The fundamentalists at least have an answer to that question. Religious moderates, though they have a far superior view of morality, don't seem to.

Lynet said...

In other words, Ebonmuse, fundamentalists get a free pass because their stupidity and lack of judgement is given at the outset and considered completely intractable?

Seriously, I can see nothing beyond that that makes sense of your view. You're saying it's less stupid to be consistently stupid, even if part of that consistent stupidity is that your beliefs are inconsistent.

Quite often, on the other hand, I've seen a liberal or moderate theist explain that yes, the Bible is flawed, it contains errors, it has many parts that are morally unacceptable - and then they go right on believing in it anyway. That's the part I really don't get.

You honestly don't get it at all?

I wouldn't go that way myself, but I don't find it hard to understand why other people do. I've seen several reasons; I have my own answers to them all. None of them involve thinking that fundamentalism would be more consistent. Fundamentalism is inconsistent. From a logical standpoint, at least, the same is not true of all liberalism.

Alon Levy said...

Lynet, there actually are conservative Christians who say women shouldn't wear pants. They're not as mainstream as those who say they shouldn't abort, but they're there. The fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is what you'd expect from someone with conservative values: a lot of emphasis on sexual purity and gender roles, relatively little on subverting the religious establishment's social rules.

Lynet said...

Oh, I know that if you get fundamentalist enough you can probably find people who follow just about any rule that's legal (i.e. not the one about stoning adulterers). Are there Orthodox Jews who actually do follow the 'don't mix wool and linen' one? I guess I sort of decided to mention a few that would put most people out of the 'literalism' camp. The strongest comparison is with slavery -- there are plenty of good people who are also conservative Christians, who are perfectly capable of understanding that placing more emphasis on the Bible than on compassion can lead to great evil, but who nevertheless can be blind in the 'homosexuality' case because on some level they really do think of themselves as taking the Bible 'seriously' and 'literally' in condemning homosexuality. With regard to slavery they are liberals, and they pay it no mind, but liberalism in the case of homosexuality still seems unthinkable to them.

I suppose if people wanted to say that they could respect Orthodox Jews and the Exclusive Brethren for being consistent, they might have a slightly better point. But nobody ever says that -- they're too busy recoiling in amused bafflement.

Alon Levy said...

Are there Orthodox Jews who actually do follow the 'don't mix wool and linen' one?

I think so. Orthodox Jews really do obey all the laws that don't involve stoning people, plus a good deal more based on the rabbis' interpretations.

L.L. Barkat said...

Lynet, have you read A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically? Somehow I think you would enjoy it. A secular Jew, he did an experiment in trying to live out all the laws of the bible; it's both profound and hilarious.

After reading this, the other thing I thought you might enjoy is MG's post about .

L.L. Barkat said...

Hmmm... it didn't take the html.

The post I was trying to point you to is...

the chaplain said...

"Don't feed the fundamentalists. Don't tell them they actually take the Bible more seriously."

Many fundamentalists know less about what the Bible actually says than do moderates and liberals. Fundies are very amenable to authoritarianism and are very comfortable with someone providing all the answers to their questions. Consequently, aside from the preachers and church leaders, many fundies know very little about the Bible from first-hand study. Also, given that many fundy preachers don't have the same level of theological/pastoral education that liberals and moderates do, even the preachers are not very reliable. They know what they believe the Bible says. That's quite distinct from knowing what the Bible says.

I know this characterization appears to be stereotypical. Please recall that stereotypes are often based on true types. Stereotypes go wrong when they become caricatures and when they are said to apply to everyone within the type. Obviously, there are exceptions to the general type I've described here. Nevertheless, the stereotype captures pretty accurately a significant number of people.

Moderate and liberal Christians tend to be more thoughtful, intellectually curious and realistic than fundies. Their pastors often complete three years of post-graduate seminary training. The preachers know what they believe and they also know what the Bible says in at least one of its original languages (Hebrew for OT scholars, Greek for NT specialists). Mods and libs are more open-minded than their conservative counterparts and are more amenable to being corrected and learning new points of view. Again, a stereotype, but, again, one that accurately captures a good number, though not all, of the people it intends to portray.

EnoNomi said...

Good post. The parts of the Bible that people cherry-pic are a reflection of the person doing the picking. If you're a bigoted homophobe you pick what makes you feel vindicated. If you're a god-is-love person than that's the Bible you know.

Pseudonym said...

the chaplain: I agree with you there.

A liberal/mainline/moderate Christian knows about the hard or unsavory parts of the Bible, and is prepared to play them down in whatever way they deem appropriate. ("It's metaphorical", "it's a type", "that's the old covenant" are some standard responses. Even dispensationalism is better than nothing.)

A fundamentalist or self-styled evangelical will often simply not be aware that the unsavory parts are there. I've heard form more than one "evangelistic" Atheist that fundamentalist/pseudo-evangelical Christians often know less about the Bible than they do.

BruceA said...

Ebonmuse -

Quite often, on the other hand, I've seen a liberal or moderate theist explain that yes, the Bible is flawed, it contains errors, it has many parts that are morally unacceptable - and then they go right on believing in it anyway.

As a moderate Christian, I don't think that's a fair characterization. First, I don't believe in the Bible, as you claim. I believe in God.

And yes, I agree that the Bible is flawed, but I don't think its flaws are sufficient to warrant rejecting the whole thing.

Here's an analogy: I grew up in a small farming community, where I learned the values of honesty and hard work. The town was not without its flaws; for example, most of the people were racist. Should I reject my hometown because of its flaws? Should I conclude, since racism is wrong, honesty must be wrong too? No, each value must stand or fall on its own merits.

Likewise, Christianity is part of my heritage, and the Bible is a major element of Christianity. But just because the Bible (or Christianity itself, for that matter) has its flaws, I'm not going to completely reject it. It's part of who I am.

Ebonmuse said...

I think brucea's comment is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. He concedes that the Bible is morally flawed, but still accords it special status because, he says, "It's part of who I am."

To elaborate on my earlier comment, when I say that fundamentalists are consistent, I mean that I can ask them, "Why do you believe in the Bible?", and get an answer that I understand. I strongly disagree with their starting premises, but I can at least see how those premises lead to the conclusions they advocate. In Bruce's case, I have to say, I just don't see that link at all. The most sense I can make of it is to assume he's saying that, because his ancestors and his culture were Christian and believed in the Bible, it's proper for him to be Christian and believe in the Bible as well. (If this is not what you're saying, Bruce, feel free to clarify.)

Assuming I've interpreted his comment correctly, then I have to ask: What's the connection? Because Christianity was part of your culture in the past, it should continue to be part of your culture in the future? That just doesn't follow at all. Slaveholding is part of many people's heritage; that doesn't make it a tradition that should be kept up or celebrated. He himself used the example of people in his hometown who held racist beliefs. Those beliefs, then, are every bit as much "a part of his heritage" as anything else, but he certainly doesn't consider that a reason to continue to propagate them.

We are not forever bound by our pasts. Why can't we give the Bible, or any other idea, a fresh look in each generation, and determine whether it should continue to be carried forward? I have every confidence that the ideas which deserve to survive this kind of testing will survive it.

Alon Levy said...

Chaplain, that may be true today for Christians, but it's less true in other religions and time periods. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Protestants consistently read the Bible more than Catholics. Jews were made to be familiar with Biblical criticism right up until secular education became available to them; in Israel, the most religious Jews are still those who spend the most time studying the Bible.

What is true is that most churches that have recently become Evangelical-majority arose from more populist backgrounds. The Catholics and Anglicans may have told people to shut up and listen to their priests, but they at least emphasized educated clergy. In contrast, the Baptists and Methodists took the idea that people should read the Bible for themselves and generalized it to mean that priests don't need special training, just devotion.

Ebonmuse, when you understand why secularist conferences abound with paeans to the US Founding Fathers even though all participiants know they owned slaves, you'll understand why liberal Christians accept most of the Bible while rejecting Leviticus.

the chaplain said...

Alon said, "Chaplain, that may be true today for Christians, but it's less true in other religions and time periods."

So what? I thought Lynet was addressing the contemporary situation, not the historical one. If I'm right, then what's true for today is what matters most for the purposes of this discussion.

Lynet said...

Ebonmuse, when you understand why secularist conferences abound with paeans to the US Founding Fathers even though all participiants know they owned slaves, you'll understand why liberal Christians accept most of the Bible while rejecting Leviticus.

Interesting comparison. I'd say there is an element of that sort of respect for tradition and for sources that developed or that were influential in promoting the ideas that inspire you.

I wonder if moderate Christianity also still holds the remnants of some sort of belief that it's (of itself) good to respect the Bible just because it's the Bible, though. Speaking factually, my guess would be that many moderate Christians do still consciously or subconsciously hold some of the (probably less sensible) ideas espoused by fundamentalists, they just aren't so strongly wedded to them that it clouds their moral sense entirely. However, I'd much rather see moderate Christians speak for themselves on that one -- thanks for contributing, BruceA.

Ebonmuse said...

That's a good analogy, Alon. I think it helps, although in the case of Christianity, it's considerably harder to apply it straightforwardly.

America's founders were human, and fallible. No one denies that. We celebrate what they achieved because, compared to the moral standards of their time, it was a great leap forward. That doesn't mean that owning slaves was a good thing or that it was acceptable - I think anyone can agree it was by far their most serious moral failing - but it doesn't detract from the undeniable significance of what they did accomplish.

But with Christianity, it seems to me, a great many questions arise if you look at it this way. If God inspired the Bible, is he morally fallible? Did he not recognize, or did he condone, the many evils recorded in its pages? Or was he simply unable or unwilling to prevent the prejudices of the time from contaminating his message - and if so, why is that?

Also, the Constitution is amendable. We're not still living with the same text as was laid down in 1776. But Christians - even liberal Christians - still use and commemorate the entire Bible, just as it's always been, complete with all those bad parts. We fixed the Constitution to eliminate slavery; we wouldn't have much call to still be proud of it if we hadn't done that. Are there any Christians planning to amend or edit the Bible to bring about a comparable improvement?

Colin said...

If I'm hearing right, the question looks like a matter of honesty. Fundamentalists aren't more consistent than Liberals simply because although the Liberals might not have the best reasoning on the 'surface' (they accept both the fallibility and infallibility of the Bible), at least they are grappling with the problem. No, God isn't the same as the Founding Fathers when taken at face value. One is supposed to be human and the other is supposed to be omnipotent. So you would expect perfection from one where you might be willing to allow for humanity with the other.

But that comparison obscures the question. It seems to me like the moral in lynet's post was that you have to inject some mortality (humanity) into these discussions. Hopefully we can all agree that people are too human to ever hit the Answer on the head as long as the Answer is presented as the content of a set of ideas.

But the Bible is something larger than just a set of ideas that can be evaluated true or false. For better or worse, it contains a whole world-view that is implicit in its contradictions as much as in what it explicitly states. To pretend otherwise while still interpreting--like Fundamentalists do--is dishonest.

BruceA said...

I think there is an underlying misconception here. To understand how moderate and liberal Christians approach the Bible, you need to forget about the fundamentalist approach.

The Qur'an claims to have been dictated directly from God to the prophet. Certain portions of the Bible also claim this status, but they are few and far between. The bulk of the Bible is said to be merely "inspired" by God. While fundamentalists may believe that "inspired" is a synonym for "dictated," that's not the normal meaning of the word. Suppose someone says, "My high school art teacher inspired me to become an artist." That does not mean, "My high school art teacher paints all my paintings."

Maybe I can build on Alon's Founding Fathers anaology above. The flaws in the Bible stem from the fact that it was written by flawed human beings, just as the U.S. Constitution was. The Bible is no more infallible than any other book. On the other hand, just as the Constitution is the foundational document of United States law, the Bible is the foundational book of Christianity.

Still, for moderates and liberals, the Bible is not the starting point of faith. Belief in God and identification as a Christian come first; only then is it profitable to study the Bible. (This is the traditional Christian approach to the Bible, and it is only due to the remarkable P.R. skills of the fundamentalists that the traditional approach is now called "liberal.")

And finally, "moderate Christian" does not mean "moderately Christian." It's not a matter of believing a little less strongly than the fundamentalists. It's a completely different approach, which recognizes the Bible as a human product, but nonetheless a book worthy of study.

I don't know if this clears anything up, or confuses the issue more.

L.L. Barkat said...

My dear, you've been memed. By me.

the chaplain said...

Thanks for your insights. This statement is significant: "Belief in God and identification as a Christian come first; only then is it profitable to study the Bible."

Fundamentalists sometimes come dangerously close to worshiping the Bible more than God. They would say otherwise, of course, but I think they get themselves into difficulty when they take Luther's sola scripture too far. Luther was trying to counterbalance the RC emphasis on Church traditions and teachings. His emphasis on close reading of the Bible was sort of a "Back to Basics" movement.

Moderate and Liberal Christians probably balance the emphasis between scripture and doctrine better than Conservatives do. Not that I think any of them are right, mind you.

Lynet said...

Thanks, BruceA.

I did have one question. "Belief in God and identification as a Christian come first" -- to what extent does this mean that a sense of group identity affects what you determine to be true? Or would you prefer to say that the things you hold to because they are (specifically) Christian are merely your way of looking at things?

Quixote said...

Hello again Lynet,

Hope things find you well. Very interesting to read both your post and the subsequent attempts to classify groups within the range of Christianity. It appears that this categorization is a slippery business. From a Christian perspective, you guys are absolutely correct with many of your observations regarding fundamentalists, moderates, and liberal Christians.

Ironically, the same difficulty crops up when Christians attempt to categorize atheists and agnostics. What I see of importance in this, if any meaningful dialogue is to occur, is that a load of presuppositions and definitions must be ironed out first, else the conversation breaks down into the all-too-common "that's not Christian" and "that's not atheism" evasions. I am not even sure this is possible in an overarching sense.

"I have every confidence that the ideas which deserve to survive this kind of testing will survive it." Couldn't agree with you more, EM. Coming up on 2000 years now, and counting :)

BruceA said...

Lynet -

I did have one question. "Belief in God and identification as a Christian come first" -- to what extent does this mean that a sense of group identity affects what you determine to be true?

I would have to say that my identity as a Christian affects my theological beliefs, but for other kinds of truth (scientific, historical, ethical) experience tells me Christians are not any better than anyone else. So, for example, I'm not going to accept creationism just because some Christian with a Ph.D. from a diploma mill is able to misquote a few biologists to make it look like evolotion is a theory in crisis. I'm not going to accept the claim that the United States is or ever was a Christian nation, just because someone can cull a bunch of quotes with the word "God" (or "creator") from the Founding Fathers. I don't believe that atheists and agnostics are morally defective just because some preacher said so.

So I guess my short answer would be: It depends on what kind of truth you're talking about.

belledame222 said...

Right on. When I hear people say something like that, it makes me leery of them, because I am aware that fundamentalism is not, in fact, limited to religion; and contempt for ambiguity is not a trait I want in anyone on my side.