2012-07-05

How I Escaped Fundamentalism — 5 Myths about Ex-Fundies

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

Neil keeps telling me I need to add something to the blog to tell people a little bit about my background. That sounds pretty dull to me, but here goes. Oddly enough, one of the posts on Vridar that gets the most hits, day in and day out, is the one on the 10 Characteristics of Fundamentalism. So for this post, I would like to piggyback on that list with my own list of 5 Myths about Ex-Fundies.

HOLY SPIRIT - FOIX

HOLY SPIRIT – FOIX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I grew up in a very strict fundamentalist Protestant denomination called The Church of the Nazarene. We shunned “worldly” things like going to the movies, playing cards, dancing, smoking, etc. We were, literally, “holy-rollers” — believing in a distinct, second work of grace after conversion. First you’re converted; then you’re sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We took the Bible very literally and accepted it as the living Word of God.

At some point in my middle teens that entire worldview became unreal to me. I no longer believed there was a titanic struggle for human souls. I no longer felt “the presence of the Spirit.” I no longer believed there was an angry, jealous God who kept a book with all my sins in it. But it wasn’t a sudden change.

Myth #1: Ex-fundamentalists have a de-conversion experience that mirrors the conversion process

I can’t recall any particular, singular memorable event that caused me to stop believing. However, I do recall being a “doubter” even when I was a small child. I remember thinking that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are” except for whether there’s a God or not. That was my greatest temptation: wondering whether there really is anything beyond what we can experience with our senses. And that was my greatest fear, too. Well, no, I take that back. My greatest fear was accidentally committing “Holy Spirit Thought Crime.” I was continually afraid I would accidentally blaspheme the Holy Spirit in my mind and be damned for eternity.

Some people may, like Paul on the road to Damascus, suddenly get knocked to the ground, in an abrupt, violent non-epiphany.* And like Paul, they may also switch from one extreme focus to another, but for me it wasn’t like that at all.

Myth #2: The de-conversion event, if it occurs in a person’s youth, is an act of rebellion — “It’s a phase”

We surely cannot deny that adolescent rebellion is a constant feature in human society, especially in the West, where individual identity can be just as important as cultural identity. As children grow up, they feel the need to express themselves in ways distinct from their families, and try to align themselves with outside groups. Often, this expression of individuality is little more than an exchange of one group’s values for another. And such changes can no doubt often be rather superficial — different clothes, hairstyles, music.

Sometimes, however, as children grow up they realize they aren’t like the rest of their family. Consider adolescents who have to deal with their own homosexual orientation — hardly the manifestation of a superficial, temporary rebellion. They will often continue to believe as their parents do in matters of cultural mores, political beliefs, etc. They may continue to keep it a secret for many years, not wanting to hurt their families. They may live in self-denial and self-loathing.

The change from belief to unbelief can have many causes. It can, I suppose, be a superficial change, a style choice like wearing bell-bottom trousers. On the other hand, it can be a life-changing, disturbing, unexpected, and unwanted change. I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone who had transformed from fundamentalist believer into staunch atheist just to be in the cool group at school. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When you’re in the fundamentalist community and you’ve taken on the fundamentalist mindset, you have a complete, hermetically sealed worldview. Everything has its place, including you. Your self-image and your understanding of the world are intertwined. You can’t knock out the foundations of this worldview without sending yourself into a tailspin. The universe has no meaning. Your life has no meaning. People will shun you. How do you know right from wrong? You can kiss eternal life good-bye. And if you’re wrong, you’re going to hell.

The experience reminds me of military basic training, at least for enlisted men. The recruit is separated from his culture, shaven and shorn, put in new clothes, deprived of sleep, screamed at, and broken down. The drill sergeant then builds him back up again within a new culture, with a new worldview, along with a new self-identity.

Unfortunately, for the de-converted fundamentalist, there is no new template, no new worldview, no new identity readily available.  I can look back on the experience now and see it as a great opportunity, but it was very traumatic at the time. Suddenly I was presented with a blank canvas. Now what? Freedom is a scary thing.

The memory of that catastrophic experience keeps me from trying to “de-convert” others. To any reader out there who is leaning this way already, I can offer advice, but actively trying to wrench people away from fundamentalism seems like a cruel and unrewarding activity.

Myth #3: When a fundamentalist stops believing, he becomes a “village atheist” — “Once an extremist, always an extremist.”

I’ve usually found the opposite to be true. I spent years believing the truth was something that was revealed from God. But science taught me that the truth was something to be discovered by experimentation, testing, and logic. And our provisional understanding of the universe will probably change over time, but that’s all right.  I’m reminded of Casey’s calumny:

One example is blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian who was a baptised member of the Worldwide Church of God for 22 years, so he belonged to a hopelessly fundamentalist organisation which holds critical scholarship in contempt.  He converted to ‘atheism’ later, so he has had two conversion experiences, and this means that his contempt for evidence and argument as means of reaching decisions about important matters is doubly central to his life.

What Casey is trying to say in his own, smug, puerile way is that when fundamentalists become unbelievers, it’s like changing the polarity of a magnet.  He thinks we have all remained intensely dogmatic, but we’ve flipped sides.

The one thing that all ex-fundamentalists live with is the sure knowledge of how wrong we can be. I was absolutely certain that the world was created in six days just a few thousand years ago. I was wrong. I stood my ground and argued with people about the craziest ideas and I was absolutely, unshakably sure that I had the Truth. I did not have the truth. I wasn’t just misinformed about some trivial matter. I was dead wrong on almost everything.

There’s nothing like humiliation to make you humble.

So when Casey talks about “contempt for evidence and argument,” he has no idea what he’s talking about. From my experience we ex-fundies continually check and re-check the evidence. Are we letting our presuppositions color our conclusions? Are we cherry-picking evidence to get the answers we want? We now know firsthand how easy it is to fall into that trap, and we don’t want to make that mistake again.

Myth #4: All ex-fundamentalists are full of hate. They hate God. They hate religion. They hate the Bible.

Once again, other people’s circumstances will be different from mine. If a person suffered abuse at the hands of the clergy, he or she may well hate their former religion and everything about it.

However, since many ex-fundamentalists convert to some other form of Christianity, this myth is clearly nonsense. For those of us who stopped believing in God (or, like me, all supernatural phenomena), the idea that we hate him sounds a bit silly. Obviously, as you can tell from this blog, I can’t hate the Bible any more than I could hate the Iliad. I’m not trying to debunk scripture, but rather understand it as a human artifact.

On the other hand, I will confess to not liking or at least being concerned about religion. I know it will probably always be with us (i.e., most of us are “wired that way”), but I worry about its pernicious ability to allow people to make irrational, destructive choices while providing a supposedly higher justification that’s immune to all criticism.

I remember talking to a fellow airman back when I was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. I told her I hated getting flu shots every year, because I never get the flu. She said she never got any immunizations, because as a Christian Scientist she was exempt. That was shocking news to me. No rational argument on earth could change the order I had received that told me I had to get the influenza vaccine. It was my duty to comply. However, an organized group of people can point to their holy texts and claim such things are matters of religious freedom.

It is my hope that tamer forms of religion will attract more people, and that in such mainstream, less-destructive religions they will become less violent and more tolerant. Unfortunately, I believe in the near future we’re going to witness decreasing prosperity and more social and economic upheaval. In such times, people are drawn to the fundamentalist promise of a return to the mythical Golden Age. Tragically, this yearning for a Golden Age will likely lead us into another Dark Age.

Myth #5: Fundamentalists are gullible and stupid, and that doesn’t change after they’ve de-converted.

The truth is that even reasonably intelligent people can believe the craziest things. Innate intelligence is an insufficient defense against fundamentalism. Critical, rational thinking is something you have to learn.

Religious fundamentalism is a self-contained bubble. If you’re inside the bubble, nothing can hurt you, nothing can change your mind, because you have an answer for everything. Truth comes from God through his Holy Word. Wise leaders in the church help you understand that word by providing its correct interpretation. Anything that contradicts what the church says must be evil.  “Satan is testing us.”

Having an answer for every possible contradiction is something we ex-fundies happily took as a challenge. That’s why I studied the Bible and memorized scripture. I was determined to know the Truth. The more intelligent the fundie, the more tenacious he or she will be, always ready with a verse to quote, steadfast, never giving an inch.

I’m reminded of something Neil recently told me:

I did a post-graduate course in educational studies, majoring in the philosophy of education, and one of my major assignments was delving into the nature of indoctrination as opposed to education — and all the time my faith was not once even scratched.

The bubble protected us, while our intelligence (such as it is) merely provided more fuel to the fundamentalist fire. Hence for Neil and me the change that came was not quantitative, but qualitative. We read a lot, but everything we read was processed through the fundie membrane.

Speaking for myself, that qualitative change came from my study of science. Over time I came to embrace two “dangerous” Enlightenment ideas.  First, I could be wrong.  Second, truth is something to be discovered, not received.

Conclusion

When people suddenly convert to a fundamentalist sect, they will often feel the need to “witness” to others. Some sects require this behavior as part of their redemption. But many times it’s just a natural outgrowth of wanting to let others know about the “good news.” I feel no need to witness to what I now believe to be the truth, because it probably won’t set you free. I doubt it will make you feel any better.  You may even find yourself shunned by people who once professed unconditional love for you.

For any current fundies who may still be reading this, believe it or not, we know how you feel. But you will have a difficult time imagining how we feel. We’re not in a state of rebellion against God. On the contrary, we’re in a state of resigned peace. We’re dealing with our “non-epiphany.” We’ve found that the world is what we make of it. Finally, we’ve come to realize that the messes we’ve made are our messes, and we have to deal with them.

If you catch us being arrogant from time to time, feel free to call us out on it. Remind us that we’re human. Remind us that we have been and will continue to be wrong about many things. However, we can agree, I hope, that we are still corrigible.


* “That is a perfect description of a non-epiphany, that rarest of moments, when God Almighty lets go of the scruff of your neck and lets you be human for a little while . . .” — Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard

Enhanced by Zemanta

17 Comments

  • 2012-07-05 13:23:59 UTC - 13:23 | Permalink

    Myth #5: Fundamentalists are gullible and stupid, and that doesn’t change after they’ve de-converted.

    The truth is that even reasonably intelligent people can believe the craziest things. Innate intelligence is an insufficient defense against fundamentalism. Critical, rational thinking is something you have to learn.

    This is one of the most pernicious ideas floating around in various circles I interact with. Intelligence is no defense against believing in ridiculous things. To believe in something wacky doesn’t take a whole slew of wrong premises, or a whole bunch of mistakes. All it takes is just one false premise to muck everything up. What’s worse, smart people are much more likely to believe in weird things because they’re skilled at defending those ideas that they originally started believing in for non-smart reasons. I see this especially with people who are well read. They have a lot of information, but they never studied how logical reasoning works, or how probability works, so they sometimes come to absurd conclusions based on textbook logical or probabilistic fallacies. They just assume that since they are “intelligent” that this will automatically safeguard them from bad arguments.

    That’s why I can never make fun of or denigrate religious people, calling them stupid or something. They just probably have one false premise, or they’ve just never learned how to think properly, and it led them down a rabbit hole.

    “Cognitive science is essential because the tool you use to philosophize is the brain. And if you don’t know how your tool works you’ll use it poorly” (paraphrased quote from a source I can’t remember).

    • 2012-07-05 13:54:39 UTC - 13:54 | Permalink

      J.Q.: “What’s worse, smart people are much more likely to believe in weird things because they’re skilled at defending those ideas that they originally started believing in for non-smart reasons. I see this especially with people who are well read.”

      That’s why I’ve always defended liberal arts degrees, despite the growing number of people who view college as a kind of glorified vocational-tech. center. Learning how to do proper research and how to think critically are skills that will serve you for the rest of your life in all facets of your life.

      • Andrew Jones
        2013-10-20 22:02:18 UTC - 22:02 | Permalink

        I’m another ex-Nazarene. I was raised, however, in a liberal Protestant church which emphasized kindness and the golden rule. Because of my own negative and traumatic family life, and the development of social anxiety disorder in my life, a friend brought me into the Church of the Nazarene, I was “saved”, and I dedicated my whole life to the church for three years when in college.

        I spent five to eight hours a day doing all the church work because the church was small and had no secretary. I ran the mimeograph machines, typed and printed the bulletins, moved the grass, cleaned up the property, etc., feeling that God was smiling down upon me. He was the God of the Nazarenes, and a few other related denominations, but not the God of other Protestants, Catholics, or anything eastern in nature. We Nazarenes were right, and the other 227,000 Protestant denominations in the country were doctrinally incorrect, and they would all probably go to hell. It was we vs. them. Those that never heard the name of Jesus would be in hell, too, for some reason. Questions like this were not appreciated.

        Despite my devotion, what became my undoing to church leaders was that I experienced the “second blessing” which you cannot talk about in Nazarene churches anymore. It is akin to saying you speak in tongues. An artifact of the past, as the pastor said. We don’t do that anymore. “Sanctification” is not talked about or understood by the average Nazarene.

        Regardless, these developments kept me thinking critically and in logical progression I realized the reason I believed in God to begin with was because it was drilled into me when I was a kid. I could find no support for this belief empirically, and the damage the Nazarenes and other right-wing denominations cause became an eye-opening revelation as time progressed.

        Critical thinking is the most important element in life. Billions live and die believing ridiculous and false interpretations of life, based on one flimsy premise that was introduced to them as a child. I was dishonest with myself, not wanting to leave the safety of the church for several years, until the weight of my disbelief propelled me forward to proactively accept what was rational. There are many well intentioned people in the Church of the Nazarene, but the great damage the church causes to other people through their antiquated belief system, ruins countless lives and stops the forward progress of many thousands of people. They live and die and cease to exist, never knowing that they aren’t in Nazarene heaven.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      2012-07-05 20:47:56 UTC - 20:47 | Permalink

      INTELLIGENCE IS NO PROTECTION AGAINST THE MOST RIDICULOUS AND ABSURD BELIEFS

      Intelligence is no defense against believing in ridiculous things. To believe in something wacky doesn’t take a whole slew of wrong premises, or a whole bunch of mistakes. All it takes is just one false premise to muck everything up. What’s worse, smart people are much more likely to believe in weird things because they’re skilled at defending those ideas that they originally started believing in for non-smart reasons.

      A key point. “Intelligence” is the brain nimbleness in handling information stored in the brain. Some of this information is valid, but much of it, especially if acquired in infancy or the early phases of storing knowledge in the brain, can prove to be fallacies. This is why J. Quinton can call some of this information “wrong premises”.

      Religious beliefs and advanced scientific knowledge reside in the same brain. The Ancient Ionians of the 6th century BC in all likelihood shared the same kind of genetic brain as their contemporaries. But they started focusing on details of the physical world and mathematical objects that had been uninteresting to most other Greeks of the period.

      Galileo had the same kind of brain as the Jesuits and Pope Urban VIII who brought him to trial in 1633. Galileo’s books on the new heliocentrism were clearly understood and supported by many learned people of Italy. But the Catholic Church was operating on a “whole slew of wrong premises”, basing its own understanding on the antique geocentrism of the “Holy Scriptures”. In spite of all the intelligence backing his new theory, Galileo was found by similar intelligences of “suspicion of heresy”.

      So, given our native intelligence, the key is how the brain acquires its own experience and what kind of information it stores along the way, and how it happens to load its “wrong premises’. And the premises we learn from childhood exposure to family and native society play a foundational role in the kind of knowledge the brain will be able to acquire, and the kind of fantasies we’re going to defend in mature life.

      Eric MacDonald in his blog “Choice in Dying” recently ran a fascinating article “Kepler and the Divorce between Religion and Science” on how Kepler had to surmount his original indoctrination to make sense of the fine observations made by the Dane Tycho Brahe. An irreducible minute difference in position could not fit Kepler’s pre-conception of circular orbits of the planets around the sun. A confirmed dogmatic would simply sweep the small difference away. But Kepler persevered and finally came to the conclusion that the orbits of the planets must be ellipses instead of circles.
      http://web.archive.org/web/20130605060411/http://choiceindying.com/2012/07/02/kepler-and-the-divorce-between-religion-and-science/

      Critical thinking is not a natural propensity of the human mind. It has to be acquired, and trained, cultivated and polished. Learning how to do proper research, especially at the graduate level in the best universities, is one good way to learn how to think critically. Many self-trained and self-educated people fall for assumptions that they spend their lives defending, never realizing that they were emotional attachments and infatuations acquired in the early phases of their education — loading up their brains with new information accepted uncritically.

      Most religions survive by indoctrinating children. And later on, convincing believers that they live in a fantastic make-believe universe of images and concepts force-fed since infancy is also made nearly impossible. Baron d’Holbach, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Edison and Bertrand Russell denounced in the same manner the dogmatic transmission of Christian mythology to the next generations. Thomas Edison said it most clearly: “The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them.”

      So-called mythicists are not immune to this kind of fallacies or illusions.
      It was painful to read that somebody like Doherty, who has no real expertise in Egyptology, asserted seeing in some vague crouched figures, on the famous panels of the Luxor Temple describing the nativity of Horus, the same “three magi” (?”) of Matthew’s Gospel, only because he blindly followed the assertions of free-lance “mythology researcher” Dorothy Murdock. In fact, crouched or standing figures are present in most ancient Egyptian drawings without any identifiable connection to magi of ancient Persia.

      Or when Murdock herself is trying to convince the world that a group of secret conspirators in Alexandria concocted the character of Jesus as a blueprint for a new religion aimed at securing power and riches, and also, thrown into the package, with the long-term goal of “unifying the Roman Empire”. All this, when Philo lived in Alexandria, completely uninformed of such a conspiracy.
      Or when Murdock likes to see in Jesus another sun-god, or another sunny son of god, like Aten in Egypt, or any other sungod of antiquity using the radiancy of the sun as emblem of his supernatural origin and source of his universal creativity.
      Or when Murdock, always following Godfrey Higgins (1772- 1833) and Robert Taylor (1784-1844), ascribes to the mysterious “precession of the equinox on the ecliptic” and the passage of Aries to the Age of Pisces the emergence of Jesus and Christianity.
      Or when she mentions the existence of zodiacal signs on sundials as a “proof” that the whole Christian story was influenced by the zodiac and primitive astrology — theories neatly rebranded for mass consumption as “astro-theology”, as Robert Taylor called them back in the 1830s, and swallowed as new dogmas by uncritical “followers”. Who is fooling whom here?

      Speak of critical thinking and use or reason! No wonder that critics like to poke holes in the theories of “mythicists” when confronted with these fantastic assumptions being palmed off on an unsuspecting, unlearned, public as the latest kind of “”graduate-level research” in the origins of Christianity!

      • 2012-07-08 17:33:08 UTC - 17:33 | Permalink

        I don’t think we should write off mythicists like Murdock quite so quickly. For example? The word “Magi” is plural for “magus,” the ancient Persian word for wise men. And the original term for the “three wise men” at the Jesus nativity. As an ancient word for “wise men” in general, it’s fairly open; wise men were everywhere. Though by the way? It’s the root of our modern word, “magician.” So that there is some biblical evidence, for the presence of Eastern wisdom, or even “magicians,” early on in the life of Jesus.

  • 2012-07-05 14:55:46 UTC - 14:55 | Permalink

    The fundamentalist’s reasoning is circular — We know God because we know the truth; we know the truth because we know God — but no amount of logical training will penetrate this. God and revelation are fed from above, from outside “mere human understanding/wisdom”. So this “relationship with God” and “spiritual discernment” will always trump human reasoning — even fundamental logic — when it comes to a believer attempting what he or she believes is genuine self-examination.

  • 2012-07-05 15:05:50 UTC - 15:05 | Permalink

    Perhaps another myth — though probably related to one already listed here — is that the ex-fundie is somehow weak-willed, easily swayed. Many choose cults or such very largely as a result of strong idealism and high principles. Many really are willing to give up everything for their principles. In my case I came to be painfully aware that a principled life can also cause a lot of pain and destruction. More important than principles is fundamental humanity, compassion. There really are times and circumstances when it is humane and moral to tell a lie and even to fight.

    Perhaps this point can be coupled with Tim’s point about humility. One learns how wrong one can be, how easily vulnerable we are to error. Similarly, maybe some of us learn to become a lot more compassionate, too. More open to others, accepting. People are no longer divided into Satan’s camp and God’s.

    • ROO BOOKAROO
      2012-07-06 06:57:46 UTC - 06:57 | Permalink

      Yea, the old duality of “demons” and “angels”. Our legacy from old Judaism and Christianity, enough to poison the imaginations of untold generations in the West.

      Even today, when you talk to old-fashioned Jews, it is striking how their thinking about social forces and conflicts is still dominated by those concepts. They tend to see more demons at work than angels these days. Same thing with fanatic Christians, who are even more virulent about their demonic obsessions. This use of supernatural spirits can so conveniently “explain” tragedies and extraordinary historical events.

      The idea of an internal fight between Good and Evil had been remotely derived from Zoroastrianism, the old Persian religion ascribed to the mythological Zarathustra, and picked up by the Israelites during their Babylonian exile.

      This magical use came in particularly handy when Mary Richardson Kennedy committed suicide a few weeks back, and all the Kennedy family members, in a good old-fashioned Catholic way, started hypocritically rejecting responsibility by bemoaning the demons inhabiting Mary Kennedy that she had not been able to “overcome”. Her “angels” must have obviously given up the fight. While public opinion felt that the real demon was her husband Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who had cut her off financially and plunged her into a pit of extreme depression.

      This is why it’s a bit perplexing and annoying that Steven Pinker titled his last book ”
      The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. He wanted to use Lincoln’s phrase for its rhetorical effect. And his publisher was happy with the strong literary resonance of this title.
      http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Steven+Pinker+-The+Better+Angels+of+Our+Nature

      Pinker, as a prestigious evolutionary psychologist, naturally does not believe in this Jewish/Christian mythology. Why then give this concept of “angels” and “demons” such a prominent place, considering that this book is going to be on the reading list of a multitude of students, and that this wording is bound to reinforce and perpetuate the idea of a fight in our souls between two supernatural forces.

      If we want to understand the origin of human violence, there is no point in referring back to Zarathustra and invoke the power of angels or demons. No need to look farther than our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees, and their innate violence. Frans de Waal’s research on this subject and its application to the behavior of the human species is far more revealing than all of Steven Pinker’s psychology textbooks.

  • vinnyjh57
    2012-07-06 23:53:01 UTC - 23:53 | Permalink

    I would view #1, #2, and #5 as complete myths. I know people who fit #3, but I agree that it is not the rule. I also know people who fit #4, but I think the myth is the idea that it was anger and bitterness that caused their deconversion. I think the anger and bitterness is a byproduct that comes from feeling duped and deceived by people who claimed to be motivated by truth and love.

  • 2012-07-08 17:13:34 UTC - 17:13 | Permalink

    This post provides a good first answer to the now massively-popular assertion by Casey and countless others, that agnosticism and atheism are too crude, to similar to fundamentalism, to really criticize deeper, liberal religion. Many liberal scholars still assert that liberal, spiritual Christianity especially, is still immune to the critiques of contemporary agnostics, atheists, and mythicists.

    In particular I would add, it is often thought by Liberal Christians that their notion of Christianity as specifically “spiritual,” effectively puts them above fundamental criticisms of the failure of Christianity’s physical promises of miracles and so forth. But in my own book draft on over-spirituality, I note problems even with any allegedly “higher” and better spirituality. (In part, using Biblical sources, like James 2.14-23).

    The 1) main problem with liberal spirituality, is that it does not take care of the physical, material side of life – and therefore leaves us physically starving to death. While I add that the 2) second main problem with liberal Christians’ “higher” spirituality, is that it ignores and attacks Science; including 3) the many places the Bible itself supports science, and the importance of physical, material – not just spiritual – life.

    So thanks for your opening salvo on this increasingly all-too-common – and now mainline – defense of Liberal or Spiritual Christianit, as it is really was above current agnostic critiques. I ‘d second your remarks on that – and then add my idea: that Liberal, Spirtual Christianity, is not immune to criticism either. Noting that even “higher,” “liberal” spirituality itself has some fatal problems in it.

    As I note in my rough-draft book on Over-Spirituality.

  • Brettongarcia
    2012-07-08 19:23:12 UTC - 19:23 | Permalink

    THIS IS AN EXTREMELY IMPORTANT BLOG POST. Because it gets at the latest, simplest, but also the most destructive new argument that liberal, “educated” Christianity has against the new atheism and agnosticism. And what is this now incredibly-popular and devastating argument? It is … the SNIFF.

    A “sniff” of course, is often an actual sniff of the nose. Offered by the supercilious elite – as an indication that what someone is doing, is simply … stinky. Lower class, to the point of being smelly. In its metaphorical extension, the word “sniff” came to signify upper-class revulsion just at the sheer crudity, the smelliness, of the lower class, and its allegedly rude ideas.

    How is The Sniff is being employed in theology today? It takes the form of the casual, tossed-off assertion by our liberal Christian theologians – a quick sniff – to the effect that the new atheism and agnosticism, are just too low-class, still just too “Fundamentalist,” to understand or appreciate or address, the higher understanding of the Liberal Consensus, of liberal Christianity. Which of course ALREADY KNOWS what fundamentalist agnostic want to “teach”: that promises of physical prosperity and miracles are silly and wrong; that much of our idea of Jesus is a “myth.” While the sniff implies that liberal Christian theologians – like Casey – want to demonstrate, by their instinctual gagging at these ideas, that the new agnosticism and atheism are still all too simple and stinky. That the new atheists are simply addressing minor problems with Christianity – “problems” that after all, our more “elevated” swells already well know. While it is implied that our former fundamentalists, just fail to address or see, the refinements of a newer, better, EDUCATED Christianity. One that already knows about such low class things; about problems with Fundamentalist Christian denominations; about problems with prosperity gospel, and miracles, and the mythic content of the Bible. The SNIFF implies that our more elevated theologians already know about such things … but have moved on to a higher Christianity, that incorporates and transcends those limitations.

    Liberal theologians today, sniff that the new atheism still reflects all too much of the old Fundamentalist background of many of these critics. They sniff that Crude critics “fail to see” that their criticisms have long since been taken into account; and that many believers have long since left the crude beliefs and crude attacks both behind; and have gone on. On to a better, “higher,” more “spiritual” concept of Christianity. One which is immune to such low-class, crude criticisms.

    And so? The SNIFF is Liberal Theology’s latest and most popular answer to the new atheism. However? As it turns out, aside from classism, there are any number of problems that can be addressed, with the Sniff. Including the allegedly higher spirituality behind it.

    • 2012-07-10 02:21:26 UTC - 02:21 | Permalink

      One of the major problems with the more “elevated” theologies of spirituality? Many of them know or believe, deep down, that simpler versions of Christianity are false; promises of miracles and so forth. And yet? They don’t make their differences with the rank and file of Christianity, very evidence. They hypocritically allow themselves to appear to be supporters of the whole of Christianity. Without making their differences with much of it, cleaer.

      Many continue to pretend publically that they are full believers. In part based on their idea that say, their more “spiritual” idea of Christianity at least, finds a valid element in the old tradtions. They continue to support the whole, based on their belief that even if common Christian beliefs like “miracles” are false, still their own spiritual notion of say, the value of mental or spiritual development, or an afterlife, are still true and valid. So that our more elevated theologians often supported “spiriutality,” and an allegorical/spiritual reading of the Bible; over and above the lower class forms of Religion. While passively following “Christianity” as a whole in public. Believing that part of that religion is true, at least: its “higher,” spiritual side.

      And yet however, just how superior is say, the “spiritual” version of Christianity?

      What’s wrong with the higher, “spiritual” version of Christianity?

      1) For one thing it is a bit pompus.

      2) Or in Christian language, it is vain; it thinks of itself as higher and better, after all; thus committing the Christian error of Vanity, and calling itself “first” with God.

      3) Next, it is very, very deeply hypocritical. In that often (before their occassional sniffs), spiritual pastors will continue to pretend that they still do support, “lower” Christianity; they will usually not bother to make their differences absolutely obvious, and tell other believers that physical miracles do not happen. They will not quite make their feelings entirely known; and will pretend to be following essentially the same religion, as those they despise. For the sake of … unity? Avoiding conflicts? In any case, this makes them … hypocrites.

      4) More specifically though, the main problem I find in the “higher,” anti-fundamentalist theology of Spirituality, comes in part from the fact that it a) denies (even as it pretends to follow) some very real physical promises in the Bible itself.

      5) But especially, the “high” religion of spirituality moreover, is fantastically opposed to some very “Fruit”ful forms of more material beliefs. Like belief in Science.

      6) Or indeed the great problem with excessive spirituality can be seen in movements like asceticism, and the problems noted by James in James 2.14 ff.: those persons who are too completely spiritual, who too completely oppose the physical, material side of life, will often neglect say, physical necessities. They will neglect to say, literally feed physically starving people; leaving them to die. While offering them kind words, and sentiments (/spirits) only.
      As advocates of the Social Gospel, and Liberation Theology, know well enough, after Ernst Troeltsch, say. (From “The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches,” say? Ger. ed. 1911?).

      So what should we say, to the commonly-expressed disdain of many scholars, for the residual “evangelicalism” of the new atheists, agnostics, and mythicists? That sentiment needs to be very closely examined – and criticized. I think that one of the elements of that disdain for ex-evangelists, depends on a feeling that our tenured theologians and biblical scholars have already long since taken in our more elementary critiques of miracles, and mythic content; but they have smoothly moved on to a higher spirituality, that is immune to such “simple” critiques. (Or in any case, have smoothly moved on to professional employment in the field, and a nice paycheck, whatever their beliefs might be). But it’s clear to me it is time – as in this blogpost – to 1) defend ex-evangelists against these and other patronizing attacks. And then 2) begin to more carefully look to see exactly what kind of “higher” religion it is that critics have in turn. And then to 3) uncover some severe ethical errors, in that more elevated, disdainful realm itself.

      Locating, finding some sins, surprisingly, even in “spirituality” itself, first of all.

  • Pingback: The crazy attacks on Vridar « Vridar

  • Pingback: A little biographical footnote « Vridar

  • Brian
    2012-12-31 03:29:32 UTC - 03:29 | Permalink

    I went to the Church of the Nazarene as a teenager too. We went to a summer camp in south GA every year, where they had a swimming pool way at the top of a distant hill. They didn’t allow mixed gender swimming, which was no surprise, but it went further. You couldn’t wear a swimsuit to walk to the pool, but had to redress in jeans/t-shirt over the swimsuit to make the walk. The pool was surrounded by a tall chainlink fence, which was wrapped in a blue tarp. You went inside the gate, safe from prying eyes (which would also require binoculars to see anything from the main camp), and then removed the outer clothes. Hardcore fundies! ‘My greatest fear was accidentally committing “Holy Spirit Thought Crime.”’ Been there, done that. Glad we’re both out of that mess.

  • Pingback: Vridar » Casey’s Calumny Continued: Response Concluded

  • James D. Williams
    2015-01-08 01:40:40 UTC - 01:40 | Permalink

    How I escaped concrete reality… despite a relatively informed life during our present level of scientific and technological development.
    Now, thinking like a “godless, atheistic, Communist”:
    This Universe is going to go on for an excruciatingly long time and that “we” here on Earth have been engaged within what I reasonably understand to be a continuous writhing of a bio-veneer of silicon and dinosaur poop.
    Why am “I” [“I”] here of all times and places after 13.6 BY of Cosmic Evolution? Simply from that puzzling accounting I fearfully suspect that death may not be a blessed end. I cannot help but think “I” might get screwed again. (Might not conviction of personal death be short-sighted, …perhaps “selfish”?)
    Isn’t mortal self-awareness the greatest cruelty the indifferent cosmos can beget?
    Awareness, pain and dreams are among the things I have in common with Nicodemus (et alia)… Is it impossible to “reenter the womb?” One would have no clue, of course. No clue!
    Self awareness is incarnate! …and I have no king but Caesar.
    Meanwhile, I will “hope” for god, even one restricted by the absurdly contractual terms of dogma… just to get out of this mess.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *