Tag Archives: Fundamentalism

Reading the Bible Like a Fundamentalist: What Does That Mean?

I had meant to say something about this subject over a month ago as it popped up in my Facebook feed, when Benjamin Corey over on Patheos asked, “Why Do Intelligent Atheists Still Read The Bible Like Fundamentalists?

I was a fundamentalist until my mid-teens, and even though that was quite a long time ago, I still remember what it was like to think and believe like one. Longtime Vridar readers may recall serious scholars like Maurice Casey bemoaning the supposed fundamentalist nature of mythicism. Once a fundie, always a fundie, eh wot? For the sophisticated polyglot like the late Dr. Casey, what could be worse than calling one’s enemy a closed-minded fundamentalist?

My early warning systems start honking whenever I see someone accuse another person of doing anything “like a fundamentalist,” since it often signals a sweeping dismissal. Not only that, but often, at the heart of it, the accusation seeks to terminate rather than continue the debate.

Corey is sort of right, up to a point. Christians have a long history of tolerance or at least ambivalence toward tattoos. Sure, there’s that verse in Leviticus (19:28) but this subject falls within the body of ritual law. Just as Christians have no problem with shaving their beards or eating dead pigs, they probably won’t have an issue with the cutting or marking of the skin. They might not like them personally, but they wouldn’t claim that tattoos will keep you out of paradise.

And that would hold true for fundamentalist Christians as well. They say they read the Bible literally and believe it to be the inerrant Word of God. But what does that mean in practice? Suppose, for example, as a child I had read Leviticus 19:28 and felt troubled about it, what do you think I would have done? read more »

Once a Fundamentalist . . . Never Again

3295218This post is dedicated to all those who were once fundamentalists and are fundamentalists no more. I post here extracts from testimonies of a number of people who have described the changes in their lives since they left fundamentalism behind.

I initially thought I’d dedicate it to those informed lay and erudite scholars who contemptuously snort at anyone who had, let’s say, an ultra-conservative, somewhat extreme religious past and who currently has come to entertain questions about the historicity of Jesus. But are such persons really worth a dedication?

Once a fundie, always a fundie.

That’s their claim. They mean by it that a person who once was mixed up with a religious fundamentalist type of past will, on leaving that past, inevitably switch to some other cause with all the fundamentalist pig-headedness and fervour that characterized their former religious commitment.

It’s a vacuous slogan, of course. It’s nothing but a cheap way to dismiss someone holding a view or asking questions they have no time for.

The truth is that people do indeed change. The number of books that have been published about leaving a sect, cult or fundamentalist religion of one kind or another surely number into the hundreds. Right now I’m sure most people browsing through any sizable general bookstore in the English speaking world will scarcely be able to avoid seeing at least one work about someone having left behind the confines of a rigid Muslim past. Anyone who has recently left or is in the process of leaving a Christian-influenced cult or religion will soon become aware of dozens of helpful titles. Bibliographies on the web abound. Some of my favourite and most helpful authors were Steven Hassan, Edmund Cohen, Marlene Winell.

These names alone belie the trite slogan. They are all fundies who have done much to help others leave behind and rebuild lives after the fundamentalist experience.

Many readers here know of Dr Robert M. Price’s fundamentalist background, current very liberal “Christianity” and of his books such as The Reason Driven Life.

In a future post I should explain what experience and research shows about why people join these religious outfits. There are gross misconceptions about that, and about the sorts of people who do join and endure in them for any length of time.

Both Tim and I have written about our own changes in outlook since we each left our respective religious coffins. Links to them can be found in the Vridar authors’ profiles. I have since written an update to try to dispel some ignorant nonsense being written about me on Hoffmann’s blog.

Hoffmann point-blank refused to let it be posted there as a correction to what he and others were saying. Perhaps such people think anything coming from me cannot be trusted. So here for the sake of the record I want to bring to everyone’s attention the testimonies of thirteen others who have also left fundamentalism behind never to return . . . .

The extracts come from a book available online (or at least via Kindle), Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, edited by G. Elijah Dann. Read them and know just how far ex-fundamentalists do indeed leave behind their former mind-sets. (Bolded emphasis is mine.) I know, I can’t resist my own comments throughout, either, sorry.

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Are true believers “insane” like Breivik?

I’m thinking of the true believer who believes in another reality as more real than the real world here and now.

The lawyer for Breivik has said his client appears to be insane because he is convinced that “only he understands the truth”. The rest of the world, he believes, will understand him 60 years from now. He has a completely different perception of reality, for instance believing torture exists in Norway’s prisons.

If that is insanity, then how do we describe those who believe the whole world lies in wickedness under the rule of the Devil while only they understand the truth? Or those who believe that Jesus will return in only a few years and demonstrate his favour to them before the whole world, to show the world that they were the ones who were right all along? Or what of those who believe in behind-the-scenes 666 world-takeover conspiracies, weird things about atheists, Catholics, Muslims, gays, the beneficence of the treatment of Bradley Manning, or weapons of mass destruction?

Breivik kills people but true believers don’t do that, do they? Breivik, we are told, used drugs and other aids to help him keep his nerve through it all. True believers don’t do that, but when acting as part of a much bigger institution upon which they can hang their personal responsibilities, like a nation or national government, they have been known to actively support mass murder, torture and other forms of systemic violence.

And on a personal level how many are prepared to “suffer persecution” for their willingness to cause heartache by forsaking and breaking up their families, removing themselves from healthy social intercourse, allowing loved ones to die from treatable illnesses, covering up sexual abuse for the “greater good”, all “for Christ”. And what of those who really are prepared to sell everything, lose or leave their jobs, all in the belief that they are soon going to be “taken away” to a better place?

I’m so thankful I got out of the true believer status myself. And so thankful I did not go the way of some of my former friends who likewise left but only turned to other brands of “true believer”. I have wondered why some other ex-fundamentalist atheists come across as so bigoted and arrogant when speaking of those who are still trapped in the same place they once were themselves. What happened to growth in self-understanding? I think the WIkipedia article on Eric Hoffer’s book might give us a clue:

With their collapse of a communal framework people can no longer defeat the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty by belonging to a compact whole. If the isolated individual lacks vast opportunities for personal advancement, development of talents, and action (such as those found on a frontier), he will seek substitutes. These substitutes would be pride instead of self-confidence, memberships in a collective whole like a mass movement, absolute certainty instead of understanding.

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Miracles 2: another misrepresentation of David Hume’s sceptical argument

This post should be Part 2 of my ‘reviews’ or notes re “God, Actually” by Roy Williams (1).

The subtitle of Roy Williams’ book is “Why God probably exists, Why Jesus was probably divine, and Why the ‘rational’ objections to religion are unconvincing”.

Roy Williams wishes to define a miracle in terms that do not presuppose a god, so embraces English philosopher Brian Davies’ definition of a miracle as

an event that cannot be explained in terms intelligible to the natural scientist or observer of the regular processes of Nature. (p.163)

That’s hardly a very good definition. It would mean that any event that is not currently understood by science is miraculous. It would mean that if Einstein had not been born or no-one had postulated the theory of relativity at the time that a star’s light was seen to actually bend around the sun at the time of an eclipse, then that bending of starlight would have to be defined as even more miraculous than the bending of Uri Geller’s spoon. Did lightning only cease to be a miracle after the discovery of electricity? The role of science has been to uncover natural explanations for things that once could not be explained naturally. Still a wee way to go too.

Roy Williams distils David Hume’s argument against the possibility of a true miracle being honestly reported into four points (p.165):

  1. no such testimony has ever been given by enough people of adequate learning and intelligence;
  2. people are naturally gullible and untrustworthy;
  3. reports of miracles tend to emanate from ‘ignorant and barbarous nations’;
  4. and different religions report different miracles, and this invalidates all such reports.

Of the first three points Williams writes:

they amount to saying that no human observer can ever be completely trusted. This seems to me a cynical generalisation, a prime example of reductionism.

With this dismissal, Roy Williams’ dismisses David Hume from the remainder of his discussion of miracles, apart from a later section where he treats point 4 separately.

Williams depicts David Hume’s scepticism as extremist and even unnatural in its relationship to the rest of humanity. My own scepticism has been accompanied by a deeper sense of affinity with the rest of human kind, and David Hume’s argument never struck me as so cynical. Compare Roy Williams’ rationalization for dismissing David Hume with what Hume actually wrote in his famous section on miracles:

. . . we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. . . . It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

Far from coming within two miles of even suggesting that “no human observer can ever be completely trusted”, Hume flatly states from the start that acceptance of eye-witness testimony is the most common, useful and even necessary of “species of reasoning” we all have.

Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.

There is no room in the passage from David Hume for Roy Williams to dismiss his writing as a “cynical generalization” against the normal course of eyewitness testimony of fellow human beings. On the contrary, Hume begins with “the charitable” position that most people are generally inclined to tell the truth about what they witness throughout life. Most people, Hume asserts, have no wish to be disgraced by being found out to be liars.

This passage from David Hume pulls the rug from beneath Roy Williams’ reasons for dismissing Hume’s arguments, and obliges Williams to seriously return to engage with the detail of Hume’s actual argument.

So if Hume asserts that it is natural and necessary to rely on eyewitness testimony as a general rule, under what circumstances does Hume then open the way to doubting others? He explains:

We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.

So how does Hume treat accounts of miracles in books that have a reputation of being authored by historians, or even just from any person with a reputation for being of good character?

The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them.

Hume argues that the reason we tend to believe historians and others is because our experiences have conditioned us to expecting them to tell the facts.

But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.

But if an historian or otherwise honourable person proclaims a miracle, then our experience that miracles do not happen is enough to alert us that in this case the otherwise trustworthy person is mistaken. Hence most readers of Josephus today may take many of his details of the history of the Jewish war as factual, but will not treat his reports of miracles as having the same level of credibility. Similarly ancient historians like Herodotus and Livy pass on many historical details that we are at liberty to assume as factual, but no-one embraces their tales of miracles with the same certainty.

Hume argues for consistency:

The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.

The reason we generally accept certain information from historians as factual is the same reason we dismiss their reports of miracles.

Many fundamentalists and other Christians who dismiss the miracles in pagan histories yet believe in the Bible’s miracles are being inconsistent. They treat the “facts” in pagan histories as historical for the same reason most people do — readers are accustomed to finding correlations between the writings of historians and true facts. And they find it as easy as any sceptic to dismiss as untrue any event (a miracle) that goes against their experience of nature and the world. But they treat the Bible differently (as a book whose words are permitted to assume greater authority than our own personal experiences) and therefore the miracles of the Bible must be accepted.

David Hume does not write cynically or with sweeping generalization against the trustworthiness of people. I have quoted his writings on how he approaches normal eyewitness testimony to show that he is hardly a reductionist (as Williams suggests).

In the first part of his essay on miracles Hume presented the rational argument against believing in them. In the second part of his essay he discusses four reasons for disbelieving the testimony that does exist for miracles. Williams dot-pointed these 4 (above) and Hume’s discussion of each of them can be found in part 2 of his essay.

Disappointingly, after dismissing David Hume’s scepticism as cynical and reductionist, Williams discusses the miracles of Jesus as if they are known to us all from multitudes of eyewitnesses. Of course, we only have four gospels, with at least two and very likely three all largely mutations from the original one (GMark) — not multitudes of eyewitnesses at all.  The fact that one author wrote a story about multitudes of witnesses, and that that story was modified by others, and that it was not testified till the second century c.e., is scarcely credible evidence for miracles being performed a century earlier. We have more reason to believe the historian Tacitus who “reported” miracles by the emperor Vespasian within a decade or two of his lifetime.

But I will leave the last word to Roy Williams here and leave it to readers to ask the obvious follow up questions it leaves hanging. Roy Williams argues against Hume’s fourth point as follows:

My own view is that the consistency of such reports through human history is suggestive that miracles do — rarely — occur. Has the Catholic Church always been wrong when, as a precondition to conferring sainthoods, it has accepted reports of miracles? I doubt it. (p.293)

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (11): Family Health Versus Dysfunction

Final in this series on dysfunctional fundamentalist families: the rest are archived here.

Some of the dynamics of fundamentalist families are similar to those of other dysfunctional families. For example, in both fundamentalist and alcoholic families

  • denial is strong
  • prohibitions against perceiving, feeling and expressing are common

To recover from the experience of growing up in a dysfunctional family it is important to understand difficulties that may be experienced in such areas as those listed above. Understanding difficulties with denial and expressing feelings is important, but it is just as necessary to understand their positive counterparts. read more »

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (10): physical and sexual abuse

Continuing notes from Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell, with added comments and discussion. Other posts in the series are archived here.

I see an awful lot of suppressed anger in fundamentalists — which is expressed politically. It’s also expressed toward children, who are treated in ferocious ways “You will behave. You will do these kinds of behaviors . . . . You’ll be punished . . . I think that anger is submerged and appears in family behaviors that are really destructive. And the kids suffer the most, I think, from that twisting and guilt tripping — an awful lot of fear. Instead of getting security, you get guilt and fear laid on you. (pp.125-6)

The above extract with which Marlene opens this section is the testimony of a child brought up in a god-fearing fundamentalist home. Marlene does not say that religious beliefs cause this sort of treatment of children but they do help cement the relationships of control that make it possible and often likely.

Child rearing

The fundamentalist views much of child rearing in terms of questions of control and appropriate punishments. And since the fundamentalist worldview fosters personal insecurity and interpersonal suspicions (discussed in previous posts), parents are rarely well equipped to be the most effective of parents to begin with. It is easy to imagine how leaders in any other institution or position of power who evidence such character flaws will cause so much grief, best intentions notwithstanding. read more »

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (7): avoidance of responsibility

I used to think that the best thing I could possibly do to get along with my spouse was to stay close to, even closer to, um, someone else!

Having a God who fills all our emotional needs can be great when it comes to our relationships with others. We can all claim the status of being “children” and focus on our own personal relationship with our heavenly Parent — and pray for one another, and our growing children. Easy. Or if we don’t like it sounding easy we could rather pray with sweat and tears and great agony of love for others. Make ourselves as saintly as possible.

But then when we return to our families we can feel closer to God than to them. read more »

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (3): Power and Control

Quiz:

What is wrong with the following maxim?

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

Answer:

It’s not true. At least, the second part does not does not necessarily — and sometimes it will never — follow from the first part.

Parents are vain egocentric creatures who are so quick to believe they have far more power over their children than they really do. (I speak as a parent.) On the other hand, when parents attempt to enforce the power they believe they ought to have, or do have by divine fiat, they can too easily influence the children’s development, yes, but not in the way they intend.

Continuing here notes and comments from the work introduced earlier. read more »

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (2): the Shame Burden

Continuing notes from Marlene Winell‘s Leaving the Fold:

The Burden of Shame (pp. 118-119)

Biblical passages lie at the base of it. But there are modern adaptations of these passages that parents use in the process of disciplining their children and that drag down a child’s self-esteem (Winell’s list, p.119) — read more »

Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (1)

One of my helps when I had decided to leave religion was hearing a radio interview with psychologist Marlene Winell (link is to her website) and subsequently reading her book, Leaving the Fold. In her book Marlene makes the disturbing claim that the dynamics found in a fundamentalist family are often the same as those at work in other dysfunctional families, including those of alcoholics.

I could not deny her observations. They probably relate to the well-known fact that many areas noted for their religiosity rank higher than average in rates of child abuse, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, rape, and other crime. (I’m sure it has a bit to do with the way many fundamentalists react with arrogance and judgmental disdain towards anyone who seriously questions their beliefs.)

The following comments, and in particular her lists of characteristics often found in common among dysfunctional families — whether families of alcoholics or fundamentalists — are from her book (with her permission). The list summarizes the work of Bradshaw (1988), Satir (1972), Whitfield (1987) and Marlene’s own clinical experience. (p.129)

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