authority and identity in the fundamentalist’s approach to biblical and scientific debates

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by Neil Godfrey

I am trying to recall how I thought when I was a fundamentalist Christian believer, but it’s a bit like a parent trying to recall how he felt when a child. Some things are clear, but so much is also forgotten or coloured by hindsight. But it’s important to understand, and there are luckily a lot of books by fellow-travellers to help jog memories.

The reason this time I was trying to recall was in order to understand why the apparent total incomprehension and/or dishonesty in the way they frame the arguments of their “opponents”. I can’t believe that they think they are being anything but honest and even more comprehending than the original authors — I’m sure I used to feel that way rather than admit to the opposite.

I recall reading and discussing with like-minds fundamentalist literature making a mockery of evolution. One topic that came up from time to time was how to handle school situations, whether as a fundamentalist teacher requiring to teach a biology curriculum or as a parent of a child taking biology in a non-church school. The assumption underpinning the whole conversation was that we were all too smart and knowledgable to know we did not need to study the teachings of evolution ourselves. We knew better than the scientists the fallacies of their arguments. As Jesus said, God reveals wisdom and understanding even to the babes. It was the anti-god arrogance and pride of the “wise” that blinded them from “the obvious” that even a child could see.

It is Authority, their submission to Authority, that has removed them from their past lives and the wider society and given them an identity of which they can feel “humbly proud”. That is as I recall it at the present. Their identification with this absolute authority gives them their own sense of higher wisdom, insight, knowledge, destiny. They are in God’s camp and the rest of the world is in darkness.

Without external authority they are nothing. This self-concept is inculcated as part of their daily prayers. They call it “humility” and “repentance” and “coming to God”.

So when it comes to ethical discussions, they fear that unless they have an Authority to tell them what to think or do, they will be victims of their own authority-less passions and murder, steal, commit adultery. They really believe so totally in their Authority that they think they — and everyone — needs someone to actually tell them it is wrong to rape or kill, how to live their lives. We know the cases of how many will even go so far as to seek guidance (in prayers if not to their cleric) to ask what job they should take, what clothes they should wear.

So consumed are they by Authority that they can no longer even conceive of any life apart from authority. Nonbelievers are therefore viewed as submitting to other authorities that oppose their “one true Authority”. They might include the “authority” of public opinion, of “false” philosophies, of — worst of all — their own passions and desires.

Of course in their submission to their Authority they do deny their own thoughts and feelings, suppressing and hiding them as much as possible. Inevitably, however, what is hidden and denied does cause trouble in other ways. They probably really would go a bit wild at first if they did suddenly somehow lose their Authority. Maybe they sense this, and as a result imagine that the worst passions they suppress really are the norm of anyone anytime without some externally sourced control.

But back to biblical debates. And evolution. Other opinions, those contrary to their Authoritative dogmas, cannot but be read from the perspective of their own personal identities with their Divine Authority. They must therefore “know” beforehand that evolution could not be true, that critical views of the Bible must be Satanic. Yet they must function in the world. It is important to make a few converts from time to time to prove their position. They need to find proof-texts to give them licence to speak to the world on its own terms, to address these “vain thoughts that exalt themselves against their God” in whom they find their own identities.

So they will read something by a critical scholar or evolutionary biologist from that perspective. They know they are grappling with the tools of their enemy.

It is almost inconceivable, or certainly a frightening and truly threatening thought, that they would seek to understand and learn from such “oppositions of science falsely so called” apart from the goal of being in a better position to refute them.

The goal must of necessity be refutation. To defend their Authority. It can be nothing else. Otherwise they will lose their very identities.

To read “the enemy” with a view to engaging with him in open discussion, debate, mutual learning, on his own terms, as equals, is anathema. It threatens their very sense of selves.

To themselves, they are not therefore uncomprehending (although they are) of the arguments of biblical scholars and evolutionists, but necessarily bring a higher — authoritative — comprehension unknown to others.

They are not dishonest in their representations of another’s arguments. They are honestly fighting to preserve their own identity and the source of their identity. As for logical fallacies. No matter.

Any slip is only apparent and can be justified by ad hoc appeals to “the larger picture” hidden from outsiders. “If only you humbly accept the whole package you will see that any contradictions or fallacies are only apparent.” Double binds and contradictions are always only “apparent” — or the faulty insight of the ungodly — when Authority is a higher value than honest reasoning. That, after all, was what the snake tempted the first parents into.

Ad hominem, ridicule and abuse are only fair play — it is the right of light to expose and condemn darkness, which after all, at bottom, is what their struggle (their Bible even tells them their life is a daily warfare) is really all about.