Does Christian Fundamentalism Endanger Our Republic?





Ms. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley. Her website: http://www.carolvanderveerhamilton.com.

Credo quia absurdum.

The sentence “The most important single element in the history of Western civilization was Christianity” opens the second chapter of Robert Hoyt’s classic textbook Europe in the Middle Ages. Despite its origins as “a religious system hostile to many of the values and entrenched interests of antiquity,” the paragraph continues, Christianity absorbed and transmitted “the best elements of antique civilization” to the medieval period. After such a laudatory opening, a reader would not expect any startling exposés. But this reader, an undergraduate history student, was startled by the content of the very next page.

As a child I had read the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe, whose subject was early British history. One of her major characters was a young Roman legionnaire who is inducted into the cult of Mithras, so I already knew of the existence of the mystery cults when I read the following passage:

The mystery cults emphasized individual religious experience and a personal, emotional, and intimate contact with the deity. They were exclusive. The participant had to be initiated into their rites. Their main rewards were twofold: communion with the deity during this life through participation in worship, and eternal salvation or union with the deity after this life. Specific characteristics found in one or more of the mystery cults included the following: a man-god savior whose intercession on behalf of the faithful guaranteed salvation; sacraments such as initiatory rites (baptism) or religious ceremonies intended to cleanse and purify the worshiper preparing for communion with the deity; an explanation of the mysteries of life in terms of a divine hero who in dying conquered death, and whose life was a pattern for the faithful to follow in the hope of attaining immortality; miracle-working by this divine hero and by those who were priests of the cult, as an attestation of the truth of their worship and of the power of the divine hero; and a highly developed sense of exclusive membership or brotherhood among the elect, which kept their teachings secret and unprofaned.

Christianity was a mystery cult! Other religions had practiced baptism, consumed ceremonial last suppers, and worshipped a man-god who died so that his followers could live forever. Reading this paragraph, I felt the sort of shock I experienced when I learned that homo sapiens had not been the only species of humanity—that homo sapiens was descended from homo erectus whose other descendants had become extinct. I had assumed that both Christianity and humanity were unique and singular, when in fact they were plural and derivative.

Like the –isms (feminisms, communisms, fascisms, etc.), Christianity is and always has been plural. In this country there are three branches of Christianity. The first follows the spirit of Christianity, in particular the more admirable teachings of Jesus of Nazareth —love thy neighbor as thyself, blessed are the peacemakers, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc.—but also attempts to update these precepts so that they correspond to modern, progressive social ideals. The Unitarians and the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) belong to this branch. On its website, the Unitarian Universalist Association declares that it “affirms the worth of human beings, advocates freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth, and tries to provide a warm, open, supportive community for people who believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion.” (The Unitarian Church in my neighborhood bears a rainbow-colored banner proclaiming, “Civil marriage is a civil right.”) At QuakerInfo.org, the Quakers define themselves as “an active, involved faith-based community living in the modern world … We continue our traditional testimonies of pacifism, social equality, integrity, and simplicity, which we interpret and express in a variety of ways.”

The second branch of Christianity tries to embrace both the spirit and the letter while adapting to modern mores. The website for the Presbyterian Church USA declares, “Our style for doing mission is biblically based and historically appropriate. It builds solidly on our past commitments and mission experience, but it also adapts to newly emerging needs and to changing relationships in a sensitive manner.” Some mainstream denominations have adapted to modernity by allowing women to hold roles formerly held only by men. Despite the petrified conservatism of Rome, many American Catholics are also progressive and open-minded, opposing war, the death penalty, and the stratification of wealth.

The third branch of American Christianity insists upon the letter of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Its adherents typically describe themselves as “Christian” (rather than “Congregationalist” or “Presbyterian”). Its institutions often describe themselves as “nondenominational.” This third branch seems untroubled by the doctrinal and behavioral differences between Jesus of Nazareth in his benign and tolerant moods and the despotic God of the Old Testament—that jealous and demanding deity who tormented Job and ordered Abraham to kill his son. Yet even in its seemingly unqualified admiration for the Old Testament, Christian fundamentalism studiously ignores certain Bible stories, such as the ones about the relationships of David and Jonathan and of Ruth and Naomi.

Unlike most mainstream Protestant denominations, fundamentalists believe that particular individuals (certain pastors and political figures) can not only directly communicate with God but can also interpret the divine will. This branch, which has the highest public profile, is a fundamentalism produced and adhered to by people whose worldview is almost uninformed by modernity.

Members of the first and second branches of American Christianity have allowed the third to claim the media spotlight. Cable news programs have passively absorbed its conventions and echoed its lingo (“faith,” “faith-based,” “our thoughts and prayers,” “we have been blessed,” etc.). The consequent resurgence and respectability of magical thinking is, to borrow a phrase, “bad for America.” Sir James Frazer defined and explained magical thinking at length in The Golden Bough (1890). In Magic, Science, and Religion, the anthropologist Malinowski (whose work I was also assigned to read as an undergraduate) observed: “Science is born of experience, magic made by tradition. Science is guided by reason and corrected by observation, magic, impervious to both, lives in an atmosphere of mysticism.”

Yet in contemporary American media culture, prayer is routinely credited with miraculous powers, particularly in the case of narrow escapes from death. (David Hume defined a miracle as the suspension of the laws of nature; this definition is never applicable to such narrow escapes.) If mountain climbers survive a storm, divine intervention or prayer may get the credit; if they die, the indifference of the deity to the fervent supplications of family members goes unmentioned, and the story is dropped. E-mails now circulate the way chain letters used to do, promising, in explicitly religious terms, good fortune for those who pass them on. Athletic teams pray for God to take their side in metaphysically meaningless contests and competitions. Athletes point to the sky to indicate that God selected for approval, from all His many supplications, one man’s homer or touchdown sprint.

This third branch of Christianity poses a serious threat to our political well-being. Authoritarian, narrow in its scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological in its thinking, evangelical fundamentalism has been making war on the founding ideas of the United States. Its belief in submission to authority puts it at odds with a democratic republic. Its hostility to intellectual inquiry—by its very nature an interrogation of authority—causes it to wage war on scientific research and modern medicine. Its valorization of ancient codes of behavior inspires its attacks on feminism and gay rights. Its revisionist attitude toward history—denying the deism, skepticism, and Masonic associations of certain major Founders—is dishonest.

Fundamentalist Christianity is essentially anti-modern. It holds that truth became manifest two thousand years ago, and everything since—Copernicus and the solar system, the work of Galileo and Michelangelo, the scientific discoveries of Newton, Bacon and Locke, Wollstonecraft and the rights of women, the abolition of slavery, Darwin and Wallace, anesthesia, vaccines against smallpox and polio, progress in civil rights and social justice, the invention of the automobile, bicycle, telephone, airplane, radio, television, computer—is of no consequence. Even though most fundamentalist Christians (unlike the consistent Amish) enjoy the advantages of modern discoveries, inventions, and medical care, they do not acknowledge human ingenuity. (If pressed, they will say God is responsible for all material forms of human progress.) The highest achievements in mathematics, music, painting, sculpture, and literature are of no compelling significance or interest. Evolution is “just a theory” —like gravity?—and a blasphemous one at that.

In a letter to Joseph Priestly, dated January 27, 1800, Thomas Jefferson thundered against such a worldview: “The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion & government, by whom it has been recommended, & whose purposes it would answer.”

A year later, Jefferson wrote Priestly again: “ What an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in Politics & Religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves that they should be able to bring back the times of power & priestcraft. All advances in sciences were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement.”

American fundamentalists would surely find these sentiments offensive. The Southern Baptist website implies the irrelevance of human erudition when it states “in Jesus Christ abide all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” In its discussion of education, it asserts: “The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary is limited by the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures, and by the distinct purpose for which the school exists.” If a statement in the Bible is in conflict with modern science, philosophy, or social justice, it is the Bible that is correct. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University states on its website that “Liberty’s professors integrate a Christian worldview into every subject area.”

Its anti-intellectualism makes fundamentalist Christianity not only intolerant and judgmental but also tautological and superstitious—inclined to the kind of circular logic that attributes divine motivation to carefully selected natural disasters while ignoring the innumerable tragedies and disasters that are not amenable to such interpretations. It believes in a divinity that controls every aspect of life, does everything for a (good) reason, and punishes those who disobey ancient prohibitions.

Its insistence on the inferiority and subordination of women, an attitude it shares with other religious fundamentalisms, is undemocratic and anti-modern. And its obsession with salvation and the afterlife makes it indifferent, or even hostile, to modern innovations for the general good and modern notions of social justice when those conflict, as they often do, with ancient traditions. Many of its members hope for an apocalypse in their own lifetimes, much as credulous peasants did as the year 1000 approached.

The ignorance of fundamentalist Christianity is evident in its insistence on a “literal interpretation” of the Bible. “Literal interpretation” is an oxymoron; all texts require interpretation. There are no true and final interpretations; there are only persuasive, plausible, and unlikely ones. Yet James Dobson recently chastised Barack Obama for articulating this very attitude in a 2006 address.

Fundamentalists will insist in their blog posts (see the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post) that all you have to do is “read” the Bible—an assertion that ignores the multiple translations the Bible has undergone, both into English and into different idioms of English. For decades literary scholars have argued about interpretations of poems by Yeats; for centuries they have disputed the nuances of sonnets and soliloquies by Shakespeare. Well-educated theologians in Catholicism and the mainstream Protestant denominations know very well that religious scholars have quarreled over interpretations, with some of them risking excommunication or death, yet fundamentalists believe in a single, transparent, unambiguous, and universal Biblical text.

Even more disturbing is the fundamentalist belief that the Bible is the only book you need to read and study. It contains all the answers to every conceivable question. Fundamentalists may attend schools that feature a “Christ-centered curriculum” or be home-schooled in a way that prevents exposure to any subject or argument that conflicts with their 2000-year-old worldview. They may attend “universities,” (a misnomer) whose curricula conform to the views of people who died two millennia ago—back when it was common knowledge that the earth was flat and that the sun rotated around it. Such an education is guaranteed to prevent students from encountering the skeptical views of Jefferson, Freud, Darwin, Frazer, Malinowski, or Mark Twain.

One sign of their ignorance is the popular claim that our legal system originates from the ten commandments. As Bill Maher points out, a number of the commandments don’t correspond to law at all. Actually, the law is probably more involved with property than justice. We don’t arrest people who exclaim “My God!”, fail to buy a gift on Mother’s Day, or covet their neighbor’s Mazeratti. And like other bodies of human knowledge and creation, the law is an ongoing process of arguments, counter-arguments, decisions, appeals, and new decisions. In referring to the legal system, American fundamentalists give no credit to the contributions of Emperor Justinian, Alfred the Great, Henry II, Edward I, and various rebellious nobles, assertive merchants, and unruly peasants.

In the past few years, the word “religion” has fallen into disuse, inexplicably replaced by “faith.” Is this a rebranding? Does it suggest a rejection of faith’s traditional opposite, “reason”? During the High Middle Ages those (Catholic) theologians known as the Scholastics, or the schoolmen, carried on rigorous intellectual debates. Caricatured as “how many angels could dance on the head of a pin,” the most daring of these debates concerned faith and reason. Was reason at all compatible with faith, or did reason contaminate and compromise faith?

Medieval theologians studied not only the Bible but also the works of St. Augustine, particularly his City of God, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the entire opus of Aristotle, that pagan philosopher whose ideas contributed so much to intellectual history. Thomas Aquinas enthusiastically appropriated Aristotle to produce his own Summa Theologica (1262-1277). Because the Greek pagan’s views contradicted Christian metaphysics, disputes arose when Aristotle’s Metaphysics appeared in translation. The Franciscan scholar, Bonaventura, a disciple of Augustine and a mystic, rejected Aquinas and Aristotle, but other Franciscans, such as Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), took a strong interest in the application of reason to the natural world and developed a scientific method that would influence Francis Bacon. These devout theologians were also intellectuals who made contributions to the fund of human knowledge.

Fundamentalist Christianity possesses no such intellectual curiosity, depth, or complexity. Instead, it concerns itself with the moral conduct of American citizens—morality as defined by Biblical precepts and taboos. In so far as it takes any interest in science, fundamentalist Christianity is defensive, attempting either to reconcile the Bible with, or to subvert, science. Its main preoccupations appear to be the control of female sexuality and reproduction (no birth control, no possibility of abortion), the criminalization of homosexuality, access to government funds for its “faith-based initiatives,” and the injection of a primitive Christianity into all aspects of the public sphere, from government ceremonies to first-grade classrooms.

While Scholastic debates were logical, rigorous, and dialectical, American fundamentalism is intrinsically tautological and laced with denial. “Everything happens for a reason,” bumper stickers declare, a comforting shibboleth for those who can’t understand why “bad things happen to good people.” Rick Warren, the author of A Purpose-Driven Life, declares that God chooses every aspect of a child, even her eye color. Yet atrocities—assaults, kidnapping, slave labor—are inflicted upon children around the world every day. Christian fundamentalists are selectively blind to personal tragedies, such as when a three-year-old child who has undergone repeated surgeries to correct a club foot is killed in a plane crash. Yet other Christians have directly confronted such difficult issues. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, the devout Dostoevsky articulates for his character Ivan compelling arguments against a God who allows terrible things to happen to children.

For decades, scientists have warned that low-lying New Orleans was at risk from a direct hit by a powerful hurricane. Scientists also know the cause of recurrent earthquakes along the San Andreas fault and other earthquake-prone sites. For fundamentalists, however, natural disasters are perpetrated by a just and angry God. Cold fronts colliding with warm fronts, high and low pressure, Santa Ana winds, unstable tectonic plates—all the discoveries of meteorology, climatology, and geology are ignored in favor of a single, simple causality: divine retribution. When natural disasters or college students destroy churches, however, we hear nothing from the fundamentalists.

During the final leg of the campaign season, as candidates are interrogated about their religious beliefs, more American citizens—mainstream Protestants, Jews, nonbelievers, et al. —need to challenge the cultural hegemony of Christian fundamentalism. It was, after all, devout Christians like Roger Williams and John Locke who first advocated the separation of church and state.

NOTES

In Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell points out the lapses of tolerance and goodness in Jesus’s behavior and speech.

Although my family belonged to a progressive Presbyterian church, we lived in the Bible Belt, so I was particularly struck by some of the texts I read in college—texts that contested the worldview of most (not all) of my Southern classmates. In addition to the texts mentioned above, they included When Prophecy Fails and The Pursuit of the Millennium. I had attended Sunday School often enough to acquire a familiarity with the Bible, but my parents and grandparents—admirers of Twain and Jefferson—had serious theological doubts. Most Sunday mornings we played tennis. As a high-school student I read my grandfather’s copy of Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. (about Job) and memorized the rhyme: “If God is God, he is not good/If God is good, he is not God/Take the even, take the odd.” I was already a religious skeptic before I started college.

Mark Twain satirizes this longstanding habit: “The hookworm was discovered two or three years ago by a physician, who had been patiently studying its victims for a long time. The disease induced by the hookworm had been doing its evil work here and there in the earth ever since Shem landed on Ararat, but it was never suspected to be a disease at all. The people who had it were merely supposed to be lazy, and were therefore despised and made fun of, when they should have been pitied. The hookworm is a peculiarly sneaking and underhanded invention, and has done its surreptitious work unmolested for ages; but that physician and his helpers will exterminate it now. God is back of this. He has been thinking about it for six thousand years, and making up his mind. The idea of exterminating the hookworm was his. He came very near doing it before Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles did. But he is in time to get the credit of it. He always is.”

A few years ago I spent some weeks at a writer’s colony. One of the other writers was a Jewish woman who taught French in a Tennessee community college. After class one day, she told me, a student came up to her and said she was deeply offended by an offhand reference the teacher had made to dinosaurs. Since then Christian fundamentalists have reconciled themselves to the existence of dinosaurs, although they continue to reject carbon dating and its implications.

In an English class I once assigned Mark Twain’s hilarious, iconoclastic essay “The Fly.” Afterwards an evangelical student came up to tell me how it had offended her. You can also be offended, or laugh yourself sick, by reading it here.

When a huge fire devastated a swathe of the Berkeley Hills, one faculty member of the English department interpreted this event as punishment for the first Gulf war. If so, it was a curious choice of target, since the Bay Area had erupted in anti-war protests. I wondered why God had not struck the Pentagon instead. It reminded me of a joke that Abe Russakoff, a friend of my parents, liked to tell: A man is playing golf on the Sabbath. He strikes the ball and it goes into the rough. “Goddamnit, I missed!” he shouts. At the next hole he hits the ball into a sandtrap. “Goddamn, I missed!” he yells again. A lightning bolt strikes and destroys the tree next to him. The golfer looks up, startled, and a great voice thunders from the sky: “Goddamnit, I missed!”


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Kevin Stilley - 8/14/2008

I think the post on my blog to which you refer is this one. It is obviously narrow minded as it quotes rigid fundamentalists like Robert Funk, Karen Armstrong, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Spong, Seyyed Hassein Nasr, and Susan Haskins. Surely that is proof that Kevin Stilley is an evil closed-minded anti-intellectuall who is bent on destroying our democracy and establishing a theocracy.


Kevin Stilley - 8/14/2008

Wow, you found someone who agrees with you. I guess that makes you right...


Kevin Stilley - 8/14/2008

Oh, and thanks for revising your article. Your bigotry is much easier to understand now.


Kevin Stilley - 8/14/2008

My students aren't graded on how well they agree with me. You are making stabs in the dark, just like in the article.


Kevin Stilley - 8/14/2008

My students aren't graded on how well they agree with me. You are making stabs in the dark, just like in the article.


Kevin Stilley - 8/14/2008

I have never heard of lifewaycollege. Keep looking. It would be the most research I have seen in this article.


Carol Hamilton - 8/14/2008


Aha! Kevin Stilley may be affiliated with (he's not mentioned on their website, but he mentions them) a "school" called lifewaycollege.com (note the com, not edu) an obviously unaccredited religious institution whose "faculty" don't even list their educational credentials.


Carol Hamilton - 8/14/2008

Thanks, David.

I googled Kevin Stilley and it's still not clear where he teaches. (Notice that he did not answer your question.) He has a website, and on that website there is an ad for term paper writing services. His job title is "Director of Growth Resources." There is a section on theology. One blog post begins:

"The most important questions that will ever be asked in this world are those regarding the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Who was he? What was his mission? Why did he die? Was he resurrected?"

That first sentence is just the worldview I am criticizing in this article.


Carol Hamilton - 8/14/2008

The central argument is

"This third branch of Christianity poses a serious threat to our political well-being."


Carol Hamilton - 8/14/2008

I hope you will also ask your students to read Frank Schaeffer's piece on the Huffington Post, "God Against Obama":

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/god-against-obama-dobson_b_118611.html

It sounds like any student who fails to attack the article will get a bad grade from you.

Also check out the posting, which has been corrected since you read it. The article ends with "separation of church and state." The rest are notes, which I originally inserted as footnotes.


Carol Hamilton - 8/14/2008

Re; the third criticism, it was posted incorrectly. That has now been fixed.


Carol Hamilton - 8/14/2008

Here's an apostate Evangelical leader who makes much the same critique, but from personal experience:


http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/god-against-obama-dobson_b_118611.html


Kevin Stilley - 8/13/2008

Silly Chris, the answer was that her essay is full of historical fallacies, that there is a good book available that I recommend for someone to read that will help them discern where the errors lie, and if they are unwilling to read that book then why should I invest the time to write a 5,000 word response, but that in about 45 days there will be a bunch of college freshman available who are required to answer the question. Allow me to suggest a good book for you also, "How to Read Slowly", by James Sire.


Chris Henson - 8/13/2008

Kevin, where do you teach? I just want to make sure that my daughter never considers going there. After all, how could I expect her to learn anything from an instructor whose response to a legitimate request for information to back up an inane argument is basically, "if you don't know, I'm not going to tell you."? You're basically exposing the great divide between faith and reason perpetuated by Fundamentalist Christians for what the essay's author says it is——a chasm created by authoritarians unwilling to enter reasoned debate because it challenges your belief system.


Kevin Stilley - 8/13/2008

David, If you are not able to determine the problems with this piece I encourage you to read Fischer's "Historian's Fallacies" or you can wait awhile and my college freshmen should provide a more than adequate response. I have assigned to my Western Civ students the task of responding to this op-ed piece. They are only required to turn in their response to me, but I am sure that many of them will want to leave comments here.


William M. Clifton - 8/11/2008

Michael,
Point well taken. Of course, I was also writing polemics (although I still think I made a good point). Nevertheless, I appreciate your thorough reasoning and your irenic spirit.
-Bill C.


Kevin Stilley - 8/7/2008

In other words, "I really don't have any foundation for my claims, but am using my degree and position to lend authority to my bigotry."


Grant W Jones - 8/7/2008

I wonder if Random House's killing the "The Jewell of Medina" will be comment worthy. It seems a professor of history at UT Austin decided to play literary critic.

"Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP."

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121797979078815073.html?mod=opinion_main_commentaries

No threat to our Constitutional rights here, don't worry, just move along.


Grant W Jones - 8/6/2008

"The New Left of today is the logical end in a long history of skepticism, nihilism, and Kantianism." Exactly, thank you for your excellent observations. They have created a vacuum that mysticism (in numerous forms) will happily fill.




Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 8/6/2008

I found out that this piece had been posted upon receiving a rude, flaming email from a total stranger who called herself "Liz (LA Progressive)." How quickly religion brings out the worst in people!

Given Liz's nasty response, I won't be reading the above comments. I will say that this piece is--obviously--an essay or an op-ed, not "scholarship."

Fight among yourselves.


Michael Caution - 8/6/2008

Indeed you're right when you say that antagonists to mysticism aren't necessarily consistent advocates of reason. I was merely commenting on her implicit rejection of it though it is not as strong as other more consistent advocates of reason have before.

Although I wouldn't use such terms as "secular left" because that ties views such as atheism or a "wall of separation" government to the left which is an invalid package-deal. Considering the fundamentalist rise in politics today it's more secularism that we need but understood within a framework of individual-rights based government, i.e., non liberal non conservative.

And you've definitely touched on something about our current Intellectuals that is unsettling. Since that wasn't the exact nature of the article I didn't touch on that subject. But I will say now that this trend has been around a long time and deals with the nature of knowledge and how we validate it. To cut to the chase it is about epistemology the branch of philosophy that studies man's knowledge, concepts, abstractions, how we gain knowledge and validate it and by what reference.

The New Left of today is the logical end in a long history of skepticism, nihilism, and Kantianism. After WWII and the collapse of socialism the Old Left lost its intellectual power and the New Left dropped it and explicitly began advocating anti-reason slogans, much like the one the cited. However, people are beginning to see that without an intellectual foundation they can't expect to go anywhere. Enter Religion. Religion gives the left exactly what it needs to gain traction and you're beginning to see this happen with the merging of environmentalism and religion.

So for me I'm not worried about the dying ideologies of the left. It's the left given new life with religion behind it that is most dangerous.


Michael Caution - 8/6/2008

That of course depends on what you define as scholarship and as I indicated above, whether this essay/article fits depends upon the context of said essay.

So if you want to be strictly speaking I would say that this essay is well reasoned, presents its argument in a readable way and accomplishes what it set out to say.

Scholarship is a broad continuum. It doesn't have to have a certain number of endnotes attach or a reference page and come from ivory towers. Scholarship can come from anywhere and if presented well enough take on many forms.


William M. Clifton - 8/5/2008

So this isn't scholarship?


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/5/2008

Carol Hamilton talks about Catholics as "open-minded" when they 1) oppose war, 2) oppose the death penalty, and 3) oppose the "stratification of wealth" (whatever that means). I think propositions #1 and #2 are prima facie opposites of open-mindedness, and proposition #3 is so vague as to be meaningless. If #3 means favoring social mobility, it is something 99% of Americans have favored since the Pilgrims.

Her longer argument maintains that fundamentalism is bad for America because it poses a serious threat to our political well-being and makes war on our founding ideas. In response I would suggest it ALWAYS has posed a serious threat to our political well-being, a threat much reduced today,if anything, from what it was in the early days of the Republic, and from which we emerged rather well, thank you. And that means why worry about it now? Until Janet Reno came along we used to tolerate fundamentalists, rather than incinerate them. In fact, one of the greatest accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson, Ms. Hamilton's hero, was to substitute religious tolerance for religious intolerance in Virginia.

Today, of course, fundamentalists pose a major threat to hard-left politicians in this country, which is why the idea is floated now that fundamentalism represents a new menace--by people who support that end of the spectrum.

There are many regions in the U.S. where you can live very happily among religious fundamentalists without belonging to their churches. You will find they generally do love their neighbors, and do turn the other cheek, and that they show up fast when you are in trouble. They constitute no threat to anyone--on the contrary--and in fact their lifestyles prove we owe to them the framework and most virtues of civilization.


Evan Shawn Powell - 8/5/2008

Mr. Jones, you are the one who started the comparison in, I guess, an attempt to support the fundamentalists in this country.

Our Greco-Roman heritage is pagan, predates Christianity and has been alternately vilified by Christians and at the same time they have used it to rise to power.

I don't know that Islam rejected anything. Islamic cultures in the past have execelled at math and medicine while the West was stunted by the superstitious and heavy handed church.

Finally, there is a difference between the Islamic cultures and contemporary Christianity in this country. The point is that in my estimation the only keeping the country from looking like the Islamic cultures you despise is the Constitution and this country's maintaining a somewhat secular government by separating church and state. You remove this barrier and I have no doubts that the fundamentalists in this country would work toward and succeed in creating a theocracy.

Were that to occur what would happen to your freedom to be an atheist?


Grant W Jones - 8/5/2008

"...our brand of fundamentalism..." I'm an atheist. However, thank you for your exercise in moral relativism. Capitalists = Wahabbists, (freedom = slavery, Orwell would be proud) thanks for proving my point on the nature of the modern left.

If one who values freedom and human rights lives in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, etc. it is not Western bombs, but religious tyranny and terrorism they fear. Your equating contemporary Christianity with Islam today bespeaks your ignorance.

So I guess I will have to belabor the obvious. The difference between the West and the Rest is our Greco-Roman heritage. Most Christians share this classical heritage, they are the ones largely responsible for it. During the middle-ages, while Europe was relearning classical thought, Islam rejected it. This was a conscious rejection of reason for a backwards faith. This decision still stands throughout the dar al Islam.

As for all dogamatism, I remember a few decades ago that when Ronald Reagan called one such an "evil empire" it caused mass apoplexy from liberal quarters. I have no reason to believe that their (or your) judgment has improved.


Grant W Jones - 8/5/2008

Just because someone criticizes Christianity (or fundamental Christianity) doesn't make them a consistent advocate of reason. I stand by my above statements. Academia and the secular left are as hostile to the Enlightenment as any religious fanatic. It is on this that rational liberals need to speak out on, yet another critique of Christian mysticism adds nothing.

Check out what the Ontario Science Center states under "A Question of Truth:"

"Modern Western science puts the Sun at the centre of the solar system. But other points of view are not necessarily wrong or primitive. Examine the Earth-centred solar system models of other cultures."

http://www.ontariosciencecentre.ca/rentals/truth/sample.asp

Compared to this Bible thumping Christians are pikers.


dave west - 8/5/2008

"... the contributions of Emperor Justinian, Alfred the Great, Henry II, Edward I, and various rebellious nobles, assertive merchants, and unruly peasants."

I'd read that book.


dave west - 8/5/2008

"... the contributions of Emperor Justinian, Alfred the Great, Henry II, Edward I, and various rebellious nobles, assertive merchants, and unruly peasants."

I'd read that book.


David Holland - 8/5/2008

Dr. Hamilton draws a distinction between "christians" who lean toward righteousness and those who lean toward grace in her "three types." This distinction, between "righteousness and grace," rather than the issue of modernity, is the driving force for much of contemporary politics.

The righteous follow the "word" in the hopes of determining eternal laws, dictates that they feel all should follow. Contemporary examples in U.S. christianity include the Southern Baptist Convention, John Hagee, and Pat Robertson. These preachers promote the notion of a predominantly "old testament," law-based theology. They promote the notion that "God Hates Fags" or various other condemnations and calls for violent cleansings. On the other hand, christianity has "preachers" of divine grace, they say that one is transformed by the "mysterium." However, these tend to be marginalized by the mainstream, righteous. Think of Christ, St. Francis and Meister Eckhart. A contemporary example would be Mother Theresa, someone who "lived" the word instead of attempting to control how others should live. We can even see this distinction in recent popes, John Paul vs. Benedict. Grace knows of human folly and seeks to ameliorate it, righteousness seeks to eradicate it through the fires of inquisition--holy-wars against various kinds of "evil-doers."

Jesus claimed to come not to overthrow the law, but to fulfill it. This seems to me to be the definitive statement of christianity. Did he go about enforcing the law and stoning sinners? Nope, to the contrary, he forgave and used each example of sin to teach everyone to look to their own failings first.

Well perhaps I spoke prematurely. After all, we know that he did condemn some sinners; the money-lenders doing business in the temple and the Pharisees, the righteous posers who cloaked themselves in the garb of religiosity to further their own interests.

This same "righteousness" dynamic appears in various other contemporary religions and is used to further local political interests across the globe. We see it in Islam, in Hinduism, Christianity, and so forth. It is present in the exoteric pronouncements that define "true nationalism," whether in India, Afghanistan, or the U.S., and etc. In each instance, the pronouncements are played-out in party politics, media communications (propaganda), blood-letting, and burning flesh.

Though I am not a christian--after all, who in this day and age could lay claim to such a blood-soaked name, with its many justifications of violence? (e.g. "assasinate Chavez" or "God sent Katrina to clean-out New Orleans," etc.)--I can not help but wonder why those who call themselves followers of Christ (or Buddha, or Muhammad, etc.) will yet again strive to be at the forefront of the crowd to cast the first stone?


Michael Caution - 8/5/2008

Dr. Hamilton's essay is very encouraging to see coming from a university professor. Although I think she tries to answer her essay title in the affirmative and gives a somewhat sweeping glimpse as to the reasons for this religious threat, I don't think she goes far enough to drive this point home.

Faith and Reason are and always will be opposites. They are two separate methods of looking at reality. Reason is used to grasp and integrate reality into a coherent whole. Faith rejects this and demands blind obedience to an undefined supernatural power and leads to the contradiction of reality.

All of this has actually been said better by philosopher Ayn Rand in her 1960 lecture to Yale University, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World". Reprinted in "Philosophy: Who Needs It".

The following are excerpts from that lecture:
http://freedomkeys.com/faithandforce.htm

"I have said that faith and force are corollaries, and that mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are impossible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which mysticism reduces mankind -- a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence. And more: no man or mystical elite can hold a whole society subjugated to their arbitrary assertions, edicts and whims, without the use of force. Anyone who resorts to the formula: "It's so, because I say so," will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later. Communists, like all materialists, are neo-mystics: it does not matter whether one rejects the mind in favor of revelations or in favor of conditioned reflexes. The basic premise and the results are the same."


Michael Caution - 8/5/2008

You're ignoring the context of the essay. Dr. Hamilton's essay is a short polemic that presents certain ideas on the state of our culture. It therefore is not a detailed analysis with notes upon notes of research. If you wanted that you'll have to get it somewhere else. Don't blame the author for something she didn't intend or for not writing to you alone.


Michael Caution - 8/5/2008

I think these comments, though seemingly off the direct topic in the essay, do speak to the general issue of reason in our current culture raised by Dr. Hamilton.

"Fundamentalists, while they are misguided on many iss


Michael Caution - 8/5/2008

I think these comments, though seemingly off the direct topic in the essay, do speak to the general issue of reason in our current culture raised by Dr. Hamilton.

"Fundamentalists, while they are misguided on many issues, do not in any way deserve to be compared to a genocidal fascist."

One needs to look beyond the concrete, i.e. the individual murder of millions of innocents, and abstract away from it the driving force behind both religion and Hitler in particular. Religion is based upon faith which explicitly rejects reason. Faith is the acceptance of an idea without evidence in reality or even in contradiction to the facts of reality. Faith and reason are epistemological opposites.

I'm assuming most honest individuals can see the havoc that religion, in it's consistent form, has inflicted upon civilization in centuries past due to its war against reality. As to Hitler and his explicit rejection of reason and therefore similarities to faith I point to Dr. Leonard Peikoff's excellent analysis of that time period in his book, "The Ominous Parallels".

http://tiny.cc/56yGp

In it Dr. Peikoff explains the rise of Nazism and its philosophic roots and ties to anti-reason ideologies. After you've read this there's no way you cannot say that Hitler gives religion a bad name. Hitler merely took what religion has been proclaiming since its inception and refashioned it for his own purposes. They have both lead to the same result-the death of man.


David Holland - 8/4/2008

1)Harvard's operation of its gym facilities a few hours a week for women-only, while problematic, hardly constitutes gender apartheid on that campus.

2)It is not an established fact that because Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal is a Muslim that he is therefore also a religious extremist. You do understand that their is a difference, right? He is part of the monarchical family of Saud and disproportionately wealthy because of the power his title affords him. Beyond that, he is little different from any other capitalist. American academic institutions have a long and troubled history with exploitative capitalists--they simply can't resist the money. That's why the George H.W. Bush Fund at Phillips Academy, Andover also accepted Al-Waleed's half-million dollar donation in 2002. This donation argues against his pushing any fundamentalist agenda and points more to his pro-Saudi one.

3)Edward Said criticized certain Western intellectuals and their practices. Like any scholar, some of his criticisms had merit, others did not. His "crap" provided a way of looking at things that no one else ever considered. That new vista engendered a great deal of reconsideration and discussion. However, because he was a thinking person he knew the difference between criticizing and "demonizing." He did not "demonize." That's the language used by dogmatists--e.g.,"evil-doers."

4)Educated people are not "in denial about the nature of Islam." They know that as with Christianity, Islam has many variations, including liberalism. It is only the illiberal, "fundamentalist" varieties of either that run counter to the founding ideas of the American Republic.

5)While CAIR, or any organization, is not above reproach I am sure that what they are doing more frequently than not is much more than "working to brand all critical inquiry of Islam as "Islamophobia" in order to squelch debate and discussion."

If, as you say, you are no "phony liberal" then your concern should be with all dogmatisms, both East and West. They are all pretty virulent nowadays, look at this current administration and its attack on "evil-doers."

Instead what I hear you arguing is that our brand of fundamentalism is not that bad when you "implied that one is currently far more dangerous that the other." That assessment depends upon where you live and where the bombs are coming from. Liberalism has attempted to overcome such provincialisms and to develop a more cosmopolitan view. To deny that, seems to me, disingenuous.


Randll Reese Besch - 8/4/2008

The GWOT is in part a religious war as based upon the need by our fascist leaders to have a scapegoat. Before it was communists now it is Moslems. All Moslems are targeted. Also anyone who disagrees is considered a possible terrorist as defined by our dictator in chief---Bush/Cheney. They have the laws to back them up and people who would enforce those laws no matter how unconstitutional they are.

Not too many countries run by Moslems have nuclear weapons and spend so much money as the USA (mostly Christian) to threaten, attack, and in some cases occupy other countries in violation of international law and our

Constitution. War crimes being done in ways not seen since 1931 and 1939. The Japanese and Germans were tried for doing the same thing the USA has done now.

We have fallen so far from the Enlightenment we are heading for a new Dark Age one of narrow mindsets and devastating weapons used for commercial and religious reasons. Truly a time to try people's souls.


Grant W Jones - 8/4/2008

My question is about the basic hypocrisy of the left. If fundamentalism is such a threat to the republic, why do universities such as Harvard adopt gender apartheid upon demand? Why do Georgetown, Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Arkansas and the Carter Library accept funds (and all their strings) from the likes of bin Talal? If Christian fundamentalism "poses a serious threat to our political well-being." Then how much more danger is posed by an Islam that is also "Authoritarian, narrow in its scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological in its thinking, evangelical fundamentalism has been making war on the founding ideas of the United States..." But even more so. Or do "liberals" think that the Koran and Hadith are compatible with the Declaration of Independence?

How have the "liberal-Left" argued in favor of human rights? By demonizing the civilization that discovered them and where they are most respected? Is this why Edward Said's crap is required reading in American universities?

"...your rather tenuous and implied point that there are fundamentalists in both Christianity and Islam and that the Muslim fundamentalist are worse...." Only someone in deep denial about the nature of Islam and the current Jihad throughout the world could write such a statement. I implied that one is currently far more dangerous that the other. Only a modern liberal can evade this reality. In Canada and Europe free speech is under attack by fundamentalists. Islamic fundamentalism. In the United States groups like CAIR, and their academic friends, are working to brand all critical inquiry of Islam as "Islamophobia" in order to squelch debate and discussion.

I am a liberal, as opposed to a watered down socialist/progressive/relativist. Hence my concern about militant Islam. A concern that all phony "liberals" are unable to understand.


Evan Shawn Powell - 8/4/2008

Not to mention that neither "Islam" or "Moslems" are even mentioned in this article. What relevance does your comment have to anything in this article, Mr. Jones?

I mean other than your rather tenuous and implied point that there are fundamentalists in both Christianity and Islam and that the Muslim fundamentalist are worse and this somehow makes the Christian extremists ah-okay?


David Holland - 8/4/2008

For those of you who missed it, after the author carefully laid out her evidence she then CLEARLY stated her argument as:

"Authoritarian, narrow in its scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological in its thinking, evangelical fundamentalism has been making war on the founding ideas of the United States."

It is difficult, for a thinking person, to take these condemnations ("bad history, bad logic, and bad social analysis") as valid criticisms when it is not elaborated as to why it is "bad".

What in particular is "bad" about her use of history? Where specifically does her logic fail? What in her analysis is "bad"? Which theories were "debunked almost a century ago" and how were they proven wrong? Which of her assumptions are "unfounded"?

For me, or anyone, to be able to determine whether a criticism is valid would require such elaboration, otherwise it fails to rise above the level of simple name-calling--such as "bad" and "a waste of neural activity." Criticisms, lacking any such explanation, remain unfounded.

Resorting to name-calling, blind condemnation, is the very kind of thinking--or lack thereof--that the original author warns against. It is the very essence of "narrow in...scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological." In other words, for a thinking person, it is not enough to simply condemn an idea as "bad" and to assume that the reasons for such a judgment are obvious, or "self-evident." These condemnations perfectly exemplify the kind of "thinking" that the author is condemning.

In order for me, or anyone else, to be able to freely weigh whether such condemnations have merit requires at the very least a founded explanation as to why. This is a fundamental assumption of Western thought that, though many are trying to debunk, still stands.


David Holland - 8/4/2008

What is the point of your comments?

Are you saying that a public pronouncement by an organization on a website is an invalid source to ascertain the beliefs or intent of a particular church or denomination?

What is different about them doing so on a website, that they pay for and maintain, than say versus doing so in a published hard-copy?

My accountant references tax-laws on the IRS website and she feels just as bound by those laws as she does by the ones published in books.


David Holland - 8/4/2008

I become even more worried when religious zealots attempt to write history.


David Holland - 8/4/2008

How can you "completely agree with Kevin and John in their comments about the lack of scholarship and evidence in the piece" when they haven't EXPLAINED where the scholarship or evidence is lacking?

This entire blog is an interesting exercise in EXACTLY the kind of "thought" that Dr. Hamilton takes to task for being "rigid" and "tautological." As such, it is generically of the same type that Hitler both represented and preyed upon. It is illiberal.

(Not in the current usage of the word "liberal" that means "politically progressive," but in the older sense of the term. Rather, in the Enlightenment era's sense of the word, a sense upon which the U.S. was founded.)


William M. Clifton - 8/4/2008

I become worried when historians reduce their research to reading mission statements on the websites of religious organizations.


David Holland - 8/4/2008

I read a lot of passion in your words, but little else. Who in what you call "the liberal-left" approves of such murders and atrocities?

I think that the people you call "liberal-left" have a great deal of respect for human rights and freedoms. That is why they argue against any form of religious extremism, whether it be in the Middle East, in India, or, as in this case, here in the U.S.

The modern notion of liberalism was founded in opposition to state and religious dictatorship. There is an interesting work on that that I would recommend called "The Declaration of Independence."


David Holland - 8/4/2008

For those of you who missed it, after the author carefully laid out her evidence she then CLEARLY stated her argument as:

"Authoritarian, narrow in its scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological in its thinking, evangelical fundamentalism has been making war on the founding ideas of the United States."

It is difficult, for a thinking person, to take these condemnations ("bad history, bad logic, and bad social analysis") as valid criticisms when it is not elaborated as to why it is "bad".

What in particular is "bad" about her use of history? Where specifically does her logic fail? What in her analysis is "bad"? Which theories were "debunked almost a century ago" and how were they proven wrong? Which of her assumptions are "unfounded"?

For me, or anyone, to be able to determine whether a criticism is valid would require such elaboration, otherwise it fails to rise above the level of simple name-calling--such as "bad" and "a waste of neural activity." Criticisms, lacking any such explanation, remain unfounded.

Resorting to name-calling, blind condemnation, is the very kind of thinking--or lack thereof--that the original author warns against. It is the very essence of "narrow in...scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological." In other words, for a thinking person, it is not enough to simply condemn an idea as "bad" and to assume that the reasons for such a judgment are obvious, or "self-evident." These condemnations perfectly exemplify the kind of "thinking" that the author is condemning.

In order for me, or anyone else, to be able to freely weigh whether such condemnations have merit requires at the very least a founded explanation as to why. This is a fundamental assumption of Western thought that, though many are trying to debunk, still stands.


Grant W Jones - 8/4/2008

Then why is the West importing millions of Moslems? When it comes to honor killings, gender apartheid, and the murder of and threats to apostates the liberal/left have no comment.


Caryne Eskridge - 8/4/2008

I completely agree with Kevin and John in their comments about the lack of scholarship and evidence in the piece.

What disturbs me more is the reductio ad Hilterum comparison of Fundamentalists to Hitler. Fundamentalists, while they are misguided on many issues, do not in any way deserve to be compared to a genocidal fascist. This comparison is not only bad history, it is offensive and dangerous. I am personally offended whenever the murder of 6 million Jews is arbitrarily applied to a completely unrealted situation. The seriousness of genocide is cheapened whenever it is flippantly misused, making it more difficult to eradicate.

In regards to the implication that Hitler's genocide was motivated by Christianity, I would recommend reading this article: www.nationalreview.com/shiflett/shiflett012102.shtml+Hitler+on+Christianity&">http://64.233.169.104/search?q=cache:vWKlVpLwqI4J:www.nationalreview.com/shiflett/shiflett012102.shtml+Hitler+on+Christianity&;hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us.


John R. Maass - 8/4/2008

It is also very poorly organized, lacks a clear argument, and is chock full of bigotry.


Stephen Kislock - 8/4/2008

I find Fundamentalist Christians to be regressive in thinking. For the most part they pick and chose what and when they will live up to the Bible. How many Christians Stone their brethren for working on the Sabbath?

A quote from a Christian "My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers,recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. how terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison...as a Christian I have a duty to my own people." Adolf Hitler, speech April 22, 1922.

For those who, want some reading, that will question, what is going on in the U.S., may I suggest Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation"


Kevin Stilley - 8/4/2008

This is bad history, bad logic, and bad social analysis. It is dependent upon theories debunked almost a century ago and offers nothing new but unfounded assumptions. What a waste of neural activity.

http://www.kevinstilley.com

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