Why fundamentalism is not the true expression of religion

Many people view fundamentalists as the real representatives of religious belief. That’s certainly what Richard Dawkins seems to think, along with some of my good New Atheist friends.

I can see the reasoning. Fundamentalists are the ones who apparently take their faith really seriously. They’re the ones with utter, dogged commitment to their beliefs, often regardless of evidence. They’re the ones who accept and follow their holy texts literally and unquestioningly, without a shadow of doubt, regardless of how abhorrent or unpalatable those texts might be in places.

Fundamentalists appear to be firm, strong, unwavering, faithful; not woolly and wishy-washy, half-assed and mealy-mouthed. You might hate what they do and stand for, but in a way you have to admire them – or so goes the argument. They’re the real deal – religion in its true colours (which of course are black and white).

And by the same token, non-fundamentalists are not really believers at all. They’re not much more than religious parasites riding on the backs of the true faithful. Indeed, they’re little better than traitors to their faith (which of course is how many fundamentalists view them).

And from a New Atheist perspective, moderates and progressives muddy the waters and prop up irrational, harmful religion by a reasonableness and niceness which are entirely inconsistent with their ridiculous beliefs and barbaric scriptures.

I understand this viewpoint, but I don’t agree with it.

Fundamentalism as a sign of weakness

It’s my firm conviction that far from fundamentalism being the strongest and surest form of faith, it is generally the weakest and least secure. Far from fundamentalism being the truest, purest, most authentic form of faith, it is on the whole the most immature version. And far from fundamentalist literalism representing the best understanding of faith’s core tenets, it tends on the contrary to be based on huge over-simplifications and often tragic misunderstandings of them.

Fundamentalism (at least in its extreme form) is the most vocal and indeed violent form of belief, precisely because it is the weakest, least secure and least mature. It shouts and fights to defend its viewpoints because it must; for to accept that it might be wrong on any point would (it fears) be its death and ruin. To the fundamentalist or extremist mind, any question of its version of truth is a deadly attack that must be resisted by counter-attack – for the sake of its own survival.

So fundamentalism will not accept the least shade of doubt, or nuance, or shade of grey, or alternative position – because it cannot; it has not the maturity or strength to. It cannot brook the least non-literal interpretation of holy writ, lest the whole edifice come crashing down about its ears.

By contrast, those who have grown up into a deeper, more mature faith can accept all manner of doubt and uncertainty, all kinds of nuance and alternative interpretation. They are free to listen to other viewpoints, from those of other faiths or none, without feeling threatened or undermined. They are free to question the tenets of their own faith, and even to question their scriptures. To the fundamentalist, and sometimes apparently to the atheist, this appears to be a sign that they have lost or compromised their faith. I believe the precise opposite to be the case.

Fundamentalism isn’t all bad

Now I should make a couple of provisos here. Firstly, I believe fundamentalism to be an important, even vital phase to go through in spiritual development. It is not the end goal and ultimate expression of religion, but it is a necessary first step. The problem is when people become stuck in it, unable to grow past it at the proper time.

Secondly, by no means all fundamentalists are violent, immature or unintelligent. Some are deeply good, kind and thoughtful people who for one reason or other are holding on to a simple (even simplistic) theology. I disagree with this theology, but many fundamentalists are far better than their theology. (I’ve written more about understanding fundamentalists here.)

More than merely moderate

But if fundamentalism is by no means the truest representation of religion, does that mean that moderate or liberal religion is then the ideal that we should be aiming for? Not necessarily.

I’ve said before that I don’t like the term ‘moderate’, and I don’t think that being or ‘nice’ or ‘reasonable’ is the pinnacle of religious faith. The best and truest religion is of course not unreasonable or irrational, but it’s much more than merely reasonable or rational. It’s not nasty or deliberately offensive, but it’s so much more than merely nice or inoffensive.

So where fundamentalism is black-and-white, merely moderate or nice religion is shades of grey. But the truest religion is the full spectrum of living colour.

Fundamentalist religion is at worst narrow, restrictive, exclusivist, controlling and directly opposed to human flourishing. Moderate religion is I think more psychologically healthy, but it can sometimes run the risk of becoming amorphous and attenuated, lacking the power to make much actual difference. The best and truest religion, I would argue, actively promotes and contributes to human freedom and flourishing. It is shown to be true by its power to change lives and so change the world.

Christlikeness

The best and truest religion embraces and encompasses all of life and people and the world, rather than being limited to a narrow ‘religious’ sphere. It welcomes and enjoys diversity, variety, creativity, imagination. It doesn’t hide itself away in a clean safe enclave, but engages positively with the arts, sport, politics, other faiths, and indeed everything and everyone.

So what is ‘true’ religion? For me, it’s simply the way of Christ; it’s true Christlikeness. It’s hard to sum up in a neat definition, but it’s easy to recognise when we see it – as we do in different ways in the lives of people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Gandhi (though of course not himself a ‘Christian’). And of course we see it most clearly of all in Jesus Christ himself.

True, Christlike religion is beautiful and exciting, subversive and dangerous, life-affirming and liberating and humanising. It transgresses social boundaries and conventions, breaks rules that are designed to dehumanise, overturns age-old systems of oppression and control. Its goal is nothing short of an entirely renewed, redeemed cosmos and an entirely renewed, redeemed humanity – a world based on mutual love and care and self-giving and forgiveness.

So if our religion is merely safe or dull or establishmentarian then we may well be missing the mark. And if our religion seeks to label and exclude, to condemn and dismiss, to control and dominate, to set up barriers and fences rather than tearing them down, then it is not Christlike at all. And so it is arguably not true religion at all; certainly not the truest.

Crucially, true religion humanises both its followers and also those who are not part of its ‘group’. Rather than seeking to condemn or exclude or shun outsiders and unbelievers, it reaches out to all with transforming love. And rather than imposing its ‘truth’ on others, it listens to and learns from them.

Not another club

So please don’t get me wrong. I say all this not to set up another exclusive religious club, labelling it ‘true religion’ and shutting out everyone else – the fundamentalists, the moderates, the atheists, the believers in other gods.

If there were a club or a church for ‘true religion’ it would only have one member – Jesus Christ. No-one else has ever come close to fulfilling the requirements; no-one else has been able to love completely and unceasingly and faultlessly – even MLK and Mother Teresa. But fortunately Jesus doesn’t keep it as an exclusive club. He opens it wide to all of us.

‘True’ religion is not something that I and my group have, and that you and your group lack. It’s something none of us have, but that we can all seek and aspire to. It only comes with maturity, with long following in Christ’s footsteps – and it is not fully realised this side of eternity.

We all have some fundamentalist tendencies – it’s part of the human condition. And we all bring our own flawedness and brokenness, our psychological and emotional unhealthiness to our religion. All Christians and all churches and religious groups are fundamentally flawed from the very outset. Yet that need not be a cause for despair or disengagement, but rather for hope. Christ’s grace is there for all of us, calling us on from where we are to where we can be in him.

So fundamentalism is not the true essence of religion; but then neither perhaps is merely nice, moderate liberalism. True religion is something we’ve mostly only barely glimpsed. But when you do glimpse it, you probably won’t want to settle for anything else.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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25 Responses to Why fundamentalism is not the true expression of religion

  1. Excellent! You provided good analysis of many aspects of fundamentalism. In addition, you did not write off fundamentalists as ignorant and stupid.

    I like your idea that fundamentalism can be a beginning stage as long as we continue to mature beyond it. This might be the most insightful and balanced article I have read on fundamentalism.

    • Thanks Tim! That’s really kind of you.

      I find I can’t write off fundamentalists (much as I would sometimes like to!), because I know that I too have been through a ‘fundy’ phase and at the time it was helpful for me. I’m very glad I no longer remain in that phase, which rapidly became restrictive like an out-grown garment, but it provided the basics I needed at that point.

      I also recognise that I still have fundamentalist tendencies within me, shown in an occasional tendency to view particular situations in stark black-and-white terms, or to see certain people as unmitigated ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’…

      And finally I have some good fundy friends who help pull me back when I’m tempted to veer wildly off into complete liberalism, which I (usually) appreciate!

      All the very best,
      Harvey

      • Chas says:

        I too came through an initial time in which I would say: ‘it’s in the Bible, so it must be right’. More recently, the Holy Spirit started to show me some of the contradictions in the Bible, and gradually led me to my present stage, which seems to have no proper definition. We are on a journey with God and we progress at a different rate and by a different route, so we should not expect the experience of others to be like ours, neither should we put them down or think that their present state is wrong for them. If our experience seems relevant to them, we should tell them of it, but it is up to them, with God, to do with it whatever they find to be right for them. Support and encourage, not put down and discourage.

        • Thanks Chas – I completely agree. I confess that I do sometimes get on my high horse and want to criticize those in the fundamentalist phase of faith – but then I have to remember that I’ve been through that phase too, and I needed it at the time.

          What I will do is critique fundamentalist theology where I think it is unloving or anti-life, but I need to do so in a loving way (I don’t always succeed).

          • Chas says:

            Another thing to consider here is: what is the loving way? Sometimes tough love is what is necessary, so maybe upon the high horse has been the right place to be at that moment. It has sometimes only been shown to me through hindsight what has been achieved in an interaction with someone. At the time, it was not clear what was happening, and I was just responding through whatever came into my mind at the time out of what the other person had said. Now the content of my own comment has been an eye-opener for me, because I shudder at Paul’s phrase concerning rebuking using scripture, yet I often quote from the Bible as a form of rebuke! However, that too is OK, because it has been as a response to something said to me – I gave what had been brought to my mind. To paraphrase: ‘do not be afraid about knowing what to say, because God will give you the right words with which to respond.’ Go instantly from the heart, don’t try to keep it from the head.

            • Interesting thoughts. I’m always a bit cautious about the ‘tough love’ idea! I completely agree that love does sometimes require us to say things that other people won’t want to hear (and conversely to allow others to say things to us that we don’t want to hear). But I also think that it requires quite a bit of wisdom and maturity to be able to do ‘tough love’ properly, without it veering into something potentially more harmful than helpful.

              I’m also a little cautious about the idea that we should always respond instantly from the heart, and that that will be the God-prompted response. I think that can be right sometimes, but I’m all too aware that the first thing that occurs to me to say is often not godly at all! Again I think it’s largely a question of maturity. The longer we’ve walked with Christ the more likely we are to come out with a Christlike response straight off – but for many of us (me certainly) that’s something we’re still working towards… :)

            • Chas says:

              You may not have realized, but you became passionate in your argument with Akenhaten (under the heading ‘don’t argue with atheists’) and so were speaking from the heart. Your passion for what you know to be real was itself real, and so it was convincing, not for your opponent, but for others whom God will bring to read what you wrote. Your initial premise, don’t argue with atheists was fully justified by the exchange, because it showed the futility of trying to argue constructively with Akenhaten. His mind was closed.
              PS How do we really know what Jesus was like?

            • You’re right, I did become passionate in that argument with Arkenaten! However, I did make sure I wasn’t replying hastily – if I had, my response would almost certainly have contained unconstructive expletives ;). So while what I wrote was heartfelt, I’d also taken time to consider my words quite carefully.

              Interesting PS there… I suppose my answer would be that we don’t really know for 100% sure what Jesus was like! What we do know is mainly based on the four gospel accounts, which all of course present slightly different pictures, and which we have to take on trust (which I’m largely prepared to do). We also have our own personal experiences from our prayer and worship, and the writings and testimony of others who claim (like us) to have experienced something of the risen Jesus over the centuries…

            • Chas says:

              Re. what was Jesus really like? The following is taken from a letter to a UK newspaper in response to David Cameron’s recent statements about Biblical and British values:

              ‘…he stresses above all the importance of tolerance, but tolerance isn’t a Christian value. Jesus castigated the wealthy, the powerful and religions like that of the Pharisees, who taught values different from his own.’

              To some extent that is the view of Jesus that we get from the Bible. It is difficult to believe, however, that he would have spoken in such an intolerant and judgemental way.

            • Hi Chas,
              This is a complex and difficult area and probably merits a post or two of its own!

              For myself, I don’t have a problem with those parts of the gospels where Jesus appears to rail against the religious rulers and the rich elite. I think this is entirely in keeping with his role as prophet and priest, one who comes to call Israel back to her true vocation. I think some of our problem with these passages is that we can’t help seeing through modern western eyes, and part is that we expect Jesus’ love and grace to look and work in a certain way.

              My view of the gospels is that they are very largely authentic (I don’t say inerrant!), though with particular theological emphases and interpretations.

            • Cindy Brown says:

              I appreciated your comment. I am not sure which verses you are talking about where Paul talks about rebuking using scripture. If you get a chance would you pass it along! Thanks;./

            • Hi Cindy, I think the quote Chas is referring to is “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, from 2 Tim 3:16.

          • Cindy Brown says:

            I believe all the things that your article so eloquently states. I have a question for you.

            When I post these types of explanations on didcussion boards, it is the fundamentalist who often replies with something like – you can’t judge who is more christian, or various things likie that.

            I often answer – well we are all somewhere along the path, right where are suppposed to be, or something like that.

            But- that even might sounds judgy, which I don’t want to sound.

            Do you have a better way to respond to these types of responses?

            • Hi Cindy, thanks very much for your comment and I’m sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve just got back from holiday.

              It’s very difficult to respond constructively to the true fundamentalist, because in general they’re not interested in dialogue. I think your response that we’re all somewhere along the path is a good one and doesn’t come across to me as judgy.

              I think all that you can do in dialogue with fundamentalists is gently and calmly put your side across, show a willingness to listen and (as far as possible) not get drawn in to fighting or arguing.

              My own response to ‘you can’t judge who is more Christian’ might be something like ‘no, you’re right, I can’t judge. We can each only live according to the light we have and in line with our own conscience and understanding. I wish you well on your path.’

              All the very best,
              Harvey / TEL

  2. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Reblogged this on Jesus Without Baggage and commented:
    Today, I read one of the most insightful and balanced articles on fundamentalism that I have read in a long time. Evangelical Liberal writes consistently good articles, and I am adding him to my blog’s favorite blogs list.

  3. Pingback: Favorite quotes from: Why fundamentalism is not the true expression of religion. | This is Important

  4. Chas says:

    Some of your words really rang the bell for me. Being truly like Jesus:
    ‘is beautiful and exciting, subversive and dangerous, life-affirming and liberating and humanising. It transgresses social boundaries and conventions, breaks rules that are designed to dehumanise, overturns age-old systems of oppression and control.’
    Since coming to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the Holy Spirit has led me to counter attempts to coerce, intimidate or oppress people into doing what someone else is trying to control them into doing. God also leads me to counter the exploitation of other people, which works to the detriment of both themselves and the exploiter. Doing that certainly brings persecution onto oneself. In fact, one of the things that I have kept in mind has been ‘if you don’t get persecuted, you can’t be doing it right!’ Nevertheless, the benefits always outweigh the detriments, even when looked at only from my side, let alone when the benefits accruing to those previously being made the victims are taken into account.

  5. Pingback: Why fundamentalism is not the true expression of religion | The Evangelical Liberal - Contemplative Theology : Contemplative Theology

  6. sheila0405 says:

    Reblogged this on …..temporary…. and commented:
    As someone who was a Fundamentalist until the age of 49, I truly appreciate this.

    • Thanks very much Sheila. I’d be very interested to hear more of your story – your experiences of being a Fundamentalist, and also how you came to move on or escape from fundamentalism, and how that’s been for you.

      All the best,
      Harvey

  7. jessedooley says:

    Thank you for your insight and for spreading the truth of radical inclusiveness. That’s the message that I hear. That’s what I believe should be evangelized.

    • Thanks Jesse – good to hear from you. I’d be interested to hear more about your idea of radical inclusiveness!

      It’s something that I think Christians struggle with because it’s drummed into us that we have an exclusive message about an exclusive saviour – that only Jesus is the way to salvation, and all other paths are false. That’s certainly something I’ve wrestled with over the years. Because in a sense I do believe that Jesus is unique, and that what he did was special. But I also believe that it was for all, and that those on other paths can still be included in this great redemption.

      In a slightly more negative way, I also believe in the inclusive message that we’re all equally wrong! In other words, no religion or denomination has it fully right, but that’s okay. And also every one of us is flawed and imperfect, yet at the same time completely loved, welcomed and included.

  8. Nice blog Harvey. Fundamentalism is all those problematic things you point out, but also a valid point along the path to enlightenment for many, as you also point out. Well done.

    • Thanks very much! :) I know I’ve been a fundamentalist myself – and in some ways I still am, though I don’t want to be. The big challenge for me is to love my fundamentalist brethren, when a lot of the time I just want to throw things at them… and perhaps also to accept the fundamentalist parts in myself.

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