Fundamentalism: A return to Dark Ages

January 23, 2005|by Allan Powell

Since the rise of the Moral Majority some 30 years ago, it has become increasingly clear that fundamentalist Christianity is a harmful social movement. Its numbers and power should be a source of alarm. This mass movement, composed of highly charged biblical literalists, represents an in-your-face, we are the only way, absolutely true, old time religion.

The all-pervasive influence of this hubris-filled crowd became evident during the recent presidential election when politicians courted their favor. There were frequent interviews with fundamentalist families calculated to show their clout within the Republican party. These interviews merit serious thought.

In one family scene, a child of only about 9 years of age was shown saying that their way was the only way because Jesus had said, "No man cometh unto the father but by me."

Her parents beamed with approval. But, should a child of 9 present such exclusivism? Are they intellectually prepared to be making statements about dogmatic theology while so young? When she becomes an adult will she ever be able to cooperate with other types of religious persuasions?


The foregoing story could, no doubt, be repeated many times over. They are quick to remind all that they are the fastest growing segment of Protestantism. Moreover, they are unapologetically anti-intellectual, anti-rational and anti-science when faced with any idea that presents a threat to their storehouse of old-world ideology.

John Spong, an Anglican bishop, has written persuasively in his well-read book, "Rescuing The Bible From Fundamentalism," about his fears of their dominance: "My purpose in this volume is to rescue the Bible from the exclusive hands of those who demand that it be literal truth, and second to open up that sacred story to levels of insight and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced."

Spong is a member of the family, so to speak. Yet he agrees with the skeptic that the claims of literalism and inerrancy in biblical texts are a distortion of literature, history and science. Can any informed, rational, modern person take seriously the claim made in Genesis 3:7 that a conversation took place between a human and a snake?

Again, is there any justification to accept literally an account in Numbers 22: 21-35 of a complaint made by a jackass to his master that he was unreasonably cruel? This old-world, pre-scientific view of how things work takes on huge proportions in the book of Joshua. At this point, Joshua is engaged in a battle with a Caananite tribe and needs more time to defeat the enemy before darkness sets in. Looking heavenward, Joshua commands the sun to stand still. The sun and the moon comply with his request.

This report, of course, is difficult for a modern mind to accept. First to note is the fact that Joshua, if he had not had an Old World view of our solar system, would have commanded the earth - not the sun - to stand still. If that had happened, a large portion of our earth would have been waiting several extra hours for the appearance of sunlight.

The laws of nature are invariant. These invariant laws are the basis of an orderly universe. This regularity makes science possible. They do not alter for our convenience. If these stories are taken as folklore, there is no problem. But to insist that they are literally true offends common sense.

None of this affects the thinking of the religious right. They are feeling their oats these days, and their newfound respectability shows. Politicians gain points by uttering code words they love to hear. But we should be tending the store.

Members of the religious right have not hidden their goal. They are not afraid to tell anyone that they have no truck with secularist tendencies. They would not regard it as a loss if our public school system was replaced with church schools. Pluralism is not in their vocabulary.

A large part of the energy of the religious right is directed against the theory of evolution. Yet all of its efforts have failed to reduce the power of this concept one iota. This is because the idea of evolution has enough evidence to have earned its place as the underpinning of the natural and social sciences.

This does not deter the intention of fundamentalists to rewrite science and history. They are relentless in their efforts to force creationism into science textbooks. This must not be permitted. Children may be taught creationist values by voluntary associations in Sunday schools and at home. But science is a required subject in our public schools and should be out of the reach of religious interests.

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