My Problem(s) with Fundamentalism

by Dr. Bart D. Ehrmann, provided courtesy of Guy Teague

From Wikipedia: Bart Denton Ehrman (/bɑːrt ˈərmən/; born October 5, 1955) is an American professor and scholar, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is one of North America’s leading scholars in his field, having written and edited 30 books, including three college textbooks. He has also achieved acclaim at the popular level, authoring five New York Times bestsellers. Ehrman’s work focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity.

Dr. Ehrmann:  My Problem(s) With Fundamentalism: A Blast from the Past. What are fundamentalists, and why don’t I like them? Here is a post I published almost exactly four years ago now. My views have not changed!

QUESTION: You note that fundamentalism is dangerous and harmful. How do you define fundamentalism and why do you think it’s dangerous?

RESPONSE: There are of course actual definitions of “fundamentalism” that you can find in scholarship on religion, but I sense that you’re asking more for a rough-and-ready description. Years ago I started defining fundamentalism as “No fun, too much damn, and not enough mental. When I was a fundamentalist myself (yet to be described) I understood it in a positive way. Originally, in Christian circles, it referred to believers who held on to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which for us included such things as the inspiration of Scripture, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and, well, probably a collection of other doctrines. Fundamentalism, for us, was to be differentiated from liberalism, which had sacrificed these basic fundamental doctrines to the gods of modernity. And we would have nothing of it. Some scholars today understand fundamentalism to be an inordinately conservative branch of a religion (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, for example) that stresses that it alone has the truth, that insists that everyone agrees with its perspective, and that focuses exclusively on religious issues with no interest in for broader concerns of society such as social justice. I don’t agree with that last bit.

But I do think that fundamentalism in its various brands is insistent that it is right, everyone else is wrong, and there needs to be borderline militant (either verbal or physical) action to bring others into line with the truth. In Christian circles fundamentalism is almost always tied directly to a view of Scripture as being an inerrant revelation from God that has no mistakes in anything it says, so that there are no real contradictions or discrepancies in the Bible as the Word of God, and no discrepancies in the Bible’s description of historical facts or scientific realities.

And so if Genesis says the world was created in six days, it means six days – with mornings and evenings (not geological periods). If it says Adam and Eve were the first man and woman, they were the first man and woman. If it says there was a universal flood, there was a universal flood. If the book of Joshua says that the walls of Jericho came a-tumblin’ down, then they came a-tumblin’ down. Everything, to its precise detail, is absolutely right. And being absolutely right is absolutely necessary, because if you don’t have some kind of absolute standard of truth, then everything is up for grabs. There is no longer any objectivity. There is no way to know anything for a fact. And most important, there is no way to know anything about God. And that means that there is no way to be saved.

And so the stakes are very high for Christian fundamentalists. Which is why they tend to be not only isolationist in their thinking (holding to historical and scientific views that have been thoroughly discredited), but also evangelistic in their zeal – since agreeing with them is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to avoid the (literal, of course) fires of hell.

So why do I think it’s dangerous? Lots of reasons—enough for a book. To keep it short and simple though, fundamentalists tend not only to think explicitly that stated views of Scripture are absolutely true, but also that their own inferred interpretations of Scripture are absolutely true. This view necessarily has serious implications, especially when fundamentalists have anything like a modicum of power, either within their own communities or in society at large. Fundamentalists at one point were convinced that because of Noah’s curse of his son Ham, that blacks were, for biblical reasons, supposed to be slaves to whites. Fundamentalists have constantly argued that since the Bible says so, women are inferior to men and are to be subservient to them.

Fundamentalists regularly argue that the Bible condemns abortion (it doesn’t, actually) that a woman who exercises her right to choose has in fact committed murder. Fundamentalists are opposed to the teaching of real science in the schools, are intent on filling their children’s minds with complete scientific nonsense (the world is only 6000 years old; there was no big bang; the fossils have been placed into the rocks by the Devil to confuse us). And as a result they refuse to adhere to the principle that thinking human beings should be taught how to THINK FOR THEMSELVES.

Fundamentalists do not want to promote thinking – even though they often say that they do; they want to promote abject obedience to authority, whether the authoritative scripture (as interpreted of course by the authoritative interpreters – i.e., themselves) or the authoritative leaders of their community, who may insist that women are going to the Devil if their knees show while wearing dresses or that masturbation is a sin that will send you to hell or that adultery is literally an unpardonable sin. Just for starters.

So yes, I think fundamentalism is very dangerous. It not only destroys minds; it refocuses minds on nonsense (the world will end Sept 11-13, 1988), and fills minds with absurdities (from talking snakes in the Garden of Eden to the innate inferiority of women to men; which two things, by the way, are related in their minds). Why fundamentalists are almost to a person passionately devoted to a particular interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, I’ll never know…..

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