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My Problem with Fundamentalism

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.

 

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    B.E. Lewis  January 15, 2013

    You’re speaking my language! I come come out of the exact background you just described. However, 6 years so far, studying in the academy has changed my understanding a bit.

  2. Avatar
    Adam  January 15, 2013

    Thank you, very helpful!

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  January 15, 2013

    What would be the more reasonable alternative to fundamentalism that retains intellectual respect for the role of scripture as a way to faith while accepting all that is good and true in modern science both social and physical?

  4. Avatar
    John  January 15, 2013

    The problem is that fundamentalism is filled with enough paradoxes to bring Russell or Schweitzer to their knees and for this alone their premise about truth you’ve listed above in the form of the classical narrative is reduced to a reductio ad absurdum.

  5. Avatar
    maxhirez  January 16, 2013

    Hah! I have a t-shirt with an image of the devil burying dinosaur bones. Beneath is the tag line “TEACH THE CONTROVERSY!” I had a roommate who believed that. It’s my little way of pointing out the oddness of the view.

  6. Avatar
    Philo1  January 16, 2013

    As a philosophy major, it is interesting to go back to my home church (fundamentalist) on a vacation break and experience the initial flood of hugs and “how’s school!” from church members, followed quickly by a cool, even frightened reaction when I inform them of my major. It has almost become a sport for me.

    There also seems to be a bit of an allergic reaction to talk of biblical hermeneutics. I was taught to read the Bible “straight,” which is really another way of saying “read the Bible how we’ve taught you to read it.” Unfortunately, most fundamentalists don’t understand that they too are doing hermeneutics, only it is implicit and ignorant of it’s roots in history.

  7. Avatar
    Mikail78  January 16, 2013

    Even though I’m no longer a fundamentalist ( I was one for over a decade) and not a Christian in any sense of the word, I have some beliefs on certain issues that would be considered “conservative”. For example, apart from rape or the woman’s life being in physical danger, I oppose abortion….but my reasons for my view are not religious. I feel I have thought about this for myself apart from religious dogma, and this is the view I’ve landed at. But Bart, I agree with pretty much everything you said, especially with your statement about the Bible’s silence on abortion. Contrary to the fundamentalist view, the Bible is not some clear moral guidebook. It’s just not, and people who make it out to be are kidding themselves.

    Concerning the life issue, I’m amazed that both evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and devout Roman Catholics claim to be “pro-life” but are eager to support wars waged by the U.S. military. And what is the main function of the military? It’s killing people! And yet, these people call themselves pro-life but worship an institution that’s main focus is killing people! I also notice that many evangelicals are for the death penalty. In fact, when I was an evangelical and told other evangelicals that I wasn’t sure about the death penalty, it was almost as if my Christianity was being questioned! How come it doesn’t bother evangelicals that the death penalty allows for the possibility of innocent people dying? My personal theory is that the reason evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and devout Roman Catholics focus on abortion so much is the same reason they oppose many to all forms of contraception, porn, strip clubs, and the legalization of prostitution. The reason is that these people are sexually repressed, and want to force their sexually repressive views on others. Hey, if they can’t have fun in the area of sex, no one else should either! I think this is their subconscious reason. I could be wrong.

    I hate both political parties (I’ve given up on voting, as it just doesn’t do any good), so I don’t want anyone to think I’m endorsing a political party with my next comment. I believe the rise of Sarah Palin is an example of why fundamentalism needs to be challenged, and challenged publicly. Here is a woman who is HEAVILY influenced by fundamentalist rapture theology and because of this she unconditionally supports Israel, and is a HUGE warmonger for Israel. What is truly scary is that this woman almost became vice president of the United States, which would have made her one heart beat away from the presidency! Yikes!!! Again, before anyone is tempted to accuse me of being a “democrat” or a “liberal”, I’m focusing on an individual here, and not a political party. As I said earlier, I hate both of them and their politicians!

  8. Avatar
    Joshua150  January 16, 2013

    Yes.

  9. Avatar
    Ronck1  January 16, 2013

    I’ve taught in a south side catholic school in Chicago while the neighborhood was changing (school no longer exists) and I continually found it impossible to discuss scripture with a fundamentalist high school student. No consideration was ever given to my point of view and they would go to extremes to defend their narrow and fixed views. Thanks, Prof. Bart. Ron

  10. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  January 16, 2013

    “It not only destroys minds; it refocuses minds on nonsense (the world will end Sept 11-13, 1988), and fills minds with absurdities..”

    Quite a lot of folks cannot handle the idea of having Christ in them.

    Many years ago, a neighbor of mine was able to deny that she typed an anonymous letter to the school, saying that the school “will be brought down”. When the FBI investigated and found the letter matched the type on her typewriter, she was honestly able to deny it. It was the Holy Spirit’s work, not hers.

    It creates a split in the self, an alternate personality, that is in reality only yourself. So when you leave fundamentalism, you have to quit referring to that part of yourself as “Jesus”. Or that part of someone else who claims to speak for Jesus, because He told them, instead of you.

    The other thing you have to do is to quit thinking that the Bible is God talking.

    Isn’t this the idolatry that the Bible itself warns against – creating an image and worshipping it as God?.

    This is why your work is so important, Dr. Ehrman, much farther reaching than just the method of textual criticism or what is considered historical and what is not.

  11. Avatar
    timber84  January 16, 2013

    Would 1st century Jews have interpreted Genesis as a literal six days? When did Christians start interpreting it as geological periods?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 16, 2013

      Yes, they would and did. The geological period idea came in only when science showed conclusively that six days was impossible — i.e., the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

      • Avatar
        samchahal  January 17, 2013

        hi Bart so are you saying the writers of Genesis (Ezra and others) write the entire account as being literal? I have read that it was written as more of a parallel to the banishment of the Jews from the Temple in 586 bce?? they were using Babylonian myths so how could they have considered it literal or was this a later development by Jews by the 1st century once the OT was complete?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

          Yes, I think they understood their accounts to be literal. Just as the Babylonian myths were not thought to be myths but descriptions of the way things were and are.

  12. Avatar
    CalifiorniaPuma  January 16, 2013

    In addition to the dangers mentioned, the world-view of many fundamentalists (based on their interpretations of certain Bible verses ) fosters in them highly bellicose attitudes regarding the always volatile Middle East. They believe Armageddon is coming (and I suspect at lease a few of them would like to help it along). Enter Senator Chuck Hagel, Pres Obama’s nominee for Sec Def., and not someone likely to be a robotic yes man for the Israeli Defense Forces (should they want us to help them bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities). Now you have Christian Pastors, such as Don Stewart and Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel slandering Senator Hagel as “anti-Jewish,” anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” just because Hagel (and Obama) want to try and avoid war there (and foil their Rapture/Armageddon hopes?)

  13. Avatar
    gavm  January 16, 2013

    I do worry about Fundamentalist in the US. they are not as big a problem here in Australia. Europe has also generally over come evangelical fundamentalist Christianity however islam is becoming a problem there. keep up the good work Prof Erham

  14. Avatar
    Ed  January 16, 2013

    Been there; got a t-shirt. I grew up in that environment. Of all the arguments for and against the existence of God, I found the lack of epistemological reciprocity and consistency to be the most damning. I simply could not overcome the nagging suspicion of why God would demand that I hold a belief based upon the very same epistemic standards by which I rejected other beliefs. I have, in my journey, attended several different Christian fundamentalist denominations each claiming to possess some slightly different sufficient condition for salvation that the others didn’t. It took most of my life to break free of this intellectual tyranny. Fundamentalism is dangerous indeed.

  15. Avatar
    agnossi  January 16, 2013

    The infallibility of the Pope,
    The Divine Right of Kings,
    “ll Duce ha sempre ragione.” = (Mussolini) is always right.,
    “The Fuehrer (Hitler) is always right.”.
    Quoting Professor Ehrman above: ” Fundamentalists do not want to promote thinking – even though they often say that they do; they want to promote abject obedience to authority, ”
    Indeed, monotheism provides one philosophical and political basis for totalitarian, authoritarian dictatorship(s) – especially fundamentalist theocracy.

  16. Avatar
    Pofarmer  January 16, 2013

    I don’t know if this is proper or allowed on the forums as I’ve only been a member a short time, but this fundamentalist thread kinda hit home. My wife is becoming more and more a fundamentalist Catholic, if you can imagine that, and getting more and more into the minutae of the Roman church, and less into reality, IMHO. Our middle boy has been having sleep anxiety, and it is getting worse, he is 11. He spends most nights in our bed at least part of the time. She recently came back from a “Marion Conference” in St. Louis, and is convinced we need to have our house blessed. I about flipped out. I’ve been pushing for a psychologist for two years. By the way, we have 3 kids, about 4 years or so ago they all came back from an extended stay at her parents over christmas totally flipped out and scared of going to bed. I think they got freaked out by a big circular rosary gathering or two, but can’t prove it as I wasn’t there. Her family is very devout Catholic. I am about to lose my mind over this. Oh, and I’ve found Prof Ehrman, Richard Colleir, And Prof Price, among others, who have given me some sanity back after I started reading the bible again in an attempt to see how the Roman Catholic Doctrines matched up with the bible and Apocraphies, and basically discovered they just made up whatever they liked. From there it’s been kind of a hard road.

    • Avatar
      ecbrown88  January 17, 2013

      I’m sorry to hear this. I don’t know what to advise. Are the children within a few years of adulthood? If so, maybe hold your tongue for now.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 16, 2013

    Good post. I am particularly baffled by the widely circulating second amendment argument that we need guns to protect us from the government. Now, how is a gun, even an assault rifle, going to protect one from a government that has bombs, airplanes, drones, tanks, machine guns, and so on???? Thanks.

    • Avatar
      Pofarmer  January 18, 2013

      The centerpiece of every army is the infantryman, you can’t take or hold territory without him. It’s also generally assumed that the guys with the guns, tanks, drones. Etc, might be somewhat hesitant to use them on their own countrymen.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 18, 2013

      Beyond belief!

    • Avatar
      kbarbo  January 28, 2013

      Sickening. Reminds me of my wife’s father who used to pray according to Scripture for the “destruction of the flesh so the spirit (of his children) might be saved.”
      He interpreted this Scripture to mean that God would kill his children in a moment of repentance so that they would not be able to return to their sinful ways.

  18. Avatar
    brendarella  March 6, 2013

    I ran away from the fundamentalist churches I attended. It got to a that point I felt like it was a cult. At least it was to me. I started listening to Bart & reading his books and became agnostic. But then I realized I didn’t have to throw God away, I started going to a United Methodist Church, that is very liberal. I was Methodist as a child. I find the people extremely caring and Christ like. I am really thrilled with this blog!!! I guess I am still hungry for knowledge, even if I am 60 years old!!!!

  19. Avatar
    PeggiJ  February 7, 2017

    You mentioned that fundamentalists claim the Bible forbids abortion but that the Bible actually is silent on the matter. What passages do the fundamentalists refer to when they object to abortion?

    I recently read a posting based on a comment from a Catholic nun that mentioned if you aren’t helping women house, feed, clothe and educate unplanned children, then you’re not pro-life, you’re “pro-birth.”

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2017

      Passages such as “God knew me before I was in my mother’s womb” or “when he who set me apart before I was born” and so on (e.g., Galatioans 1:15). They argue that these show that the person “existed” prior to being born somehow (yet they deny, interestingly, that the soul exists *before* conception, which seems inconsistent to me). But maybe other people on the blog can comment on verses that are often used.

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