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The Dangers of Fundamentalism

I’m out of town for a long weekend and so away from my books, and have decided to re-post some particularly intriguing (IMHO) posts from many years ago.  Here’s a hot one.



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



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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Readers’ Mailbag 1/20/2019: The Only Story of Jesus as a Boy in the New Testament
What *Greek* Version of the New Testament Do I Use?



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 18, 2019

    Ironic that some of the things you regarded as fundamental are either not to be found in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity) or things that the Bible is ambiguous about (e.g., the full deity of the Christ)…

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  January 21, 2019

      I know you’ve addressed the Trinity before, but I think it would be make for an interesting series of posts for you. Some potential questions/topics:

      * Where did the notion come from?
      * The history of the debate/theology about it, including the textual critical scholarship on the single supportive passage that was added.
      * To Asta’s point above, how do fundamentalists justify it as a core belief when it’s not (really) in the Bible?
      * When you were a fundy (before you did the research/scholarship on it), where did you think the concept came from?
      * Can you describe how your thoughts evolved on the subject over time (I doubt you absolutely believed it one day and then realized it completely artificial the next)?
      * Thoughts on how the passages where Jesus is obviously ‘inferior’ to God the Father are reconciled. Examples: when Jesus, himself, admits that only God knows when the End will come, or that he ‘prays’ to God that ‘this cup might pass from him’ (does God ever ask Jesus for help?), or that Jesus had to be sacrificed to God (which leads to the joke that “in order to foregive us, God had to sacrifice himself to himself”).


      • Bart
        Bart  January 22, 2019

        Interesting idea. I suppose I did a number of posts on this when my book How Jesus Became God came out — since that’s pretty much what the book is about — but I would have to look….

  2. Avatar
    nichael  January 18, 2019

    (A bit off-topic, but I hope interesting.)

    Following up on the recent discussion of the Nativity story: The issue was raised of the “Bad Astronomy” that is often associated with the Star of Bethlehem. (For example the legend of the Star “leading the Magi” to the stable and “stopping over” the specific location.)

    Along these lines are the many attempts to provide a “scientific explanation” for the appearance of the Star.

    One common explanation of the Star is that it was a “planetary conjunction”, presented as if this were a rare and dazzlingly bright event lighting up the eastern sky.

    I just wanted to point out that there is currently, for the next week or so, a significant conjunction happening in the predawn eastern sky. (If you look to the southeast just before dawn, the brightest “star” is Venus; below and to the left is Jupiter, currently the brightest “stars” in the night sky.)

    The closest approach (and the moment of the actual “conjunction”) with be next Tues morning, 22Jan2019.

    (Also if you watch the planets over multiple mornings you’ll notice that they rapidly separate from day to day. Likewise such events are actually fairly common; e.g. there will be a similar –and even closer– evening conjunction of Venus and Jupiter next 24Nov.)

    Anyway, this is what a conjunction actually looks like. No doubt a lovely, memorable sight, but hardly something that would explain the popular description of Matthew’s star.

  3. Avatar
    Pegill7  January 18, 2019

    Martin Luther said that the book of James was “a book of straw” and relegated it to the end of his German translation of Scripture. Obviously this was because of James’ statement that “faith without works is dead,”which might appear to contradict his claim that salvation is through “Faith alone.” Most fundamentalists would agree with this, but if they do what was does that say about the inerrancy of the Bible? Would fundamentalist believe that some books of Scripture are superior to others?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2019

      No, they wouldn’t say so. Instead they would simply reconcile all the books, so none of them is a book of straw.

  4. Avatar
    Brittonp  January 18, 2019

    Having grown up in fundamentalism I say you’re spot on. I would describe living as a fundamentalist as being in a dark mental prison. The prison guards (fundamentalist clergy) try to control all that we see, hear and know. People like you shine a light of knowledge and truth on our dark prison. It is not easy coming out of the darkness and into the light. Our world changes and change can be difficult. Ultimately though the light of truth brings true freedom. Thank you for sharing.

    • Avatar
      tomruda  January 21, 2019

      Sounds like Plato’s Cave to me.

  5. Avatar
    ddorner  January 18, 2019

    I was raised a Christian fundamentalist and I would identify today as a humanist. I have many fundamentalist family and friends and they are wonderful, kind, intelligent people.

    Having walked away from my religious fundamentalism I’ve often wondered why no one ever seems to talk about secular fundamentalism? Many non religious people I know say they believe in “Science” but they don’t “believe in it” because they’ve looked at all the evidence and have become utterly convinced by “evidence.” They’re no more well read on current science than my religious friends are.

    (Most of them couldn’t tell you what the speed of light is or what the estimated age of the earth is etc.)

    No, they “believe in science” because they are fundamentalists about it. Has “science” ever be wrong? Of course. Has “science” been used to justify evil? It likely has. Is questioning and doubting science an essential part of science? Yup. But not to them. they simply “believe in science.” They’re fundamentalists about it.

    So why is it that it’s only the “religious” fundamentalists who get chastised for their lack of enlightenment? While there are plenty of secularists who don’t think for themselves either and simply regurgitate whatever confirmation bias they’ve been feeding themselves.

    (The mythicist movement itself is a good example of a secular fundamentalism that has clouded the judgement of otherwise intelligent people.)

    I think being wary of fundamentalism in *all* it’s forms is important. Otherwise, any thinking person is at risk of doing exactly that which they criticize others for.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  January 18, 2019

    What good is a perfect book if the people interpreting it are imperfect? Oh, the Holy Spirit helps? So the ones who don’t agree with you must not have the Spirit, so your group is the only one with the Spirit. Typical self-centered thinking. Glad I escaped this cycle of irrational thinking.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2019

      I had a professor at Moody Bible Institute who used to say, in response to someone who disagreed with his interpretation of a passage, “Are you disagreeing with *me* or with *God* — which is actually the same thing!” I think he was being funny, but, well, I also think it’s what he really thought….

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 18, 2019

    Great post with good discussion of some of the racial and gender problems that can be associated with fundamentalism.

    I wonder if there is a correlation between interpreting the Bible very literally and having a strict, literal view of the constitution.

    I have been surprised to learn, through personal discussions, that some atheists can be as rigidly dogmatic as fundamentalist Christians.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2019

      It’s interesting that some of the greatest literary critics (not biblical scholars, but English and literature scholars) are also Constitution scholars. A prominent example is Stanley Fish. They interpretive problems of literature in general and the Constitution in particular are very closely related. And of course those trained to read one text one way (say the Bible) tend to read other texts the same way.

      • Avatar
        bradseggie  March 9, 2019

        I’ve heard that’s why so many conservatives in the US Supreme Court are Catholics rather than fundamentalists. Catholics are accustomed to texts and teachings that “don’t change” but “develop” over time to mean nearly the opposite of their clear, intended, original meaning.

  8. Avatar
    doug  January 18, 2019

    One of my concerns with fundamentalism is its authoritarianism. Because authoritarianism, by its nature, requires irrational beliefs; what the authoritarian says is right, and nothing can change it. He believes the same thing on Wed. as he did on Mon., no matter what happened on Tues.

  9. Avatar
    RSKICE  January 18, 2019

    I think fundamentalist and pietistic groups miss the point. They want to handle god instead of letting god handle them. And that invites danger. That’s my experience. Thanks

  10. Avatar
    Pattylt  January 18, 2019

    One thing that I try to understand is why fundamentalists are so adamant that I believe as they do. I know they state that they want to save my soul but I’m just going to say that I think that’s a lie. They want validation, plain and simple. As long as someone is doubting the fundamentalists beliefs, there are possibilities they might just be wrong…and they seem to only feel comfortable with certainty.

  11. Avatar
    godspell  January 18, 2019

    Fundamentalism is dangerous, beyond doubt, but it wasn’t evangelical Protestants that invented that way of looking at truth as a personal possession, unchanging and immutable. Religious fundamentalism is a reaction against modernity, a rebellion. An attempt to go back to earlier forms of belief, even though those can never be regained, because the past is a foreign country.

    Beliefs evolve, just as life does. Christianity survives, but not in its original form, and as you’ve made clear, it’s almost impossible to know what the original form really was, and almost from the start there were many.

    Jesus’ ideas must have been changing on a daily basis, as he confronted the world around him–he listened at least as much as he spoke, going by the gospel stories. He reacted. He grew. He, like many other philosophers (including atheists), dreamed of a perfect world, but he at least knew it could never be a world run by humans. Human nature doesn’t change, but human beliefs always do.

    In graduate school, I read Karl Popper, who talked about essentialism, a mode of thought that began with Plato, and has had many variants since (Marxism was one of them). That really is the philosophical equivalent of fundamentalism–there must be ideal forms that will always hold true, a perfect and unchanging truth that will never fail, and once we’ve learned it, we’re the gods. And what won’t we do to maintain the illusion of that truth, once we have the power to impose it on others? Not much. The 20th century proved that theistic religion at its worst couldn’t equal the atrocities of really motivated atheists. (Not most atheists, but of course most theists aren’t fanatics either).

    Abolish all religion–the personality type that wants to own the truth, like it’s a flatscreen TV you bought at Walmart, will go on infecting every new system–the ideological equivalent of Jesus’ goats. You can’t escape them. God is showing no hint of sequestering them. So you have to fight them. Under all their many guises.

  12. Avatar
    chixter  January 18, 2019

    A view of the modern 21st century fundamentalist mindset can be seen by going to YouTube, and entering Pastor Steve Anderson in the search bar. Frightening. And he is raising 10 children, and proudly indoctrinating them in this mindset. Dangerous is a kind term to describe this insanity.

  13. Avatar
    Michael  January 18, 2019

    A resounding yes from me on all you said. And I will take it to politics. Their opposition to the “Violence Against Women Act”. The idea that they should be able to discriminate based on their religion. The extreme right wing uses the Bible to justify White Nationalism. As much as I want Trump gone, I do think that Pence and the Dominionist crowd he belongs too are the most dangerous people in the country.

    It is the narcissistic belief that they are totally correct that makes them so dangerous.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  January 21, 2019

      Unfortunately that problem isn’t just one side of politics. There’s a loud element of the left that doesn’t tolerate any deviation from their beliefs and goals that you can frequently see. It’s the same “they know what’s right and don’t say different” mentality. A while back in a discussion with someone complaining about how Obama was treated I said Bush had been treated the same or worse and even linked to a YouTube video showing it exactly. The response was just an stupid accusation that I was a member of the KKK! Ignoring facts and evidence unfortunately crosses the spectrum. Perhaps if we could get both extremes to realize the world and problems aren’t white and black we could get to common goals.

  14. tompicard
    tompicard  January 19, 2019

    I am all for reading the bible without ascribing absurdities to its authors.

    talking snakes
    cosmic judges standing on clouds, then requiring all on earth to stand before them for judgement
    humans never aging / never dying
    revivification of corpses in the grave
    no one ever catching a cold
    sun and moon literally no longer providing light
    end to earthquakes, tsunamis, occasional droughts, etc
    God’s Kingdom appearing somewhat magically and independent of human effort and activity

    not just fundamentalist, but even scholars , may mistakenly attribute these absurdities to Jesus if they don’t consider well enough his ministry.

  15. Avatar
    RSKICE  January 19, 2019

    The danger with many fundamental and pietistic circles is that it can become a breeding ground for psychopaths, narcissists and control freaks. With unforeseen personal problems for members and leaders as well.

  16. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  January 19, 2019

    Bumper sticker in the Bible Belt: “God said it, I believe it, that’s it!”

  17. Avatar
    nichael  January 19, 2019

    > “… not enough mental”.

    There are lots of ironies in fundamentalism, of course, but this one has always struck me as the most interesting in that –if you are going to hold to a strict scriptural view of Christianity– this contradicts the specific teaching of Jesus.

    For example when asked to name the greatest commandment Jesus basically quotes the V’ahavta that one should “love your God with all your Heart, all your Soul, and all your Strength” (Deut 6.5).

    However, as given in Mark and Luke, Jesus amends this to “…with all your Heart, all your Soul, all your **Mind**, and all your Strength”. (Matthew omits “Strength” but, interestingly replaces it with “Mind”.)

    Or as one –rather conservative– minister explained to us back in high school, “After Jesus, God’s greatest gift to humanity was the human mind. It seem pretty disrespectful to just throw it out the window”.

  18. Avatar
    nichael  January 19, 2019

    > “…because of Noah’s curse of his son Ham, that blacks were, for biblical reasons, supposed to be slaves to whites.”

    I’m sure Dr Ehrman knows this, but one thing that makes quoting this verse in this way even more problematic is that it’s **not** Ham who is cursed.

    That is, in the story of Ham discovering the nakedness of his father Noah (Gen 9:20-29), for some reason it is Ham’s *son* *Canaan* and *his* descendents who are cursed to be slaves. (In other words Genesis is telling the Israelites that it’s OK if the Canaanites –I.e. your next-door neighbors– end up as your slaves, because that’s what they were cursed to be.)

    But, as the saying goes, no sense letting the “facts” get in the way of a good story (or rather, in this case, a good excuse).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2019

      Yes, it is called the Curse of Ham not because Ham himself was cursed but because it was the curse made in connection with Ham.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 20, 2019

      In any event, the people who created that story were not saying Ham was the ancestor of all black people. Nor is that story the basis for later forms of racism. That racism was rather the basis for distorting the meaning of certain bible stories, just as it was the basis for Social Darwinism. You can make anything mean whatever you want to, if you’re that given over to prejudice.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 21, 2019

        That’s absolutely right!

      • Avatar
        nichael  January 21, 2019

        Your core point, of course is exactly correct, but just to pick at a detail:

        > “… the people who created that story were not saying Ham was the ancestor of all black people.”

        Rather, that is what they are saying. That is, the eldest son of Ham was Cush who, in turn, was the eponymous ancestor of the Cushites/Nubians. So, according to this text, Ham is their ancestor.

        More to the point, I trust that it’s clear that I’m not defending the factuality of this claim. Rather, I’m just pointing out that this is what _they_ were claiming. And, as in the comment above, that those who used these verses to justify the enslavement of black people couldn’t even be bothered to get their details straight! Or, as you suggest, if the ultimate, primary goal is to justify ones position, then the facts be damned.

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 23, 2019

          First of all, there have been many layers of interpretation and commentary added to the original story, which I tend to doubt was first told by people with any great knowledge of either geography or ethnography. I understand (and have for some time) that many interpret Ham as the ancestor of all black people, but a cursory look at good scholarship on the subject shows there is ample doubt as to this interpretation.

          In any event, Ham was not only the father of Cush, so even if we assume Cush is the forefather of all black Africans, Ham’s curse presumably extends to many other people who are not black, descended from other sons of Ham who went elsewhere, and who were not preferentially kept as slaves.

          And this still requires that you interpret the curse in question as being on Ham and all his progeny in perpetuity, which is also dubious, and of so is the entire story, since there never was a flood that engulfed the entire world in all of human history, though there were events that could have inspired that story, that were also referred to in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

          The Europeans and Americans who believed in Ham being the father of all black people had self-serving reasons for doing so–they were looking around for some way to justify slavery and colonial exploitation, which their ancestors would have felt needed no justification. They had gradually decided slavery was wrong, but at the same time, it had become financially expeditious because of the opening of the new world. So they looked for a loophole. All they needed was a threadbare excuse. Greed did the rest.

          I think the original idea may have been that North Africans were Ham’s descendants, but most North Africans aren’t black–and of course, the early Hebrews weren’t really white. Were they now? Nor, for that matter, were Jews regarded as racially equal to whites in the 19th century. Or for some time afterwards. But I guess that was due to a later curse relating to a certain crucifixion. So convenient how those keep cropping up.

  19. tompicard
    tompicard  January 19, 2019

    >> 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;…).

    I wonder, or maybe the question is, whether what you and I think is absurd is congruent with what speakers in the bible found absurd.
    The point that the author who wrote about the snake was trying to make was likely that something occurred, probably by humans (maybe the first humans) at the beginning of creation (whatever that means) that wrecked God’s original ‘good’ intentions, and that wreck continues thru those humans’ descendants. That the snake could converse with those people is just part of the allegory.

    If a fundamentalist doesn’t understand that it’s too bad.

    But sometimes I think people also assign absurd ideas to Jesus, maybe they take some of his words too literally, or maybe don’t understand the point of his ministry, or maybe they just are too wedded to
    > their own inferred interpretations of Scripture

    That Jesus taught a cosmic judge was going to appear on a cloud within a few months (how different is that than specifying the date of Sept 11-13, 1988) or that he or his disciples would be never die or that buried corpses would be resuscitated, all seem very very absurd to me. I mean I think these ideas are no more silly than talking snakes even to the authors of the New Testament.

  20. Avatar
    HawksJ  January 20, 2019

    “And being absolutely right is absolutely necessary, because […]And most important, there is no way to know anything about God. And that means that there is no way to be saved.”

    I have long – since adolescence – wondered why certain people assume we need to be ‘saved’. Even if you convince yourself that there is a god out there, it’s another leap to assume it cares what you do, yet another leap to assume that there is an afterlife, and yet another still to assume that it will be bad unless you are ‘saved’. Some cultures, after all, didn’t believe any of that and certainly many didn’t believe all of it.

    Not assuming any of those things, I also wondered why Christians called it “The Good News”. To me, finding out there is a Hell and that you have to live a certain way to avoid it is most certainly ‘bad news’.

    And that idea, I think, goes back fundamentally- pun intended – to the fear of death. And that’s what Paul’s version of Christianity is all about.

    • Avatar
      godspell  January 21, 2019

      Anything we believe, on any subject whatsoever is a leap.

      We have emotions, we have beliefs, we have ideas. We don’t live on facts alone.

      The mere fact that you come to a forum like this (which requires a subscription fee) to discuss the subject means you do in fact think about it. Why? If you can care about a subject like this, why wouldn’t God? If there is one. You do know that philosophy sometimes questions whether you can know YOU exist, right? It’s all a bunch of leaps. Heisenberg said we can never be certain of even the physical universe, because the mere act of observation can change the results.

      Why did people start thinking about whether they were saved? Self-evidently because sometimes they felt damned. In another context, it might be about being enlightened.

      I see atheists talking about how they came to disbelieve, and it reads exactly like born-again Christians talking about how they came to Jesus. Because that’s what it is–them talking about how they got saved. Because we all feel lost sometimes, and we’re looking for something to hold onto.

      The price of sentience is to wonder why you’re here, where you came from, where you should be going. It expresses itself in many ways, but it’s the same thing underneath. We’re looking for answers to the questions we can’t stop ourselves from asking. And we all come up with different answers.

      Way I see it, if you don’t have a problem with mine, I don’t have a problem with yours.

      However, once people think they have the answers, they want everybody else to have the same ones–or they start feeling insecure. People with real faith (not necessarily religious) tend not to get so angry about other people having different answers. But real faith is rare. Mostly it’s just a front we put up to act like we know more than we do.

      I find it equally bothersome, whether it’s “I know what God wants” or “There is no God.” Nobody knows.

      This I do know. If we didn’t ask questions and try to come up with answers, there’d be no civilization, no culture, no science, no nothing. We’d just be scrabbling in the dirt for food.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  January 23, 2019

        Good points, and I don’t really disagree with any of that, but i think you missed my very narrow point here, which I may not have articulated very well.

        I was responding to the Fundy notion that “if we can’t trust the Bible, then we have no way of knowing how to be saved”. That notion, though, begs the question: if you can’t trust the Bible, then why would you think you need to be saved?…and the ostensibly circular response (for most, but not all) , “well, obviously I need to be saved because the Bible says I do”.

        In other words, the opposite way to look at it is, if the Bible isn’t authoritative, then maybe, just maybe, everything is already ok.

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 23, 2019

          No, I disagree with that narrow point. I think most people feel, at various points in life, like they need to be saved, in one way or another. Not necessarily in the same sense that fundamentalists mean, but your question was “Why should anyone feel like they need saving?” Because life is hard, we’re full of doubts, and we’re looking for the right way to live, so we can stop fearing death. That all seems self-evident to me, and if it’s not to you, congrats.

          If you’re telling me that most people don’t ever look around for a savior (often in the worst possible place), then all I can tell you is read history. Or a newspaper.

          If you are looking for a savior worthy of the name, you could do worse than Jesus, even though it would be better to think of him as a teacher. Which is how people addressed him in life, and he seemed good with that.

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  January 26, 2019

            “Not necessarily in the same sense that fundamentalists mean”

            Except that was explicitly the context I was referring to. The question was, ‘why assume that the status quo will result in eternal damnation?’ That is the kind of ‘saving’ Bart was talking about in his post, not people being saved from alcohol addiction, loneliness or poverty.

            Life sucks, but it can’t be all bad (literally ‘hellish’), or people would be far less obsessed about (not) dying. If life isn’t (literally) ‘hellish’, why would people assume the afterlife to be?

            The answer, and this was the real point, is because the Bible (or, more accurately, their Sunday School teachers) told them so.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 27, 2019

            You do understand fundamentalist Christianity is a modern phenemonon, right? A reaction to modernity, not some ancient belief that has lingered to the modern day. And in any event, what’s the diff? If you believe you’re saved by something–even if it’s 100% secular–without any ability to prove that you wouldn’t be just as well off without it–how is that any more rational?

            Early Christians, or even medieval Christians were NOT fundamentalists. They had many different ideas about the afterlife, and many never read the bible at all (many couldn’t read, and of course it was damned difficult to even find a bible, if you could read it).

            A religion–any religion, even if it’s secular–is a bunch of people pretending to believe exactly same thing. No two people ever have. There are always points of distinction, if you look closely.

            It’s so silly to ask why anybody believes anything about anything. If you honestly believe that you have never believed anything that couldn’t be proven, I don’t know what to tell you. All I can say is, I know devout Christians, who do believe in the afterlife, and perhaps even in damnation (real Christians, in my experience, don’t tend to be so worried about it, because their faith is defined by love, not fear–perfect love casteth out all fear, you may have heard).

            It’s about personality, more than anything else. And personality types go on, long after belief systems end. The bad ones infect each new system in its turn, and you can’t do a thing about it. Except try not to be one of the people who does that. 😉

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