Credo quia absurdum.
The sentence “The most important single element in the history of Western civilization was Christianity” opens the second chapter of Robert Hoyt’s classic textbook Europe in the Middle Ages.
Despite its origins as “a religious system hostile to many of the values and entrenched interests of antiquity,” the paragraph continues, Christianity absorbed and transmitted “the best elements of antique civilization” to the medieval period. After such a laudatory opening, a reader would not expect any startling exposés. But this reader, an undergraduate history student, was startled by the content of the very next page.
As a child I had read the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe, whose subject was early British history. One of her major characters was a young Roman legionnaire who is inducted into the cult of Mithras, so I already knew of the existence of the mystery cults when I read the following passage:
The mystery cults emphasized individual religious experience and a personal, emotional, and intimate contact with the deity. They were exclusive. The participant had to be initiated into their rites. Their main rewards were twofold: communion with the deity during this life through participation in worship, and eternal salvation or union with the deity after this life. Specific characteristics found in one or more of the mystery cults included the following: a man-god savior whose intercession on behalf of the faithful guaranteed salvation; sacraments such as initiatory rites (baptism) or religious ceremonies intended to cleanse and purify the worshiper preparing for communion with the deity; an explanation of the mysteries of life in terms of a divine hero who in dying conquered death, and whose life was a pattern for the faithful to follow in the hope of attaining immortality; miracle-working by this divine hero and by those who were priests of the cult, as an attestation of the truth of their worship and of the power of the divine hero; and a highly developed sense of exclusive membership or brotherhood among the elect, which kept their teachings secret and unprofaned.
Christianity was a mystery cult! Other religions had practiced baptism, consumed ceremonial last suppers, and worshipped a man-god who died so that his followers could live forever. Reading this paragraph, I felt the sort of shock I experienced when I learned that homo sapiens had not been the only species of humanity—that homo sapiens was descended from homo erectus whose other descendants had become extinct. I had assumed that both Christianity and humanity were unique and singular, when in fact they were plural and derivative.
Like the –isms (feminisms, communisms, fascisms, etc.), Christianity is and always has been plural. In this country there are three branches of Christianity. The first follows the spirit of Christianity, in particular the more admirable teachings of Jesus of Nazareth — love thy neighbor as thyself, blessed are the peacemakers, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc.—but also attempts to update these precepts so that they correspond to modern, progressive social ideals. The Unitarians and the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) belong to this branch. On its website, the Unitarian Universalist Association declares that it “affirms the worth of human beings, advocates freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth, and tries to provide a warm, open, supportive community for people who believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion.” (The Unitarian Church in my neighborhood bears a rainbow-colored banner proclaiming, “Civil marriage is a civil right.”) At QuakerInfo.org, the Quakers define themselves as “an active, involved faith-based community living in the modern world … We continue our traditional testimonies of pacifism, social equality, integrity, and simplicity, which we interpret and express in a variety of ways.”
The second branch of Christianity tries to embrace both the spirit and the letter while adapting to modern mores. The website for the Presbyterian Church USA declares, “Our style for doing mission is biblically based and historically appropriate. It builds solidly on our past commitments and mission experience, but it also adapts to newly emerging needs and to changing relationships in a sensitive manner.” Some mainstream denominations have adapted to modernity by allowing women to hold roles formerly held only by men. Despite the petrified conservatism of Rome, many American Catholics are also progressive and open-minded, opposing war, the death penalty, and the stratification of wealth.
The third branch of American Christianity insists upon the letter of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Its adherents typically describe themselves as “Christian” (rather than “Congregationalist” or “Presbyterian”). Its institutions often describe themselves as “nondenominational.” This third branch seems untroubled by the doctrinal and behavioral differences between Jesus of Nazareth in his benign and tolerant moods and the despotic God of the Old Testament—that jealous and demanding deity who tormented Job and ordered Abraham to kill his son. Yet even in its seemingly unqualified admiration for the Old Testament, Christian fundamentalism studiously ignores certain Bible stories, such as the ones about the relationships of David and Jonathan and of Ruth and Naomi.
Unlike most mainstream Protestant denominations, fundamentalists believe that particular individuals (certain pastors and political figures) can not only directly communicate with God but can also interpret the divine will. This branch, which has the highest public profile, is a fundamentalism produced and adhered to by people whose worldview is almost uninformed by modernity.
Members of the first and second branches of American Christianity have allowed the third to claim the media spotlight. Cable news programs have passively absorbed its conventions and echoed its lingo (“faith,” “faith-based,” “our thoughts and prayers,” “we have been blessed,” etc.). The consequent resurgence and respectability of magical thinking is, to borrow a phrase, “bad for America.” Sir James Frazer defined and explained magical thinking at length in The Golden Bough (1890). In Magic, Science, and Religion, the anthropologist Malinowski (whose work I was also assigned to read as an undergraduate) observed: “Science is born of experience, magic made by tradition. Science is guided by reason and corrected by observation, magic, impervious to both, lives in an atmosphere of mysticism.”
Yet in contemporary American media culture, prayer is routinely credited with miraculous powers, particularly in the case of narrow escapes from death. (David Hume defined a miracle as the suspension of the laws of nature; this definition is never applicable to such narrow escapes.) If mountain climbers survive a storm, divine intervention or prayer may get the credit; if they die, the indifference of the deity to the fervent supplications of family members goes unmentioned, and the story is dropped. E-mails now circulate the way chain letters used to do, promising, in explicitly religious terms, good fortune for those who pass them on. Athletic teams pray for God to take their side in metaphysically meaningless contests and competitions. Athletes point to the sky to indicate that God selected for approval, from all His many supplications, one man’s homer or touchdown sprint.
This third branch of Christianity poses a serious threat to our political well-being. Authoritarian, narrow in its scope, rigid in its attitudes, and tautological in its thinking, evangelical fundamentalism has been making war on the founding ideas of the United States. Its belief in submission to authority puts it at odds with a democratic republic. Its hostility to intellectual inquiry—by its very nature an interrogation of authority—causes it to wage war on scientific research and modern medicine. Its valorization of ancient codes of behavior inspires its attacks on feminism and gay rights. Its revisionist attitude toward history—denying the deism, skepticism, and Masonic associations of certain major Founders—is dishonest.
Fundamentalist Christianity is essentially anti-modern. It holds that truth became manifest two thousand years ago, and everything since—Copernicus and the solar system, the work of Galileo and Michelangelo, the scientific discoveries of Newton, Bacon and Locke, Wollstonecraft and the rights of women, the abolition of slavery, Darwin and Wallace, anesthesia, vaccines against smallpox and polio, progress in civil rights and social justice, the invention of the automobile, bicycle, telephone, airplane, radio, television, computer—is of no consequence. Even though most fundamentalist Christians (unlike the consistent Amish) enjoy the advantages of modern discoveries, inventions, and medical care, they do not acknowledge human ingenuity. (If pressed, they will say God is responsible for all material forms of human progress.) The highest achievements in mathematics, music, painting, sculpture, and literature are of no compelling significance or interest. Evolution is “just a theory” —like gravity?—and a blasphemous one at that.
In a letter to Joseph Priestly, dated January 27, 1800, Thomas Jefferson thundered against such a worldview: “The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion & government, by whom it has been recommended, & whose purposes it would answer.”
A year later, Jefferson wrote Priestly again: “ What an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in Politics & Religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves that they should be able to bring back the times of power & priestcraft. All advances in sciences were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement.”
American fundamentalists would surely find these sentiments offensive. The Southern Baptist website implies the irrelevance of human erudition when it states “in Jesus Christ abide all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” In its discussion of education, it asserts: “The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary is limited by the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures, and by the distinct purpose for which the school exists.” If a statement in the Bible is in conflict with modern science, philosophy, or social justice, it is the Bible that is correct. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University states on its website that “Liberty’s professors integrate a Christian worldview into every subject area.”
Its anti-intellectualism makes fundamentalist Christianity not only intolerant and judgmental but also tautological and superstitious—inclined to the kind of circular logic that attributes divine motivation to carefully selected natural disasters while ignoring the innumerable tragedies and disasters that are not amenable to such interpretations. It believes in a divinity that controls every aspect of life, does everything for a (good) reason, and punishes those who disobey ancient prohibitions.
Its insistence on the inferiority and subordination of women, an attitude it shares with other religious fundamentalisms, is undemocratic and anti-modern. And its obsession with salvation and the afterlife makes it indifferent, or even hostile, to modern innovations for the general good and modern notions of social justice when those conflict, as they often do, with ancient traditions. Many of its members hope for an apocalypse in their own lifetimes, much as credulous peasants did as the year 1000 approached.
The ignorance of fundamentalist Christianity is evident in its insistence on a “literal interpretation” of the Bible. “Literal interpretation” is an oxymoron; all texts require interpretation. There are no true and final interpretations; there are only persuasive, plausible, and unlikely ones. Yet James Dobson recently chastised Barack Obama for articulating this very attitude in a 2006 address.
Fundamentalists will insist in their blog posts (see the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post) that all you have to do is “read” the Bible—an assertion that ignores the multiple translations the Bible has undergone, both into English and into different idioms of English. For decades literary scholars have argued about interpretations of poems by Yeats; for centuries they have disputed the nuances of sonnets and soliloquies by Shakespeare. Well-educated theologians in Catholicism and the mainstream Protestant denominations know very well that religious scholars have quarreled over interpretations, with some of them risking excommunication or death, yet fundamentalists believe in a single, transparent, unambiguous, and universal Biblical text.
Even more disturbing is the fundamentalist belief that the Bible is the only book you need to read and study. It contains all the answers to every conceivable question. Fundamentalists may attend schools that feature a “Christ-centered curriculum” or be home-schooled in a way that prevents exposure to any subject or argument that conflicts with their 2000-year-old worldview. They may attend “universities,” (a misnomer) whose curricula conform to the views of people who died two millennia ago—back when it was common knowledge that the earth was flat and that the sun rotated around it. Such an education is guaranteed to prevent students from encountering the skeptical views of Jefferson, Freud, Darwin, Frazer, Malinowski, or Mark Twain.
One sign of their ignorance is the popular claim that our legal system originates from the ten commandments. As Bill Maher points out, a number of the commandments don’t correspond to law at all. Actually, the law is probably more involved with property than justice. We don’t arrest people who exclaim “My God!”, fail to buy a gift on Mother’s Day, or covet their neighbor’s Mazeratti. And like other bodies of human knowledge and creation, the law is an ongoing process of arguments, counter-arguments, decisions, appeals, and new decisions. In referring to the legal system, American fundamentalists give no credit to the contributions of Emperor Justinian, Alfred the Great, Henry II, Edward I, and various rebellious nobles, assertive merchants, and unruly peasants.
In the past few years, the word “religion” has fallen into disuse, inexplicably replaced by “faith.” Is this a rebranding? Does it suggest a rejection of faith’s traditional opposite, “reason”? During the High Middle Ages those (Catholic) theologians known as the Scholastics, or the schoolmen, carried on rigorous intellectual debates. Caricatured as “how many angels could dance on the head of a pin,” the most daring of these debates concerned faith and reason. Was reason at all compatible with faith, or did reason contaminate and compromise faith?
Medieval theologians studied not only the Bible but also the works of St. Augustine, particularly his City of God, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the entire opus of Aristotle, that pagan philosopher whose ideas contributed so much to intellectual history. Thomas Aquinas enthusiastically appropriated Aristotle to produce his own Summa Theologica (1262-1277). Because the Greek pagan’s views contradicted Christian metaphysics, disputes arose when Aristotle’s Metaphysics appeared in translation. The Franciscan scholar, Bonaventura, a disciple of Augustine and a mystic, rejected Aquinas and Aristotle, but other Franciscans, such as Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), took a strong interest in the application of reason to the natural world and developed a scientific method that would influence Francis Bacon. These devout theologians were also intellectuals who made contributions to the fund of human knowledge.
Fundamentalist Christianity possesses no such intellectual curiosity, depth, or complexity. Instead, it concerns itself with the moral conduct of American citizens—morality as defined by Biblical precepts and taboos. In so far as it takes any interest in science, fundamentalist Christianity is defensive, attempting either to reconcile the Bible with, or to subvert, science. Its main preoccupations appear to be the control of female sexuality and reproduction (no birth control, no possibility of abortion), the criminalization of homosexuality, access to government funds for its “faith-based initiatives,” and the injection of a primitive Christianity into all aspects of the public sphere, from government ceremonies to first-grade classrooms.
While Scholastic debates were logical, rigorous, and dialectical, American fundamentalism is intrinsically tautological and laced with denial. “Everything happens for a reason,” bumper stickers declare, a comforting shibboleth for those who can’t understand why “bad things happen to good people.” Rick Warren, the author of A Purpose-Driven Life, declares that God chooses every aspect of a child, even her eye color. Yet atrocities—assaults, kidnapping, slave labor—are inflicted upon children around the world every day. Christian fundamentalists are selectively blind to personal tragedies, such as when a three-year-old child who has undergone repeated surgeries to correct a club foot is killed in a plane crash. Yet other Christians have directly confronted such difficult issues. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, the devout Dostoevsky articulates for his character Ivan compelling arguments against a God who allows terrible things to happen to children.
For decades, scientists have warned that low-lying New Orleans was at risk from a direct hit by a powerful hurricane. Scientists also know the cause of recurrent earthquakes along the San Andreas fault and other earthquake-prone sites. For fundamentalists, however, natural disasters are perpetrated by a just and angry God. Cold fronts colliding with warm fronts, high and low pressure, Santa Ana winds, unstable tectonic plates—all the discoveries of meteorology, climatology, and geology are ignored in favor of a single, simple causality: divine retribution. When natural disasters or college students destroy churches, however, we hear nothing from the fundamentalists.
During the final leg of the campaign season, as candidates are interrogated about their religious beliefs, more American citizens—mainstream Protestants, Jews, nonbelievers, et al. — need to challenge the cultural hegemony of Christian fundamentalism. It was, after all, devout Christians like Roger Williams and John Locke who first advocated the separation of church and state. In Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell points out the lapses of tolerance and goodness in Jesus’s behavior and speech.
Although my family belonged to a progressive Presbyterian church, we lived in the Bible Belt, so I was particularly struck by some of the texts I read in college—texts that contested the worldview of most (not all) of my Southern classmates. In addition to the texts mentioned above, they included When Prophecy Fails and The Pursuit of the Millennium. I had attended Sunday School often enough to acquire a familiarity with the Bible, but my parents and grandparents—admirers of Twain and Jefferson—had serious theological doubts. Most Sunday mornings we played tennis. As a high-school student I read my grandfather’s copy of Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. (about Job) and memorized the rhyme: “If God is God, he is not good/If God is good, he is not God/Take the even, take the odd.” I was already a religious skeptic before I started college.
Mark Twain satirizes this longstanding habit: “The hookworm was discovered two or three years ago by a physician, who had been patiently studying its victims for a long time. The disease induced by the hookworm had been doing its evil work here and there in the earth ever since Shem landed on Ararat, but it was never suspected to be a disease at all. The people who had it were merely supposed to be lazy, and were therefore despised and made fun of, when they should have been pitied. The hookworm is a peculiarly sneaking and underhanded invention, and has done its surreptitious work unmolested for ages; but that physician and his helpers will exterminate it now. God is back of this. He has been thinking about it for six thousand years, and making up his mind. The idea of exterminating the hookworm was his. He came very near doing it before Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles did. But he is in time to get the credit of it. He always is.”
A few years ago I spent some weeks at a writer’s colony. One of the other writers was a Jewish woman who taught French in a Tennessee community college. After class one day, she told me, a student came up to her and said she was deeply offended by an offhand reference the teacher had made to dinosaurs. Since then Christian fundamentalists have reconciled themselves to the existence of dinosaurs, although they continue to reject carbon dating and its implications.
In an English class I once assigned Mark Twain’s hilarious, iconoclastic essay “The Fly.” Afterwards an evangelical student came up to tell me how it had offended her. You can also be offended, or laugh yourself sick, by reading it here.
When a huge fire devasted a swathe of the Berkeley Hills, one faulty member of the English department interpreted this event as punishment for the first Gulf war. If so, it was a curious choice of target, since the Bay Area had erupted in anti-war protests. I wondered why God had not struck the Pentagon instead. It reminded me of a joke that Abe Russakoff, a friend of my parents, liked to tell: A man is playing golf on the Sabbath. He strikes the ball and it goes into the rough. “Goddamnit, I missed!” he shouts. At the next hole he hits the ball into a sandtrap. “Goddamn, I missed!” he yells again. A lightning bolt strikes and destroys the tree next to him. The golfer looks up, startled, and a great voice thunders from the sky: “Goddamnit, I missed!”
by Carol V. Hamilton
Ms. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley. Her website: https://www.carolvanderveerhamilton.com.
Reprinted from the History Network News, where it first appeared.