Christian and Scientific Fundamentalism
I spend a great deal of time engaging fundamentalists. And I’ve learned a few lessons over the years.
As a professor of theology at an Evangelical university, a good portion of students enter my undergraduate classes as Christian fundamentalists. Many claim that the Bible is their sole, absolute, and inerrant authority. “Nothing but the Bible” is their mantra.
Many of these Christian fundamentalist students are intelligent — if SAT scores are any indication. They are not exposed to the wider world of knowledge, however.
Many students are suspicious and dismissive of liberal arts education. Many are wary of even rationality itself if rationality does not support their particular view of the Bible.
If experience — their own experience, the experience of others, or experiences of those in the larger Christian tradition — contradicts their view that the Bible is inerrant and the authority on all it teaches, then that experience should not be trusted.
An inerrant Bible is their trump card for just about any discussion.
Those who think differently than these Christian fundamentalists on biblical, theological, or socio-political matters may become the objects of sharp criticism. At its worst, this criticism includes demonizing rhetoric.
To fundamentalists, any move away from inerrancy and the comprehensive authority of the Bible is to slide down a slippery slope to extreme relativism and atheism. The Christian fundamentalist view of ultimate truth is narrow. It is limited to what their inerrant Bible affirms and their community approves as consonant with a particular interpretation of the Bible.
I also engage another set of fundamentalists.
These people are scientific fundamentalists. I engage them less often face-to-face. My interaction with them is more often online, in private meetings, at scholarly events, or in journal debates.
Scientific fundamentalists have as their sole authority a particular set of ideas and theories proposed by some scientists. They believe science provides the ultimate and/or unparalleled source of truth. Scientific fundamentalists reject out of hand any theory, intellectual tradition, or claim that is not in line with their particular scientific theories.
Many scientific fundamentalists are bright — or “Brites,” as some call themselves. Of course, others are not so smart.
Whatever their intelligence, scientific fundamentalists share many things in common with Christian fundamentalists. While Christian fundamentalists are largely dismissive of reason and a broad range of scholarship that does not support their narrow biblical view, scientific fundamentalists largely dismiss reasoning and broad-ranging scholarship that does not support their narrow scientific views. Both groups restrict what they will accept as ultimately truth only to that which their small community allows.
Scientific fundamentalists are even more prone than Christian fundamentalists to reject experience — the experience of others and their own — if experience contradicts their scientific theories. Take the issue of purpose, for example. While scientific fundamentalists know themselves to be purposive, they allow no place in their scientific descriptions for purpose.
We should criticize scientific fundamentalists even more sharply than Christian fundamentalists, however, for ignoring the truths of experience that don’t fit their scientific theories. They are more irresponsible, because they claim to defend an enterprise — science — that purports to rely chiefly upon empirical evidence.
For my own part, I think the biggest flaw in the scientific fundamentalism is the inability to speak plausibly about a supremely important element of creaturely experience: Love.
I suggest that science in general follow a general rule when it comes to proposing theories to account empirically for existence in general and human experience in particular. My general rule is this: we should not allow that which we seem to know least — for instance, the role and function of genes — to trump that which we seem to know best — our own personal experience — for instance, our experience of purposefulness, beauty, warmth and affection, or sacrificial love.
This principle provides a basis to value the extensive and widespread human experience of religion. Thousands of years of study on the religious experiences of billions of people suggest that religious motivations and intuitions are widespread, complex, varied, and pluralistic.
To claim that something about which we know very little — genes — completely explains our religious intuitions and motivations seems foolish, shortsighted, and likely false. Reductionism reveals itself woefully inadequate when we consider the powerful empirical data of human experience.
So… what should be done about scientific fundamentalism?
My experience with both Christian fundamentalists and scientific fundamentalists suggests several strategies of engagement. Briefly, here are seven suggestions for how to engage scientific fundamentalists:
1. We should point out the internal inconsistencies of scientific fundamentalism. The work being done on altruism, cooperation, and self-sacrifice in evolutionary biology interests me most and seems vital for this task.
2. We should point out inconsistencies between the theories espoused by scientific fundamentalists and our own human experiences. Many scientific fundamentalists who call themselves “the New Atheists,” for instance, want a world in which cooperation and peace can reign. And yet scientific fundamentalism provides no robust way to account for attaining widespread peace, benevolence, and cooperation.
3. We should appeal to research and wisdom in diverse academic disciplines, religious traditions, and forms of knowledge. We should embrace explanatory pluralism. One characteristic of a wise person is her capacity to engage a wide variety of knowledge in a respectful and appreciative way.
4. We should seek to establish moral authority. Many who are either fundamentalist or attracted to fundamentalism are unlikely to reject fundamentalism based on our clever arguments alone. We need to be trustworthy people. Fundamentalists of all stripes need to see moral examples whom they can believe with their heads and their hearts.
5. We should listen carefully and charitably to scientific fundamentalists. For instance, some criticisms of religion are justified criticisms. Justified criticisms can help theists frame their theology in ways that make better sense in light of scripture and science — and help both believers and unbelievers understand what Christians are saying.
6. We should avoid shrill and demonizing rhetoric. Not all fundamentalists use shrill and demonizing rhetoric. But some surely do. Rather than fight fire with fire, I believe progress can be made by fighting fire with friendship, caricatures with kindness, hyperbole with humility. We all must work to develop various intellectual virtues, including considering our opponents’ views in the strongest possible light. We must not criticize the log of pride in the scientific fundamentalist’s eye and while simultaneously sticking that log in our own.
7. We should engage the arguments of scientific fundamentalists as a way to educate those in our religious communities. One of the strongest critics of religion says he doesn’t really blame the average Christian for holding naïve views of Bible or simple ideas of God. But he criticizes religious leaders — who presumably have been educated — for failing publicly and blatantly to disapprove of the naïve views of the masses. Christian leaders fail to act bravely to provide interpretations of the Bible and views of science that oppose the unsophisticated views of those who sit in the pews.
Of course, this kind of education is risky. In my own Evangelical context, the stakes are high. To speak out against a naïve view of the Bible and Christian fundamentalism is sometimes to face dire consequences. The temptation to remain silent is extremely strong.
While warfare has not always and everywhere characterized the interaction between science and religion, warfare is surely a common motif in some communities.
I admit there are times that I am personally doubtful that fundamentalists of both types — Christian fundamentalists and scientific fundamentalists — will ever give up their narrow views of what counts as truth. I worry that fundamentalists will never find the wisdom of the broad arena of wide-ranging experience and expansive reason. I am tempted sometimes to relent to hopelessness.
But in those times of bleakness, a flash of light invariably breaks in. That flash of light comes from my own experience. After all, I was once a Christian fundamentalist. I know firsthand that real change can occur.
If a hard-headed, Bible-thumping, piously passionate, former inerrantist like me can shed his narrow thinking without rejecting his Christian faith, there is hope for other fundamentalists — both scientific and Christian.
I encourage us all to engage scientific and religious fundamentalists — in our own ways and in our own settings. I encourage us to do so in the hope that creative transformation and the widening of perspectives might occur. I encourage us to do so for the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love.