Fundamentalism:
The Only Viable Christianity?
Christine Lehman

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This response was edited from the original.

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Christine Lehman"
Subject: Re: Only True Christians?
Date: Tuesday, May 15, 2001 3:07 AM

The problem is in seeing Fundamentalism as the only intellectually viable version of Christianity rather than simply the most intellectually viable. To call it the "only viable" version would be to call it viable as opposed to not necessarily viable. Whereas, to call it simply the "most viable" version would suggest that it would be the closest to being viable -- were there such a thing as an intellectually viable version of Christianity.

We do well to admit that this is Fundamentalism's strongest point of attraction, but at the same time, we can work to rout it because this claim is simply not true -- either way you look at it.

At one time I made the progression to the former (and thus left Christianity). Later, as an atheist, I satisfied myself with the latter for the same reasons you describe (giving Fundamentalism too much power). However, I now disagree even with that, and no longer consider Fundamentalism to be intellectually viable at all. At all.

As a "friend" of the Center for Progressive Christianity and an almost life-long student of mysticism, the panentheistic expressions amongst Progressive Christians (most recently hinted at by Bishop John Shelby Spong) are, to me, the most intellectually viable. They can be reconciled with the panentheists' own nonliteralist understanding of "Bible" as well as their nonliteralist understanding of any other religion. Also, they do not contradict or pretend to overturn any major schools of science or history with their nonliteralism and their admittedly ineffable (and thus unverifiable) panentheism. Progressive Christianity tends to reject the notion of the monotheistic personal God in favor of views that have been popular in the East for millennia. Progressive Christianity also rejects the exclusivistic tendencies that we non-Christians often find so abhorrent in the more Fundamentalist expressions of Christianity.

The problem with panentheism (which is also the atheist equivalent of its godsend), is that no form of pantheism or panentheism can be proved or disproved; thus, pantheism and panentheism are simply and admittedly expressions of personal opinion, or, as George H. Smith has put it, reports of what is going on in someone's mind. Pan-anything-ism cannot be argued in the public forum because it cannot really be described in words.

The "Ultimate Reality" of the mystics is described in detail as defying description (my oxymoron) by Andrew Newberg in his book, Why God Won't Go Away (see our Letters Index for late April and early May, 2001, for titles with Newberg's name to catch this discussion; also, get a copy of the April, 2001, edition of Positive Atheism for more in-depth discussion). Newberg, quoting Judaic scholar Daniel Matt: "Anything visible, and anything that can be grasped by thought is bounded. Anything bounded is finite. Anything finite is not undifferentiated. Conversely, the boundless is called Ein-Sof, Infinite. It is absolute undifferentiation in perfect, changeless oneness." Shri K. G. Mashruwala's "Introduction" to Gora's book, An Atheist with Gandhi exposes the problem with this thinking very succinctly, and not without a well-deserved note of sarcasm:

 

Gora introduced himself to Gandhiji by seeking his definite meaning of the word God. At that time, Gandhiji wrote "God is beyond human comprehension." This answer is in accordance with the famous texts of the Upanishads,

(Not this, not this -- beyond all that is cognizable); or

(From which, along with the mind, words turn back). Ordinarily, this should lead one to expect that if God was beyond human (rather, mental) comprehension, there should be very little literature about Him. The seer should say simply, "I feel the presence of Something, which I am unable to comprehend and express. I have given the name God to it. I feel that I am inisolable from It. But I can say nothing more about It." But this is not what writers and seers usually do. In spite of the above affirmation, attempts are made to explain God in terms of something known to man in a positive manner....

 

In other words, if God is ineffable, that is, incomprehensible and thus indescribable, then why bother telling me about Him?

Mashruwala proceeds to recount the many ways in which theologians have attempted to describe the ultimate deity of Hinduism, and then points to these attempts as the main cause of factions and disputations. Western thought and Western religion lend themselves more readily to these attempts to describe God than even Hinduism does, and thus you will see lots of intense factionalism in the West -- bitter and often bloody disputes not over land or resources or political power but over what is the "proper" description of God! Hinduism, to be sure, is not immune to this problem, but Hinduism has much less of an excuse for it than does the West, which has literally institutionalized various descriptions of what the Hindus call "indescribable."

This tendency toward factionalism reaches its peak in Western fundamentalism: God is so tightly wrapped up in the various (and varying) Fundamentalist packagings that it reaches a point where any deviation disqualifies a person from the claim to orthodoxy. If a Fundamentalist continues to think (that is, if he does not abandon the process of human Reason), the inevitable conclusion is often this -- taking it to its logical absurdity, as they say:

 

If any deviation from Truth is heresy,
then we are all heretics!

 

That's the Fundamentalist corner into which I painted myself: Nobody was even close to passing the test of Orthodoxy! My reasons for leaving the Church were similar to those your associate described (although many other things were going on at the time, all of which contributed to my eventual rejection of Christianity).

Another way to see the problem is to show that the Hebrew deity can at least be portrayed in film: witness Cecil B. De Mille's spectacular 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, where the God character is portrayed as:

The closer we come to being able to describe God, the more possible it becomes to be able to test the claims that He exists, and thus (potentially) to refute those claims. If you cannot describe to me what you mean when you use the word God, then I cannot tell you whether or not I think that your "God" exists. (This atheistic response is called noncognitivism.)
 

Ultimately, it is the Burden of Proof that comes to play: A person claiming the existence of God is responsible for bringing forth evidence and strong argument to support her hypothesis; if she cannot do this, we have no business giving assent to her claim. Were it not for the Burden of Proof, then those God-claims about which we can say very little would be the ones we would be most compelled to believe. This is because those God-claims, being neither provable nor disprovable, are thus unassailable. However, the Burden of Proof does not rate the believability of a proposition by its unassailableness; rather, it rates a proposition's believability by the ability of that proposition's opponents to make a positive case for their claims. Ultimately, a proposition's believability is conditioned on its ability to withstand criticism, but the Burden of Proof prevents a proposition that is by nature untestable from even being considered for discussion. A proposition must at least in principle be falsifiable; we must at least in principle be able to disprove a claim. Otherwise, we have no business even considering it.

Since the pantheists and panentheistis waltz completely around the game rules for public debate regarding existential claims (claims for the existence of something), their god claims are rightly relegated to what George H. Smith described as emotional reports: "It's interesting to know that you believe in God; thank you for telling me that!" It is intellectually viable precisely because it admits to being little more than an emotional weather report and does not pretend to be talking about verifiable reality.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is in a very precarious position because it does purport to describe time-space reality. Conveniently for us, Fundamentalist Christianity makes many claims about time-space reality that we can easily put to the test (geographical claims, historical errors, internal contradictions). Not only that, it pretends to be The Absolute Truth in such matters, to be believed despite all evidence to the contrary. And any claim to Absolute Truth (infallibility; unassailability) crumbles upon discovery of a single flaw.

Fundamentalist Christians, far from having the most intellectually viable position, make it only too easy for their critics: "News of the Weird" columnist Chuck Shepherd once responded to my report of a pedophilic Fundamentalist Christian preacher with the reply: "Theists: fish in a barrel." (In case any readers are unfamiliar with this figure of speech, the picture is of a man with a gun shooting at fish that are swimming in a barrel: the man thinks this to be quite the challenging sport -- which, of course, it is not! Likewise, implies Shepherd, the "sport" of attacking Fundamentalism is distinctive by its lack of challenge!)

Thus, Fundamentalism not only falls apart from any internal flaws (contradictions), but likewise disintegrates upon showing it to contradict a single element of verifiable fact.

Fundamentalist Christianity also does not make a strong case that its Scripture even ought to be taken as literally as the modern Fundamentalists and Evangelicals take it. My Fundamentalism became severely challenged upon studying the alleged biblical arguments for seeing the Bible as "The Infallible, Unchangeable, Wo-o-o-ord Of The Living Go-o-o-od!" To make this case from Scripture itself is a stretch, at best: simply consult any Fundamentalist primer on the doctrine of inspiration and see how vacant this position really is, that it is based mostly on Church tradition and not at all on what the Bible actually says about itself.

My Fundamentalist belief system flew apart upon studying the process by which the early Church decided which manuscripts had been "inspired" and which had not. Later, the Protestant Reformers each rejected various books included by the Roman Catholics, and both Luther and Calvin had problems with New Testament books that are currently considered part of the Protestant canon by all Protestants. Finally, the question of manuscript variations follows the same course as the above discussion in that those who call the King James "divinely protected" must deal with the internal and external problems of that version, whereas those who admit to variations but try to come up with the most likely variant are shown to be altering the Word of their own God to fit their preconceptions!

So, Fundamentalist Christianity conforms to intellectual honesty only to the extent that it offers itself up to the scrutiny of its critics by making claims that can, in principle, be falsified (whereas panentheism and the other Easternized forms of Christianity cannot, even be falsified in principle). Unfortunately, this feeble attempt at intellectual honesty proves to be Fundamentalist Christianity's undoing. It is only too easy to disprove the material, falsifiable claims of Christian Fundamentalism. So, in order to maintain the presupposition of infallibility, Fundamentalists must engage in intellectual dishonesty of various forms, whereas panentheism can merely admit to the world that it is nothing more than the report of what certain individuals believe about things that are admittedly indescribable and thus unprovable.

I hope this provides fodder for your discussion. I would be interested in hearing any responses or further elucidation of what I have pondered here. Thanks for your time and your interest in Positive Atheism. Only through the continued enthusiasm for these and discussions (and the forums which host them) can we hope to develop powerful responses to the claims of those who would force us, by law, to follow their religious tenets -- regardless of what we think of them. And our responses will be powerful only if we continue to subject our own views to the scrutiny not only of our peers but also of the opposition. If any argument shows itself to be invalid, we need to stop using it at once.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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