Or, my salute to fundamentalists
by A. Uiet Bhor
Religions starts out as a series of theological and moral, and occasionally historical, "truths" that eventually become the faith's core doctrine. It is a haphazard process, with various ideologies competing either intellectually or physically, the end result is an amalgamation of sometimes contradictory ideas that are rationalised into one supreme voice of authority.
After awhile the core doctrine becomes the status quo, which inevitably leads to people wishing to rebel against it. This leads to splinter cells, factions, denominations, and almost inevitably the evolution of the faith's principal orthodoxy. Sometimes the central authority capitulates and incorporates new ideas or elements as interpretations of the revealed "truth", as in the case of the pro Roman sympathies and pagan mystical elements in Christianity. Or sometimes counter doctrines are created to demonise and ostracise a rival theology or culture, as is the case in the anti-Gnostic elements of the Gospels.
For the sake of argument we will assume the Torah is the core doctrine of Judaism, the Bible for Christianity, and the Koran for Islam, this keeps it nice and neat. Out of these three religions have developed peripheral "add-ons" that differed greatly among the different denominations, such as the mystical and esoteric extensions in Kabbalism, when compared to the more rational and almost secular culture of certain reform branches. Judaism is incredibly diverse, which like Buddhism freely explores the many avenues to God and the Jewish cultural or spiritual ideals. This contrasts sharply with the Christian denominations that are often at each other's throats. Although there are subtle differences between the Bible in Protestantism, Methodism and Catholicism they are still ultimately the same book. The disagreements are in the peripheral superficialities, and this creates some interesting complications when arguing with these particular theists. Many do not regard other denominations as "true", and use linguistic semantics to distance themselves. However it is clear to any objective observer that these are transparent demonisations, and unbiased judgement can only be reached by impartial study rather than listening to any one or more particular "Christianity". I will assume that no one side has any more insight than any other, that as the Bible was written by different people with different agendas then there is no correct interpretation, as the Bible is not homogenous, but represent the ideals and intentions of specific people at specific times. These may be divided up into old Testament nation-building, and new Testament cult creation.
As mentioned before, Judaism has a far more relaxed attitude toward alternate Jewish viewpoints, however there is a common parallel between the orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians. Both prefer a back to basics approach that is far more Bible derived, and one would say crude, as well as literal. Fundamentalist Christians are often dismissed by more progressive liberal churches and denominations such as Presbyterianism and Protestant derived sects, and even by Catholicism. They regard Christianity as being a tolerant, charitable and at times even a progressive faith. They see Jesus as a gentle healer and teacher, and the many Christian charities as indicative of the religion as a whole. This is how they believe Christianity has always been, and when they see belligerent, harsh and bombastic Bible bashers shouting the odds about homosexuality and attempting to put women in their "place" they see these people as backward bigots, not truly representative of "true Christianity". They point out to critics and commentators that they are a strange extreme fringe, in the same way Muslims regard their fundamentalists, terrorists, and suicide bombers.
This however is ignorance and presumption, anybody who studied the history of Christianity knows that these fundies represent how Christianity has behaved historically, and are a symptom of the inherent problems with the religion as a whole. The majority of Christians today are not what could be called "true Christians" but merely a modernised version, who's brutal enthusiasm has been curbed by society's overall progress. Due to the words and deeds of forward-thinkers and revolutionaries who fought against injustice in the West, often in the form of tradition and religious doctrine. Christianity lost its power at crucial moments, and has been forced to trail behind the better instincts of humanity ever since. Many have rediscovered the wisdom of pre-Christian Europe, as well as of the East, and many more have come up with bigger, better and greater ideas than those contained in any religious scriptures. This involuntary improvement is regarded by many "historical amnesia" suffering Christians today as the true state of the faith. Those who actually have studied the unenviable record of most denominations regard the atrocities in history as mere abhorations, wrong turns on the path leading to the inevitable contemporary incarnations that the continuous reinvention of Christianity has spawned. This is as far from the truth as you can get.
If you study Christianity's core doctrine, you begin to realise that the so-called corrupted and perverted interpretations of fundamentalists, as well as those of the tyrants of history such as Torquemada, Ivan the Terrible and Hitler, in fact represent a far truer form of Christianity than the majority today exhibit. The fundamentalists are often a far more honest and consistent group than the moderates, and I have more respect for them (i.e slightly less than for the dog turd I trod on this morning) than for those who have to use cognitive dissonance in order to reconcile their denomination's beliefs with it's core doctrine. The fundies may be brutal primitives, they are what their faith has made them, and I am surprised that there are not more, but I find it amusing that so many moderates are puzzled as to where they come from. Not realising the answer is right under their noses, within the pages of the (most likely unopened) volume on their laps, their "good book". (If they even bother to read it, rather than have it spoon fed to them by a preacher, after cleaning it up for a family audience.) Honestly if you went into a modern church and actually read specific segments of the bible word for word, very loudly, you'd probably be thrown out, several people may even faint or throw up. Although all theists have earned my pity and others my disgust, I cannot fault the reasoning of those who are viewed as beyond the pale by the majority. If the Bible is literally inherent, then they are right, if religion comes before morality and social conscience, then they are right, if God is more important than life, then they are right, fortunately for us, there is not one thing in all religion that is.
Bit of a bold statement I admit, however many of us will be aware that there are some pretty brutal things going on in the old Testament, as well as some subtle atrocities committed in the new Testament. In Judaism the brutality of the O.T is tempered by the more enlightened commentaries of the Talmud, which explains why Judaism often exhibits a degree of moderation that far exceeds its core doctrine. No such moderation’s exist within Christian holy books, has all they took from Judaism was the O.T, which is a pity as there is a lot more to the Jews than the Tanach. This critical oversight led to such atrocities as the burning of witches, as without the wisdom of rabbinical teachings to restrain them, Christians were inspired by the archaic cruelty of their Bible to make the dark ages even darker.
The core doctrine of Christianity remains the same in virtually all denominations, the fundamentalists stick to the fundamental basics, and as a result exhibit what is commonly viewed as unenlightened, or un-progressive ideals. But they merely reflect the moral nature of the Bible, and even they are a moderate voice when compared to the really nasty stuff. Those advocating the clinical "treatment" of gays, or the subjugation of women, and the really extreme ones calling for the murder of abortion doctors and the de-emancipation of blacks still fall short of advocating outright genocide, or the burning alive of heretics, or even the instant death of all those who don't hand over all their possessions come conversion. Anyone who knows the Bible well enough will acknowledge that they could be far worse, and see extremists as a reminder of how things used to be, and a warning of how bad things could still get.
-side note, my inclusion of Hitler in the list of barbaric Christians.
It is good to have accurate information, it is embarrassing when other atheists tried to paint Hitler as an xtian, but it is also important to note that Christianity was a very pliable tool for oppressors like him.
Nazism and Christianity are not inextricably linked, but Christianity has elements within it's doctrine that can be easily used to justify atrocities. The nazis utilised as many concepts as possible, any kind of religion, any kind of science, and it is annoying when xtian's use Hitler's quotes on evolution and survival of the fittest to cast aspersions on Darwinism. However when the Nazis used Christianity they were not too far from a legitimate interpretation of biblical material, there are clear passages in the bible which advocates genocide, in fact if I was going to commit the worst atrocities in human history the bible is the book I'd use.
I do not regard Nazis as having corrupted or perverted biblical material, as that implies that the bible is inherently good, or misunderstood. Unlike Darwinism which is as far removed from political extremism and racism as you can get, the bible was written by people with racist ideologies and a mass murdering bloodlust, 1 sam 15 for e.g.
It is quite irritating when xtian's try to claim that the bible would do good if only people would interpret it properly. I do not regard the Nazis, modern fundamentalists or the Ku Klux Klan has a corruption of Christianity, they are the faith pushed to it's logical conclusion, or a cruder literal interpretation. You can focus only on good parts, or focus only on the bad, but does not change the fact that the bible contains both good and bad. As a result, it cannot possibly be considered moral, as it has many flaws as humanity, and is no better than us, and should not be exalted.
I have spoken to people who used Christianity to bash gays and blacks, and I cannot fault of their interpretation of their Bibles. According to their understanding they are doing good, and as long as they use the bible, they are being "true Christians". So xtian's should stop trying to ostracise these people, claiming that they are not truly part of the faith, and look hard of who these people are, and what makes them the way they are. They're not just racists or homophobes using the bible to legitimise their position, they are bible believers who have been made racists by looking too hard at what the bible actually says.
Anyway. Christianity has to acknowledge that as long as it relies on the bible, even indirectly, it is inviting fringe denominations, or even worse major ones, to go "back to basics". They have to acknowledge their history, and the inherent unethical nature in the Bible. The consistent reasoning of extremists, and their regard for god above all things, combined with their absolute confidence in the bible, makes it impossible to reason with them. The moderates must be made to see the fundamentalists are their dark side, they're not false Christians, they are just simply Christians.
The same goes for Islamic fundamentalists, it is the many passages in the Koran referring to hellfire and martyrdom, that is the legitimiser of their campaigns. Short of actually cutting these passages out of every copy of every Koran there is nothing much one can do about this. The only way is to encourage non-literal interpretations, is with enlightened commentaries and lessons on the dangerous tendencies of religion. In other words, denominations need to start teaching their members what we have been pointing out for centuries, that within religion lies the potential for the worst atrocities mankind has ever seen.
What is "true" Christianity? Or for that matter what is the true nature of any religion? Given that all religion is a lie this is impossible to answer, what we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty is that the many religions today have so many denominations that they represent virtually every position on the theological spectrum. There are so many esoteric or just plain eccentric diversification’s within Judaism that only the ultra orthodox resemble the Israelites as described in the old Testament. Even then they are restricted in their behaviour to what is allowed within the secular legal system of Israel. The archaic legal and social customs first recorded around the time of the Babylonian exile has since been an heavily modified by rabbinical and Talmudic teachings. During the Middle Ages Judaism and Islam had an intellectual enlightenment that resulted in further progress that, coupled with the freethought achievements during the European Renaissance and after, created Jewish sects which more closely resemble Buddhism at times, or even humanism than the Bronze Age nomads of the Torah. This is why I have far more respect Jews than any of the other mono-theisms. if I thought they were capable of reproducing the activities they describe themselves committing in their holy books I would be as harsh to them as I am to Christians and Muslims, the small percentage of them that are dangerous fundamentalists can be easily attributed to the fact that among a large enough number of people you will always gets a few lunatics, the ratio of such people in Christianity and Islam is far too high for such a dismissal, and the source of such troubling groups needs to be understood.
Religions are the product of their environments, if as a result of less religious and more progressive individuals or organisations a nation or culture is modernised, then religion is usually dragged forward a generation or so behind it. If a civilisation becomes backward so does the religion, if its origins are in the distant past then chances are during its dark ages and among its "back to basics" extremists many reasons will be found from their obnoxious behaviour. But on the up-side at least we are sufficiently enlightened now to not only be able to regard all religion as it truly is, but also have a large percentage of religious people who have become more ethical and humanistic, due to the more enlightened climate of the modern world. But still the potential remains, if you maintain a group based on past cultural values then you will never truly be free to move forwards.
There will always be aspects of your culture or religion that will hold you back, whether it is ancestral worship, idealisation of the past, or theistic presumptions of some kind. If some things are sacred then some things can never be questioned, removed, or improved, and even if they are removed they can often the reinstated, and if they are improved then such improvements can be ripped off by fundamentalists and the original meaning reinstated. Even the most liberal or progressive theists regard some things as intrinsically holy, the concept of the sacred writings or institutions is a continuous counter to all improvements. As long as people regard any aspect of the past has been unassailable, or beyond improving then even the most humanistic theists can still be made to strip away the trappings of progress and embrace a rose tinted image of the past, that screws us all over.
Many freethinkers revere the teachings of the ancients Greeks but they don't stick rigidly to what they say for the simple reason that they were not represented as gods, and their works were not seen as eternal, inherent, or sacred. As a result we can see them dispassionately as they truly were, warts and all, embracing what works and has proven itself, and acknowledging but abandoned what we can no longer accept. The moment anything transcendent or spiritual is added to any idea or system of thoughts it becomes virtually impossible to ditch them no matter how much harm they do to us. Many aspects of the ancient philosophers teachings have been surpassed, many have yet to be fully realised even in this day and age, but no freethinker would suggest living entirely as the ancient Athenians did. We acknowledge their errors in the same way that the mistakes of past scientists are acknowledged, because such acknowledgements are of great assistance in our quest to improve ourselves. The inability of spiritual or theistic groups to recognise error or identify mistakes means that there will always be a barrier that only the complete abandonment of religion will remove.
Life, on its own, growing up, having sex, pregnancy, babies, parentage and dying of old age surrounded by your family is great. Natural human life with all its trappings removed is really good, by default. The crap things in life are the accumulations that our cultures through their evolution collect on it's journey to the present. One of these accumulations is religion, a completely unnecessary appendage that can be scraped off are culture with no ill effects.
Remove all the enlightened principles of liberal religion that are a combination of salad-bar pic 'n choose, resulting in the little good within religion exulted as if that was all there is to it, and progressive elements derived from classical works and recent ideas, and you are left with something that would not look out of place in an archaeological dig. If you want to get in a muddy pit with the skeletons, rusty swords and grave goods, be my guest, but the rest of us do not want to live in a retarded time-warp. Many of us like the improvements we have, and acknowledge their origin, which for the most part can be traced to virtually any source but religion. When Christianity or Islam's positive virtues are held aloft as an example of what religion is, I simply mention the history which clearly shows that such meagre positives were largely ignored by the majority of their religion's practitioners.
The less immoral standards have only come to light today because they sometimes match up to "modern" ideals which were attacked or ignored by religion for generations. Ideas which often pre-date the setback that is xtianity, and now Islam. The remaining great achievements and leaps forward can only be credited to people living within the last few centuries, some of which were religious, many of which were not, and without which fundamentalism would be all religion today.
You embrace concepts from the past that work, and new ones only for as long as they do. If you deify anything from the past then many will be compelled to utilised it, regardless of whether it ever worked, but simply because it is “holy” or “sanctified”. The same goes for contemporary ideas, if people decide that this is what a deity wants, then regardless of how harmful or unwanted it may be, it’s going to get pushed on the rest of us. The problem with religion is not fundamentalism, but that religion is.
AUB - Time to rage against the dying of the light.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)