Sunday, October 31, 2004

Fundamentalism in Action

I had the opportunity, yesterday, of leading a discussion with a group of Christians on the subject of the age of the earth. A couple of months ago, we had a representative of a creationist organisation visit our church who, amongst other claims, strongly asserted that the Bible teaches that the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old. Following his sermon I took the opportunity of having a conversation with him. During our conversation, he made the statement that anyone who didn't believe in what the Bible taught on the subject of the age of the earth and creation was fighting against God. It quickly became obvious that what the Bible taught was equivalent to his understanding of what the Bible taught. There was no room, as far as he was concerned, for Christians to disagree on the way they interpreted Genesis. This conversation led to the decision to hold a discussion about the age of the earth entitled How to Think About the Age of the Earth. The purpose was to, as fairly as possible, present two views of the age of the earth that are held by many Christians. The presentation outlined how those who held to an old-earth model or a young-earth model related to Scripture, the sort of empirical evidence they offered in support of their model, and the way they interpreted the days of Genesis 1. Following the presentation of these two views, the plan was to have about an hour of discussion where those in attendance could make comments, ask questions, and discuss differences of opinion in an open and safe environment free of judgmentalism. A reading list was distributed with recommendations of Christian books on both sides of the issue. The overall aim was to inform those present of the current thinking of Christians on the age of the earth question so that they could make up their own mind on the subject (with further study if necessary). Until the last 30 minutes, all was fine. There was intelligent, respectful discussion. Near the end of the discussion, however, two participants hijacked the discussion by dogmatically and agressively stating that discussing such matters (especially in a church) was a deception of Satan and that it was nothing more than introducing confusion and error into the minds of those who were participating. As far as they were concerned, the Bible was absolutely clear on the matter and we had no right to even suggest that there might be alternative ways that some Christians understood the issue. We acknowledged that they had a right to their point of view and that they had had the opportunity of expressing it but that others disagreed with it. This was not adequate for them. They were angry (although one said they were merely 'impassioned'), judgmental, and were 'standing up for the Lord'; implying, of course, that no one else there was. Apart from the incredibly unChristian attitude and behaviour of these two people, a stunning statement was made by one of them during the course of their tirade. This participant said that 'there is no need to interpret the Bible; you just have to read what is there.' In my view, this statement illustrates what is at the very heart of the worst forms of fundamentalism -- the assumption that what a person thinks the Bible says is equatable with what the Bible actually says and, thus, with what God says. In other words, if I read the Bible, the understanding I have in my mind when I do so constitutes the very word of God. To put it bluntly, 'My thoughts are God's thoughts.' This notion has a number of serious consequences. If I equate my thinking with God's thinking then:
  1. Anyone who disagrees with me must be disagreeing with God.
  2. I am able to determine who is a true Christian and who isn't.
  3. I am inclined to be arrogant and dogmatic about my beliefs in comparison with others.
  4. I am inclined to consider myself more spiritual than those who 'obviously' don't understand the Bible correctly.
  5. I will be unwilling to listen to any point of view that does not agree with my own.

I could go on... I think you get the idea. If I believe that my understanding is identical to God's understanding then I can speak on behalf of God. There is an important intellectual trait that needs to be developed by all of us who call ourselves Christians -- intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is

Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs. (Anon)

Essential to developing this trait is a recognition that all reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation. Whenever we read the Bible, we do so from our own frame of reference which filters what we read. This is why so much work has been done by scholars in developing rules of interpretation (hermeneutics). For example, we need to understand the historical context of a passage of Scripture; who the passage was written to; what the intention of the writer was; what type of literature it is; and so on.

It is naive to believe that we can just come to the Bible (or anything we read) with a clean slate -- with no preconceptions or prejudices -- and just absorb the truth of the Bible with 100% accuracy. This naivety is what I saw during the discussion I described above. The sad thing is not so much the fact that a person has this point of view and may be missing out on the opportunity to grow in understanding; it is, rather, that operating from this position seems to lead to attitudes which are destructive and which hurt other people. Those who subscribe to this view seem very afraid that open discussion and consideration of perspectives other than our own will lead to the undermining of faith. From what I have observed, however, the 'fundamentalist' attitude described, if it manifests itself in the sort of behaviour we experienced, will do more to undermine and damage someone's faith than any honest examination of ideas will ever do.


Anon. Valuable Intellectual Traits. Retrieved 31 October, 2004, from

Recommended Reading

Boone, K. C. (1989). The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism: State University of New York Press.

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  1. Interesting analysis of an encounter with fundamentalists. I liked the breakdown of what the two who hijacked your conversation.

    Your analysis is courageous and thought provoking.

  2. I agree with you. The Biblical days are not 24 hours long -- the 7th day is still in progress. The universe can be 17 billion years old; Earth can be 4 million years old; and evolution can still be wrong. Try telling teh Chinese and aborigines in Australia that the Earth is only 6000 years old. You would enjoy the Raseons to Believe books by Hugh Ross, a Ph.D astronomer who is also a Bible-believing Christian.

  3. The earth is billions of years old, there is over-whelming evidence to back this up. There is zero evidence to back up the bible's claims.
    The Atheist Perspective