About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Three fixations of fundamentalist Christians
What I’d like to focus on here is Roose’s observation, while taking various courses at Liberty, that three themes repeatedly emerged from his interactions with his professors (and I use the word in a very charitable fashion here, for the sake of argument): evolution didn’t happen, abortion is murder, and absolute truth exists. Given my interest in understanding the fundamentalist mind and fighting its pernicious effects on society, it seems to me obligatory to ponder on these three points, which I have also observed form a recurring pattern in my own more than decade-long interactions with Christian fundamentalists (though it should be added that the same themes are strong also in other fundamentalist versions of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious mythology).
Roose maintains that there are three ways in which Liberty professors attack evolution: by equating acceptance of evolution to faith in God, by questioning one or another of its scientific tenets (an all-time favorite is, of course, criticism of radio dating of rocks), or by sheer sarcasm (as in “can you believe scientists actually think the human eye is the result of chance? — They don’t, by the way). These are all very telling. The sarcasm is a form of anti-intellectualism that strongly suggests to the faithful that we simple minded folks are in fact much smarter than them PhD-sporting scientists, an anti-expert attitude that of course few fundies actually carry through in any other area of their lives (most of them go to car mechanics, doctors, lawyers, financial consultants and other such experts). The other two tacks are even more fascinating because they are mutually contradictory, and in fact represent two distinct tactics adopted by the creationist movement in the United States during the 20th century. It is simply not coherent to criticize a position on (alleged) scientific grounds (even attempting to present a scientifically acceptable alternative in the form of the oxymoronic “creation science”) while at the same time charging the other side with simply engaging in a religious belief. The content of religious beliefs is not subject to scientific inquiry by its very nature, so one cannot reasonably use science and rationality to criticize an idea, only to switch when convenient to the position that that same idea is held by faith, meaning in spite of the evidence. Then again, there never was much reasonableness in the fundamentalist mind.
Abortion, of course, would take several posts in and of itself, as it is a complex matter even for progressives. I certainly do not subscribe to the idea that abortion should be as easily available as aspirin, or that women have an absolute and unquestionable right to do what they will with the fetuses they carry. To contemplate having an abortion is to engage in an incredibly complex and painful exercise in ethical judgment, and there simply is no easy way out. That said, the fundamentalist insistence on the “sanctity of life” strikes me as hypocritical and ill-founded. First off, most of the same people who scream “baby murder” are also in favor of the death penalty, for instance, or have no trouble sending thousands or even millions of innocents to their death by declaring holy wars of one kind or another. But more to the point, these people seem to be completely incapable of understanding that “personhood” is a continuous process that is only potential at the moment of conception. Is the zygote a human life form? Yes, though it won’t become a human being for months. Is it a human person? At that moment most certainly not. This is important because we recognize rights to persons not to cells (well, we unfortunately recognize rights to corporations too, but that’s a whole different story). If it were biological material that had rights, then sperms and eggs shouldn’t be wasted either (if your mind wandered to Monty Python’s Every Sperm is Sacred you are in good company). Moreover, and rather counterintuitively, fundamentalists should be in favor of human cloning, and should defend the right to existence of every single human cell, since they are all potential human beings that could become actual if they were to go through a cloning process. This position is absurd, of course, but it highlights the idea that there is no simple solution to the issue, no clear black and white, us vs. them approach that is tenable.
And that brings me to the last tenet on Roose’s list: absolute truth (to be found, of course, in the Bible). This is really what fundamentalists of all stripes have a problem with. They simply cannot accept that Truth with a capital T is essentially inaccessible to humans (except when we are talking about logic and mathematics), and that moreover in many real cases of interest to human affairs there is no absolute truth. This doesn’t mean that anything goes (the dreaded extreme postmodernist position), but rather that truth comes in degrees, or that there may be more than one reasonable assessment of a given situation, leading to pluralism on whatever issue one may be considering.
Indeed, it is this obsession with absolute truth, this epistemological hubris if you will, that also explains the other two recurrent themes: fundamentalists wouldn’t have a problem with evolution if they didn’t insist on taking the Bible as the definitive word in matters of history and science (as many moderate Christians in fact don’t). And they would be able to tolerate a range of positions on abortion if they didn’t think that there is an absolute distinction between human and non-human, and an absolute way to determine right and wrong.
There is, of course, no simple solution to the problem of fundamentalism. However, I must admit that — as irritating as Roose’s book becomes at times — he has hit on a good point in his Epilogue: “Humans have always quarreled [I’d say murdered each other, but whatever] over their beliefs, and I suppose they always will. But judging from my post-Liberty experience, this particular religious conflict isn’t built around a hundred-foot brick wall. If anything, it’s built around a flimsy piece of cardboard, held in place on both sides by paranoia and lack of exposure. It’s there, no doubt, but it’s hardly forbidding. And more important, it’s hardly soundproof. Religious conflict might be a basic human instinct, but I have faith [a rather unfortunate choice of word], now more than ever before, that we can subvert that instinct for long enough to listen to each other.”
In other words, start wearing a suitable “Your Friendly Atheist Neighbor” t-shirt. If you really are friendly, the other side might see you as someone to respectfully disagree with, not as a demon to send to hell as expeditiously as possible. That would be progress indeed.