Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some Fundamentals

I'm probably about to make 100 new enemies, but I can't help it. This blog post (probably because we're about to celebrate a major Christian holiday) has been vying for attention for quite some time now, and I'm convinced it's been hurling itself against my brain, which is why I've had this on-again/off-again headache for two days (at least I hope so, because the alternative -- of which my runaway imagination is so fond -- a brain tumor, is not the least bit appealing). All right. Here goes. I'm opening the brain door and allowing this idea to escape:

Fundamentalist atheists are similar to fundamentalist Christians.

Note, those of you who know anything about math, I did not say, "Fundamentalist atheists are equal to fundamentalist Christians." I said, they are "similar." I mean, anyone who knows anything about math would know that one who believes in God, all other things being equal (which is an impossibility, because we are talking about human beings here, but this is metaphor. We're pretending we are dealing with true mathematical numbers and that it isn't impossible. Call it "imaginary theory," if you'd like), does not equal one who does not believe in God. To say they are equal would be like saying 7=10.

I probably ought to broaden what I'm saying. I'm pretty sure that fundamentalism is similar to fundamentalism. That is to say, a fundamentalist Christian is probably similar to a fundamentalist Muslim. And a fundamentalist Muslim is probably similar to a fundamentalist Jew. The problem is, I've lived a relatively limited life (as most of us humans do), and I've not personally been in dialog with any fundamentalist Muslims or fundamentalist Jews. I have to admit that I don't think I've personally been in dialog with any Muslims, and although I've been in dialog with plenty of Jews (including myself, because by Nazi standards, the drop of Jewish blood I have running through my veins at this point, thanks to my great grandmother, would have qualified me for annihilation), none of them have been fundamentalists. However, I have been in dialog with plenty of fundamentalists Christians and fundamentalist atheists in my life, so my focus is on these two forms of fundamentalism (if you happen to be a fundamentalist Christian or a fundamentalist atheist and can point out where I am wrong in my thinking, please let me know).

Here's a brief list of ways in which I find them to be similar:

1) The fundamentalist Christians I know, upon finding out I am a Christian who does not believe I have been "saved" in any way by my beliefs, or that my beliefs are the one and only way to my salvation, will immediately try to prove to me the error of my ways, feeling that I must, somehow, be converted. The fundamentalist atheists that I know, upon discovering that I am an intellectual who believes in God (or "gasp!" an intellectual who is married to a minister. Of course, that just proves to me that the person knows nothing about Presbyterians, who have got to be the most "bookish" of all Christian denominations), will immediately try to prove to me the error of my ways, feeling that I must, somehow, be converted.

2) The fundamentalist Christians I know have familiarized themselves with science only on an extremely superficial level, not understanding that one can study science for a lifetime and still only grasp the tip of the iceberg. Yet, they have chosen to reject many truths found in science. The fundamentalist atheists I know have familiarized themselves with theology only on an extremely superficial level, not understanding that one can study theology for a lifetime and still only grasp the tip of an iceberg. Yet, they have chosen to reject many truths found in theology.

3) The fundamentalist Christians I know accept an absolute literal interpretation of the Bible, believing all truth to be found only in the words there, leaving no room for the possibility of mythology and metaphor, and the truths to be found through those literary devices. The fundamentalist atheists I know believe in an absolute literal interpretation of the Bible, believing it to be nothing but mythology and metaphor, leaving no room for the truths to be found in those literary devices. Neither, as far as I can tell, leave much room for the Bible as literature, full of wisdom and truth in storytelling (as far as I'm concerned, though, God has got to be literary and dependent on literary devices to reach us clueless humans). And neither seems to look at the Bible as historical text, for which we might have found errors and corrections with time (the way we do, say, with histories written in the 17th century). I understand why the fundamentalist Christians, in their belief that the Bible is the absolute word of God and that God, being perfect, would have made no mistakes, would not view the Bible as historical text with inaccuracies, but why fundamentalist atheists don't look at it in the same way they might look at any other ancient history mystifies me.

4) Neither fundamentalist Christians nor fundamentalist atheists seem to have much of an understanding of the notion that human beings are storytellers who make more sense of their world through stories than through anything else.

5) Neither fundamentalist Christians nor fundamentalist atheists seem to understand the role of faith in science, believing "faith" to be a "religious" phenomenon. However, someone most definitely has to have faith to believe, for instance, contrary to what the majority believes, that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than that the sun revolves around the earth. And that faith has to be desperately strong for said person to risk imprisonment and death in order to set out to prove his theory.

6) Both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists "worship," if you will, human superiority. The Christians believe we were made "in the likeness of God," and thus, are better than all other creatures on this planet. The atheists worship human reason and logic, believing we are the ones who, ultimately, have all the answers, and are smarter than all other creatures on the planet (even if all those other creatures deserve to be able to share this planet with us, unharmed by us, there is still a condescending attitude toward them, because they don't have our intellect). This is all very Darwinian, of course: humans must be number one, so we can look out for number one and survive. Either we are number one, because we are most like the God who created us, or we are number one, because we have the biggest brains and are the smartest.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I don't buy much of this. I guess I'm just a philosopher at heart. I love the pure sciences, but get to a certain point, and they leave me cold. I like possibility. I like relying on imagination. I want to be convinced one way, and then I'd like you to turn around and completely convince me the opposite way. Life would be so boring if it were all black and white, if everything (even if maybe we don't understand yet, but someday we will) had a perfectly good and logical explanation. I'm not sure about the supernatural, but I am sure I'd hate a world in which it were impossible.

I'm open to the possibility of God, and I happen to believe that this God is extremely loving, gentle, kind, has a fabulous sense of humor, and embraces metaphor and simile (because I embrace them, and the narcissist in me has made God in my image, not the other way around, in the same way I, because I am human, anthropomorphize animals). I want Jesus to be God incarnate, because I can't think of anything more beautiful than a creator who finally decides that in order truly to understand this creation has to become one of us, to suffer the way we suffer, to experience existence the way we do. As a fiction writer, would I give my eyeteeth to become one of my characters? Absolutely.

Do I have absolute proof that Jesus existed? Well, as much proof as we feeble humans are able to produce. Historically, we know he existed. And do I positively believe in the truths he taught? Yes. That's why I call myself a Christian.

If you don't understand what those truths are, find a copy of The Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson did a superb job of translating the words of Christ from the Greek. He wanted to get rid of the "myths" and the "miracles" and to record, solely, the wisdom of Jesus. Read those words, come back to me, and try telling me they aren't the crux of twenty-first century psychology (written long before anyone had even identified what psychology is). Jesus never said, "Heaven is a place in the clouds with angels and harps, where you go if you believe in God, and hell is a place of eternal fire where you go if you don't believe in God" (go read Dante and Bunyan if that's what you want). He seems to have been talking more about peace and turmoil of mind and providing us with the hope that there was something beyond this life.

If I'm open to the possibility of God, I'm also open to the possibility of no God. However, I don't like to think about that much, because I find that possibility so empty and depressing that I hope it isn't so. To think that human reason, which is so incredibly faulty, is the be-all and end-all of intellect, something so limited, would make life pretty pointless for me. To believe that real truth can be found anywhere other than in myth and storytelling is just too prosaic for me. I want more than that. I want mystery. I want beauty. I mean, where is the beauty in breaking down all the magnificent plants and animals on this planet into nothing more than "fortuitous bags of molecules," as someone I know says. That's all you've got, you know, if you don't believe in something bigger than us and better than we are.

So, please, please stop trying to convert me all you well-meaning fundamentalists. I'm sorry for you Christians who think I'm a lost soul, but I just can't believe that God would be so limiting. God, as our creator, is most like a parent, and I can't imagine many parents rejecting a child who might think there is more than his or her way to the Truth, in fact, not embracing a child who finds more than one way to anything. And you atheists, I just don't understand. Why should it matter to you what I believe? After all, I'm not trying to convert you, and if, somehow, you don't find life to be extremely depressing with no possibility of something better beyond this, then I say, "Good for you." But I'm not there, and trying to get me to deny that which helps me fight depression can't possibly be good for either one of us.


Anonymous said...

Emily - I absolutely agree with you, because all extremes end up resembling one another. The structural place of the extreme is what counts, not particularly what inhabits it. Only you said that much better than I just did!

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, Emily, only the fundamentalists will be mad at you. Just kidding. My grandpa was a presbyterian minister and I think he would have been the first to agree with you.

Watson Woodworth said...

As a former Movement Atheist I'm hip to what you're saying.
I was the only one among them not to either be from an extreme religious background or be a second generation Atheist. (I was a former Marxist)

My heart goes go out to the Atheists because we do have to share this country with so many of those awful Christians but I feel pretty much agnostic anymore because I can't prove or disprove spiritual things (like anybody can) but I no longer give half a damn about it.

Anonymous said...

Hurray for this post! I agree entirely. And do I positively believe in the truths Jesus taught? Yes, but the Christians I've come across don't accept this as being a true Christian! I don't know the Jefferson Bible - I hope I can get hold of a copy.

Anonymous said...

There is an excuse for the fundamental Christian trying to convert you: he wants to save your soul. The fundamental atheist only wants to prove you wrong. Big dissimilarity.

ZoesMom said...

This is an excellent post! I could write at length in response, but instead I will just leave a quote:

"All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions"
William Butler Yeats

Amanda said...

I agree. I'm something of an atheist but I'm very interested in what religion has to teach us about how to live and I do have a sense of spirituality. I find a lot of atheists ill mannered, closed minded, aggressive and ignorant and also not at all aware of how ignorant they are. I find conversations with scholarly religious people far more interesting.

Emily Barton said...

I don't know,Litlove, seems to me you did a much better job of putting it nice and succinctly than I did :-)!

HPH, still waiting for hate mail from fundamentalists, but they must be too busy with other stuff these days.

NP, yes, my heart goes out to (non-fundamentalist) atheists, too. We're in similar boats, having to share this country with those "Christians," who aren't even anywhere near being a majority in this country (not even a majority among Christians), so why do we hear so much from them?

BP, hmmm...let's see. Tell those "Christians" that Webster's defines "Christian" as "one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ." And The Jefferson Bible is really neat if you can get hold of it.

Mandarine, good point. Then again, I think they may be similar in their fear that they might just be wrong, and thus have a need to convert as many people to their beliefs as possible (power in numbers sort of thing).

ZM, thank you, and thanks for the fabulous quote!

Ms. Make Tea, and I find conversations with scholarly atheists/agonistics far more interesting, too.

Rebecca H. said...

I have a copy of The Jefferson Bible and need to read it one of these days. I've been resisting reading it, because for so long the Bible has been, strangely, completely meaningless for me -- I mean, I spent so long hearing Bible passages and reading the Bible, it's become one huge cliche and I can't make it make sense. But eventually it will become new and meaningful again, and I bet Jefferson's version would help that process along.

Anyway, great post. Both forms of fundamentalism seem hugely arrogant to me.

Anonymous said...

And this is why I say I feel a little bit smarter for reading your blog. I'm joining the Church of Emily :)

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, that makes perfect sense to me. I felt that way for a long time about the Bible, too. What worked for me was to approach it the way I would any other ancient text, and then it became this amazing work that surprised me in its being so radical, at times, despite being so primitive, a fascinating history, and something full of some gorgeous poetry, as well. (Of course, some parts of it are just extremely boring, period.) The Jefferson Bible is a good place to start(and it's nice and short).

Sara, I'd welcome you at the Church of Emily!

Anne Camille said...

I'm late to the conversation here, so I don't have much to add that hasn't already been said. I especially agree with your comment about how many vocal atheists put all "Christians" in one bucket, painting us with such a broad brush. Many fundmentalist Christians would not recognize me as a Christian, might condemn me for any number of beliefs or actions. I'm an Episcopalian, a denomination that certainly has a wide range of Christian believers. The Episcopal Church says that we are relie on a three-legged stool of Faith, Reason and Tradition. I don't think I could believe in any of it if it wasn't for Reason. I can't conceptualize a God that would want us to put our brains on hold and not investigate the very nature of our world. I so don't understand the belief that puts Christianity in opposition to Science. It just simply isn't an either-or thing.

Anonymous said...

No enemies, only allies! And regarding what Mandarine said, the sincere desire to save someone's soul is noble, but you can see it coming from a mile away if someone is really just trying to prove you wrong. And I've run into literally hundreds of Christians who fall into that category.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right in saying that fundamentalists, no matter what their frame of reference are similar in many ways. I like the gray too much to be a black and white person and like you I enjoy possibility and imagination and neither of those exist on the extremes. Just for kicks I'll have to find a copy of the Jefferson Bible. I've heard of it before and you have piqued my interest.

Emily Barton said...

Cam, I'll always be an Episcopalian at heart, I guess. I just love those three: Faith, Reason, and Tradition. I, too, think it's absurd to think science and religion are two circles in a Venn Diagram that don't overlap.

Elitist, drat! Where ARE all my enemies? You're right: I've met plenty of "Christians" who want to prove me wrong (very un-Christlike, as I interpret what Christ had to say).

Stef, I'd love to hear what you think of The Jefferson Bible. I find it amusing when "Christians" laud our Founding Fathers, having no idea that Jefferson did something as "heretical" as re-writing the Gospels.

Susan said...

Dear Emily: I've missed you! I didn't mean to be away so long. I love that when I come back, you are creating discussion about lively topics sure to cause a debate :-) and you dare to say what so many think, which is: "fundamentalist, go away! I don't want to join your cause! I want to live in peace and harmony with my fellow human beings!"
Mostly I want to say that no one is absolutely right or wrong. There are as many images of God as there are people!! And what about non-God people?
So thank you for bringing lively discussion for us all. You are the hostess extraordinaire, and if there were a Church of Emily (and somewhere I can feel someone shaking their head and turning to the Bible!), I'd be one of your ministers, or maybe an altar girl. Except I can't sing. So I'd light the candles for everyone :-)

Emily Barton said...

Susan, I've missed you, too. I hope you are all over your sickness now. Yes, you are right: there are so many images of God, it's ridiculous that we all fight over it. I'm sure God just wants to be whatever we need for each of us (just like any good parent). I'd welcome you as a minister in the Church of Emily!