Atheists Think the Only Real Christians Are Fundamentalists

Author Sam Harris.  This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

Author Sam Harris. This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

I wrote before that “there’s a pretty thin line between Fundamentalism and Atheism,” and “It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.”  What I should have mentioned is that most atheists I interact with think that the only legitimate form of Christianity is Fundamentalism, and they continually read the Bible just like fundamentalists, do, only without faith.  Granted, that’s a big difference, but it’s important to note that the reading strategies are identical.  Atheists and fundies agree that the presence of contradictions or historical inaccuracies in the text would disqualify the Bible from functioning as divine scripture, which is why one side tirelessly compiles lists of Biblical errors and the other side tirelessly seeks to reconcile them all.  The reason that game goes on and on, unendingly, is that they are working from the same Enlightenment rules.  And it’s a pretty dumb game for Christians to play, since the rules stipulate that the other side only has to score one point to win the game.   If we don’t plausibly explain away every single alleged contradiction, we lose.  And you already know that I don’t think we can do that.

Or take the opening paragraph of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation:

You believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true. Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong.  The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t.  Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not.  We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so….

As a work of propaganda this is marvelous, and surely effective.  All Harris is doing is pointing out that he and the fundamentalists he is addressing share an identical black and white worldview.  He doesn’t have to persuade them to play by his rules–they are already on board.  All he has to do is play the game better than they do.  Actually, he doesn’t even have to do that, since they’ve implicitly agreed to the “if I score one point against you, you automatically lose” rule.

The really clever thing he does comes soon after, on page 5.

Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit.  Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t.  Either Christ was divine, or he was not….At least half the American population understands this.

This follows up on something he writes on page ix, in the introductory “Note to the Reader”:

In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address. (emphasis mine)

Brilliant!  He not-very-subtly flatters his intended audience by declaring that fundamentalist/conservative evangelical Christianity is the most committed form of the faith.  He knows that if he can convince his readers that all the really serious Christians are inerrantists, his work is almost done.  He’s narrowed the field down to two options, one of which he’s pretty sure he can obliterate, even while he’s smiling and speaking softly the whole time.

Needless to say, Pope Benedict XVI might not be so quick to agree that the most committed Christians are fundies.  Or the Metropolitan Christodoulos of the Greek Orthodox Church.  Or the Episcopal priests I know who are doing poverty assistance in struggling urban neighborhoods.  Or the pastor at the Disciples of Christ church down the road who is active in homeless assistance.  Harris wants to measure commitment not by “perseverance in following the example of Jesus” (which seems like a reasonable definition to me), but by “adherence to a literalist reading of the scriptures.”  There’s no necessary link between the two, and if you were to tell most of the early church fathers that the only really dedicated Christians were strict literalists you’d have to wait for them to stop laughing before they could give you a cogent response.  In fact, the whole historical-grammatical interpretive paradigm only develops in the most recent four or five hundred years of Christian history, and really became prominent in the last three hundred.  That might seem like a long time, but for most of Christian history, the brand of Christian identity that Harris considers “the most committed form” didn’t even exist.

Lunch break is over…I’ll continue this line of thinking later.


Filed under Atheism, Church Culture, Politics and Culture

5 responses to “Atheists Think the Only Real Christians Are Fundamentalists

  1. Glad I found a kindred spirit’s blog.

    I’ve been ranting around different blogs for years that the fundamentalists are a greater threat to the faith than the atheists by pitting Christanity against science and the Bible against innerancy.

    It is impossible to actually read the Bible and not realize that it, at the very least, contains some significant discrepancies, particularly in the Gospels. I got a version this year that had just come out that did the New Testament in chronological order. When you read the Gospels combined like that, things start jumping out at you left and right. At first it was a little disturbing. Even though I never belonged to the innerancy group, I wasn’t quite prepared for the number of contradictions I was presented with right off the bat.

    But this is good business for the atheists and secularists out there, holding up fundamentalists as ridiculous. And, in truth, they really are. Hardly does a day go by when I don’t drive past one Baptist church or other with a big sign up declaring that the world is 6000 years old.

    It’s just ridiculous. And they are so loud that all of Christianity is being put under their clownish umbrella.

  2. Obviously, I’m going to have to read more of your blog. I will do that immediately after posting this comment.

    I hate to throw in a seeming disagreement to your post, which was pleasant, refreshing, encouraging. I thoroughly agree with its basic message.

    But I have to point something out.

    It seems to me that thing that will concern fundamentalists most is not whether the fathers were literal or figurative in their interpretation, but whether they believed in inerrancy.

    I’m not terribly familiar with post-Nicene writers, but it seems to me that the pre-Nicene writers would have believed in inerrancy across the board. Justin Martyr argues that the Septuagint was translated word for word the same by seventy different Jewish elders who had no contact with one another.

    That’s not just inerrancy, that’s plenary verbal inspiration.

    I think there’s historical contradictions in the Bible (was Jesus going into or out of Jericho when he encountered Bartimaeus?), but I don’t think the pre-Nicene fathers did.

  3. You may be more up to speed with the Fathers than I am, and I’m happy to defer in this instance. I do think, though, that while the Fathers could be said to consider the Bible inerrant in some sense, it wasn’t the modern brand of inerrancy, and at least some of the Fathers were willing to acknowledge factual problems with the text.

    Tertullian: “Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of the [gospel] narratives. What matters is that there is agreement in the essential doctrine of the Faith” (Against Marcion, IV:2).

    Chrystostom: “the discord which seems to be present in little matters shields [the authors] from every suspicion and vindicates the character of the writers” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, I:6).

    I wound up conflating two issues in this post–inerrancy and literalist interpretation, which muddied the issues a bit. Should have made that a bit cleaner.

    Oh, well. You guys get what you pay for! Thanks for correcting the record.

  4. I hope I didn’t sound like I was disagreeing with the general tenor of your post. Your general point was good and accurate.

    I thought I made that clear in my commment, but looking back I see I didn’t. Sorry about that. What I meant by “I see I’ll have to read more of your blog” was that this post was quite good.

    I wish I’d have said that better.

  5. I admit it, it’s true. Both before and after I deconverted, I have had a very, very hard time thinking of non-fundamentalists as serious about Christianity. To break myself of this, I have tried to substitute “biblical literalist” for “Christian” when appropriate. It has been a difficult habit to break.

    I simply know of no better substitute than a written book.

    Will it be the testimony of the heart? To listen to any of the Christians in my vicinity since I left religion behind, “Christian” would be little more than an identity group associating with generic goodness and light. I try to be polite with them, but have to admit to them when pressed that if they want to know Christ, they could bother to dust off the document that they think contains some kind of record of him. Don’t get me started on “I don’t need to read the Bible because Jesus speaks to me in my heart.” It’s not enough to look at a painting of an effeminate robed bearded man holding a sheep and think that from that you “know Christ.” It is essentially New-Age personal spirituality.

    “Knowing Christ” through a local church community is hardly better. It is just choosing a church based on whatever one subjectively wishes Christ to be, and then attending that church. And if it’s not, how would you ever know? It’s not like Christ is going to tell you which one is right.

    And then there is church tradition. For all the problems with placing credit in the authority of a book lacking at least two thousand years of perspective, I know of no better rational reason to place any credit in the authority of the traditions of human institutions when they have demonstrated for centuries that they are committed to fleecing the gullible. The entire record of the human endeavor of faith can clearly be seen in a victimizing light. No one worth trusting asks you to have faith. If you could trust them, why would they ask you to have faith?

    I say this only so you will know the extent of the challenge you face. Can you convince the unchurched that the world would be a better place if they hand over the keys of their lives to the guidance of the heart, to church tradition, and to local spiritual communities? Really? Really? Establishing that level of trust will be harder than convincing them to hand over the keys of their lives to a spam email.

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