Thoughts on Christian fundamentalism and inflexible thinking

While I have been an agnostic for as long as I remember, I have always been fascinated by religion. Not just in an anthropological or philosophical sense either – I was fascincated by its contents, its high ideals, its immense buildings, the wonderful art it has produced, its pretenses to universality – but also the little things: the reverend’s vestments, his subtle change of accent during the sermon, our cacophonous unison chanting during service that, through some miracle only possible in God’s house, could still somehow be recognised as a grand hymn. My alienation from religion has come about mostly because of my impossibility to empathise, and sometimes even communicate, with nearly anyone in my childhood church, especially during Sunday school. I used to be part (in some ways, I still very much am) of the Reformed Church or Calvinist tradition, a church whose numbers are dwindling in my home country, and one which during my teenage years I came to recognise as a dour and humourless faith, whose rougher edges were becoming masked as it was beginning to come under a strong Evangelical influence from American missionaries and benefactors.

I was however brought up in that tradition even though I later came to somewhat renounce the religion part of it. I was fiercely proud of my family’s cultivation of the Protestant work ethic, especially during my teenage and high school years, when I was incresingly becoming aware of how hard it was to fit in. I felt this heritage, which was quite uncommon in my hometown, made me special in some way, and the fact that I could selectively cherry-pick what I liked about it made me feel even more in control of my life during a period when I desperately needed to feel like that. Of course it was a teenage fantasy, and perhaps a toxically narcissistic one at that – but it, among other things, did lead me to mingle in the metalhead crowd, a subculture which was at its heyday back in the mid-2000s. But even then I could not wholeheartedly agree with my militantly atheist or even anti-theist peers, nor sympathise with the polemical “New Atheism” of the likes of Dawkins or Penn and Teller, which were also very in vogue back then. To me it all seemed extraordinarly cultish, engendering a certain fetishisation of reason and science at a superficial level of the discourse, but not so much in practice. In all but content, it was indistinguishable from the proselytising of mainstream neo-Protestant Christian sects which were very active in my part of the country. It portrayed this epic (and, in actuality, largely fictional) battle between science and religion as the two fundamentally incompatible forces in society, and implicitly promised that if only religion was abolished, society would become free from all unreason and spontaneously become rationally organised, to the benefit of all. No major New Atheist figure actually put it quite like that – however I got the distinct impression that it was what many of their followers thought. That scared me.

In reality religion is not so straightforwardly incompatible with science. In fact, many leading scientists of the Western tradition have been devout Christians, and for some their faith was an important motivation for their research. Christianity has been instrumental in creating a medium of scholarly debate that ultimately resulted in what we know today as science and, arguably, the very assumption that there is or should be an underlying order to the world is of a metaphysical nature fully supported by the Christian religion (though, I would argue, it is its Hellenistic heritage that lends itself best to this, not the somewhat arbitrary metaphysics of the Old Testament. I am sure I can be contradicted on this on multiple fronts).

For much of the history of modern science, it has not been in any overt societal or cultural tension with religion (except for certain exceptional episodes, which opponents of religion – whatever that means – love to endlessly reiterate, such as Galileo’s trial and conviction by the Inquisition for his support of heliocentrism), right until about the time of Darwin’s publication of the “Origin of Species”. A kind of landmark split began then, with some currents attempting to accommodate these new findings within the Christian religion and find a place for them on the basis of common ground, others retreating into an increasingly dogmatic understanding of the world and the rejection of the evidence-based methodology of science, even if this was, in itself, rooted in the Christian tradition. Not coincidentally, most of the Christian sects that rejected science at this point were Protestant – confirming the idea that the Reformation was not so much innovative as reactionary – but that is a discussion for another time. I would, then, suggest that the currents of Christianity that took a firm stance against the modern scientific understanding of the world had to shed some of their own Christian-ness, thus becoming something new and very, very dangerous, but something certainly not reducible to religion per se. I would like to distinguish this very specific, new thing, from religion in general.

The most malignant currently extant such faiths are the Evangelical movements that developed in the US during the 19th and 20th centuries. This loose collection of Christian sects have indeed long had the seeds of anti-science planted over the course of their history, and, while they have always existed in one form or another, it is their modern incarnations that are most pernicious. Others have concentrated on these communities' supposed ignorance of scientific terminology, difficulty with numbers, exhibition of an authoritarian personality, and other patronising analyses – but I feel these are misguided attempts to understand these movements. If today they seem to have a siege mentality, it is because they are, in a way, under siege – as are the rest of us, mind you. It is just that they have disastrously misunderstood who the enemy is and what is their means of attack. They were further radicalised during the 60s and 70s, when their understanding of the world was shattered by the impact of impersonal, unintelligible historical forces such as the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the development of easy contraception etc. and subsequently gained political power in the US in the 80s, via the Televangelism movement and the Reagan administration, having had an ambivalent relationshipt with the neoliberal shift in politics, though in aggregate they fed and enabled it.

Notice that I asserted that this version of Christianity has shed some of its own Christian-ness. This is not to imply that they renounce some of the core theological tenets of Christianity (though some most certainly do) – but in their effort to become closer to what they view as the “original” church, they have cast aside many of the implements of, say, Catholicism, including its rich traditions of textual commentary, Bible scholarship, extraordinary contributions to and common ground with philosophy, medicine, science. Their interpretation of the sacred texts is accordingly lacking in historical awareness, of metaphor, guile or irony, relying on a very plain, common-sense, textualist interpretation of scripture. It is this resistance to nuance, permeability, metaphor and context, this inflexibility and mooredness to a banale concretitude, more than anything else, what makes this kind of ideology dangerous indeed. It makes good people think in simpler categories than they could, or would be warranted – it takes complexity, beauty, colour and interconnectedness out of the world, and replaces it with a simplified model, a very limited set of conceptual categories, which are then applied to everything. If they do not fit, extreme brute force is applied until either the not-fitting object is gone or has been made invisible, silenced.

In a world as insane as ours, such a mental model can be conforting, conducive to a simpler, happier life. At what cost though? Inner life? Knowledge? Beauty?

Perhaps even more.

While this type of neo-primitivist Christianity is, in fact, to an extent incompatible with modern science, it is perfectly marriable to war and capitalism. It is an essentially consumerist and short-term kind of faith - let us have our daily bread this day, for the world may end tomorrow. Incidentally this is very politically convenient for the powers that be – for all it’s worth, all people I know that fit this description are hard-working, upstanding, family-values types. People you, at the very least, would like to have around at work – perhaps people you could even look up to. But they also tend to be entirely uncritical of power structures, of material conditions not tilted in their favour (for reward lies in the next world, no?), grateful for whatever good comes their way, and entirely conventional and conformist in morals and behavior – the ideal cannon fodder of capital. It should also not pass unobserved that there is some tension here between this reminiscence of the Fordist capitalist subject, and the newer, self-creating, ultra-competitive, amoral, always-on techno-serf of neoliberal capitalism, but this too is somewhat obscured by the fact that the two are usually geographically separated in one form or another – the former tends to be integrated in smaller, familiy-run enterprises in rural or suburban settings, while the latter is associated with the corporation and the big city.

Surely this tension is not reducible to religious background – yet it illustrates once again an aspect of the nature of the disdain for the “coastal elites” the demographic I describe here holds – and hopefully also hints as to why these categories, as well as the “populist” mode of critique are unhelpful.

In one further regard, this type of worldview is also very convenient for the status quo. If the world may end tomorrow, why bother taking care of the planet, or even plan for the long-term at all? In an ideological obfuscation which puts Orwell’s Ministry of Truth to shame, the old, Bogumilist conception of the material world as evil is rehashed in order to provide tacit justification for the destruction of the planet by capital. What does it matter if the Earth burns, by our hand or God’s? The final result will always be violent, apocalyptic upheaval, a reward for the worthy and punishment for the wicked. If we are anyways living in the End Times, might as well make a quick buck before they break the Seventh Seal, right?

I feel the role of this particular religious ideology in our current predicament has often been overlooked or caricatured. It is possible that modern, New Age Western versions of Buddhism are the most optimal long-term religious beliefs for capital, as Zizek asserts – but capital never deals with absolutes (global optimums, for the economically inclined), or with matters of principle. It uses whatever it has at hand, given restrictions (local optimums). At the moment, this religious and ideological mode has proven very useful indeed – and, as hinted above, is spreading worldwide, including in my hometown, where it brings an alternative to an Orthodox Church that offers few satisfactory answers for the modern world. It should, consequently, not be underestimated. The recuperation of the older Christian principles of charity and empathy on the basis of the common grounds of shared humanity, and an acceptance of the philosophical depth of the Western Christian tradition, even if only to engage with it critically, are a must for the future, any shape it might take. It is, after all, only an awareness of history that can serve as a cure to fundamentalist ahistoricism – or the ahistoricism of capital, concerned solely with the next quarter.