April 16, 2007

Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

The role of religion in our politics has been growing steadily and the strongest religious voices have been on the religious right who after decades of shunning politics decided to enter into the fray wholeheartedly in the 1980s. According to fundamentalist Christian leaders like Pat Robertson the problems in the United States are the fault of the mainstream culture. In the minds of many fundamentalists, 9/11 happened because Americans have been too tolerant and too accepting of abortion and homosexuality. They want to stamp out the culture that they see is so dangerous and compel Americans to follow their scripture or to be condemned.

Ironically, one of their biggest fights with the American mainstream society is how difficult it has been to keep their children in the fundamentalist camp when they grow up. Fundamentalists have invested a great deal into trying to make sure their children are not polluted by the sinful world. They’ve created a parallel mass media where they can see and hear only godly programs. They’ve put on huge rallies and concerts providing Christian entertainment and music. And they’ve created a separate press that publishes Christian novels and magazines. Indeed, home-schooling was started largely in response to the “godless” culture which was so seductive to the children of the Christian fundamentalists.

Nevertheless, no matter how hard they have tried to build a haven where alien ideas are not allowed and unquestioning faith rules, many of their children have abandoned their faith. Why is that?

The Christian right believes it is because Satan is too strong, particularly in our godless American culture. And this causes them to be even more adamant that they must control all aspects of life and the government including the school boards, the city councils, the state houses and the federal government.

But is that true? Dr. Bob Altemeyer says no. Bob Altemeyer, a social psychologist and researcher at University of Manitoba, has conducted a large body of research that has studied Christian fundamentalists as a part of his larger research into authoritarian personalities. (Altemeyer’s research was featured in John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience, where John Dean, a life-long conservative and counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate years, sought to discover the roots to the problems afflicting the conservative movement and its dangerous effects on the Republican Party.)

Through his research using surveys of parents and children of fundamentalist households, Bob Altemeyer found that fundamentalist families have a particularly poor track record in passing their beliefs down to their descendents. He found that the children are vulnerable in three areas (pdf, pages 130-131).

“Christian fundamentalism has three great enemies in the struggle to retain its children, judging by the stories its apostates tell: weaknesses in its own teachings, science, and hypocrisy.”

For the first problem: when the Bible is actually read, the actual text causes problems for the discerning reader. “The Bible was, they said, too often inconsistent, petty, boring, appalling, self-serving, or unbelievable.” Altemeyer found that although many fundamentalist Christians profess allegiance to an inerrant Bible, very few have actually read it completely for themselves and some who do find the inconsistencies too great.

For the second problem: for some, science makes too much sense and where the Bible was out of step with science, for people who find the logic of science compelling, the decree from the pulpit to ignore and disbelieve science is too much.

“Science made too much sense and had pushed traditional beliefs into a tight corner. When their church insisted that its version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, the sundry miracles and so on had to be taken on faith, the fledgling apostates eventually found that preposterous. Faith for them was not a virtue, although they could see why their religion taught people it was. It meant surrendering rationality. From its earliest days fundamentalism has drawn a line in the sand over scripture versus science, and some of its young people eventually felt they had to step over the line, and then they kept right on going.”

And finally in regards to the third problem, for some, what they learned from their families and from the pulpit was how valuable integrity and truthfulness was in defining one’s character. And the implacable demand that one submit their belief and their reason to something they found irrational became too much. Here’s how Altemeyer described the problem:

“Their families will say it was Satan. But we thought, after interviewing dozens of “amazing apostates,” that (most ironically) their religious training had made them leave. Their church had told them it was God’s true religion. That’s what made it so right, so much better than all the others. It had the truth, it spoke the truth, it was The Truth. But that emphasis can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se, especially among highly intelligent youth who have been rewarded all their lives for getting “the right answer.” So if the religion itself begins making less and less sense, it fails by the very criterion that it set up to show its superiority.

Similarly, pretending to believe the unbelievable violated the integrity that had brought praise to the amazing apostates as children. Their consciences, thoroughly developed by their upbringing, made it hard for them to bear false witness. So again they were essentially trapped by their religious training. It had worked too well for them to stay in the home religion, given the problems they saw with it.”

Is Altemeyer correct? Anecdotal evidence says yes. One of the more thoughtful bloggers writing about ethics and morality on the web is Fred Clark, the proprietor of Slacktivist. Fred is a gifted writer who is deeply engaged as an evangelical Christian in discussing what it means to live as a true Christian. Recently he wrote about what caused him to reject the teachings of his family’s faith where homosexuality and evolution were condemned.

“In the footnote to the previous post, I mentioned an epiphany of sorts that occurred when I was confronted with the disparity between the "trap street" [Ed: an imaginary street shown on the map to detect copyright violation] shown on my county road atlas and the actual terrain of the actual county. The analogy is not precisely perfect, but that disparity between the map and the terrain somewhat paralleled the disparities I was also encountering between the text of scripture and the actual world around me.

So there I was, at the end of what was, undeniably, a dead end street, consulting a map that claimed otherwise. It was something of a Groucho moment: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?" I sided with my own two eyes, thus accepting the principle that reason and experience were essential considerations for evaluating the meaning and application of the text. In a sense, I was fumbling my way toward something like Wesley's "four-legged stool."

No one was claiming, of course, that my county road atlas ought to be read as the inerrant, infallible and authoritative Word of God, so my fundamentalist teachers would not have disagreed with my choosing, in this case, to regard my own experience of the terrain as worthy of consideration.

Nor did they deny that I would encounter similar disparities when consulting the "map" of scripture. In that case, however, they taught that I must always side with the map. That is what it means to be a fundamentalist.

Thus, to cite one of the more infamous examples, we were taught that evolution was a lie. The map, the Bible, said that the world was only 6,000 years old, and if that's what the map says, then this must trump any claims of "science" or any other observation about so-called reality. If reality and the map conflict, then we must reinterpret reality to conform to the map.”

Fundamentalism has gained enormous power in our country today. Yet, fundamentalism continues to have a hard row to hoe in gaining a majority in the United States without a severe disruption occurring. Altemeyer’s observation that fundamentalism has some inherent flaws that will keep it from becoming the overwhelming worldview is reassuring. Because we are now seeing how far the Christian Right will go to create a world walled off from alien (liberal and scientific) thoughts. What Altemeyer’s research tells us is that despite the attempt to create a fundamentalist haven where no dissenting thoughts are allowed, there is still a reservoir of common sense that will resist the pressure to reject reality. Nevertheless, we need to find ways to make it easier for people to resist the lure of fundamentalism which paints a picture of black and white, the rejection of rationality and promises an end that satisfies the apocalyptic dreams of those who are targets for enrollment into the fundamentalist fantasy.

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the March 2007 issue.]

Posted by Mary at April 16, 2007 06:29 AM | Religion | TrackBack(2) | Technorati links |