Yesterday as I was driving around town, I listened to parts of a CBC Radio interview with outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins who was in Canada promoting his new book. Based on what I heard, it was fairly predictable fare—Dawkins delighting in cataloging and heaping scorn upon the exploits of fundamentalist young earth creationists, the program host knowingly mm-hmming and piling on the ridicule. Nothing demonstrates one’s intellectual and moral superiority more ably than making fun of the ignorance and dogmatism of fundamentalists, after all.
Indeed, fundamentalist-bashing seems to be the one area where those most postmodern of virtues—tolerance, respect, mutual dialogue, etc—no longer apply. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, and pretty much every other kind) are stupid and dangerous and fully deserving of whatever scorn and intolerance we can direct their way. However eager (desperate?) we are to show how tolerant and enlightened we are in embracing whatever exotic views from whatever exotic places we can discover, “fundamentalist” land is one place where we can still safely be as intolerant and demeaning as we want.
Now, I’m certainly no fan of most expressions of Christian fundamentalism. I’m not a young earth creationist, I’m not a biblical inerrantist (at least according to most definitions of the term), and I’m probably a little left of centre politically. I have no desire whatsoever to be included in the “fundamentalist” category and take almost every opportunity I can to distance myself from the people Dawkins has such fun lampooning.
But part of me retains some affinity for those slapped (fairly or unfairly) with the “fundamentalist” tag. I understand why they go to the wall for the issues they do, even if I don’t share their conclusions. I understand their desire for something certain and solid in a world where so many things often seem ambiguous and unreliable, even if I don’t, finally, believe that the certainty they seek on the big questions of life is available to us, religious or not. I understand why a liberal Jesus seems impotent and unreliable to them, even if I think the Jesus they serve up as a substitute bears little resemblance to the one I see in the gospels. “Fundamentalists” are not some kind of alien species, with a completely different set of hopes, fears, concerns, and questions as “reasonable” people.
At any rate, somewhere around the time I was listening to Richard Dawkins and his breathlessly agreeable interlocutor wax on about the obvious naïve stupidity of belief in miracles and the comparative respectability of more “liberal” forms of religion, my thoughts returned to a book review by Ross Douthat from last Thursday’s New York Times. Douthat suggests that as much fun and as intellectually respectable it is to be liberal, there is an essentially “parasitic” component to liberal religion:
This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettantism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims—that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.
Of course there are still questions. Do literal claims trump other ones simply by virtue of preceding them historically? Can beliefs evolve? Can truth be something that is somehow cumulative? I don’t think (and I don’t think Douthat thinks) that the dogmatic forms of faith that sustain more liberal ones are true simply by virtue of performing this role.
But I also think that there are stranger things in our world than can be conceived of or granted by folks like Richard Dawkins or those who wish to preserve a bit of religious window dressing for their essentially secular worldviews. Our deepest hopes as human beings seem to depend on the fact that strange and “scandalously literal” things are possible—that what is reasonable, demonstrable, predictable, and ordinary is precisely what needs to be transcended, overcome, and healed. Whatever else “fundamentalists” may be wrong about, they seem at least to realize this much.