Atheists, Christians, and Fact Fundamentalism

In 1910 Harvard Professor Charles Elliot advocated for a new form of Christianity, a Christianity that would have only one commandment, “love of God expressed in service to others.” At the time, most Christians were radically opposed to this expression of the new scholarly and liberal Christianity. Feeling threatened a group of Christians published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals in which they laid out a list of fundamental beliefs required to be a Christian. They listed five beliefs that they then used to define which people were Christian and which were not: 1) Biblical inerrancy, 2) virgin birth of Christ, 3) substitutionary atonement, 4) resurrection of Christ, and 5) the second coming of Christ in glory.

This was the birth of fundamentalism, but in order to understand the social context that gave rise to this movement a fuller understanding of the history of both the religion and philosophy is necessary.

In the 4th century the Christian religion began to be expressed in creeds. As Harvard Professor Harvey Cox succinctly notes the creeds began “replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” As expressed in the fundamentalism of the 1900s all five beliefs are beliefs about Jesus, and though they deal with his birth and death not a single one touches on his life or teachings.

The Enlightenment era moved the West, religious and non-religious alike, towards a scientific view of the universe, a view in which the only truth that counted was a propositional truth. Statements must be either true or false. The law of the excluded middle (A or –A) formed a large part of the basis for the development of philosophical logic. There was a place for metaphor and symbolism, but only in literature and art, not religion.

This in turn gave rise to two main responses by the religious establishment. One is a kind of postmodern religion which emphasizes human spirituality and liberation from religious and political hierarchy. The two most prominent examples today are liberation theology and non-fundamentalist expressions of Pentecostalism in which the spirit truly is privileged over the written word.

The other response is fundamentalism, which grew as a reaction to the moral uncertainty of the scientific view of the universe. Feeling threatened with the loss of a religious context from which to discover meaning fundamentalist fought back by accepting the viewpoint of propositional truth and arguing for certain propositions that they determined to be fundamental to the faith.

The new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, etc.) fought back with fiery rhetoric denouncing the blind belief in propositions that are clearly non-factual. Despite an appearance of intense disagreement with fundamentalists both the new atheists and Christian fundamentalists share a common premise, that the importance of religion is belief in a set of propositional truths.

I would like to suggest that religion at its core is not about belief. Rather, it is about faith, a faith understood not as propositional assent to certain dogmas, but rather as trust, love, and awe at the mysteries of self, other, and universe. Albert Einstein wrote beautifully about the feeling of mystery that I consider to be at the heart of faith:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

Religion at its best is a human community attempting to grasp the ungraspable. It is a community developing a shared understanding through the use of poetry, symbol, myth, art, music and ritual to express that which can never be expressed in scientific prose.

Marcus Borg expressed the task of today’s theologians as follows, “I see my generation of public theologians as helping church people move into a form of Christianity that is non literalistic, non exclusivistic, deeply in touch with tradition, but with a historical [and] metaphorical way of understanding tradition and so forth.”

I inevitably find that whenever I attempt to talk or write about mystery or meaning I use Christian myth and symbol because Christianity is my native religious language. I think it is important to preserve that language while recognizing that it is not the only framework from which to interpret life, but rather one of many. I look forward to learning more about the others through my participation in State of Formation as well as working to refine my understanding of Christianity and move in a direction that avoids the fact fundamentalism that has hampered so much interreligious dialogue. I think we will have much more productive dialogue when we begin to express our religions in terms of stories rather than doctrines.

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8 thoughts on “Atheists, Christians, and Fact Fundamentalism

  1. Thank you for this article, Nate – I enjoyed it very much! I have one small quibble. You say:

    “Despite an appearance of intense disagreement with fundamentalists both the new atheists and Christian fundamentalists share a common premise, that the importance of religion is belief in a set of propositional truths.”

    I think the primary reason why the New Atheists spend significant time countering this conception of religion is that it is the conception of religion which seems to most significantly impact public life. If one investigates those areas in which religion affects the non-religious, it is usually religion in the form of adherence to a set of propositional statements that are most likely false. If this were not the case, I suspect the New Atheists would spend their time elsewhere.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, James.

      I think you are correct that the New Atheists spend their time countering fundamentalism is because of its prominence in public life. However, you write that they are “countering this conception of religion,” but to my understanding they are in fact agreeing with the fundamentalist on the way in which religion is conceived (adherence to propositional truths) and then disagreeing over the truth or falsity of specific claims (e.g. virgin birth, existence of a divinity). My argument is that the true/false or belief/non-belief axis is a misleading way to understand religion.

      I know when Dawkins briefly addresses non-fundamentalist forms of religion he more or less considers it a more benign form of the same disease. Hitchens is far worse, arguing that Bonhoeffer and King acted out of humanism and therefore are not religious figures. As I recall Hitchens argues that King is not Christian because he never threatened anyone with hellfire, and Christianity is inherently violent, so King’s nonviolence must have come from elsewhere.

      If there is extended writing from the New Atheists on non-fundamentalist forms of religion I would be interested in reading it. I know there are humanist that do give a far more balanced hearing to religion, but my point in comparing the New Atheists and fundamentalist Christians was to call out a particular conception of religion and point towards a different way of seeing religion (a way that I think is shared by many of the people on this blog?)

      1. Thanks again, Nate. First, I wonder if the conception of religion as, at least in part, about adherence to certain propositional statements is really coterminous with “fundamentalism”. I know many people who would not come under the heading “fundamentalist”, in my view, but who do see at least part of their religious commitment being adherence to statements like “Christ rose from the dead”, for example. I think pulling apart these two categories is probably helpful, then.

        Perhaps if I wanted to defend the N.A.s further I’d say that your concept of religion (which I think, from my reading of her, is shared by Karen Armstrong, for example) doesn’t seem to be very popular or widespread at the moment. So perhaps we can say that this is what religion has now become, in the main?

  2. Thanks for the post Nate! I love your description of embracing the mystery, of abiding in the ambiguities. Also, when you write, ” I think we will have much more productive dialogue when we begin to express our religions in terms of stories rather than doctrines,” I believe you are onto something great. Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of your personal narrative as you continue to blog. I hope you use it!

  3. Nate, first of all great post, I look forward to reading more! I’m by no means a Religious scholar, so this may be a dumb question, but I was a bit puzzled on what exactly you mean by the term ‘religion’ (and how this might differ from religiousness? I was getting a bit caught up on the two terms). I understand that you are coming at religion from the viewpoint of myth and wonder, but I also wonder whether or not religion (again, do we separate religion from religiousness?) is the wrong word choice…if that makes sense. What I mean is that at some points it seems that the term religion becomes an all encompassing term. For example: myth, awe, poetry, literature, art, music, and ritual all fall under the term. In specific, you talk about a “human community trying to grasp the ungraspable” through art, literature, etc. If this is true then I’m having a bit of trouble grasping what wouldn’t count as religion, save “scientific prose”.
    I guess I’m wondering what exactly you think are the limits of religion? I was always under the impression (and again this might be my naiveté) that religion required more than just wonder, but, in a sense, some sort of belief. I’m just having a bit of trouble imagining religion outside of this context. Maybe you can provide a little assistance?


    1. Josh, you raise some interesting questions, and I can’t do them all justice in this short reply, but I’ll try to at least indicate the direction of my thought.

      re: religion and religiousness, Einstein seems to use the term religiousness to refer to the actual sense experience of awe and wonder. I think it might be akin to what most people would call a spiritual experience.

      I suppose in what I wrote I implied that engaging in art or music is inherently religious because it approaches the mystery. I did not mean to imply that, there are other approaches to the mystery besides just religion. As for a definition of religion, the best one I recall reading is from the anthropologists Clifford Geertz:

      (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz 1985: 4).

      Now, I suppose if we go by that definition what I’m really calling for is our own recognition that religion produces an ‘aura’ of factuality and not factuality itself. I think that one can recognize this from within a religious tradition. My claim is that this system of symbols that helps me to frame reality is a good thing….as long as it’s understood as a system of symbols (including art, music, ritual etc.) and not a doctrine of true beliefs.

      I’m not sure the degree to which these interpretations work, b/c to some degree I am calling for a reinterpretation of religion, and I’m not yet sure what that would look like. It seems to be a lot like a historic and cultural awareness that values art and symbolism combined with a trust that there is something beyond what human beings are capable of perceiving and knowing.

      Just some thoughts…..perhaps I’ll have occasion to put them in a more organized form in a future blog, because your questions get to the heart of something I am trying to figure out.


      1. Hey nate, thanks for the reply. I’m looking forward to further posts on the issue. I think reinventing religion might not be a bad thing, but it sure is a tall order! Good luck!


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