The Slippery Slight of “Fundamentalist”

The thing to do in an attempt to slight Christian beliefs is to call someone a “fundamentalist”. That term seems to have lost any meaningful definition and has become more of an insult than an accurate or even applicable adjective. What does the term even mean?

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines fundamentalism as,

[a] type of militantly conservative religious movement characterized by the advocacy of strict conformity to sacred texts.

Even then you have to define what ones means by “conformity to religious texts“. In the context in which it arose, in early 20th century American Protestantism, the article continues, saying,

[…]Christian fundamentalists vigorously opposed theological modernism, which, as the “higher criticism” of the Bible, involved the attempt to reconcile traditional Christian beliefs with modern science and historiography.

I think that there’s a certain amount of historical naïveté, while it is somewhat accurate, in that representation because historically fundamentalism is about taking the Bible seriously in what it says. The “higher criticism” that fundamentalism was responding to was simply an attempt by unbelieving scholarship to dismiss that anything that the Bible said was true. An online copy of The Fundementals: A Testimony to the Truth which describes historical fundamentalism can be found here.

The article continues,

Associated with this idea was the view that the Bible should be read literally whenever possible and that believers should lead their lives according to the moral precepts it contains, especially the Ten Commandments.

Well, yes. And then the article goes on to identify the most severe problem with the kind of fundamentalism had,

A basic theme of Christian fundamentalism, especially in its early years, was the doctrine of separation: real Christians must remain separate from the impure and corrupt world of those who have not been born again.

Yep. That was the problem, because it violates Scripture, specifically Paul’s warning to the church at Corinth, where he writes

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. (1 Corinthians 5:9-10, ESV)

I think that such an attitude of detachment can rightly be attributed to the rise of dispensationalism and Arminianism and the decline of Reformed postmillennialism that had driven Christians for centuries to spread the gospel. I believe that such an assertion can be demonstrated historically, and the Britannica article insinuates it, but I don’t really have the time in this post, but Paul’s point was that he was differentiating from those who claimed to be Christians and those who actually weren’t and how believers were to respond.

So what is the point of this post? Two articles really, one reporting on a study dealing with fundamentalism and brain damage and another an essay on ones experience growing up in fundamentalist communities.

The first article titled, Study Finds Link Between Brain Damage and Religious Fundamentalism, begins,

A new study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex.

Now, that may sound concerning, but the study, which lies behind a paywall, may not necessarily be as cut and dried as it sounds. The abstract begins,

Beliefs profoundly affect people’s lives, but their cognitive and neural pathways are poorly understood. Although previous research has identified the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as critical to representing religious beliefs, the means by which vmPFC enables religious belief is uncertain.

Okay, so there’s a certain part of the human brain that seems particularly linked to religious beliefs, but how it works isn’t clear. The authors continue,

We hypothesized that the vmPFC represents diverse religious beliefs and that a vmPFC lesion would be associated with religious fundamentalism, or the narrowing of religious beliefs. To test this prediction, we assessed religious adherence with a widely-used religious fundamentalism scale in a large sample of 119 patients with penetrating traumatic brain injury (pTBI).

The authors hypothesized that damage to this area of the brain would affect religious beliefs making them more static and to test it, measured religious beliefs of 119 patients. Now, I have an immediate question that comes to my mind in such a situation, namely, what were their beliefs like before the injury? Are they arguing  that the beliefs post event are more entrenched or that the beliefs have less nuance? The problem with the language is evident. But they continue,

[We] predicted that pTBI patients with lesions to the vmPFC would exhibit greater fundamentalism, and that this would be modulated by cognitive flexibility and trait openness. Instead, we found that participants with dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) lesions have fundamentalist beliefs similar to patients with vmPFC lesions and that the effect of a dlPFC lesion on fundamentalism was significantly mediated by decreased cognitive flexibility and openness.

So, what they discovered was that those with the particular injury that they were studying has similar beliefs to those who had injuries to a different part of the brain and both are affected by the openness of the individual to new experiences. Going back to the article that references the study, the author writes, after adding more details on the study (119 Vietnam-era injured vets to 32 healthy vets, a comparison that is itself bothersome),

These findings are important because they suggest that impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex—whether from brain trauma, a psychological disorder, a drug or alcohol addiction, or simply a particular genetic profile—can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism. And perhaps in other cases, extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that hinders cognitive flexibility and openness.

Um, any damage to the brain can impair its functioning. I’d love to see a similar study on brain damage and atheism, but there’s something that seems to be ignored by the study and the author, who is tacitly implying that there’s something wrong here, namely by his characterization of “religious fundamentalism”, which he describes as,

[…]an ideology that emphasizes traditional religious texts and rituals and discourages progressive thinking about religion and social issues.

Sounds like the author of the article is a fundamentalist too. Rather than actually presenting an argument that can be analyzed, he just dismisses what the opposition believes, thereby doing exactly what he is accusing the other side of doing, by trying to attribute it to “brain damage”. Genetic fallacy? Ad hominem? You decide.

The second article titled An Insider’s View: The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America, the author writes,

As the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump is being sorted out, a common theme keeps cropping up from all sides: “Democrats failed to understand white, working-class, fly-over America.”

I would say that they misunderstood a lot given the demographics of the 2016 election compared to previous elections is that it just wasn’t “white, working class, fly-over America,” they didn’t get. The author continues,

It doesn’t matter how many people say it, it is complete BS. It is an intellectual/linguistic sleight of hand meant to draw attention away from the real problem. The real problem isn’t East Coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is that rural Americans don’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out.

I would agree with that statement somewhat because there are a number of factors that contributed to the decline of “fly-over” country, some of which there is a measure of blindness to, but that doesn’t change the facts that both political parties have made certain assumptions over the years and one in particular overplayed its hand in the election. The author writes,

I have watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure to a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes and a broken-down infrastructure over the past 30 years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves or the reasons for their anger and frustration.

We’ll see if he actually understands what the problem is as he continues,

In deep-red America, the white Christian god is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism has shaped most of their belief systems. Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, or change. When you have a belief system built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power.

I think that it needs to be pointed out that all belief systems are shaped by religious fundamentalism of one kind or another. To say that fundamentalism is the problem ignores ones own fundamental beliefs and assumptions. But he goes on,

The problem isn’t that coastal elites don’t understand rural Americans. The problem is that rural America doesn’t understand itself and will never listen to anyone outside its bubble. It doesn’t matter how “understanding” you are, how well you listen, what language you use…if you are viewed as an outsider, your views will be automatically discounted. (Emphasis original)

Notice that he’s doing exactly what he is accusing the fundamentalists he’s blasting of doing. He’s discounting what they view automatically. He sees them as outsiders and doesn’t seem to be listening to them.

Pot, kettle on line 3.

The heart of his argument is buried deep down in the article in a typical misrepresentation,

When a 2,700-year-old book that was written by uneducated, pre-scientific people, subject to translation innumerable times, and edited with political and economic pressures from popes and kings, is given higher intellectual authority than facts arrived at from a rigorous, self-critical, constantly re-evaluating system that can and does correct mistakes, no amount of understanding, respect or evidence is going to change their minds and assuage their fears.

First, his own bigotry against those whose worldview informed every thing that we know and have today: if they aren’t like him, their insights and opinions don’t matter. Second, his ignorance of the origin and transmission of the text that informs the worldview of those he is attempting to criticize. Third, his false assumptions about his own worldview.

The author demonstrates that he hasn’t moved away from fundamentalism he’s just changed what he’s a fundamentalist about. He’s just as uncritical in his thinking as those he’s lambasting. And I think that it deserves to be pointed out that his “intellectual authority” is worthy of questioning.

Keep thinking critically.


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