Article of Faith

Carla Axtman

I was raised in an fundamentalist Christian household. My family attended a Baptist church and my father was part of the leadership. We attended services three times a week, frequented church camps and were regular Sunday School attendees.

And to what I'm relatively sure was my parents' chagrin, I was the child among the flock who rarely took things at face value. I was one of those thinkers--a kid who insisted that things had to make sense in my little brain in order to process and accept it. Within the confines of my own Christian world, this turned out to be an uncomfortable way to be. When I was told that we descended from Adam and most definitely NOT apes, I asked about fossilized human remains. When I was told that the earth was roughly 10,000 years old, I questioned how this squared with the science I was learning elsewhere. When our pastor taught us from the pulpit that African Americans descended from one of Noah's sons who was cursed--and therefore it was God's will that they be subservient to other races, I was horrified and questioned how a God who loves his children would ever make such an edict.

In response to my inquiries, I was told that it was impertinent and wrong to question the pastor. His teachings came from the Bible. The Bible says it. You believe it. That settles it.

At first I thought I was just naughty: A bad person who let Satan rule my thoughts. If I could just squeeze him out and let God take over then I could simply be accepting. But my intellectual side was simply too fierce. No matter how many times I was scolded or shamed for questioning what I was told, I couldn't make myself stop. By the time I graduated from high school, I was done trying. Having been made to attend this church until I left home I had gone long past the point of resentment.

Immediately after moving out, I left Christianity behind. If I'm to be honest, I've never looked back. I tried a few times to reacquaint myself with Christian sects more accepting of scientific inquiry and intellectual pursuits, but my teeth were always set on edge. I suspect its my own little bout of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder gone untreated.

This vignette of my childhood may explain a lot of things to you, dear reader. It's an insight into some of my most instinctual personality characteristics. It probably also explains why I can't stop thinking about this:

Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens, The New York Times:

The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. As one fundamentalist slogan puts it, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced.

Like other evangelicals, we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and look to the Bible as our sacred book, though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation. Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.

Sanity! Reason! Humility! These are things I've rarely had occasion to experience among those who self identify with the Christian faith. I'm intrigued.

Fundamentalism appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy; denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change. They have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools; the removal of nativity scenes from public places; the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality; the persistence of pornography and drug abuse; and acceptance of other religions and of atheism.

In response, many evangelicals created what amounts to a “parallel culture,” nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps and colleges, as well as publishing houses, broadcasting networks, music festivals and counseling groups. Among evangelical leaders, Ken Ham, David Barton and James C. Dobson have been particularly effective orchestrators — and beneficiaries — of this subculture.

I'm a first hand witness to the narrowness and petty anger these men engender. I've long felt their acidic presence in the outer recesses of my life. And unfortunately, the "parallel culture" isn't an island. It constantly insists that the rest of us come along for the ride--and it doesn't brook dissent very well.

There are signs of change. Within the evangelical world, tensions have emerged between those who deny secular knowledge, and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith. Almost all evangelical colleges employ faculty members with degrees from major research universities — a conduit for knowledge from the larger world. We find students arriving on campus tired of the culture-war approach to faith in which they were raised, and more interested in promoting social justice than opposing gay marriage.

Scholars like Dr. Collins and Mr. Noll, and publications like Books & Culture, Sojourners and The Christian Century, offer an alternative to the self-anointed leaders. They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution and says next to nothing about gay marriage. They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society.

I sincerely hope this is the case. These men are fighting on the inside, so perhaps they have a more grounded view of what's happening in their faith than I. But the power structure and interests that drive things for the bulk of Christians appears to me to be fully stuck in a place of condescending anti-intellectualism, lauding the doubts they seeded around science and academics.

Here's to a schism that pushes our Christian brethren back to an Age of Reason. I fear our country needs it to happen for our own survival.

Comments

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    I have a number of evangelical friends who are horrified by the current fundamentalism. I suspect these folks greatly outnumber that very vocal fundamentalist group, but as with so many social movements the group that speaks the loudest and is the most aggressive is usually the one that gets all of the attention. These people are bullies and their rhetoric needs to be put into that context - the danger is that we suppress them until they go underground and out of sight because that doesn't necessarily mean they are out of existence.

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        I think Sagan's (and your?)view is a very limited view of religious thought. The Catholic Church today and most mainstream Protestant churches has no problem with science, at least cosmology and evolution. I don't think Buddhists do either. Just because fundamentalists get most of the press doesn't make them most of the population.

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          How could I forget that mainstream Jewish doctrine also has no problem with science.

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            While many mainstream religions don't actively oppose scientific findings, I have yet to hear of a priest homolize "Wow! God set things up so that random mutations in primates would end up with us! Neat!"

            Those that 'accept' scientific worldviews tend to ignore it, while those that actively oppose it are focused upon.

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    Fantastic. Brilliant post and op-ed.

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    I used to cringe at the mention of Jesus myself. That changed once I discovered U2's approach and also an organization called thechristianleft.org

    They are a gateway to the good side of Christianity.

    Bob V

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    For me, there is/was a fundamental disconnect between intellectual development and the idea that one accept, unblinkingly, an ancient interpretation of ancient texts as being a fixed and unalterable view of spirituality and truth. Christ's teachings were groundbreaking, and he was radical -- socially and intellectually; in my view, those who follow Christ should position themselves in a similar way.

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      Furthermore, it's bizarre that so many people who claim to follow those ancient texts unblinkingly actually fail to read those ancient texts - instead listening to religious and political leaders who tell them what's there.

      The Bible does not, for example, say that life begins at conception nor explicitly prohibit abortion.

      And yet, we have millions of Americans who think that it does because some contemporary political or religious leader insists that that's what the Bible says.

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        It's worthy to note that the new testament does not mention homosexuals one, but mentions taking care of your fellow (hu)man, feeding the poor, and ending the rich many, many times.

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    My exposure to religion was brief and around the finges ~ what I came to call "cafeteria Catholic". So, it was not quite the deep involvement or exposure Carla discussed here ~ although I can empathize with questioning teachings and being concerned with some following blindly. My resistance to actively participating is I believe 1)how you live your life is more important than what house you worship in 2)most wars are in the name of organized religion.

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    I liked your article and find most people learn to not like religion, mostly Christianity in the USA, because the way many Christians preach it, and/or live their lives. Unfortunately, history has shown us, that human beings have used religion to get power, to control the masses and to oppress the minority. This is throughout history, from all corners of the earth, and include Constantine, Hitler, and most currently, the Republican Party in the USA and conservatives that have literally decided to infiltrate all levels of public life, to try an rewrite this history of the world, the USA and make the USA a Christian nation. The problem is, to be an "evangelist" you must believe all others need to believe as you do, and those that don't need to be converted, regardless of their religious or science education. Which leads me to the point that, if you are a "conservative" Christian, you cannot be someone who should teach science, nor are you trust worthy as a friend, because behind all your actions, the outcome that trumps all things, is to convert others to your version of Christianity. Sad, irritating and disgusting behavior if you ask me. When it comes to politics, which effect every aspect of a persons everyday life, I believe James Madison, the "Father of the U.S. Constitution", along with many founders of this country, regardless of their religious or non-religious affiliations, knew keeping politics and religion separate not only preserves each, but helps them flourish:

    "The number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church and the State."

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    This vignette of my childhood may explain a lot of things to you, dear reader.

    Yes, I daresay it does. Its self-indulgence is breathtaking.

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      Because you'd never talk publicly about your life or your religion?

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    Not to mention that, as the great Victorian novelist and essayist "George Eliot" (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880) wrote in her courageous essay "Evangelical Teaching," the "televangelists" of her day and ours seldom mention the Gospel stories about Jesus walking the roads of Palestine with the poor, the sick, and the oppressed, saying things to them that upset the hierarcy and got him executed.

    Instead, these preachers prefer shouting about hellfire and brimstone for the unfaithful and the ever-approaching heavenly bliss for the faithful--topics much less threatening to the hierarchies of every historical age, that also turn out to produce the biggest financial contributors. The essay can be found online and is an inspiration.

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      Fundamentalism is more about distinguishing and confronting enemies then it is about the underlying religion. How many passages in the bible deal with homosexuality or abortion vs. charity?

      I think what's new about American fundamentalists is that they aren't just rejecting people or aspects of culture, but wholesale chunks of reality. Long term drought resulting from climate change, economic collapse resulting from laissez faire policies, these realities themselves are now on the enemies list.

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    I can almost remember a Richard Dawkins quote: He (Jesus H. Christ) had himself inserted into the vagina of a Jewish virgin, so that he could be born to be tortured and executed, because he could think of no better way to make amends for the theft of an apple, which was stolen at the behest of a talking snake.

    Well, that IS the story.

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    I believe Dawkins has also said that religious indoctrination is a form of child neglect, in that it trains the mind to be satisfied with non-answers.

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    Obviously Christianity has fundamentalist and anti-intellectual adherents. Most religions do. But Christianity is not synonymous with fundamentalism or anti-intellectualism. As a candidate for a master's degree in theology (interfaith), I can assure you that there are plenty of progressive Christians (as there are progressive Hindus, Muslims, Jews, etc.) who do good work in this world. How would you feel if this post had been dedicated to perpetrating stereotypes about the Islamic or Jewish faiths? I have no problem with taking on fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism, per se. But I was extremely disappointed by the broad-brush prejudices and stereotyping indulged in here.

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      I'm quite sure that Carla didn't imply that Christianity is synonymous with fundamentalism. She shared her experiences and feelings from a perspective many know and can understand.
      Don't take offense when none is being offered.

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        Well, we read this post - and the comments - differently, then. I won't insult you by telling you what to think; as far as I am concerned you are welcome to your opinion. I stand by mine.

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      I'm glad you agree that Carla's post was self-indulgent.

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        And I'm equally pleased you recognize the staggering self righteousness of your response.

        Matthew 7:5, Mr. Kremer -- Learn it; know it; live it.

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        I don't get it Rob. Are you seriously arguing that self indulgence automatically implies that the clear arguments made must be invalid? Or put another way, are you saying that style negates content?

        Sounds more like distraction than argumentation based upon the merits of the article.

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    I want someone to tell me how any approximation of the Jesus story could possibly have really occurred on this planet.

    Even if a person is not a fundamentalist-type of Christian, wouldn't that person still accept that there is some fact in the Jesus story?

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      Stephen, True, the quest for a historical Jesus has gone on for a long time without verifying one. And yes, the first gospel, Mark, normally accepted as the oldest, has no resurrection at the end. But a message like "the meek shall inherit the earth," an insult and threat to the 1% of every era, came from somewhere and has been influential. As you know, Jefferson snipped out all the supernatural stuff from his copy of the gospels and still found a lot of good there. I wonder if that version is available at Amazon.

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    And another thing--I recommend Michelle Goldberg's "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism." This cult is perhaps centered at Oral Roberts U. in Oklahoma, where Michelle Bachmann took her first law degree. They want both god and Caesar. That is, they want a takeover of the US government that would be lethal for non-evangelicals. Some of the seeming gibberish about American history spoken by Bachmann and other repub candidates is code out of this cult. For example, the founding fathers, who were really Christians, "opposed slavery"--because for the cult, everything that has happened since the Constutution--including the amendments past the first 10, has been decline and must be reversed.

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      Why am I not suprised that Bachmann studied at is known to locals as "Six Flags Over Jesus"? That entire university is scary, from their student code to their brainwashing and manipulation of students and followers. Open thought and ideas are not allowed there and woe be unto those who would question the leaders--Oral ("god will kill me if you don't give me money"), Robert ("misuse of funds? What misuse of funds?") and now good ole Billy Joe Daughtery. I'll have to read Goldberg's book, it sounds interesting.

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    Reading the comments, I'm impressed by a lot of the proof of intelligent life there. While simultaneously hoping no one offers free matches to the would-be witch burners.

    I thought Carla expressed the situation accurately and fairly, so I find the attacks to be narrow-minded and rude.

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    Carla, thanks for writing your article on your personal experiences with faith and the Church. While my personal experience as a child was not the same, I certainly have seen enough to validate your experience. There are many Christians who are not fire and brim stone, dogmatic, closed minded, etc. and actually encourage intellectual conversation mixed with theology. A good Church and good leaders will actually encourage a curious mind, someone who is not robotic but actually raises questions. Maybe a person's conclusions won't support a Christian faith, but at least that's an honest conclusion. Alternatively, perhaps the conclusions will support a Christian faith, which leads to an honest faith rather than a forced faith. Regardless, I think it was rather gutsy of you to be publicly honest about this and to raise conversation about the freedom to question. Aren't our freedoms inalienable? And don't Christians believe that they are inalienable because they were given at birth from God? Isn't the ability to question at its essence a very fundamental freedom? Therefore, I believe the ability to question, whether in the Church or our public leaders, is an inalienable right.

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    @Patrick Story: sure, the ethics and morality of the message is great. And I think the message would be even stronger if it weren't based in some insane paranormal story.

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    i was "born again" at age 14, mostly in response to my misery over my parents' divorce & my endless loneliness. in time, i moved on to charismatic evangelicalism, why is quite the fun ride. i started getting into the fundamentalist mindset a bit, but i'm afraid the liberalism my parents (esp my mom) practiced might have been too strong. i never could understand why the gays were so bad; i knew 1, and he was fine.

    by the time i was 24, i had had enough, but you don't just casually walk away from 10 years of intense, self-afflicated religious indoctrination. it took 20+ years to realize my rejection of religion was genuine, was intellectually honest, and sane. i'm ok without any form of god as we humans conceive that ... being(s).

    and the coolest part is that the further i've gone from fundamentalism (including political), the more solidly based i feel myself to be in my life. and the stronger faith i have to live by: faith in being a human being unafraid of life & all it encompasses.

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