A Critique of Fundamentalism (2000)
Steven J. Conifer
[The following essay was delivered before the spring 2000 meeting of the West Virginia Philosophical Society, held April 7-8 at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.]
I shall herein assess fundamentalism, namely, that of the Christian variety. The New Standard Encyclopedia defines the term as follows: "In United States Protestantism, a conservative movement opposing modernism in the churches. The movement, beginning around 1910, opposed liberal attempts to reconcile the teachings of Christianity with the findings of science, especially evolution." The so-called "conservatives" insisted on five fundamentals (from which the movement derived its name):
I should like to focus chiefly on the first of these tenets, and shall do so largely by means of evaluating the first and fifth chapters of Henry M. Morris's and Martin E. Clark's The Bible Has the Answer (hereafter abbreviated BHA), entitled "The Word of God" and "The Way of Salvation," respectively:
II. Chapter 1 of BHA: "The Word of God"
In the opening paragraph of BHA's chapter 1, the authors (both fundamentalists) put forth the assertion that most people concur with the "popular delusion" that the Bible is replete with falsehoods and that it is no longer of consequence to our lives. That assertion, of course, presupposes that the Bible does not, in fact, contain numerous such errors. However, contrary to the authors' repeated denials, that is plainly false. Indeed, the Bible contains not only an abundance of factual misstatements but also a myriad of contradictions, historical errors, and what might be referred to as "ethical defects" (e.g., God is described in many parts of the Bible as a rather choleric being who often commits what most would deem unjustifiable homicide, such as his decimating a multitude of children in the Great Flood, in Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the ten plagues on Egypt). As Douglas Krueger writes:
The [God] of the Bible measures up to the level of a petty and vicious tyrant. The [God] of the Bible punishes babies for the sins of their parents (Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Numbers 14:18; 2 Samuel 12:13-19); punishes people by causing them to become cannibals and eat their children (2 Kings 6:24-33, Lamentations 4:10-11); gives people bad laws, even requiring the sacrifice of their firstborn babies, so that they can be filled with horror and know that [God] is their [Lord] (Ezekiel 20:25-26); causes people to believe lies so that he can send them to hell (2 Thessalonians 2:11), and many other atrocities... It would not be hard to measure up to, and exceed, that level of moral purity. Atheists surpass it every day.
Examples of the kinds of scriptural blunders aforementioned are voluminous, appearing in various segments of the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) and often quite glaring. For instance, at several different points in the Old Testament (1 Chron. 16:30; Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5), the contention is made that the earth remains stationary, which is obviously incorrect. Another prominent mistake contained in the Bible, this one inferable from certain passages (namely, Gen. 1, 5, 11 and Luke 3:23-38) when studied in conjunction with one another, is its grossly inaccurate estimation of the earth's age (i.e., roughly 6,000 years). Geologists have furnished us with what most would view as conclusive evidence that the earth is, in reality, around 4.6 billion years old, and the evidence that it is at least considerably older than the Bible suggests is virtually irrefutable. Yet another significant factual mistake can be found in Gen. 1:21-25, 31, according to which only one day elapsed between the emergence of fish on earth and the inception of mammals, while the fact of the matter is that over 250 million years separated those events. These are but a few of the more conspicuous scriptural errors, but these alone, I believe, suffice to refute the authors' implicit claim that the Bible contains nary an inaccuracy.
The authors then go on to argue that if "the forty or so men who wrote the Scriptures were wrong in [their claims that they were transmitting the infallible and authoritative Word of God], then they must have been lying, or insane, or both." This suggestion strikes me as thoroughly misguided. Could it not simply have been that said men were mistaken in most or all of their beliefs, or that perhaps they were merely exaggerating what they perceived to be the truth in order to more forcefully present their message? Surely it is possible that while those writers honestly believed Jesus to be the Messiah, they also believed that in order to ensure that their work would reach a wide audience and create a lasting impression on those who read it, it would substantially benefit their efforts to embellish many of the incidents described in their collaborative account of his life and teachings. Perhaps they also believed that if they claimed their narratives to be divinely inspired, then likely they would attract more followers than they would otherwise, which is certainly a plausible supposition. In any case, it seems quite clear that the possible explanations for why the writers in question made such an incredible claim (and did so, according to Morris and Clark, in excess of 3,000 times) are many and varied. The notion that those which the authors proffer are exhaustive is simply ridiculous.
The authors next propose that hundreds of biblical prophecies have been fulfilled since the time of the Scriptures' writing, but, curiously enough, they cite only two examples of such prophecies, both of which are closely associated with one another: "Daniel the prophet predicted in about 538 B.C. (Dan. 9:24-27) that Christ would come as Israel's promised Savior and Prince 483 years after the Persian emperor would give the Jews authority to rebuild Jerusalem, which was then in ruins. This was clearly and definitely fulfilled, hundreds of years later. Another group of prophecies (Ezekiel 37:22; Isaiah 11:11; Luke 21:24, and many others) predict the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel as a true nation in the latter days. For almost 1,500 years this seemed utterly impossible, and yet we have now seen it fulfilled in our own generation!"
However, the truth of the matter is that there is nothing remarkable whatever about these alleged prophecies. In fact, the momentous return to which Ezekiel is here referring is almost assuredly that of the Jews from their captivity, which occurred in 537 B.C.E., but a single year after that in which the authors claim the book of Ezekiel was composed. That book was most likely written during the exile, and Ezekiel could have easily been in possession of ample and reliable evidence that it would end in the near future (i.e., within a year or so). It is also of significance that other parts of the prophecy in question were not fulfilled, e.g., that the Jews returning from captivity would strictly follow God's laws and that they would forever onward reside in their restored homeland. In fact, neither of these things ever happened. As for the alleged prophecy contained in Isaiah 11:11, it is very probable that Isaiah is here actually referring to what was, at the time the passage was written, a future return from the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and that the first "redemption" was really the Exodus from Egypt, which transpired hundreds of years earlier.
The authors next state that there are "extensive prophecies dealing with individual nations and cities and with the course of history in general, all of which have been literally fulfilled," but they fail to cite even a single example of these. They contend that over 300 prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus himself at his first coming, but again they neglect to specify where and what exactly those prophecies might be. Even more nebulous and unsupported is their assertion that there is "no other book" like the Bible, and that other books, such as the Koran and the Confucian Analects, are not even "in the same category" as the Bible, a contention with which I imagine most Muslims and many Eastern religious scholars would beg to differ.
In the ensuing paragraph, the authors, again insisting upon the historical accuracy of the Scriptures, discuss supposed "archeological confirmations of the Biblical record," calling them "innumerable" in the last century alone. They then mention a Dr. Nelson Glueck, whom they regard as the greatest modern authority on Israeli archeology, and whom they quote as having once remarked: "No archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference." As I indicated earlier, such a statement is simply false. Numerous factual errors in the Bible, many of an archaeological nature, can be cited to refute Dr. Glueck's claim (e.g., according to Gen. 1:29-30; Rom. 5:12, 14, 17; and 1 Cor. 15:21, there were no carnivores prior to the Fall, but it is a scientific fact that carnivores have existed for hundreds of millions of years, as undeniably borne out by certain fossils discovered by archaeologists). Judith Hayes, in her book In God We Trust: But Which One?, humorously queries on the subject, "The biblical account of Noah's Ark and the Flood is perhaps the most implausible story for fundamentalists to defend. Where, for example, while loading his ark, did Noah find penguins and polar bears in Palestine?"
Some of the most egregiously unfounded claims made by the authors in BHA's first chapter can be found in the following paragraph: "Another striking evidence of divine inspiration is found in the fact that many of the principles of modern science were recorded as facts of nature in the Bible long before scientists confirmed them experimentally." In an attempt to verify this, they offer several examples, including the following: Isaiah 40:22, which they claim establishes the roundness of the earth; Isaiah 55:9, which supposedly tells of the "almost infinite extent of the sidereal universe"; II Peter 3:7, which they contend describes the law of conservation of mass and energy; and Hebrews 1:3, which they say points to the equivalence of matter and energy.
A mere glance at each of these passages (along with the others they cite) reveals that in every instance the astonishing knowledge with which, claim the authors, these biblical writers were miraculously endowed turns out to be nothing of the sort. Not only is this putative knowledge far from astonishing, but in most of the above cases the relationship between the relevant biblical descriptions and the facts of modern science is so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. That is, it seems quite apparent that the authors, and all those who concur with their conclusions, have rather flagrantly misconstrued these parts of the Bible, presumably interpreting them in such a way as to reconcile them with what they fervently wish to be true. The fact is, however, invariably the authors refer to nothing more than metaphors, figures of speech, poetic depictions, and flat-out speculations on the part of the biblical writers. Admittedly, when viewed in a radically distorted light, the given passages could be inflated into something of far greater significance than what they actually constitute, but that hardly demonstrates "divine inspiration." And so inflating them is quite obviously just what the authors have (perhaps unwittingly) done.
For instance, in the case of Isaiah 40:22, what actually appears in the Bible is this: "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in." Whether or not Morris and Clark are aware of it, a circle is in no way equivalent to a sphere: a sphere is a three-dimensional object, whereas a circle is a two-dimensional shape. It was to the latter, of course, that ancient humans believed the earth to be analogous. That is, they thought it a flat, circular slice of land over the edges of which flowed the seas and over which, in the "Heaven of Heavens," resided the Creator of the world. Furthermore, it seems quite likely that Isaiah is here actually referring to the ancient Hebrew concept of the universe, of which his "canopy" simile seems denotative. It was that concept, in fact, which envisioned the firmament as being comparable to a vast dome, the heighest point of which (at the end of the so-called "Gate of Heaven") was occupied by God, far above the clouds and stars.
As regards Isaiah 55:9, II Peter 3:7, and Hebrews 1:3, similar types of arguments can be presented. In the first of these verses, it is considerably difficult to even ascertain just what it is, exactly, to which the authors are referring. All that is stated there is that the heavens are higher than the earth and that God's ways are higher than those of man. How, precisely, does that relate to the "almost infinite extent of the sidereal universe"? In the case of II Peter 3:7, the inference drawn by the authors is even more ambiguous. The passage in question states, quite simply, that the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the "day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." The average reader, I imagine, would gather that this is merely one of the many commonly cited biblical warnings of impending doom and disaster, which supposedly await humanity at some unspecified point in the future (i.e., whenever Jesus returns to earth and God renders his "final verdict" concerning the fate of humankind). How this in any way whatever, even subtly, refers to the law of conservation of mass and energy wholly eludes me. Lastly, with respect to Hebrews 1:3, the authors again seem to have taken the liberty of interpreting the passage in the way which pleases them most and best conforms to their beliefs regarding the infallibility of the Bible. I, for one, seem able to find only an allusion to Jesus as being the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, which I believe most would view as a metaphor likely employed so as to convey the idea of Jesus manifesting in human form God's boundless love for his creatures, as well as the incoherent notion that Jesus, while in one sense separate and distinct from God, is somehow a precise (although truly human) replica of the latter.
In light of these fascinating discoveries, it now seems clear why the authors felt compelled to qualify their exceptional claims by reminding their readers that the supposedly astonishing biblical descriptions of the universe "are not stated in the technical jargon of modern science." Of course they're not, since the fact of the matter is that they actually have nothing to do with modern science!
Subsequent to their oblique reference to the "remarkable structural and mathematical patterns" which they claim appear in the Bible but never go on to sufficiently explain, the authors repeat their earlier statement that the Bible is unique and unparalleled and that it is the "all-time bestseller," appealing to people all over the world and in every culture and class to which it is introduced. Oddly enough, they fail to mention that while that may very well be true, it is also a fact that billions of people across the globe outright reject the Bible, professing either no religious views whatever or else ones of a non-Christian ilk. So, if the authors mean to suggest here that the Bible has been more or less universally accepted, then they are simply wrong.
In response to the second question in chapter 1 ("In what sense and to what extent is the Bible the inspired Work of God?"), Morris and Clark again remind their readers that the men who wrote the Bible claimed repeatedly that their writings were divinely inspired. The authors point out that in the so-called prophetic books (e.g., Isaiah and Jeremiah), statements to that effect appear more than 1,300 times, and all told, there are over 2,600 such direct claims of inspiration found in the Old Testament. In reference to the inerrancy and sanctity of the Bible, remark the authors, Jesus himself said that "the Scriptures cannot be broken" (John 10:35).
What strikes me as being of paramount importance here is the authors' claim that Jesus accepted the Genesis account of creation. Since the Bible declares that the earth itself has existed for only 6,000 years, and since there is abundant scientific evidence that humans have existed for far longer than that, that account is obviously false. Thus, according to the authors, Jesus himself (reputedly the offspring of an omniscient and infallible deity) embraced a falsehood. And certainly it would seem that if the very individual to whose life and teachings the entire New Testament is devoted was mistaken about such a crucial doctrine, then one could reasonably doubt the reliability of the Bible as a whole.
After referring to Jesus as having said, "Til heaven and earth pass, not one jot (the smallest Hebrew letter) or tittle (the tail that distinguishes one Hebrew letter from another) shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18), the authors go on to assert that "those modern-day preachers and professors of religion who seem to take delight in finding supposed mistakes in the Bible are thus, in effect, calling God a liar!"
Two points should be made here. First, as regards the fulfillment of the Scriptures, there are just many unfulfilled biblical prophecies as there are alleged fulfilled ones (e.g., according to Gen. 2:17, Adam will perish on the very day that he eats the fruit, but, according to Gen. 5:5, Adam lived for almost an entire millennium; and according to Isa. 29:17, Lebanon will become a fruitful land, but clearly that has not happened). Second, in asserting that all those who call attention to such biblical mistakes and inconsistencies are, essentially, "calling God a liar," the authors ostensibly fail to realize that in order for God to be a liar, he must exist, and it is quite often in an attempt to disprove or question his existence that the people of whom Morris and Clark so disdainfully speak cite errors of the given sort.
The fourth question in chapter 1 is "How can a person know how to interpret the Bible?" As one might expect, the authors hold that the Bible was intended by its writers (and is intended by God himself) to be interpreted literally, claiming that it should be "read like any other book of information and instruction." One can reasonably speculate that the authors would have people peruse the Bible as if it were a science textbook, accepting everything they read at face value, entertaining nary a doubt as to its credibility. If the Bible says that fruit trees were created before the sun (Gen. 1:11-19), so the authors would doubtless argue, then one must believe that, irrespective of the fact that it is simply impossible for such plants to survive for even a minute in the absence of sunlight. (In addition to the example of the fruit trees, the Bible [Gen. 1:20-25] has birds existing before reptiles, a sequence which science has amply shown to be incorrect; and according to Gen. 1:21-24, whales were in existence before "creeping things" [i.e., insects and reptiles], but science has likewise proven that fallacious.) Although Morris and Clark concede that, like many other literary works, the Bible contains a plenitude of parables, allegories, and symbolic language, they insist that in those instances in which the biblical writers make use of such devices, that they are doing so is perfectly clear, leaving no room for doubt or confusion.
The difficulty with this assertion is grave. Assuming that the Bible's use of the literary devices at issue is indeed easily discernible, in order for one to interpret the Bible as the authors would have him (i.e., literally), he must be willing to reject numerous biological, geological, astronomical, and various other sorts of scientific facts, as so much of the Bible is diametrically at variance with well-established empirical data. Incidentally, a certain kind of atheological argument could be formulated with that conflict as its basis. We might call it "the Argument from Biblical Errancy for the Nonexistence of the God of Christian Fundamentalism," or ABE for short. ABE could be constructed syllogistically, as follows:
I take this to be a sound (conclusive) proof. Premise (1) is well supported by fundamentalists' own contention that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God and thus could not possibly be in any way in error. Premise (2) is surely correct, as is illustrated by the prodigious number of biblical inconsistencies and errors supplied above. Therefore, as both premises are true and the conclusion follows logically therefrom, the argument must be sound.
III. Chapter 5 of BHA: "The Way of Salvation"
Moving on to chapter 5 of The Bible Has the Answer ("The Way of Salvation"), I should like now to briefly explore the issue of salvation and some of the more flagrant biblical contradictions regarding it. (Although the term "salvation" might be taken in various ways, I shall herein construe it, as nearly all fundamentalists do, to mean simply being "saved" by Jesus and provided with a blissful afterlife following physical death.) Perhaps the four most notable examples of such contradictions are these: according to Isa. 33:14, Matt. 13:40-42, and Rev. 14:10-11, unsaved sinners are eternally tormented, whereas according to Ezek. 18:4, Matt. 7:13, and Luke 13:3,5 they are not; John 12:32, Rom. 5:18, and 1Tim. 2:4,6 imply that everyone will get saved, while Matt. 7:13-14 and Luke 13:23-24 suggest the opposite; although Isa. 46:9-11, Jer. 10:23, and John 6:44,65 indicate that salvation is totally predestined by God, Matt. 25:34-40, Luke 10:25-37, and John 5:28-29 intimate that it is not; and finally, John 3:36 states that one who believes in God's son but who has never repented will be saved, whereas Luke 13:3 suggests that repentance is mandatory for salvation. (I should hasten to add that for each of the passages cited here, multiple others could be provided so as to support the claim that the "Good Book" is virtually bursting at the seams with contradictions of the given sort.)
Moreover, as Theodore Drange has observed, "The Bible not only contradicts itself on the topic of salvation, but it may do so in as many as four different ways." (Original italics) Those ways, two of which pertain directly to the last pair of contradictions just mentioned, may be summarized as follows: (a) what it is that people are saved from; (b) whether or not everyone will eventually be saved; (c) whether or not salvation is completely predestined by God (as opposed to being in some way or another contingent upon what people do and/or believe during their earthly lives; and (d) what condition(s) one must satisfy in order to be saved.
According to Morris and Clark, "Personal faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the victorious Savior from sin and death is the means by which salvation is received." Well, what, exactly, constitutes this "faith," and, more specifically, what, precisely, qualifies as sufficient faith (i.e., the precise amount, depth, or degree of faith which is required for salvation)? Is one merely to profess this faith in the presence of his congregation or peers and thereby be saved? No, say the authors: one must sincerely believe in his heart that Jesus (and Jesus alone) is his Lord and Savior. If he is to be spared from everlasting torture, he must, as Morris and Clark put it, "trust completely" in, and "rely fully" upon, Jesus. Also, add the authors in a later section, he must believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that he is both able and willing to save him; obey his will (whatever that might be) at all times; adhere as strictly as possible to all of his laws (presumably the Ten Commandments and all the moral teachings contained in the Bible); and generally entrust to him both his earthly existence and whatever awaits him in the hereafter (become, literally, his "bond-slave").
Within the framework constructed by Morris and Clark, let us now examine these claims more closely. One obvious criticism is that, according to their definition of sufficient faith, not only are those who adhere to a religion other than Christianity (or, still worse, adhere to no religion at all) destined to burn forever in the fiery depths of hell, but even those who claim to be Christians, yet fail to meet each of the requirements put forth above, shall be cast into the insufferable flames of Hades. Needless to say, this view seems awfully harsh, and it hardly reflects the belief held by most Christians that if one is simply a "good person," then salvation shall be his. Are we really to believe that even decent, upstanding, church-going Christians (along with all those who subscribe either to a faith other than Christianity or to no faith at all, many of whom are never even introduced to the Bible or Jesus' teachings) who don't "rely fully" upon Jesus as their Lord and Savior shall be damned to hell for eternity? What if one relies almost fully (so close to "fully," in fact, that he is right on the border of possessing such a reliance) upon Jesus, and similarly trusts Jesus almost completely? Is he, too, strolling obliviously down that broad road which leads directly to the "everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 24:41; Rev. 20:10)? And what about the man who does rely fully upon (and trust completely in) Jesus for all of his childhood, adolescence, and the preponderance of his adult life, but who, upon reaching old age, begins to have doubts about the truth of the gospel message (perhaps due to Alzheimer's disease or some such mind-debilitating illness) shortly before his death? Is he also headed straight for Lucifer's abode? What if those doubts are of the most negligible and fleeting sort imaginable (but are still great enough to ever so slightly diminish the strength of his faith) and occur but a mere week, or a day, or even an hour before his death? What conclusion are we to draw concerning his fate? Certainly these are immensely significant questions, ones which deserve (but do not receive) adequate answers from the authors.
In addition to that problem, which might be dubbed "the Sufficient-faith Objection," one might raise what could be called "the Historical Objection," which postulates basically that since Adam and Eve almost certainly did not actually exist, very probably the Fall did not actually occur; and that because Jesus mistakenly subscribed to creationism (including the Fall), obviously he was less than omniscient and therefore likely not divine. A.J. Mattill, Jr. says the following:
Many theologians have made valiant attempts to put the plan of salvation back together without Adam, but they have inevitably failed, for the theological superstructure is based upon Adam, the Fall, and redemption by the Second Adam (see 2 Cor. 11:3; Thess. 2:13). As Bishop Augustine so well said, the whole Christian religion may be summed up in the intervention of two men, the one to ruin us, the other to save us... But now we know that the biological blow dissolves the historical Adam and the apocalyptic blow discredits the historical Jesus... Hence the entire Christian system collapses, for there is none to ruin us, none to save us.
But there is a still more substantial problem with the authors' account of what is required for salvation, namely, its highly dubious presupposition that people are able to exert considerable (if not total) control over their beliefs, i.e., that to a large extent they are able, essentially, to "self-induce" beliefs. But is anyone actually able to do this? Certainly it may be that some people are, but to suggest that everyone is would be downright ludicrous. There is almost assuredly a large number of individuals who, like myself, find themselves utterly incapable of exercising such control. They simply assess all the data relevant to a particular proposition and, accordingly, their beliefs with respect thereto are automatically formed. This process is entirely unconscious in nature, rather akin to a computer's being fed information: once it is fed into the system, the computer responds almost instantaneously in whatever manner the information designates, and can in no way whatever govern that response. Therefore, since it correct to say that there exist at least some people who cannot "self-induce" beliefs (or even slightly influence them through a conscious effort), surely it must be correct to say also that, in at least some cases, it would be totally unjust to hold people culpable for their beliefs. Clearly, then, it would be preposterous to propose that all those whose beliefs are formed in the given way and happen to somehow differ from those required for salvation should be damned to hell. After all, how might one deserve any sort of punishment (let alone eternal damnation) for something which is totally beyond his control?
Taking a broader approach to the idea of salvation, the very concept of eternal damnation seems utterly incompatible with the mainstream Christian notion of an omnibenevolent, all-merciful deity. It would seem fruitless, then, to attempt to somehow reconcile that concept with liberal (or even moderate) Christianity. However, the issue appears a moot one, as ABE cogently demonstrates that the God of Christian fundamentalism does not exist.
 See Theodore Drange, Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998), p. 360.
 Douglas E. Krueger, "That Colossal Wreck: A Review of Ravi Zacharias's A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism," 1997, (URL: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/doug_krueger/colossal.html).
 All biblical citations are derived from (or compatible with) the KJV and/or NIV.
 See section 5.5 of chapter 5, above.
 For more biblical errors of various sorts, see, especially, section 5.6 of chapter 5, above; Drange, pp.350-63.
 Judith Hayes, In God We Trust: But Which One? (FFRF: Madison, WI, 1997).
 Drange, Writings Regarding the Bible (1998), p. 29.
 A.J. Mattill, Jr., The Seven Mighty Blows to Traditional Beliefs (The Flatwoods Free Press: Gordo, Alabama, 1995), p. 53.
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