Last week, Allen Farris sent me this essay on Christian fundamentalism. I didn’t have time to post it before the election, but I knew that I would post it afterwards, as I wish to continue my investigations into and writings on Christianity in America. Since I grew up entirely without God, I’m particularly intrigued by and appreciative of the personal perspective of this essay.
As a result of the recent statement by Dr. Peikoff on the upcoming elections, there is considerable disagreement on the significance of the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States. I completely agree with Dr. Peikoff’s position and I regard the rise of religious fundamentalism and its desire to seek political power as the most serious problem this country faces today.
I wish to contribute to this discussion by giving you some indication of what it is like to live in a fundamentalist world.
I grew up in a small cotton mill town in the South. My parents were fundamentalists. People spoke in tongues at their church and, occasionally, at tent revivals, handled poisonous snakes. The time period is the 1940s and 1950s. Everyday life was completely dominated by a religious perspective. Children’s books mostly had religious themes; no Winnie the Poo here. Discipline was harsh and beatings were common. Yes, the idea was to beat the Hell out of children. Since I was a naturally intelligent and curious child, and strong willed, I got the worst of them.
One of the things that saved me was that I took religion seriously. Everyone around me was telling me that this is what was really true. So, it seemed to me that I should try and understand it. So, I began to ask a lot of questions, to anyone who would listen. Even as a child, I could tell the responses I got did not answer my questions. Thus began a long search for answers. For me, school became a precious resource, even as poor as schools were in a small Southern town. I learned to use the library and extend my search beyond my immediate surroundings. School was the only contact I had with a world outside of religion. I discovered science and mathematics and I continued my quest to understand religion.
The admonition that I heard over and over again as a child was “Don’t get above your raising.” On such occasions I would think: Isn’t that what children are supposed to do? To rise above their parents. Isn’t that how we make progress? But, by then I had learned to keep such opinions to myself; beatings were dished out for much less provocation. I am quite certain if it were not for compulsory education laws, I would not have been allowed to attend school.
I graduated at the top of my class and paid for my college tuition by working in the cotton mills. Even though I had taken every math course my high school had to offer, I lacked sufficient courses to qualify for the sequence of courses required for science and engineering students. The college arranged for me to take a remedial course for non-credit. I wound up taking four math courses my freshman year and winning the Freshmen Mathematics Achievement award. When I was a graduate student in physics, I read Atlas Shrugged and it was like finding the Holy Grail. At last I had discovered a world that was intelligible.
It is difficult to convey to someone who has had little contact with fundamentalism the stifling atmosphere, both intellectually and emotionally, that pervades a fundamentalist environment. I will give you one concrete example. When I was about ten, I was encouraged to read a book called “The Rapture.” It was an account of the second coming of Christ and in vivid detail described how the chosen were taken away and the damned left behind to horrific suffering. It was absolutely frightening. No child should ever read such a book. In my judgment, making a child read such a book is a form of child abuse. I never forgot that book, and in subsequent years, it came to be a symbol of everything I struggled to overcome as a child.
Later in my life my mother came to visit me in Green Bank, West Virginia. I took her to see the giant radio telescopes on which I worked. She did not really understand them and saw no point to scientific research. But, she added, “Just think, you might be the first to see Jesus return.” The point here is that everything, every detail of the world, is interpreted from a religious perspective. If you listen to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, you will see that they have precisely the same attitude. In the language of the DIM Hypothesis, they are thorough-going M2s.
On some occasions, my mother, who is still living, has attempted to talk to me about religion and my lack of faith. I usually try to be patient; long ago I realized the achievement of any understanding between us was not possible. On more than one occasion she has said directly to me: I hope God does not strike you down for your beliefs and your stubborn arrogance. It does not take very much psychological insight to recognize that there is a straightforward logical progression from “I hope God does not strike you down” to “God should strike you down” to “As an agent of God, I will strike you down.”
Make no mistake. If the religious fundamentalists ever gain control of political power they will destroy anything and anyone who rises to stand against them.
I would like to recommend a book that I recently read. It is an historical novel called Remembering Hypatia by Brian Trent, published in 2005. Hypatia was one of the foremost scholars of her day, a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, and head of the great library at Alexandria. In 414 A.D., having been condemned as a pagan sorceress, she was brutally murdered by a mob of Christians. This event is taken by some as marking the beginning of that period known as the Dark Ages. The head of the Christian community at the time was Archbishop Cyril, who probably orchestrated the attack on Hypatia. Today, he is canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint.
Trent’s novel is a compelling story woven around the few known facts of Hypatia’s life and death. He does an excellent job of painting the contrast between those who believe we are capable of understanding the world and those who wish to destroy that capacity. I will quote one passage. Thasos is a young man of 19, who two years before at the time of Hypatia’s death, had been one of her students. He is giving a lecture to a group of Alexandrians.“Tonight,” Thasos told his listeners, “The sky will glimmer with stars. Watch them. Realize they are something we can understand. You must be an observer of this world! Gather facts and formulate opinions, then test those opinions. Build on the work of others, and expand our understanding of the universe. Because that’s our purpose.” His voice quivered, a tear spilled. “That’s our future.”
Shortly after this lecture Thasos is arrested and burned alive.
After listening to Dr. Peikoff’s lectures on the DIM Hypothesis, I decided to do a bit of investigation. To my utter shock, I discovered that not only does the book, “The Rapture” still exist; it has now expanded to a whole family of similar books. One of them is The Rapture: In the twinkling of an eye, countdown to the earth’s last days by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. As of this writing, its sales rank on Amazon.com is 1,953. By contrast Atlas Shrugged’s rank is 1,769 and OPAR’s is 27,035.
Based on my experiences as a child, I see the growth of religious fundamentalism as a monster lurking in the darkness. It is powerful. It is growing. It is real.
November 4, 2006