In Defense of Fundamentalism
I know that mainstream Evangelical Christianity has gotten a bad rap in much of our society today. Frankly, it deserves the bad reputation. The dominant way that Christianity is expressed today is the reason that most people don't want to talk about religion in public. It's all about converting people to your own way of thinking instead of actually being open to learning from them. It has become a fight about who has the right beliefs and who is getting into heaven rather than focusing on bringing heaven down to earth as Jesus wanted us to do: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven," (Matthew 6:10).
That being said, lately I have been thinking about the positive sides of Evangelicalism. It's important for us to have a deeper understanding of conservative Evangelical Christians, otherwise we are just playing the same old game of who is right vs. who is wrong that gets us nowhere. We have to be able to see the other side clearly. Then we can understand why the other side exists at all. Think about it this way: Fundamentalist religion, ironically, creates atheists. Fundamentalism often makes religion so distasteful, so judgmental and narrow minded that many people react against it and declare that they want nothing at all to do with religion. Likewise we need to understand what creates fundamentalism and what it is a reaction to.
The Great Transition
The world has been going through profound changes in just the last few decades, never mind the last couple of centuries. Our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe has shifted in incredible ways. We used to think that the earth was flat (well, okay, some people still do), we used to think the earth was the center of the universe. In a few short years we have discovered that we are just one planet among several in the solar system, and that our solar system is part of a much larger galaxy, which in turn is a very average galaxy among billions of galaxies in the known universe. We have also learned about black holes, dark matter, quantum physics, and a whole bunch of other things that we simply cannot wrap our minds around.
In a way that is just the tip of the iceberg. Think about how the knowledge of evolution has changed our self understanding. Then add to that all the changes that the internet and technology has brought about. The internet and smartphones have changed the way we live our lives, the way we work and interact. With greater information and connection we have become more aware of all the different religions and worldviews out there.
And if that is still not enough, now we are becoming more aware of social constructs like gender identity, we are learning to accept different expressions of human sexuality and the LGBTQ+ population, we are starting to see how flawed our capitalist system is, and last but not least, the cherry on top: we have recently become aware that we are literally destroying the planet through our own actions and that we face the possibility of extinction of all life on earth.
The Role of Fundamentalism
So...do you see how all of that might be a little much for some people to accept? To me it seems clear that the rise in fundamentalism we see today, both religious and political, is a reaction to all of these massive changes. Fundamentalism says "How about instead of all that we stick with the understanding of reality that we have had for the past couple thousand years?" In this massively uncertain world, fundamentalism offers certainty: "The meaning of life is to worship God. If you worship God and accept Jesus as your savior you can be sure that after you die you will enjoy eternity in heaven, so there is no need to fear death. If you any questions or doubts about life, fear not because we have answers to all of those difficult questions. We will shield you from the chaos of the outside world."
We forget how incredibly disorienting and scary it can be when our worldview and self understanding changes dramatically. Because of the changes I think it has become harder for a lot of people to find meaning in life. Ironically technology and social media has made us less social and more isolated from our neighbors. As a result of all this our rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide are skyrocketing.
Evangelicalism offers meaning and community. And that is what religion should offer! I hate to say it but when I have visited mainline liberal and progressive churches, including Unitarian Universalist churches, they don't do church half as good as Evangelical churches. As much as I disagree with the theology, the experience is engaging, the pastors are usually excellent speakers, and the worship tries to be emotionally engaging.
Evangelical churches are excellent at getting people plugged into the community. They break down the steps and make it easy for you. They have great websites that clearly show how you can get connected with several small groups that meet every week. These are often tight knit communities where people claim to really believe in something and care for and pray for each other. You get to feel like you are a part of something, a part of real community.
What can those of us on the outside learn from this? People need the intimacy of a few close friends. People need to be part of something larger than themselves. People need to experience something sacred and not just come home to Netflix and their smartphones every night.
So despite my criticism of fundamentalism I can't blame people for wanting to hang onto their church communities. What is the alternative? There are not many good alternatives today. It is hard to find good theology, but it is probably even harder to find real community unless you are blessed enough to already be part of a community. And if you grew up Evangelical, often times leaving church means leaving your community. That is not an easy thing to do.
I think what fundamentalists need to realize is that things don't have to be so black and white. The alternatives are not Christianity and meaning on the one hand, and atheism and meaninglessness on the other. There are other ways of finding meaning and grounding in life. There are other ways of being Christian! This blog is one example. It just takes a little effort, courage, and a willingness to explore.
A final point that I want to make, one that I have been hearing about lately, is that even if a person might have misguided beliefs or doctrines, that doesn't necessarily mean their experience of the divine is not real. We can have an authentic experience of God even if we don't have the "right" theology. I think God primarily works with the heart instead of the mind. It is important to remember that because it helps us to be open to how others experience God. Also, a lot of times when people grow up Evangelical and leave because their beliefs change, they disown their whole past experience as though it was all a lie. That is not true. You can still have real experiences of the divine, even in a church where you don't agree with them on everything. If we remember that, I think we will become more understanding of one another, no matter our faith background.