Sunday, March 04, 2007

Spirit and Flesh
Not a victimless belief system


Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, by James M. Ault Jr.

This is the second of two posts taking off from this fascinating book. Part one is here.

James Ault has provided a fascinating account of his time among the people of Shawmut River church. Readers get an inside look at some warm and decent human beings we'll never know. But his book contains lots of hints aspects of this fundamentalist culture that contain dangers for individuals and our society. In this post I'll explore two of these. I am not chastising James Ault for failing to write the book I might have written. His book is superb on its own terms -- but there is more to these stories....

Homosexuality. Ault is a little mystified by why, among all the sins these folks find enumerated in the Bible, homosexuality carries a particular repulsive charge. He pushed pretty hard on the question.

"You can't say 'Jesus Christ is a part of my life, but I am still a homosexual, '" Scott declared. ...

"But even though you're a new creature, " I ventured to ask, you still sin, don't you?"

"Yes," Scott replied, but the name 'Christian' means to be 'Christlike,' and homosexuality could not be part of being Christlike."

"But wouldn't that be true of any sin?" I wondered out loud. ...

"For some reason, though," Scott replied thoughtfully, trying to better address my quandary, "in fundamental circles, that particular sin is looked down on as one of the worst."

Actually, this Christian lesbian doesn't find the question of why these folks find homosexuality so hard to stomach nearly as mysterious as Ault seems to. Some of it is "the ick factor" -- that visceral repulsion some heterosexuals, mostly men, feel at the idea of gay sex. But more importantly, the whole fundamentalist edifice is built around defending family ties to the exclusion of any other forms of human networking. In my previous post, I tried to pass on Ault's terrific exposition of how this religious practice healed and deepened otherwise dead end marriages. But the corollary is that, in the homosocial world these folks live in, where gender roles are absolutes and men and women believed to be intrinsically unlike, once the window opened a crack to let in the possibility of same sex partnerships, might people be tempted to give up on marriage altogether? Ault suspects this is the root of their concern.

Given the limited common ground between women and men and their tendencies toward hostility and distrust, it is remarkable that anyone would choose to marry someone of the opposite sex to begin with, were it not for an overriding heterosexuality and the compulsion to have children, a family and to achieve adulthood in socially approved ways. Otherwise, I wondered, might it not be easier to imagine achieving mutual understanding in same-sex relationships?

Note the reference to "achieving adulthood." The fact that fundamentalists have children and that some 5 to 10 percent of those children will feel themselves to be gay is why I can't treat these nice people as if their belief system was harmless. Think of growing up in a household that so thoroughly taught you that your very (hormone-filled) being was evil. In the past, when gays were resolutely locked in the closet, the gay-inclined children of fundamentalists may have predominately "passed" as somewhat unhappy straights. But in contemporary society where the possibility of being gay is available if still difficult and dangerous, being young, gay and fundie must create a terrible conflict. No wonder gay teens are disproportionately represented among youth suicides. Children of fundamentalists live in a world where family ties are pretty much the only reality, yet they feel themselves cast into outer darkness -- and they have to fear that their parents believe they'll never meet in heaven because of their sin of homosexuality. Terrance at Republic of T explains what this can be lead to:

...my father, is dying. I went home a week ago, alone, to be with my family and see my father again. I tried not to go with any expectations, but I guess it’s difficult for a child to ever completely stop desiring his parents’ acceptance and approval. And despite the fact that they didn’t react well to my coming out and have always stated their religious objections to my life, I guess I held out hope.

It started and ended at my dad’s beside. I sat and talked with him for a while after I arrived, and we exchanged I-love-you’s and said some things we needed to say. Then my folks explained me they had not told their friends or our extended family about my “lifestyle” and suggested that they’d rather it not come up during my visit....

And since I know there’s no chance of my adopting his version of his faith, and renouncing my family in the process, I did the only thing I could think of to do. I lied. I lied and told him I would “promise to try,” knowing I have no intention of ever doing so. ... The only way I could give him hope, as we spoke for what could be the last time, was to lie.

Go read the whole post. You won't be sorry, though you may cry. Fundamentalism is not victimless.

Science. Or rather, fundamentalists' cultivated rejection of scientific method. The Shawmut River church ran a "Christian Academy" where their children were partially insulated from contamination by the secular culture. Sharon Valenti, the pastor's wife, explained its "principle approach" to Christian education:

"The whole idea and philosophy behind that ... is every subject points to God, not just the Bible one hour a day, but how does math relate to God? How does English relate to God? How does science relate to God?"

Ault points out that it would be unfairly judgmental to say the young people graduating from this school got a uniquely poor education. Their parents had largely graduated from the local public schools only marginally literate. Shawmut River's children probably learned as much. But they and their parents were taught to actively distrust free inquiry and the scientific method that underlies contemporary material achievements. Ault summarizes the problem posed by science within the fundamentalist worldview:

Fundamentalism as a popular movement rooted in tradition could not embrace certain ground rules of modern science as it came to define itself. One is that scientific propositions must always be seen as provisional and continually subject to revision or rejection based on appeals to evidence. Modern science has no place for eternal verities; it sees truth as an endless process of progressive realization. A corollary is that all scientific propositions must be framed in terms that can be confirmed or falsified by empirical observation of facts accessible to any person, regardless of faith, culture, etc. In this sense, science has no place for the actions of God knowable only through faith.

Many contemporary believers choose to put aside these potential contradictions between faith and science, somehow interweaving multiple paradigms concurrently. But fundamentalists want their absolutes. And consequently, they become downright enthusiasts for various forms of pseudo-science that might let them claim "science" without adopting its methods and values. The obvious one is "intelligent design" as a critique of evolution. But they grab on to many apparent Biblical proofs and insist they've trumped those academics who look down on them as ignorant. Ault presents this example:

Pastor Valenti would cite Leviticus (17:11), "the life is in the blood," to demonstrate the Bible's accuracy on scientific matters. Even if the heart stops, he pointed out, we now know that life can be sustained if an artificial pump continues to circulate the blood.

Valenti is probably not much more given to magical thinking that the average U.S. adult, but "educating" young people in this sort of thinking is not harmless. If they hang on to these kinds of interpretations of how the world works, they are pretty sure to remain stuck in their parents' lower class status, barred from serious higher education and from large sectors of the technological economy.

I am reminded of the charge routinely made to a jury that they are not required "to prove doubt to scientific certainty" -- would the Shawmut River folks have any idea how to interpret that?

Fundamentalism's repudiation of scientific thinking is not victimless; it locks its adherents out of full participation in their society. Maybe they don't want to be fully inside, but their sheer numbers mean they have influence on the rest of us. Most fundamentalists, as Ault would certainly remind us, are good people simply trying to find a way to preserve the only refuge they know, their blood families. But their credulity in the face of evidence makes them all too easy marks for manipulative authoritarians who speak the right language and push the right emotional buttons. The true authoritarians among us, the Dobsons, the Robertsons, even the Cheneys, lead fundamentalists down paths that create a multitude of victims.

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