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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
(1:49 PM) | Stephen:
Fundamentalism And Contempt for Life

Update: This is an ongoing conversation. Melissa responds here, and Mustang Bobby adds some valuable thoughts as well. Look especially for his final sentences. Reading stuff that good is a nice start to a cloudy, chilly late-April day.

In the comments to this post at Shakespeare's Sister, Melissa had this to say:
by his logic, that means atheists consider life much more valuable—since it’s all they’ve got.

Which, btw, I’ve found to be true, when you’re putting atheists up against fundies of any religion, all of whom seem to share a particular contempt for life, despite protestations to the contrary.

At issue, in case you didn't follow the links first and then come back to read the rest of my post - and why didn't you? - are the remarks of one Lt. Col. Kauzlarich, who suggests very plainly says that the reason the Tillman family has been unhappy with the way the Army handled Pat Tillman's death is because they aren't Christians. It's not because the Army lied and destroyed evidence so they could manufacture a heroic story. Oh no, not that. It's not because they have a commitment to the truth. It's because they aren't Christians, which for Kauzlarich means that they don't have anything to look forward to after death.

Often Christians will claim that Atheists don't value human life, because they view the human race as a collection of biological processes that accidentally came together in the right way to produce, you know, us. But Melissa is correct; Atheists tend to place a pretty high value upon this life. Many Atheists are turned off from religion because they believe religion places an inordinate amount of emphasis upon what happens after we die. That's the basis of one of the ethical arguments against religion, for if all that matters is the afterlife, why should anyone care about this life?

Of course, religions all place ethical requirements upon people for this life and tie them to particular outcomes after death. But fundamentalism - in any religion - places doctrine above ethics and raises particular practices higher than others. Christian fundamentalism, as we know it today, started to coalesce as a result of various controversies at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1920's. Of course, the movement had been building for quite a while. American Fundamentalism is not the same as the Holiness and Revivalist movements, but they are all closely connected.

This movement was highly ethical. Alcohol, tobacco, dancing, motion pictures and of course the accumulation of wealth were all to be avoided. But as movements do, this one started to change. The denomination of my birth, while I was growing up, would never countenance watching a movie in a theater. Now youth pastors organize movie nights. When my 7th grade PE class covered square dancing, I was sent to the library to write reports because my parents* wouldn't allow me to participate. Since then, my wife and I have had two Senior Pastors whose children actually would periodically miss Sunday services because of their commitments to their dance teams.

Some of this, like the examples I just gave, is fine. The movement has grown up in some ways, recognizing that a person's internal condition is much more important than certain ways of behaving. Another striking example, though, is the movement's attitude toward wealth. In no other aspect of life has the fundamentalist movement embraced the idea that the status of one's beliefs and "heart" is more important than outward behavior. A typical Sunday School class on wealth will ask a question such as, "Can a person own a Porsche and still be a Christian?" A hundred years ago, the answer would have been a resounding "NO" and the pastor would have spoken to the person asking the question about their spiritual condition. Now the answer is almost always, "yes!" See, a person can have as much stuff as they want, can spend their money how they want, can be as generous or selfish as they desire with their possessions, and be just fine, as long as "Jesus and not money is lord over their life."

Once that type of idea takes hold at all the conversion from an ethical faith to a doctrinal faith is complete. It is at that point where we see the truth of Melissa's comment, that fundamentalists are capable of showing a high level of contempt for this life, for the Creation and the human beings who inhabit it. When we are freed from the ethical obligations that Christ set before us, we can justify pre-emptive war, torture, cutting programs that help the poor (while "faith-based" programs are just as needy as before the tax cuts), denying simple civil rights to fellow citizens, and even picketing soldiers' funerals with signs claiming that God hates America and its soldiers because of homosexuality.

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 1940's, said that "Christianity is the most materialist of all the world's religions." By this he meant that Christianity placed the highest priority of any religion upon the physical, present world and the people that inhabit it. We can debate whether this was ever actually true, but he is on pretty solid theological and scriptural ground here. If Christians take the Bible seriously at all, we are faced with massive obligations to treat the world and its people with not just respect, but love and compassion. All of this is the handiwork of God, and thereby is given a dignity and even righteousness that we dare not forget or deny.

So it is the Army's Christians who should have led the charge to get the truth out about Pat Tillman's death. It is the nation's Christians who should be showing everyone the way on how to treat Creation, how to deal with all peoples with respect, how to hold criminals accountable without resorting to behavior that is worse than the crime with which they are charged.

It would be one thing if Melissa simply believed that fundamentalists show a contempt for this life. I could dismiss that easily. The problem is that she's right.

*My parents are hardly fundamentalists, nor have they ever been. It was just what people in that church did. At the time, it didn't even really bother me, because I was part of that church and way of thinking as well.

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