On April 22, 2005 the Senate Majority leader, Bill Frist, participated by video in "Justice Sunday" -- a rally and telecast held at the Highview Baptist mega-church in Louisville, KY. The overriding message of the event was that the Senate filibuster against a few of Bush's judicial nominees constituted discrimination against "people of faith." Joining Frist as presenters were:

  • Focus on the Family's James Dobson, who rose to national attention by advocating the spanking of children ("... a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child...," Dare to Discipline, pages 6 and 7)
  • Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, who paid former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke $82,000 (reportedly for his mailing list), and who addressed the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens in 2001
  • Convicted Watergate felon Charles Colson.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned his audience about the questioning Judge Charles Pickering was subjected to during his Senate hearings. Pickering was asked whether his religious beliefs would prevent him from making judicial decisions based on the law. This, Mohler implied, was discrimination, saying "If it's Judge Pickering now, it can be you tomorrow." Mohler went on to assert that Christians can't separate their civic responsibility from their religious obligations. This, wrote's Michelle Goldberg "seemed as if he was arguing for the right of judges to impose Christianity."

Dobson played on his fundamentalist audience's feelings of isolation. "For 44 years, the Supreme Court has been on a campaign to limit religious freedom," he said. "We do have a right to participate in this great representative form of government." His rhetoric was also apocalyptic. " Calling the legalization of abortion "the biggest holocaust in world history," Dobson preached, "I think this is one of the most significant issues we've ever faced as a nation, because the future of democracy and ordered liberty actually depends on the outcome of this struggle."

Meanwhile, a bill introduced in the House and Senate in March would remove Supreme Court jurisdiction over "any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity’s, officer’s, or agent’s acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government." The bill would also prevent judges from considering "any constitution, law, administrative rule, Executive order, directive, policy, judicial decision, or any other action of any foreign state or international organization or agency, other than English constitutional and common law up to the time of the adoption of the Constitution," when interpreting the US Constitution. This would restrict courts from considering, for example, international agreements on torture, the environment, etc.

The current bill is nearly identical to the Constitution Act of 2004, which was drafted by Judge Roy Moore's lawyer, Herb Titus. (Moore gained national prominence in 2003 when he was removed from office for refusing to move a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court building.) Titus was the first Dean of the School of Public Policy at Regent University (formerly Christian Broadcasting Network University), founded by televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson. Journalist W. David Kubiak told the Vermont Guardian (one of the few journals to report on the legislation), that the bill would create a disconnect between the courts and "our hard-won secular history and international norms." Independent journalist and critic of the Christian right, Katherine Yurica, has suggested that the bill "may allow any judge to institute biblical punishments without being subject to review by the Supreme Court or the federal court system."

Writing in the New York Review of Books in March, Bill Moyers commented:

I am not suggesting that fundamentalists are running the government, but they constitute a significant force in the coalition that now holds a monopoly of power in Washington under a Republican Party that for a generation has been moved steadily to the right by its more extreme variants even as it has become more and more beholden to the corporations that finance it. One is foolish to think that their bizarre ideas do not matter. I have no idea what President Bush thinks of the fundamentalists' fantastical theology, but he would not be president without them.

Moyers noted further that, at a minimum, Bush's rhetoric is full of images and metaphors that resonate with the fundamentalists. Association with fundamentalists is of particular concern, Moyers suggested, "in a regime whose chief characteristics are ideological disdain for evidence and theological distrust of science." By Moyers estimate, more than 230 members of Congress are "backed by the religious right," and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80% ratings or better from influential Christian right groups.

Back to the Fundamentals

As we've noted previously in The Dubya Report, the name "fundamentalist" derives from a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals circulated between 1910 and 1914 in the US. Following the ideas of Charles Hodge of Princeton, the pamphlets asserted that:

  • The only way to gain salvation was through Jesus Christ
  • The Bible could not contain errors because it was the product of men who merely transcribed words dictated by God
  • Modernism -- in particular, the trend to regard Bible texts not as timeless truth, but to interpret them in light of the social, cultural, and political contexts in which they were written -- was as likely to lead to eternal damnation as non-Christian religions

Although the name is relatively recent, movements that see the world as essentially hostile to religion have been a part of many religions, and perhaps especially the three "Abrahamic" religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

For example, in Sunni Islam, which was the established religion of the Ottoman empire, there was an understanding that "the gates of ijtihad" (independent reasoning) had closed at some point in history. Where Muslim jurists had originally been allowed to use their own judgment to resolve cases where neither the Qu'ran nor tradition (Sunnah) provided a specific answer, by the early 15th century Sunni Muslims believed that independent thought was no longer required. The Shariah (the body of Islamic sacred law derived from the Qu'ran, the recorded customs or Sunnah, and tradition or hadith) was held up as the perfect model for society. Ijtihad was not desirable, rather Muslims should imitate the past (taqlid).

"Reform movements usually occur during a period of cultural change, or in the wake of political disaster," wrote Karen Armstrong. The Mongol invasions of during the 13th century represented one such period in the Middle East. Living during and after that period, Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah of Damascus, refused to accept the closing of the "the gates of ijtihad" Taymiyyah wanted to update the Shariah to meet the needs of Muslims in circumstances vastly different from those in which the traditions arose. But his method was to advocate a return to the sources -- the Qu'ran and the Sunnah, removing later additions tacked on by theologians over the years. In practical terms this meant throwing out much of the body of legal decisions (fiqh) and philosophy that had accumulated during the medieval period and was considered sacred. Ibn Taymiyyah was imprisoned, and died there, reportedly because his jailers would not allow him writing materials.

Similarly, Martin Luther attacked Christian medieval scholastic theologians, and wanted to return to the Christianity of the Bible and the Church Fathers. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 generally marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era; thirty years later, Luther was born. Among the social changes occurring in Luther's Europe was the rationalization of agriculture, in which landowners no longer supported peasants year-round in exchange for their work during the harvest, but rather began to hire workers only when needed, and pay them wages only for time worked. In a related development, landowners took over land that had once supported peasants, and instead cultivated raw materials for the burgeoning manufacturing businesses. The beginnings of the modern market economy could be seen in the advent of the Bourse in Bruges, which opened in 1309 as a place for commodity traders to meet and trade goods.

"...[T]he modernizing process," wrote Karen Armstrong, "can induce great anxiety.

As their world changes, people feel disoriented and lost.... As the old mythology that gave structure and significance to their lives crumbles under the impact of change, they can experience a numbing loss of identity and a paralyzing despair. The most common emotions, as we shall see, are helplessness and a fear of annihilation that can, in extreme circumstances, erupt in violence. We see something of that in Luther.

Luther likely suffered from clinical depression -- what he called the tristitia (sorrow), and was terrified of death. His theology posits human beings as completely dependent on the grace of God, and completely incapable of contributing to their own salvation. Huldrych Zwingli, who founded the Swiss Reformed Churches, and John Calvin also believed that there was nothing they could do to contribute to their own salvation. They stressed "the absolute sovereignty of God, as modern fundamentalists would often do." While insisting that the modern ethos demanded that Christians be free to interpret the Bible as they chose, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli would brook no opposition to their teaching. Luther advocated the burning of "heretical" books; Calvin approved the execution by burning of Michael Servetus, convicted of preaching against the doctrines of the Trinity and infant baptism. Zwingli's refusal to compromise with Catholic canons in Switzerland may have helped precipitate civil war in 1531.

For the reformers the bread and wine consumed during Mass were no longer seen as "mystically identical with Christ" but were instead a commemoration. Armstrong describes this as part of what she sees as the western cultural tendency to replace mythos with logos. While modern linguistic philosophy sees these terms as not really distinct, they have been used since before the time of Socrates to distinguish modes of experience. In the Dictionnaire International des Termes Littéraires Donaldo Schüler wrote that for Homer, mythos represented truth, while logos was evident in the selection and organization of the narrative. For Heraclitus, he noted, mythos was associated with oral tradition, and logos with writing. Heraclitus believed the eyes to be more accurate than the ears, reflecting a prejudice toward logos that has accompanied the process of modernization throughout history.

Karen Armstrong observed that, while the reformers believed they were returning to the source of their belief, the Bible, "they were reading scripture in a modern way." The image of the solitary Christian standing before God, relying on his Bible was predicated on the invention of the printing press, which allowed every Christian to have a Bible of his own, and on the spread of literacy, which made it possible for him to read it.

Increasingly, Scripture was read literally for the information it imparted, much the same way as modernizing Protestants were learning to read other texts. Silent, solitary reading would help to free Christians from traditional ways of interpretation and from the supervision of the religious experts. The stress of individual faith would also help to make truth seem increasingly subjective -- a characteristic of the modern western mentality.

Luther, though not Calvin, also rejected reason as a component of faith. Reason, he believed, would lead to atheism. "In pushing reason out of the religious sphere," wrote Armstrong, "Luther was one of the first Europeans to secularize it."

Fundamentally Corrupt Religion

Fundamentalism is not a clash of civilizations, Armstrong suggested, so much as an inter-societal dispute. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, she noted, "American Christian fundamentalists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson almost immediately proclaimed that the tragedy had been a judgment of God for the sins of the secular humanists in the United States -- a viewpoint that was not far removed from that of the Muslim hijackers.

Researchers Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, authors of the six-volume Fundamentalism Project, have suggested that all fundamentalist movements share certain common elements:

  • The emerge in response to a perceived crisis
  • They believe that their opponents are enemies of religion itself
  • They experience the conflict as a war between good and evil
  • They are afraid of annihilation, and try to reinforce their identity by a selective use of documents or practices from the past
  • They often withdraw from society but they retain what Armstrong calls the "pragmatic rationalism of modernity." Guided by their charismatic leaders they re-interpret the "fundamentals" to create a plan of action for their members
  • Eventually they try to "resacralize" the world

Several of these characteristics overlap with the five warning signs that Charles Kimball has identified in When Religion Becomes Evil:

  • Claims of absolute truth
  • Blind obedience to doctrine or charismatic leaders
  • Belief that members of the group can help bring about the "ideal time" (e.g. the kingdom of heaven)
  • Belief that the end justifies any means
  • Declaring holy war

Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister and professor of comparative religion who has worked in the Middle East on behalf of the National Council of Churches, wrote that a strong case could be made that the history of Christianity contains more violence and destruction than that of most other religions. "Church history also exposes repeatedly the gap between the ideal as exemplified in the teachings of Jesus and the way Christians have lived and actually behaved."

Kimball also pointed out that the fundamentalist position on many issues is not the exclusive "Christian" position. "If religion required intellectual assent to the proposition that the planet is less than ten thousand years old and the creation story (or one of the creation stories) in Genesis was literally the way the earth was created, then I, too, would have major reservations." Kimball noted that his comparative religions students quickly grasp that creation myths from other cultures are using symbolic language to talk about "the overall sacredness and the pace of humans in creation." The implication is that it is more difficult for some to see that the same kind of language is operative in their own traditions. "Religion that requires adherents to disconnect their brain is often a big part of the problem," Kimball wrote.

Kimball also asserted that compassion is at the core of "all authentic, healthy life-sustaining religions" -- a sentiment echoed by Armstrong. Regardless of the religious language, when adherents of a particular religion exhibit violent and destructive behavior "you can be sure the religion is corrupted, and reform is desperately needed."

"Authentic religious truth claims are never as inflexible and exclusive as zealous adherents insist," Kimball wrote. Absolute truth claims are historically linked with "violent extremism, charismatic leaders, and various justifications for acts otherwise understood to be unacceptable." As a contemporary illustration, Kimball pointed to fundamentalist Christians attacking and murdering doctors and other workers at abortion clinics. When Dr. David Gunn was shot in 1993 by Michael Griffin at a Florida abortion clinic, the Reverend Paul Hill appeared on the Donahue TV show to justify the killing. The appearance catapulted Hill in to prominence within the antiabortion movement. Fourteen months later Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and James Barrett at the same abortion clinic.

Hill belonged to the national organization of so-called Christians, known as the Army of God. The Army of God's absolute claims are: abortion is legalized murder; abortion is an abomination to God; true Christians must engage in direct action to stop the "slaughter of innocents." Kimball noted that Army of God literature quotes numerous Biblical passages "in an effort to suggest that their truth claims are synonymous with God's view." But, Kimball asserted, "these passages have nothing to do with abortion." The Bible, wrote Kimball, "says nothing specific about this highly emotional and controversial issue." Some people who oppose abortion argue that the sixth commandment ("You shall not murder" - Exodus 20:13) is a Biblical basis, but "vigorous debates about when life begins and what constitutes life immediately arise."

While many people strongly oppose abortion, those advocating the absolute truth claims above are "a small, extremist fringe." "It is sadly ironic that the soldiers of the Army of God intentionally break the commandment not to murder in order to stop people they consider guilty of murder," Kimball observed.

Reading, Rhetoric, and Responsiblity

"Religious claims about God or the transcendent necessarily rely on language,"Kimball observed. "When adherents lose sight of the symbolic nature of language about God, religion is easily corrupted. In Armstrong's terms this is a confusion of mythos with logos, i.e. confusing figurative narrative with reportage. Kimball quoted Harvard's Peter Gomes as saying "Literalism does not want the text held hostage to [symbolic interpretation], but literalism itself is hostage to the eighteenth century illusion that truth and meaning are the same thing and that they are fixed and discernible by the application of the faculties of reason and common sense."

"Christians who say they take the Bible literally are either ignorant or self-deluded. No one takes the Bible literally," Kimball asserted, noting that he was unaware, for example, of anyone who took Mark 9:43-48 literally ("And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off...."), or Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ("If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son ... all the men of the city shall stone him to death....").

Taking the argument further, modern philosophy of language has suggested that "meaning" is not an objective property, but depends on the context in which communication takes place. A text does not "mean" something in the abstract, it "means something to somebody." Many contemporary theologians now believe that sacred texts, like all literature, demand an interpretation that seeks to understand the social and cultural contexts that produced them.

Kimball noted that the history of anti-Semitism, the justification of slavery, discrimination against women, and behavior toward homosexual persons are evidence that "religious truth claims based on prooftexts have harmful consequences."

Citing the examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Kimball noted that "Charismatic religious leadership is not inherently bad." Rather that leadership becomes dangerous when the leader "has unrestricted power and total control." As examples, Kimball reviewed the history of Asahara Shoko, leader of Aum Shinrikyo, and Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple. In the beginning of Asahara's teachings drew on a range of religious traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, and attracted a number of idealistic followers. But within ten years he began to demand absolute obedience. His group eventually carried out attacks on the Tokyo subway system, resulting in twelve deaths and injures to more than five thousand.

Similarly Jim Jones began his ministry preaching racial equality and social justice in the 60s, when that point of view was controversial. His commitment to these issues was such that the liberal Disciples of Christ church ordained Jones, who had no formal theological training. Members of Jones's Peoples Temple created their own communal society, handing over their income and property to the temple to be shared. In the late sixties and early seventies some disgruntled members charged that the temple was carrying our illegal activities. In 1974 the temple acquired land in Guyana, and eventually more than 600 members lived there, in a community literally carved out of the jungle. By 1977 Jones's rhetoric grew increasingly apocalyptic. When California congressman Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana on a fact finding mission, he and his delegation were murdered, and more than 900 Peoples Temple members committed suicide.

Suspension of intellectual judgment about doctrine can be as dangerous as blind obedience to leaders. Asahara Shoko and Jim Jones both spoke often about apocalypse. As Kimball noted:

When the unquestioned authority figure declares a cataclysmic end is near, what else really matters? ... Teachings about a cataclysmic war and savior figures at the end of time or a cycle of existence are woven into many traditions.... When those teachings are embraced as likely scenarios on the immediate horizon, otherwise bizarre behavior becomes commonplace.

Apocalyptic preaching does not always indicate the presence of evil in a religion, Kimball added, but "it is frequently mindless and destructive."

Aum Shinrikyo and the People's Temple illustrate a pattern common to many sects and cults. Initially both movements addressed social problems and individual growth, but eventually withdrew and isolated from society. "The impulse to nurture and educate the faithful with minimal interference from the outside is common and understandable," wrote Kimball. The potential for serious problems escalates proportionately in relation to how detached the group is from the modern society." Monastic communities in various religious traditions offer one model. Kimball observed that the mega-churches in the US represent a less obvious withdrawal from the larger society. Some mega-churches have become self-contained communities, offering sports and recreational programs, social and educational activities, as well as religious programs and services.

The key, Kimball suggested, is individual responsibility. "Blind obedience to individuals or doctrines is never wise. Such behavior effectively abdicates individual responsibility, and, as we have observed, that can be dangerous." Kimball quoted the Buddha's final words to his disciples

Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher.... Be ye lamps unto yourselves....

Divine Agents

Another warning sign of religion becoming evil is the belief that adherents are divine agents in establishing the "ideal time" or "end time." An extreme example of this tendency was the discovery in 1984 of a plot to blow up sacred Islamic buildings. Plotters had acquired a large cache of weapons, and included a contingency for stealing an Israeli military jet to bomb the Dome of the Rock. The chief architect of the plot, Yehuda Etzion, convicted in 1985, stated in his confession that he was motivated by belief in "the necessity to purify the Temple Mount from the grip of Islam." As of 2002 there had been twelve attempts to destroy the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, or to harm Muslim worshipers there. The conspirators were motivated by the belief that the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the site occupied by the Dome of the Rock was and is part of a divine plan for history. The notion that the Jewish Temple will be re-established in the near future is shared by some Jewish groups and many fundamentalist Christians. Many of those who believe this don't support the use of force to bring it about. Some, however, believe that they are ordained to help achieve what the view as the divine goal. The investigation of the 1984 plot uncovered "direct and substantial financial links between the Jewish extremists and fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States, South Africa, and Australia."

Efforts by various groups on the Christian right to change laws and influence government in the direction of their interpretation of biblical ideals is another working out of the belief that an ideal has been lost and must be restored through secular institutions or actions. For much of the twentieth century Fundamentalist groups tended to stay out of politics, but Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights and separation of church and state, as well as Jimmy Carter's attempt to ferret out segregationist schools hiding behind the "Christian" banner, moved many to political action. The rhetoric of the religious right invokes a vision of a lost ideal time in the past, usually in connection with claims that the founders of the US shared "Christian" beliefs. The nostalgia for the past is coupled with warnings that danger is at hand if the nation does not turn to God (their God).

The public school system is one secular institution where the Christian right has made a particular effort to bring the secular world in line with their ideals. Specific issues include the appropriateness of public prayer in schools, teaching evolution and creationism, posting the Ten Commandments, and school vouchers. Kimball commented, "It is a curious theological perspective that contends God's power and presence are circumscribed by Supreme Court rulings." Pat Robertson and his followers provide one example of a faction that seeks to "reconstruct" the state according to their understanding of the Christian religion. During the 90s, Robertson's Christian Coalition gained control over a surprising number of school boards and city councils, and leveraged their grassroots activities into effective control of the Republican party in twenty states. From the electronic pulpit of his daily television broadcast, the 700 Club, Robertson informed the faithful that Satan could be found throughout the secular institutions in the US, form the public schools system, to the legal profession (by way of the ACLU), and was responsible for turning the free enterprise system into a "socialist welfare state." The faithful were called to respond with "spiritual warfare."

Under Robertson's direction, a number of nonprofit church-related community organizations engaged in political advocacy by distributing "voter guides" in thousands of churches. While extremely effective in generating support for the candidates they endorsed, these tactics were deceitful and probably illegal. In 1997 the IRS reviewed the tax-exempt status of the Christian Coalition, and the Federal Election Commission investigated its political activities. Public officials generally refrained from criticizing Robertson's group or challenging them in court, possibly for fear of being anti-religious. Robertson continued to present his political efforts in cosmic terms, as a battle between good and evil, although his goals were quite mundane. In September 1997 in a speech not intended for publication, Robertson addressed his audience as "fellow radicals" who were "dangerously seeking to overturn the established order and take power away from a bunch of liberals and give it to those who love this country." He boasted to the gathering that he had told Donald P. Hodel, the new president of the Christian Coalition that he believed the organization had the potential "of selecting the next President of the United States."

Kimball observed:

When we begin to connect the dots, a larger picture comes into view. Christian reconstructionists in America are only one step removed from their counterparts with a concrete, divinely ordained plan for an Islamic state, or the reconstituted, expanded biblical state of Israel. The gap begins to close when the agenda includes denigration of Islam, or direct action against abortion clinics.

Fundamentalism as a Social Problem

At the end of her book, The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong suggested that "The modern world, which seems so exciting to a liberal, seems Godless, drained of meaning, and even satanic to a fundamentalist. If a patient brought such paranoid, conspiracy-laden, and vengeful fantasies to a therapist, he or she would undoubtedly be diagnosed as disturbed."

Heinz Streib of the University of Bielefeld in Germany has characterized fundamentalism in terms of religious styles similar to stages of psychological development. He has associated fundamentalism with what he calls the do-ut-des ("I give so that you give."), which appears in children after infancy and before puberty, when the child has begun to distinguish between his or her own needs and those of others.

Do-ut-des is the basic pattern for both the
interpersonal and the God-human relationship: good is what God and the authority persons wish and demand, bad and immoral is what results in punishment – a "do-ut-des" economy. Means of trade are obedience and observation of religious commandments. The characterization of this style's
understanding pattern as "mythic-literal" means that an awareness of the metaphoric or symbolic meaning has not yet developed, that we must not modify any detail of the story or of the religious rules.

Normally, Streib suggested, the do-ut-des recedes during puberty, and is replaced by what he calls the mutual religious style, in which the individual prefers an image of God as a partner, although a capacity for critical thinking has not yet developed. Eventually the individual progresses to an individuative-systemic religious style, which parallels the individuals quest to find a place in society, and identify and defend a individual points of view.

Streib noted that the do-ut-des religious style is appropriate in childhood, "We do not call children fundamentalists." But in his view the individuative-systemic style "stands for modernity’s competencies and requirements, it parallels the sociological notion of modernity." If during this developmental stage the do-ut-des style reappears, Streib calls this fundamentalism.

In recent years fundamentalism has become a research topic for social scientists. A 2002 study by Brian Laythe, et al. published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion examined the relationship between fundamentalism and prejudice. Laythe found that, by itself, fundamentalism was essentially unrelated to ethnic prejudice. When combined with right-wing authoritarianism, however, it is positively correlated with ethnic prejudice. And fundamentalism by itself was positively correlated with prejudice against gays and lesbians. (The University of Manitoba's Bob Altemeyer has defined right wing authoritarianism as a cluster of attitudes: a high degree of submission to authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives; a general aggressiveness, directed against various persons, that is perceived to be sanctioned by established authorities; a high degree of adherence to the social conventions endorsed by society and by its established authorities.)

Laythe et al. explained their findings as follows:

With the exception of certain extremist groups such as white supremacists, few Christian fundamentalists find a theological basis for racial prejudice in scripture. In contrast, many biblical literalists see homosexuality as a moral abomination explicitly proscribed by scripture. Moreover, many modern Christian churches offer an ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. They may teach that homosexuality is a sin, but are also encouraged to "hate the sin and love the sinner." This is in contrast to the cast of racism, which is almost universally decried in modern Christian churches.

Some former fundamentalists and abuse counselors have associated fundamentalism with "religious addiction" or spiritual abuse. It is easy to see how the more extreme sects such as Aum Shinrikyo or the People's Temple might qualify, but workers in the field of spiritual abuse recovery point out that "anything that can alter our mood can become addictive." Fundamentalists Anonymous has joined the list of twelve-step groups, and organizations like Christian Recovery International's Spiritual Recovery ministry offers counseling and other resources to people who have been victimized by their relationship to a religious community or leader.

"What Shall We Tell the Children?"

In the 1997 Oxford Amnesty lecture, cognitive scientist Nicholas Humphrey observed, "In the United States ... it sometimes seems that almost everyone is either a religious fundamentalist or a New Age mystic or both." Humphrey's fundamental (pardon the expression) question concerned the effect on children of beliefs passed on to them by parents who "do not believe in things that are absolutely central to the scientific view." A 1996 survey found that half of the people in the US didn't know that the earth orbited the sun once a year; more than half did not accept that human beings have evolved from animals, and less than one in ten believed that evolution -- if it occurred at all -- could have happened without some kind of external intervention. The actual situation, Humphrey suggested, was likely worse, as the survey measured an average, while in some communities "not only are superstition and ignorance even more firmly entrenched, but ... this goes hand in hand with the imposition of repressive regimes of social and inter-personal conduct...."

Humphrey quoted anthropologist Donald Kraybill, who studied the Amish in Pennsylvania, as saying "Groups threatened
by cultural extinction must indoctrinate their offspring if they want to preserve their unique heritage. Socialization of the very young is one of the most potent forms of social control. As cultural values slip into the child's mind, they become personal values – embedded in conscience and governed by emotions...." The Amish believe that the Bible enjoins parents to train their children in religious matters and the Amish way of life. Ethnic nurseries in Amish communities do so from the time children are very young. This, Humphrey took care to point out, is not peculiar to the Amish. "All sects that are serious about their own survival do indeed make every attempt to flood the child's mind with their own propaganda, and to deny the child access to any alternative viewpoints," he said, noting that such a restricted education is perfectly legal in the US.

Humphrey proposed a test for deciding when the teaching of a belief system is morally defensible:

If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to
impose this system and to chose for them to do so. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

Humphrey took issue with the US Supreme Court ruling that the Amish were exempt from sending their children to public school. The court wrote "We must not forget that in the Middle Ages important values of the civilization of the Western World were preserved by members of religious orders who isolated themselves from all worldly influences against great obstacles." The difference, Humphrey argued, is that the monks chose to become monks, "they did
not have their monasticism imposed on them as children, and nor did they in their turn impose
it on their own children – for indeed they did not have any."

Humphrey cited Kant's formulation that human beings have the right to be treated as ends in themselves, and not as the means to somebody else's ends. Children, he argued, are no exception, in fact we have a special obligation to watch out for them.

This principle comes into play when a parent seeks to impose a restrictive belief system on a child. "A Christian Fundamentalist mother, for example, forbids her child from attending classes on evolution," Humphrey said, "though she may claim she is doing it for the child and not of course herself, she is very likely motivated primarily by a desire to make a display of her own purity."

Humphrey concluded that science was the only way of thinking that passed his test of a morally defensible belief system. Conversions from superstition to science are common events, he suggested, perhaps even part of our own experience. He expressed doubts that the reverse ever occurred.

I doubt there has ever been a case, for example, of someone who has been brought up to believe the geological theory of volcanoes moving over to believing in divine anger instead, or of someone who has seen and appreciated the evidence that the world is round reverting to the idea that the world is flat, or even of someone who has once understood the power of Darwinian theory going
back to preferring the story of Genesis.

The contrast, Humphrey suggested, is symbolized by the second century Roman theologian Tertullian, on the one hand -- who wrote of Christianity, "It is certain because it is impossible." "For us curiosity is no longer necessary after Jesus Christ nor inquiry after the Gospel." -- and the twelfth century English philosopher, Adelard of Bath, on the other who wrote "If anyone living in a house is ignorant of what it is made, . . he is unworthy of its shelter, and if anyone born in the residence of this world neglects learning the plan underlying its marvellous beauty ... he is unworthy ... and deserves to be cast out of it."

This point of view, Humphrey asserted, is not the same as imposing a belief system on someone, it's encouraging them to develop their own.

The habit of questioning, the ability to tell good answers from bad, an appetite for seeing how and why deep explanations work – such is what I would want for my daughter (now two years old) because I think it is what she, given the chance, would one day want for
herself. But it is also what I would want for her because I am too well aware of what might otherwise befall her. Bad ideas continue to swill through our culture, some old, some new, looking for receptive minds to capture. If this girl, because she were to lack the defenses of critical reasoning, were ever to fall to some kind of political or spiritual irrationalism, then I and you – and our society – would have failed her.


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"Ten Commandments judge removed from office" 14 Nov. 2003

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Moyers, Bill "Welcome to Doomsday" NY Review of Books. 24 Mar. 2005.

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Berke, Richard L. "A Tape Reveals Pat Robertson, the Politician" NY Times 19 Sep. 1997

Laythe Brian, et al. "Religious Fundamentalism as a Predictor of Prejudice" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41.4 (2002): 623-635.

Szegedy-Maszak,Marianne. Rev. of Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right Wing Authoritarianism by Bob Altemeyer. Psychology Today Mar. 1989.

Streib, Heinz "Is There A Way Beyond Fundamentalism?" The Fourth R for the Third Millennium Ed. Leslie Francis, et al. Dublin: Lindisfarne Books 2001, 177-199.

Herek, Gregory M. "Religious Orientation and Prejudice:" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 13.1 (1987):34-44.

Blaker, Kimberly The Fundamentals Of Extremism New Boston: New Boston Books, 2003.

Humphrey, Nicholas "What Shall We Tell the Children?" Oxford Amnesty Lecture, 1997. Published as "What Shall We Tell the Children?" The Values of Science, Ed. Wes Williams. Oxford: Westview Press, 1998. 58-79.

For the language of the Constitution Restoration Act of 2005, search for bill numbers S.520 or H.R.1070 here.