Despite loose usage of the term and the tossing about of its diminutive form, “fundamentalist” is not a pejorative: the word was invented by conservative Christians for purposes of self-identification and bears an exact meaning that has only secondarily to do with attitude. I’m well acquainted with the history of this word because it is my interesting fortune to have been raised in one of the small, fractious, separatist, backwater Christian sects that coined it around the turn of the 20th century.
By the time I was born at mid-century, Missionary Baptist churches all over the U.S. South proudly touted their fundamentalist bona fides on the signs that identified them: “Independent – Bible-believing – Fundamental.” While dismissing the historic creeds as the inventions of fallen man, such churches showed not the least hesitation in publishing “statements of faith” (as though “creed” meant something different) sometimes disguised as “church covenants,” and those published statements always included an article such as “We believe the Bible to be the divinely-inspired and wholly inerrant Word of God.” Fundamentalists of the other monotheistic religions hold a similar attitude regarding their various “holy books.” Belief in the divine origin of a “sacred scripture” is essential to fundamentalists of all sects, because it’s the primary premise – often unspoken – in all of their arguments.
What I wish I could say to fundamentalists of all stripes (and wish they could hear me when I say it) is that their foundational premise is false. The Bible is most certainly not the Word of God: it has no more to do with the (alleged) creator of the universe than the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon or the Left Behind series.
If the God-who-doesn’t-exist had given us his “Word,” it wouldn’t look anything at all like the Bible. It wouldn’t contain patently false, credulity-straining fairy tales about a dust-man, a rib-woman, a talking snake, a geologically-impossible global flood with a wooden boat riding merrily on the waves carrying pairs of all the animals on Earth, a tower reaching to heaven, a wrathful scattering of languages, an Exodus that never happened, a city’s fortifications falling at the sound of out-of-tune trumpets, fire falling from heaven to consume a properly-quartered and thoroughly-drenched bullock, a reluctant prophet spending three of his most miserable days in the belly of a fish as punishment for his disobedience, a talking ass, a virgin birth, a zombie Savior and a truckload of miracles that defy not only the laws of nature but common sense as well, accompanied by the threat of eternal torment for those who find such stuff unbelievable.
A book authored by the creator of a hundred billion galaxies wouldn’t include provisions for the stoning of disobedient children and unfortunate brides whose “defilement” is discovered on their wedding night. It wouldn’t condone slavery and genocide. It wouldn’t require the kind of tortuous “logic” that fundamentalists employ in order to reconcile its contradictions and sweep its atrocities under the rug. That’s not the kind of book God would have given us.
If God had given us a book, it would be a book that tells us how we came to be what we are (it would include insights into evolutionary psychology), and it would give us some really good advice about how we might shape our future: it wouldn’t leave us floundering in confusion. The details of its account of origins would not be in open conflict with God’s other book, whose pages consist largely of the lithified deposits of rivers emptying into long-gone near-shore environments, burying the countless dead of ancient oceans and fossilizing them.
If God had written a book, it would be a book that condemns slavery, genocide, the subjugation of women, and the killing of those whose religion happens to be the “wrong” one and those whose sexual predilections differ from those of the heterosexual majority. It would be a book that sets forth the germ theory of disease instead of the sin theory of leprosy. It would be a book that counsels us to achieve better health through sanitation rather than animal sacrifice. In fact, it would deplore and denounce animal sacrifice as inhumane and barbaric. It would not be rife with contradictions and impossibilities. It would not suck.
A book inspired by God would certainly not send the message that the Earth is a flat disc with a “firmament” arching overhead, containing all those little twinkling points of light that turn out on closer inspection to be far different from what Bronze-Age Palestinian goatherds imagined them to be. It wouldn’t ascribe lordship of the night to our fickle moon, which falls down on that job precisely 50% of the time. It wouldn’t have us believe that Joshua made the sun “stand still” for a whole day or that Moses parted the Red Sea, fed the “chosen people” with manna and got them water out of a rock. In fact, it would dismiss the very idea of a “chosen people” as hubristic, dangerous and unworthy of thinking human beings. Not only would it not equate π with 3; it might have given us Maxwell’s equations.
Any book given to us by God would surely inform us that everyone has a right to adequate food and water and a decent place to live: if God existed, he’d give at least a rat’s ass about the sentient beings he created – he’d be looking out for us. He wouldn’t let a third of the human population live in grinding poverty, more than a billion of them teetering on the edge of starvation. And his book would tell us how to fix the awful injustices that make so many people’s lives a living hell, and perhaps threaten us with jock itch (but surely not with eternal hellfire) should we fall down on the job. (His book would contain more of Jesus and less of Jehovah.) If God existed, he’d have done a lot better job of distributing the planet’s resources more equitably around its surface so that everyone could have an equivalent share and an equal shot at a decent life, and his book would point that out. And in his book, if he were inclined to authorship, he’d certainly inform us that if we squander nonrenewable resources in the manufacture of cheap plastic crap and the fueling of pointless, frustrating routines, that if we exhaust the aquifers and poison the topsoil that we depend on for our very lives and lade the Earth’s atmosphere with CO2 thus trapping excess heat that would otherwise be radiated safely out into space, we damn well deserve what’s coming to us.
The “Word” of the creator of the universe would castigate parents who teach lies to children and hobble their minds with Bronze-Age nonsense.
But the Bible contains not a single word – much less a full-fledged warning – about any of these things, including the existential threats that we’ve brought upon ourselves. It gives us more details than we could possibly use about how properly to sacrifice a ram or a pair of turtledoves, but not a word about how to take care of a precious and finite planet. Instead, it “reveals” a supposed creator who once drowned the entire planet and will in due time destroy it with fire.
If the Bible were the Word of God, reading it would open our minds instead of shutting them down. It would fill us with awe rather than making us cringe.
If you want to see what a “sacred scripture” worthy of the name looks like, read the Upanishads and Sutras. At least there, one can find some useful insights into human psychology. There’s no addressing of human psychology in the Bible: instead, we get insights into demon-possession.
As a contender for the status of “Word of God,” the Bible is a dismal failure. Those who sell others on it have to rank among the great hucksters of history, and are probably as deluded as their customers. I can’t imagine a more colossal travesty than the sickening spectacle of intelligent men and women assassinating their brains in order to be able to believe the crap that fills the gilt-edged pages of the Blessed Old Bible from one leather cover to the other. Those who are fighting for its “truth” are duping themselves, and they’re making laughable spectacles of themselves into the bargain.
It doesn’t matter how many ancient languages apologists master in order to confound their opponents or tease a few diamonds out of that dung heap, or how many schemes of imaginative exegesis they adopt in order to hide the obvious from themselves: the Holy Bible is the worst book ever written and has wreaked more havoc than any other tome ever hatched by the unquiet mind of man. It’s the best candidate for burning in the entire 13,700,000,000-year history of the universe. The time has come to shelve a few copies of it as museum curiosities and otherwise consign it to the ash heap of human failure.
Hear ye the word of the Lord:
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: After you come into the land to which I am bringing you, whenever you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a donation to the LORD. From your first batch of dough you shall present a loaf as a donation; you shall present it just as you present a donation from the threshing floor. Throughout your generations you shall give to the LORD a donation from the first of your batch of dough.” – Numbers 15:17-21, NRSV
Thus sayeth the Lord our God, the creator of a hundred billion galaxies each of which ferries along its hundreds of billions of stars and trillions of planets – of which, said God only knows how many are living, like ours.
I rest my case. Don’t neglect your batch of dough.