A weekend of collecting, sorting and cleaning Ordovician-Period marine fossils from the Arbuckle Mountains has got me thinking once again about one of the strangest beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians: that about 4,400 or so years ago, the deity who had created the universe a couple of millennia earlier got all pissed off and wiped out almost everything in a global flood. I suppose that would have been a good enough belief for someone living in the Middle Ages, but its prestige has been completely undercut by the science of geology, beginning with its birth in the late 17th century. By around the middle of the 19th century, the only people who still took the Noahic Flood seriously were circuit-riding evangelists and the crowds of superstitious, snake-handling bumpkins who followed them. In most cases, their backwardness can clearly be attributed to the lack of general education.
During the second half of the 19th century, public education began to rectify some of the illiteracy and ignorance that had characterized the frontier population at large; this program went into full swing after the Civil War and the U.S. gradually began to show signs of a more general secular awakening. That awakening looked frightening to many people (not least to the preachers whose incomes were thereby threatened), and it was out of that fear that fundamentalism was born late in that century.
Unlike the frontier revivalism that characterized much of the U.S. earlier in the 19th century, fundamentalism was in some respects a self-consciously “modern” movement. It was born out of a psychological conflict: the wish to enjoy the fruits of modernity (making necessary a kind of lip-service to the sciences that made those benisons possible) while swearing allegiance to the literal truth of the Bible – one of the strangest notions that’s ever been hatched by the unquiet mind of man. Since the findings of science were obviously at odds with biblical cosmology and history, fundamentalists were at pains to debunk those findings.
Continue reading “Morris on my Mind, and Not the Saved by the Bell One…”