Should we argue with fundamentalism?

Fortunately, it was a peat bank we hit. That cushioned the impact, saving the car from much damage. Uncle Patrick had stopped singing “Abide with me”: for once, he was completely silent. Perhaps he was wondering how to get the car out of the ditch. Aunt Maria, white faced, was leaning over into the back of the car where I had been jolted onto the floor behind the driver’s seat. No one had heard of seatbelts  in the 1950s. “Are you all right, dear?” she said anxiously. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe I’ve bruised my knee, that’s all.” ….

At last Patrick spoke. “I think perhaps you shouldn’t mention this to your father,” he said. He knew my father’s opinion of his driving, gained from the local grapevine. He also found my father rather intimidating, perhaps because Dad was not the least in awe of his clerical collar. I liked Patrick, despite the increasingly intense arguments we were having about religion as I moved into the truculence and awkwardness of adolescence.

“No, of course not,” I said. I understood very well that his mind was always more on God than the mere driving of a motor vehicle. Also being the owner of a wandering mind, inclined to “higher things”, I had a secret sympathy for his predicament. Life on Earth was too mundane for our liking, my aunt included. Not that we ever discussed this, of course. My family was not strong on personal disclosure of any kind. But I was very good at knowing how people thought and felt without them saying anything.

“If she doesn’t marry a minister, she’ll make a minister out of the man she marries!” prophesied my father about my maiden aunt Maria. It was known that she was ‘disappointed in love’ – her first great love had been for a presbyterian minister. I never did discover what had happened. She seemed to be wedded to God, until Patrick appeared in her life. Ten years younger than she, he had had a colourful life as a whaler, then a docker, until, in his early thirties, he “got the curam”.

This is an occasional but distinctive syndrome particular to the Hebrides, whereby a man (usually) having lead a dissolute life – “He would have sucked whisky through a dirty doormat on the steps of the Stag Hotel!” as my father once memorably put it of a local drinker who had “got the curam” – suddenly discovers God and goes away to Aberdeen University divinity faculty to train to be a Free Church minister. He then, usually, takes up a charge in a country parish in the Highlands and Islands and rails from his pulpit about, amongst other things, the evils of his former lifestyle.

(nb I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the case with all men who train for the ministry at Aberdeen Uni divinity faculty. Just some of them !!)

And thus it was with Patrick, ably assisted by his new wife my aunt Maria, a natural academic and scholar who had never had the opportunity to go to university herself. Having left school at fourteen, barely literate, Patrick mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew with her help, and duly became a minister. Although our disagreements became more entrenched as I grew older, I admired them both hugely for this effort and eventual success.

The Big Why ?
The Big Why ?

I have always asked questions. However, I have equally had an innate dislike of anyone providing me with THE ANSWER, having always sensed – and the unfolding of life, experience and much reading has affirmed this – that there are many answers. Mere humans are in no position to determine which, if any, are correct.

This persistent orientation has probably assisted me in having a complex and colourful life; it has also had its serious downside. Life is much easier and simpler if you believe the answer is out there somewhere, and feel gratitude when someone convincing provides it.

Uncle Patrick, and with equal conviction but less rhetoric Aunt Maria, had THE ANSWER and did their best to provide me with it. However, I simply could not accept that every word in the Bible was literally true, that Darwin’s brilliant theory of evolution was the work of the Devil, or that the Pope was the Antichrist and that all who were not Saved (ie a few thousand believers in Predestination on a small, wet, windswept, obscure island) were Damned to Hell everlasting.

So I spent a lot of time in my mid-teens, as the time grew closer for me to make my longed-for escape from home to University, arguing philosophy and theology with Patrick. He had the edge over me in the theological department. for obvious reasons. But my study of ancient Greek, a few years after Patrick had completed his, drew me much more at that stage in my life to the classical splendours of Homer’s ‘Oddysey’ than to the religion taught to me during my childhood.

By the time I left for Uni, Patrick feared I was a lost cause. For the first two years, Aunt Maria wrote to me regularly – long religious homilies wrapped around large bars of Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate. How I hated those letters! Eventually the searing anger and resentment I had carried with me from my difficult and painful family life boiled over and scalded her: I recognise now that she was unwittingly providing me with a scapegoat on which I could dump my anger.

I wrote to her telling her that I objected to her trying to ram her beliefs down my throat, and never to communicate with me again. Our relationship thus broke down, and was not to be healed for nearly thirty years.

However, Patrick and Maria taught me one valuable lesson during our long and increasingly bitter wrangle over religion. It is a futile waste of time to bother arguing with fundamentalism. As my life went on, I discovered that this early truth applied whether the context was religion, science, politics, education, feminism or whatever. There is no way of engaging in dialogue with fundamentalism. Any attempt is doomed to failure. So I learned, at quite a young age, not to bother trying.

As a much older and I hope slightly wiser person, my approach now is to try to be tolerant and good humoured in the face of  those who have THE ANSWER. But that is hard to maintain – especially given the marked lack of tolerance usually offered in return….

So- what do you folks out there think? Should we argue with fundamentalism – religious, scientific, political?


1100 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


6 thoughts on “Should we argue with fundamentalism?

  1. Maternal grandfather (born late 1870s) was a sun Taurus alcoholic turned religious addict. Yes, fundamentalism runs deep in my family of origin, even when alcohol/religion are not involved. It just needs some very strong personalities who are out of balance. But they are usually the dominant ones who control everything anyway. Pyroluria? Very good story! As an aside, we saw bio on Henry Ford. He also has a 12th house sun. He was not a nice person, but I don’t think the sun placement was the reason. I did notice in the bio that it mentioned he liked to do things from ‘behind the scenes.’ Hmmm.

  2. I had an interesting experience this week. A blogger I’m rather fond of and always enjoyed chatting with posted a new entry which was filled with some unhappy stereotypes of “religious sorts” – you know, the poor primitives who haven’t become sufficiently enlightened to understand that rationality is the answer to everything in life.

    I chuckled when I read your post because my experience with the blogger was just the latest in a series of experiences where I find one sort of fundamentalist chastising every other sort!

    As you’ve no doubt figured out, I am a Christian, but my beliefs are as far from what you describe here as can be. And every time someone starts in, describing Christians as this or that, I feel my blood pressure going up. I want to protest – “Now wait a minute! That’s not fair! That’s not ME!” (Sometimes, I even want to protest on behalf of the poor Church. Traditional Christian faith is pretty far removed from much of what passes for Christianity in this country, for sure.)

    The sad thing is that, while I might be willing to share some of my experiences or beliefs, I don’t. I have no desire to be ridiculed, or judged an inferior creature. Perhaps a better way to say it is – I know what I believe, and it’s a deep part of me, and I have no desire to have others who care not a whit about me or my beliefs sully it.

    So, no – I don’t argue with fundamentalists of any stripe. I’m happy to discuss, or to share – but when people start pointing out how their beliefs make them superior to everyone else, I’m the one heading out the door in search of a nice coffee and cake!

  3. As an astrologer, as you can probably imagine, I am chronically fed up with those in the public realm who dismiss a great and ancient subject as rubbish, whilst (invariably) never having investigated it beyond the shallow trivialities of the Sun Sign columns which most people think of as astrology.

    On the rare occasions when I am personally confronted with this type of ignorant prejudice – most of the folk I associate with being open-minded – I ask the person(usually a fundamentalist of either the scientific or the religious category) for how long, and how deeply, they have studied the subject they are dismissing.

    This question never elicits a straight answer. But it usually shuts them up, at which point I smile sweetly and exit in search of coffee and cake….

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