Fencing with fundamentalism: does anyone have THE ANSWER?

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.

I was certainly offered THE ANSWER at a young age, by my religious fundamentalist relatives, Aunt Maria and Uncle Patrick. Its offering, its context, and how I reacted,  makes quite an interesting story…now read on…

The Big Why ?

The Big Why ?

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 1960s. “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 a 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 ?

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….

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1150 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2015
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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12 responses to “Fencing with fundamentalism: does anyone have THE ANSWER?

  1. What’s the answer to anything? LOVE. Love them at a level that’s deeper than their flaws, their bigotry, their fundamentalism, their opinions about God or politics or anything else that the ego can latch onto that’s divisive. The letters wrapped in chocolate? All you could have done was to thank them for loving you enough to want you to be “saved” and enjoy the chocolate. I had a grandmother who was a fundamentalist, a grandfather who was a bigot and currently have a dear friend whose politics are opposite of mine. I love/d them anyway even though conversation can be a minefield. There’s no rebuttal to people who are entrenched in their “truth”. The best you can hope for is to figure out what they’re afraid of, what they’re hoping for, or what they also love so you might find some common ground that’s not on the same level they want to rant on about.

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    • Hi Martha I appreciate your wise and compassionate words. I returned to my relatives as an older and more compassionate person, in line with your suggestions. I thought I had mended fences, but my openness and affection were taken as signs that if the fundamentalist persecution – again, by letter – was continued, this time I might be converted. After a few years of this, I gave up trying.

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      • No, reasonableness won’t work. All you can do is love them anyway and maintain your own center as their weird beliefs bounce off of your force field. With my grandmother, the “charismatic”, I’d just silently pray that she’d see things differently after she passed over to a Larger Perspective. At least her beliefs were fundamentalist and benign instead of murderous like we see in some parts of the world today.

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      • You are so right about that!

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  2. You have tackled a rather delicate subject that many of us struggle with. I listen to what people have to say about their religious views/opinions and keep in mind that each one of us is on a path and at different levels of wisdom and knowledge; that it is not my role (unless someone is specially searching for answers) to convince people otherwise, but merely to listen and let them walk their path. When someone spouts religion and then asks for my opinion, I simply say “I have learned that religion is a delicate subject with many viewpoints and I do not wish to go there.”

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    • Yes, that seems like a very reasonable approach, Bev, and one I generally take myself. But, as you will see from my reply to the previous commenter, there are some situations where reasonableness and acknowledging the other person’s point of view ( which I did repeatedly with my aunt ) is taken as a sign of weak boundaries which, with a bit more persecution, can be swept away so that the non-fundamentalist ( who is of course headed for Hell Everlasting ) can be battered into converting to the RIGHT viewpoint.

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  3. Regretfully, Anne, you are correct about tolerance not being a two-way street. I lost a life-long friendship because of a friend’s latter-age conversion to a fundamentalist Christian religion. I attempted to keep my mouth shut, but was cornered into answering a direct question. I do not believe that any one person, religion, or spirituality has The Answer. I include “spirituality” because many [US] new-agers are as equally intolerant as fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, etc. And the more fear based humans become, the more we’ll have to fear.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your experience, Leslie. And I’m sorry to hear about your friendship. The conclusion I have come to is that all types of fundamentalisrm – and our world culture right now is suffering from a range of different forms of it, some lethal – are the curse of the human race and have been from Day One.
    I think that fundamentalism has its deep roots in our reptilian brain, which operates from survival outwards, perceiving any form of opposition as a deadly threat which must be fought to the bitter end no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, our species’ magnificent intelligence, ingenuity and technological brilliance have failed to find a way of dealing with those deep, primitive roots in such a way as to enable us to live in a co-operative and creative manner with our beautiful planet and all its creatures.
    Some day, maybe?
    But at least we can TRY at an individual level not to behave in a way which belittles, diminishes or threatens those with whom we come into contact…

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  5. 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” …is actually the only thing anyone should ever do….regardless of ones religious or political beliefs. Not even Jesus Himself tried to force His views on anyone. It’s so sad that so many good honest well intentioned people fail to get this.

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