Category Archives: Book Reviews

Whaddaya mean, ‘fundamentalist’?

At one of my recent talks on Bristol, an attendee challenged me on my definition of fundamentalism. And while I still think his definition did a violence to any traditional usage of the term (while mine was, obviously, unassailably correct), he raised an important point. ‘Fundamentalist’, in modern usage, is essentially a swear word. If you call someone a fundamentalist, you’re writing off their views as irrelevant and invalid. At the same time, the word does have a historical meaning, referring to a specific type of Christian theology.

In the past, I have capitalised on that very ambiguity with this blog. I blog about self-identified fundamentalists, the kind meant by the historical meaning of the word. But since I also think that these views are irrational and their adherents are extremists, I’ve been letting my readers interpret the term however they wish. If by fundamentalist you mean someone who believes in the literal truth of an inerrant Bible, that’s what I mean. But if you mean a terrorist, well, as far as I’m concerned the atrocities committed by self-proclaimed fundamentalists at Christian reform homes are in the same moral ballpark as terrorism, so that’s fine too.

Now I’ve decided I want to engage meaningfully with believers, I have a problem. You can’t reach mutual understandings through interfaith dialogue while calling your conversation partners terrorists. So is it time to lose the term ‘fundamentalism’? Even Bob Jones University, the spiritual home of fundamentalism, has made noises about ditching it:

“Basically, we’ve decided that we can’t use that term,” said Carl Abrams, a BJU history professor and a longtime member of the faculty. “The term has been hijacked and it takes you 30 minutes to explain it. So you need something else.”

But if not fundamentalist, then what? Well, before we can answer that, we need to know how fundamentalism gained its current status. And for that, we need Adam Laats’s outstanding book, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars.

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Telling Lies for God

Notice: I am giving my talk, “Inside Britain’s Creationist Schools”, in Leicester tomorrow. Details here.

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There are a lot of people who dislike creationism. Richard Dawkins, famously, is not that keen.

James F. McGrath, author of such treatises as “Do young earth creationists worship the devil?” and “Antievolutionism is a tool of Satan“, also appears to hold a less than favourable view.

Eugenie Scott has dedicated her life to fighting it, and Paul Braterman, sometime guest poster for this very blog, called it a cancer.

But all of these people’s antipathy to creationism pales into nothingness when faced with the raging, explosive hatred of Ian Plimer. Plimer feels about creationism roughly as normal people feel about child slavery. On the first page of his book, he calls creationism a “cult” and accuses creation scientists of committing “blatant scientific fraud”, and the salvo barely lets up from there. Telling Lies for God: Reason vs Creationism is not a nuanced or subtle tome. And, as much as I wanted to like it, I’m not convinced it’s very good.

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God or Gorilla?

W.A. Criswell’s Did Man Just Happen? is a creationist classic, first written in 1957 and revised in 1972, making it an early example of the modern creation movement.

Did Man Just Happen, W.A. Criswell

Found in the fiction section of all good bookstores.

It’s completely fucking terrible.

Now, I’m not aware of any creationist literature that’s good, but it’s hard to imagine much of it is worse than this. There are creationists who consider themselves rigorous scientists, and try to theorise workable creation models. Criswell is not among them. He was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and his argument consists almost entirely of assertion and irrelevancies. His characterisation of evolution is so far from what scientists actually think that the book could only be persuasive to someone who has never read any mainstream science, and never been taught to think critically. Such as – just for a hypothetical example – a student in Accelerated Christian Education.

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The textbooks that lost a lawsuit

Accelerated Christian Education has two main rivals: A Beka and BJU. These companies are, if anything, even worse than ACE.

As we discussed previously, schools using A Beka and BJU textbooks as college preparation were rejected by the University of California. These schools lost their subsequent lawsuit against UC, because what they teach is bollocks. So what do they teach?

Two authors have undertaken the thankless task of ploughing through the textbooks to find out: Albert Menendez, in Visions of Reality, and Frances Paterson, author of Democracy and IntoleranceThese two books are twenty and ten years old respectively, but the similarities in content are so striking (and fundamentalism so resistant to change) that there isn’t much reason to suppose the content of the textbooks would be vastly different now. ACE certainly hasn’t changed significantly in the last 15 years.

What we learn from these books is, well, what you’d expect really: Non-Christians (a category which includes Catholics) are evil, extreme laissez-faire economics are the only system sanctioned by God, history has simply been the fulfilment of God’s will, and it’s the job of good children to obey before growing up to establish a thoroughly Christian (ie dominionist, theocratic) society.  Read the rest of this entry

The Way Ahead – Recommendations for Faith Schools

On Friday, I examined the Alberta Department of Education’s views on Accelerated Christian Education. As part of its report, the Committee on Tolerance and Understanding made recommendations on educational policy to correct the problems it found. I think these make a reasonable skeleton for a public policy that could be implemented to ensure better education, and limiting poisonous systems like ACE. Lets look at their suggestions.

Actually, before we do, I’d like to post this quotation from the Committee’s report, since I agree with it so much I think I could put it on a poster:

“The mission of education must include development of critical thinking skills based on openness, inquiry, imagination, original ideas, dissent, rational thinking, and independence. Scoeity’s best efforts must alwas be open to skepticism and constructive criticism from students themselves. To do otherwise, to ignore their developing autonomy and judgment, would undermine the whole purpose of the enterprise. Respect for authority is essential, but a balance must be kept. History has shown time and again that when respect for authority completely overrides responsible independence, critical thinking is destroyed and society is left open to the evils of apathy, dogmatism and prejudice.”

Alright, so what are their suggestions?  Read the rest of this entry

Alberta Department of Education Reviews ACE

In 1985, the Canadian province of Alberta got very worried about Accelerated Christian Education. In fact, they said in a report that “In the view of the committee, there is no place for curriculum of this kind in the schools of Alberta.”

The chair of this committee, Ron Ghitter, visited an ACE school and reported that he saw an ACE book which said “All kinds of Buddhists and Muslims are evil.” In the background was the rise of Stockwell Day, a controversial former pastor and politician, who was accused of anti-Semitism and connections to supporters of the Aryan Nation. Stockwell Day boldly and publicly defended Accelerated Christian Education. “God’s law is clear. Standards of education are not set by government, but by God, the Bible, the home and the school.”  Read the rest of this entry

Accelerated Christian Education’s Literature Course

This week, I have mostly been reading hogwash.

The downside of studying fundamentalism is that I have to wade through fundamentalist literature. And I know I make this sound like a riot of hilarity, but it really isn’t. Most of the Christian extremist writers are rubbish communicators, who make a point once every 15 pages. At best. To get Pat Robertson’s views on Freemasonry, for example, I had to digest hundreds of pages of his ill-informed views on the political situation in Nicaragua. This was dull.

This week, I have splashed out on Amazon and bought several books by Accelerated Christian Education‘s founder Donald R. Howard, which amount to several hundred pages of unmitigated drivel (I wonder if I could get that description into a peer-reviewed journal article… challenge accepted!). But these are nothing compared to When Science Fails, a book I have been re-reading because it is part of Accelerated Christian Education’s literature syllabus.

The literature syllabus is probably the single worst aspect of ACE. It is so catastrophically dreadful that my mum used to do my literature homework for me – the only time in my entire education when she even considered cheating on my behalf. She thought the whole syllabus was such a waste of time that she used to read the books and answer the questions for me so I wouldn’t have to. Read the rest of this entry

Educational Psychology vs. the Christian Right

Of all the peer-reviewed literature on the Christian Right I’ve found, Professor David Berliner’s is the most excoriating. Not for Berliner the tolerance of historians like Adam Laats. He sees the Christian Right as a malign force, and shows some clear examples why. In short: they are politically active, and they want to destroy public schools.

Berliner’s paper, “Educational Pyschology Meets the Christian Right: Differing Views of Children, Schooling, Teaching, and Learning” makes the case that the goals of the Christian Right are so far removed from most educators – and from moderate Christianity ­– that it is not possible to work with them in a free society. He quotes from their fear-mongering propaganda literature, which calls on parents to dismantle the public education system from within by applying to become school governors, and purposely sabotaging the schools.

“Many among the Christian right are unable to engage in politics that make a common school possible. They may be unable to compromise and live with educational decisions rejecting a pluralistic democracy keeping separate church and state… If you are of the Christian Right, to be pragmatic, to give in, to compromise, to bargain or negotiate – that is, to engage in politics – is to lose to Satan.”  Read the rest of this entry

Jesus is My Boyfriend

First up, big thanks to the awesome hosts – including Andrew, Jenny, and Nicola – as well as the excellent guests at my talk at Questival yesterday. It was a great bunch of people, and I highly recommend 1) considering attending next year, and 2) checking out the talents of Jonny Berliner, who, along with a superb first name, has a top line in comedy/ science/ singer-songwriter musical goodness.

And now, today’s post…

There’s a common idea among Christians that not just sex, but all physical contact outside of marriage, is a Bad Thing. This kind of repression is simply a denial of basic facts about human sexuality. When you try to suppress human nature, it generally has a way of escaping. And, for some evangelical women, it escapes in quite hair-raising ways.

Welcome to “Jesus is My Boyfriend” – an entire genre of Christian music and literature for women who literally want a romance with God.

“Although God certainly loves us even with unshaven legs, no makeup, and a bed-head hairdo, he also deserves to occasionally have his princess sit at his feet while she is looking and feeling her best… You are running away with your Lover, not confining yourself to a convent.”

Shannon Ethridge, Every Woman’s Battle

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Fundamentalists, the Illuminati, Freemasons, and the UN

An overlooked danger of fundamentalism is how it can indirectly result in believing absurdities, quite apart from religion. Everybody knows fundamentalists believe unlikely things about God. Less known is their propensity for believing equally implausible things about the world more generally.

Take the surprisingly widespread belief among evangelicals that they are the victims of a vast conspiracy by liberals, New Agers, Satanists, and Freemasons. Great numbers of evangelicals seriously believe in an ancient Illuminati plot to destroy Christianity. Their conversation on the subject sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel (and, incredibly, Dan Brown’s books are actually better written than the fundy literature), but there’s no suggestion that it’s fiction.

So, because laughing at fundamentalism is fun, and because you won’t believe the extent of the insanity unless I show you, here’s a condensed guide to Fundamentalist Conspiracy Theory (and I mean condensed. I could write books about this). Read the rest of this entry