Is too much respect given to fundamentalist/literalist clap trap?

The brief answer is `yes’.

I will illustrate the point with the example of Mike Huckabee, the candidate for the Republication presidential nomination who came first in the Iowa caucuses. There are many other examples of obnoxious and dangerous fundamentalism, much but not all of it religious, that I could have put in the stocks, but for now Mike Huckabee will do. Before entering politics, Huckabee was a pastor at two Baptist churches.

Sexist fundamentalism

Mike Huckabee, when he was governor of Arkansas, signed in 1998, alongside 129 other evangelical leaders, a full-page ad in USA Today in support of the new statement of faith adopted in June 1998 by the Southern Baptist convention. This statement declared that "a wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." Thanks to my Calvinist upbringing, I know the source of this statement well. It’s Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 5:22-33. My parents used to read it to us when we were children, to impress us with the need to engage our brains when reading the Bible, and specifically to filter out the all-too-human dross that so often obscures its divine message. What made perfect sense for those recording the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) – the religious traditions, doctrines, dogmas, myths, parables, metaphors, legends and history first of a collection of Middle-Eastern nomadic tribes from around 2100 BCE, and then of one or two small Middle-Eastern kingdoms from about 1050 BCE, and what may have seemed self-evident to the Judeo-Greco-Roman first-century CE authors of the the New Testament, can easily become a bizarre abomination in a different age. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety (I am using the New International Version).

"22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband."

Some of this is beautiful. It is possible that Paul was progressive, ahead of his time, even a feminist in the first-century Mediterranean culture in which this was written. But if you take the whole chapter literally today, as Huckabee does, it is deeply offensive, sexist and objectionable. The notion of a President of the United States of America marching under the banner of "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord", is very scary.

Fundamentalist homophobia

All three Abrahamic faiths reflect their desert-dwelling, Middle-Eastern cultural origins through the manifest homophobia of their holy books – the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament (Paul again) and the Quran. Fortunately, enlightened followers of Judaism and Christianity, and to a lesser extent also Islam have purged their interpretation and practice of their faiths of the homophobia that pervades their holy books, just as they have shed the (from today’s perspective) sexist baggage of the ancient Middle Eastern cultures.

Not so Mr Huckabee, however. He believes that "Homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk." He suggested in 1992, that the federal government commit no additional federal funding to finding a cure for AIDS, which was then considered by many to be a gay disease.

I don’t want a homophobe bigot in the White House.

Creationist fundamentalism

Huckabee is a creationist. He does not "believe in" evolution – he was one of three candidates for the Republica presidential nomination who raised their hands when the moderator Chris Matthews, at a debate early in 2007 in Little Rock, Arkansas, asked who did not believe in evolution. It is unfortunate that the moderator phrased has question in terms of "believing in" evolution. The proper way to put the question is whether you think the modern statement of Darwin’s theory of evolution is the best scientific explanation thus far of the origin of species. "Belief" and "believing" have nothing to do with this.

When I say that Huckabee is a creationist, I am not talking here about creationism ‘lite’, which argues, as I understand it, that God created the universe and the laws of nature that science studies and tries to understand. That is a non-testable proposition: no evidence could confirm or refute it. So it should be taught in religious study classes, alongside other non-scientific matters of faith. Not anti-scientific, just non-scientific: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Unlike science, which requires logical consistency and empirical verification or non-falsification, faith is based on belief and trust. That doesn’s mean that anything goes. If some article of faith, like the literal interpretation of Ephesians 5: 22-33 is morally or ethically objectionable, there is no reason to respect it or be tolerant/understanding of its expression. Even if religious (or other) views and beliefs are held sincerely, deeply and passionately, to the point even of defining the essence of what a person or community holds sacred or is, this does not provide a reason for treating these views and beliefs with respect and deference. No doubt Hitler was a sincere, committed Nazi with deeply held views, and Attila a dedicated, confirmed Hun. A view, belief or position advanced as a religious statement or proposition (a) has to make logical sense (be internally coherent); (b) must be consistentent with the available empirical evidence if it makes a statement about the real world; and (c) must be morally acceptable if it makes a normative statement.

Huckabee is also not just a believer in "intelligent design", which holds that life is too complex to have evolved without an unidentified intelligent "designer", aka God. In principle this could be formulated as a falsifiable proposition, if one could, using either mathematical models/computer simulation or laboratory experiments, put bounds on the complexity of organisms that could evolve from, say, single-cell organisms. In practice, intelligent design always has ‘creationism lite’ as a fall-back position, which makes it non-testable and therefore non-scientific.

Huckabee is a six-day or six-time-slots creationist. He has stated he believes that Adam and Eve were real people. He has been trying to waffle his way out of the six-day quagmire: in the third CNN debate on June 5, 2007, when pressed about whether he believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis – that God created the world in six days about 6,000 years ago – Huckabee said, "I don’t know. I wasn’t there…But you know, if anyone wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it." … "Whether God did it in six days or whether he did it in six days that represented periods of time, he did it. And that’s what’s important." Neither the two churches where Huckabee was a pastor nor his campaign are willing to release the texts of his past sermons to the public.

Six-day creationism/six-periods-of-time creationism is a nonsense. It falls foul of requirement (b) for a faith worthy of respect. It is inconsistent with the available evidence. It is not an article of faith that has to be respected. It has to be assaulted with fact and logic, and if that fails, with ridicule and contempt. Anyone taking the 6-day creation story of Genesis as the literal factual truth, ought to have his head examined. I do not want a man in the White House with his finger on the nuclear trigger, who is incapable of even minor acts of logic and empirical verification/falsification.

The scariest feature of Huckabee’s statement is that is it treats as matters of belief or faith things that are in fact amenable to logical examination and empirical verification or falsification. This intellectual laziness, dishonesty even, has infected a suprising number of Americans. Apparently there are more Americans who believe that the biblical account of the creation is the literal truth than Americans who consider the theory of evolution to be the best available account thus far of the origin of species. Nonsense is not a matter of conscience; intellectual garbage must be taken to the dump.

Conclusion

Fundamentalism and literalism are the enemies of an open society – the enemies of liberty. People of faith should be in the vanguard of a determined assaults on the bastions of ignorance and stupidity represented by the fundamentalist, literalist cabals that so often drown out the voices of reason and tolerance in church, synagogue, mosque and temple. Fundamentalism has had it far too easy. It is time to fight back.

For me, my Christian faith amounts to (1) the untestable assumption that God created the universe and the laws of nature (including the laws that shape the processes that govern the evolution of living organisms); (2) the moral commandments: love God and love your neighbour as yourself ; and (3) the belief (in principle verifiable) that Christ came among us and died for our sins. The rest is interpretation and footnotes, most of it irrelevant at best, dangerous at worst.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

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