Quite a few years ago, a transgender teen spoke up at a support group meeting I attended about her problems at home. She was very upset, understandably so. Her parents were part of that minority of Americans I wrote about last time who believe the Bible is “is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” (Based on the wording of a question (code BIBLE) in the General Social Survey (GSS), a massive long-term, large-scale survey conducted regularly since 1972. (Data available online at http://sda.berkeley.edu/sdaweb/analysis/?dataset=gss14).
This young woman’s parents (and their church) had been preaching to her that God will send all LGBTIQ people to hell, quoting all the usual Bible verses condemning these things. The one that seemed to damn her most definitively for her gender identity was Deuteronomy 22:5: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
The reason she found it so disturbing, she explained, was that she really wanted to be a good Christian, but she was being told that to be a good Christian, she must believe the Bible is literally true, and if the Bible really is literally true, then God must condemn her for wanting to express her deepest feelings about herself.
I found it all pretty upsetting and disturbing, too, but for different reasons. At the time, I had already been studying religion and the history of religion for several years, and I knew that many of the claims that Christian Fundamentalists make about their teachings are simply untrue. And eventually, I told her so.
“You don’t have to believe that,” I said. “Most Christians don’t believe you have to interpret everything in the Bible literally. Many of the greatest thinkers of the early church didn’t believe that – they even taught that taking the Bible literally was just wrong in a lot of cases, and you have to look for the higher, spiritual meaning behind the surface meaning.”
All of which is quite true.
For starters, turning again to the GSS, among respondents to a question about what religion they belong to (code RELIG), only about two out of five people who identify themselves as Christians give the TWOG response (The Word of God) to the BIBLE question I wrote about last time. In other words, TWOGs are a minority not just among Americans but also among American Christians. The largest number, 50 percent, are what I call INSPs (“The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word”) and about 10 percent even give the least Fundamentalist response (“The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by men.”)
Of course, TWOGs/Fundamentalists regularly claim that if you don’t agree with them on this point, you’re not a “real” or a “good” Christian. Besides being an example of the classic “No True Scotsman” fallacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman ), if this claim were true, it would mean that many eminent church fathers, including Clement of Alexandria, Saint Jerome and even Saint Augustine (beloved by Fundamentalists for formulating the doctrine of original sin) were not “real Christians.”
The real reason Fundamentalists preach Biblical literalism (though they don’t actually practice it consistently) is, I believe, pure authoritarianism and dates to the Reformation: rejecting the authority of the Roman Catholic church and especially the Pope, the Protestants embraced the Bible as the only sure authority for religious belief and practice – but authoritative only if interpreted according to their own teachings.
There are numerous problems with the whole Fundamentalist approach, but one of the most glaring is the fact that the effort to declare the Bible an infallible authority about everything in the universe boils down to another classic logical fallacy, the argument from authority (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority ).
What that boils down to is that it doesn’t matter who makes a statement, you still have to judge whether the statement’s content is true, i.e., corresponds with reality. Alas, in many, many cases, the Bible’s statements do not. Threatening people with eternal damnation for not believing things that don’t make sense isn’t “good Christianity,” it’s just bullying.