Sunday, December 05, 2004

Stephen Prothero writes at least two stupid things

Here are two things about Stephen Prothero's Sunday Times review of James Ault's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church that are stupid, and betray a fundamental thoughtlessness.

First: In the first paragraph, Prothero drags out the shopworn "irony" that people tend to be intolerant of fundamentalists exactly because fundamentalists are intolerant. One can only assume he means to imply --- as do most people who point out this "irony" --- that those who are intolerant of fundamentalists are hypocrites.

Hey, that reminds me of a pretty similar "irony": if you decide to kidnap somebody and hold them prisoner against their will, then law enforcement will come and "kidnap" you, holding you prisoner against your will. Law enforcement: a bunch of hypocrites! Or, how about this: Nazis armed with guns were rounding up the Jews of Prague and killing them like dogs; "ironically", the Jews decided to gather up guns and fight back, shooting at the Nazis in return. Those Jews of Prague, they sure were hypocrites!

Prothero, like everyone who drags out this idiotic cliché about failing to tolerate intolerance, chooses to ignore the difference between initiating a wrong, and retaliating against that wrong. Sometimes, when you retaliate against a wrong, you must adopt some tactics that are superficially similar to the tactics of those guilty of the wrong.

Prothero also confuses the real issue, which is not "intolerance" per se. We are, all of us, intolerant of someone: pedophiles, rapists, con men, Al Qaeda members. The point of dispute is not "tolerance", but rather the thing being tolerated, or not tolerated. Fundamentalists hate gays and atheists categorically and irrationally; homosexuality and atheism are things that are essentially worthy of tolerance; therefore, fundamentalists are wrong. No such argument applies to the categorical, irrational hatred itself --- that is not essentially worthy of tolerance.

Second: About midway through the review, Prothero writes:

The stereotype, of course, is that fundamentalists are Manichean moralists. And the strict rules they follow certainly seem to be black and white. In the application of these moral absolutes, however, Ault finds plenty of gray. Shawmut River functions like a close-knit family, he argues, and the brothers and sisters in that kinship network demonstrate a "situation-specific flexibility" in morality that is difficult to distinguish from the situation ethics they so vehemently decry. Divorce, for example, is prohibited, and [Rev.] Valenti tries to talk his parishioners out of it. Yet when they call a marriage quits, he is the first to let bygones be bygones. "While fundamentalists' timeless, God-given absolutes may appear rigid from the outside," Ault writes, "within the organism of a close-knit community where much is known in common about persons and situations, they can be surprisingly supple and flexible."

But this doesn't upset any stereotypes at all. One of the most common criticisms about fundamentalists is that they're hypocrites, content to assail the degenerate lifestyles of others from afar while giving themselves and their kin a pass. Duh. I have little doubt that Valenti has sermonized against the degeneracy of people not in his congregation, without understanding that people the world over have lives just as complex and difficult as the life of any sheep in his personal flock.

1 comment:

  1. You are obviously a very thoughtful and passionate seeker of what Jacobean Christians, Jacobean Jews, Jacobean Taoists... (and Jacobean agnostics and Jacobean atheists who don't give Jack about Jacob) all do see as "the softest of software as well as the hardest of mysteries."

    And as you are also a computer scientist who pays attention to subtleties and inconsistencies, may I direct your attention and your quite rigorous attention to detail to what JC's and the other Jacobeans refer to as "God and Nature's Operating System" as "revealed" at

    BTW, beware the site's purposefully fractal non-linearities whilst enjoying its modestly raunchy tweaks at some things that both fundies and atheists agree passionately about.

    BTW2, perhaps the only reason to be open to the possibility that may contain anything of merit theo-logically and/or funda-mentally is this... its way of taking the measure of the "God" meme is so God-Awe-ful that both extreme ends of the God bebate agree its answers-that-raise-more-questions-that-raise-more-answers-that-... sucks.

    Looking forward to getting your thoughtful critique of it if you are up to the challenge.