I am a Theologian with a strong background in Philosophy; apart from Philosophical Theology, my particular area of interest is Ethics. Given this, I often publish my thoughts and reflections on moral issues, of various persuasions, in various media.
I have written on the morality of warfare, whether it is sometimes permissible to lie, the morality of torture, capital punishment, the nature of our obligations to the poor, issues around abortion and homosexual conduct – topics, I think, that are unavoidable if one is a theologian writing from a relatively conservative evangelical perspective.
Some of my positions are controversial, I believe that homosexual conduct is contrary to divine law and I believe that feticide is homicide. The latter claim is not just a casual opinion; I spent some years writing a PhD thesis on the topic and over the last couple of years I have had academic articles published in this area.
Now an all too pervasive response to a Christian, like me, expressing a position on these issues is to be deemed a “fundamentalist bigot” (or variation to that effect). One would think that it would be fairly obvious that one cannot refute a position simply by calling the person who holds it names, and it is tempting to dismiss this response as simply a confused ad hominem, the problem is that people do not appear to find this obvious. In my experience, many people, even educated people, recoil from considering any argument against feticide or homosexual conduct or listening to theological concerns on these or other matters because they perceive such positions to be “fundamentalist” and “bigoted.”
It is worth fisking this objection a bit. A good place to start is to ask what this charge amounts to?
Take the term “fundamentalist,” what exactly does it mean? It is hard to find a consistent definition of the term. Originally the term referred to a particular protestant movement of Christianity in the early 20th century who published a series of tracts entitled the “the fundamentals.” Clearly, when the term is used today, few who use it have this meaning in mind.
Muslim terrorists are regularly called “fundamentalist” yet they do not defend the fundamental Christian doctrines that this movement defended. In other contexts, fundamentalist is a term used to describe those with a strict dispensationalist pre-millennial and 6-day creationist reading of scripture. However, many of the authors of “The Fundamentals” were Darwinists and rejected pre-millennialism. To complicate things further, Islamic terrorists are not dispensational pre-millenial, though some are literal 6-day creationists and others are old earth creationists. Now, dispensationalists are committed to the State of Israel. I doubt Al Qaeda, Hamas, et al are terribly enthusiastic about the protection of the Israeli state.
When I was researching for my doctorate in theology I noted Roman Catholic apologists often use the term “fundamentalist” to designate evangelicals. Yet when I studied at Laidlaw College the term was used by evangelical professors to designate defenders of a strict understanding of biblical inerrancy, particularly those who emphasised a strict adherence to scripture in contrast to the experiential theology associated with Pentecostalism. However, the media often describes Pentecostal churches, like Destiny Church as fundamentalist.
In his book Warranted Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga noted that the term “fundamentalist” tends to expand or contract depending upon who uses it and we can definitely see that in the examples above. Plantinga’s conclusion was that,
Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.
It is hard to resist his conclusion that “merely pointing out that they differ from the objector’s (even with the addition of that abusive emotive force) is not [a valid objection].” The term fundamentalist in its contemporary use “is simply meant to denigrate and demonise, to label and conjure up stereotypes to avoid having to actually come up with anything concrete” like an actual argument against their position.
The labeling of someone as a “bigot” fairs little better. The dictionary defines a bigot as “an obstinate or intolerant adherent of a point of view.” Presumably, the objector claims that one who appeals to the law of God to condemn feticide or homosexual conduct (or some other practice celebrated by contemporary liberal secularists) displays or expresses these features; they are both obstinate and intolerant. The accusation clarified, an obvious question arises, why?
Turning first to the issue of obstinance, why assume that the fact that someone holds these beliefs automatically renders them obstinant? Could they not have come to these beliefs as a result of careful and considered reflection? Alternatively, could they hold to them because they are not convinced that the counter arguments are sound? What is needed here is some argument to preclude such options and none is forthcoming; names and labels won’t do the job.
I suspect that what lingers behind this accusation is the belief that theologically-based opposition to issues like abortion is obviously mistaken and the case against it so compelling that no rational, informed person could possibly think otherwise. If so, then this is not so much an argument against such appeals but an assumption that those who make them are mistaken on other grounds. The objector should come clean about what these other grounds are and put forward these compelling, unassailable arguments that everyone else should apparently already know about.
Regarding the charge of intolerance, let me here just say that the concern about intolerance implicit in this objection is mistaken. Even if the proponents of more conservative positions were intolerant, this would only constitute an objection to their behaviour if it were first assumed that people have a duty to refrain from intolerance but this assumption is problematic.
In many contexts intolerance is appropriate and contrary to popular slogans, is a virtue. Imagine a society that tolerated rape, child molestation or infant sacrifice? Moreover, if unqualified, the assertion that people have a duty to be tolerant entails that one is required to tolerate intolerance; a deeply paradoxical claim.
For this charge to have any substance, the objector needs to specify what sorts of action he or she thinks one should tolerate and which ones are such that intolerance is inappropriate. He or she needs to justify this distinction and then provide reasons for thinking that appeals to divine law on a subject like feticide fall into the latter category. Again, a label will not achieve this.
Here us the rub; if feticide is an action on a par with infanticide then intolerance towards it is justified. In asserting that it is not, the objector implicitly assumes that feticide is not homicide without offering an argument. Similarly, if homosexual conduct is a serious form of sexual immorality, on par with incest, bestiality, polygamy or adultery, then intolerance against it is not necessarily wrong. Our society, for example, has laws against incest and bestiality and few contend for their repeal (though the chipping away has begun). Once again, the objector here, in making their charge, assumes that homosexual conduct is not seriously immoral without providing an argument.
Now it is possible that these assumptions are correct but it is also possible they are not.
Anyone who appeals to divine law to condemn practices like feticide or homosexual conduct is denying these assumptions. You don’t provide a cogent objection to a position by assuming it is false at the outset and then using this assumption to prove that it is, arguing in this circular fashion proves nothing and is an error of logic. What is needed is an actual argument for the assumption in the first place. Until some actual argument is forthcoming that demonstrates the falsity of what has been defended, objections based on the notion of tolerance merely beg the question and have no impact on the thesis being advanced.
I think there is a kind of irony here; often when someone accuses Christians of “fundamentalist bigotry” they themselves are the ones obstinately assuming that their position is true and their assumption leads them to castigate and refuse to tolerate the opinions or persons who express dissent to their secular liberal orthodoxy. In using these labels they are dismissing a person’s opinion, not on the basis of reason but on the basis of a religious stereotype. Here, as elsewhere, the accusation of “fundamentalist bigotry” is a form of Orwellian double-speak.
 Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 245.
 I am grateful to my wife, Madeleine Flannagan, for these words.
 Oxford English Dictionary.
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the November 09 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com