September 22, 2015

The Fear of Modernity: Why conservative Christianity doesn't embrace progress

Anybody else a fan of the Friendly Atheist? I love the blog and the podcast, myself.

A few weeks ago, they aired episode 70, an interview with attorney David Niose about legal issues facing young atheists and their families in our school system. The episode was great, with excellent information all around, but one quote in particular stuck out to me.


Niose said:

Modernity is a very scary concept if you have a biblical worldview. Of course, if you have a biblical worldview, you already know the ending, Jesus is gonna come back riding his chariot so they really perceive all of history kind of leading to that. So they see modernity as the process of society breaking down to prove their religion right.

This is a rough transcription, but it's the gist. Emphasis is, of course, added by me.

The episode aired on August 30. This past week, Dr. Ben Carson, one of our Republican presidential hopefuls, had this exchange on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD:
Let me wrap this up by finally dealing with what's been going on, Donald Trump, and a deal with a questioner that claimed that the president was Muslim. Let me ask you the question this way: Should a President's faith matter? Should your faith matter to voters? 

DR. BEN CARSON:
Well, I guess it depends on what that faith is. If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the constitution, no problem. 

CHUCK TODD:
So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the constitution? 

DR. BEN CARSON:
No, I don't, I do not. 

CHUCK TODD:
So you-- 

DR. BEN CARSON:
I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.

To me, this exchange brought to mind Niose's quote that I listed above because it seems like, in many ways, evangelical conservative Christianity is far and away inconsistent with our Constitution, and yet, evangelicals will support Carson's statement.

There are many reasons that conservative Christians don't embrace progress. You could probably extend that to all conservative theists, regardless of branches, but in fundamentalist Christianity, it's especially egregious, much like it is in apocalyptic death cults (to borrow from another presidential hopeful, Santorum, during last week's undercard debate) like ISIL.

Last year, I pointed out that there is little reason for conservative Christians to try to push back against climate change. In it, one of the sites I quote from stated this:

The idea of earth “wearing out” is an apt analogy. This entire world has been continually decaying since the fall.

This entire world has been decaying since the Fall of Man. For those of you following along who are unfamiliar with the idea, the Fall of Man is the origin of sin--Adam and Eve were instructed that they could eat of any tree in the garden EXCEPT the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve was deceived by the serpent, she ate the fruit, she then gave the fruit to Adam "who was with her", according to the scriptural text, and Adam ate it, bringing sin into the world (via the male line, which is why Jesus had to be born of a virgin), at least according to evangelical Christian doctrine.

This decay is the reason that modernity scares many of them. It's the reason that they pushback so hard against social and institutional changes. In their worldview, these apocalyptic Christians, the world is going to end, and to get there, society must decay.

It doesn't matter how much evidence you can point out to the contrary, they continue to cling to whatever evidence they can that the world is, in fact, decaying.

Just consider the overwhelming evidence that the world is, in fact, a better place:

  • We have developed governmental systems that have the potential to be far more responsive to citizens than ever before. Consider the difference between democratic republics or democratic socialism versus the feudal system, or war lord systems, or any other point in history. We have the chance to truly give our citizens voice and respect them equally.
  • We have greatly improved sanitation and hygiene, and it's one of the factors that has improved our longevity as a species.
  • We have created a wide variety of medical treatments, including preventative treatments like vaccinations, that help us to live longer, healthier lives.
  • We have cultivated global empathy. No longer is simply conquering one's neighbors and dispatching other citizens considered acceptable to expand your territory. We approach our global neighbors with a considerable degree of empathy--Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Amnesty International, and other aid and human rights organizations work tirelessly to call attention to the plight of all of Earth's children, not just the ones that live near us.
  • We understand more about how our natural world works than ever before.
  • We have come to understand the nature of mental disorders. What was once demon possession, what would once have been treated by a lobotomy or institutionalization is now treated with therapy, with better medicines, with care.
  • We have decreased infant and maternal mortality in many ways, although the struggle still continues, especially among those global citizens that are the most vulnerable.
  • We have realized that slavery is wrong. Step one. Now we are working on racism and systemic oppression.
  • We realized that women are not inferior but are a productive and important part of the species.
  • We have begun to feel an empathy for animals, as evidenced by our animal cruelty legislation. We still have a ways to go, but it's worlds beyond where it was just a few decades ago.
  • We are safer than we have ever been. A smaller percentage of our population dies violent deaths today than ever before. There is less war than ever before. This is especially true for those of us privileged enough to live in industrialized nations.
  • We have conceptualized a wide variety of rights that never existed before--privacy, private property, religious freedom, press freedom, freedom of speech, due process, jury trials, voting, petitioning the government for change, peaceably demonstrating, probable cause...really, I could go on all.day.long. These are all rights that we, as a species, have come to understand, and yet, in a very real way, they don't exist. They exist because we've said that they should, because we mutually agreed that this is good. It's extraordinary. It's real progress.
This is a pitiful sample of some of the ways that our society is better off today than it was in the past--and that's the way it should be. We should be learning from our collective cultural past and using it to create a better future.

When you think about it, in the face of all of this progress, the tendency of conservative Christianity to cling to some topics makes sense.

Homosexuality MUST be destroying society. Abortion MUST be destroying society. Premarital sex MUST be destroying society. New forms of discipline for children MUST be destroying society.

There's no hard proof that society is being destroyed, so there's no choice but to cling to what they consider aberrations of the moral code. And that's why it is so very difficult to reason with people who hold these positions--it's not a logically rooted belief. It's a reaction to modernity. It's a reaction to progress.

It's hard to look at the past with the rosy colored glasses that conservatives often pull out. I can't look at times were racism and sexism were not only allowed, but celebrated, and think, "Golly, I'd love to live then."

But when you start with the conclusion that society MUST be decaying--it must be getting worse--you'll cling to whatever idea you can find that supports that. When modernity is terrifying, you'll do whatever you can to reject it, to paint it negatively.

Circling back to Dr. Carson's comments, this is why the thought of a Christian, especially an evangelical conservative Christian, as president terrifies me. I find evangelical conservative Christianity to be incompatible with our Constitution and our shared secular values and history. And yet, I've managed to survive.

Dr. Carson, you would too.

Modernity is only scary when you fight it. Embrace it, and let's build a better future together.

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