The 20th century saw amazing technological advancements. They must have been astounding to many Americans born the previous century. Telephone, radio, television, vaccines, antibiotics, washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioning, automobiles, airplanes, helicopters, rockets, nuclear technology – All of these things were met with a mixture of awe and dread. The seemingly innocuous telephone was seen by some as an instrument of the devil. But most Americans embraced new technology because generally it made life better.
In the early 20th century there was a huge move away from farms into cities and suburbs. Modern agricultural methods and machinery made vast numbers of farm workers obsolete. In 1900, 41% of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. By 1930, this figure was cut in half, and by 1945 it was down to 16%. This percentage continued to decline during the course of the 20th century. Today less than 2% of the U.S. workforce is employed in agriculture, yet America continues to be one of the world’s great breadbaskets.
Along with this transition came increasing levels of education and mobility. Americans became much more exposed to a variety of people and ideas. A tension developed between rural people, who remained relatively isolated and parochial, and urban people, whose experiences inevitably made them less rigid and more tolerant in their thinking. The fight for and against the prohibition of alcohol was largely a struggle between rural and urban America, between white Protestant rural America and much more ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse urbanites.
During this time, there was a struggle within American Protestantism, between mainline churches who wanted to modify their doctrines to accommodate the changes in society, and fundamentalists, who fought fiercely against this. In fact, the word fundamentalist comes from a series of essays published between 1910 and 1915, essays intended to express the “fundamentals” of Protestantism that should be defended. These essays attacked liberal Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, a whole host of isms, but most notably, modernism itself. Fundamentalism insisted on such things as the historicity of Biblical accounts, such as the stories in Genesis, and in general, a literal interpretation of scripture. It is for this reason that the subject of the origin of man became such a point of contention, leading to the infamous Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925.
Meanwhile, mainline Christian denominations, such as Methodism and Presbyterianism, were moving away from such positions. Faced with incontrovertible evidence of the age of the earth, the origin of man, and extensive scholarship concerning the origin of scriptures, these churches began to embrace the view that while the scriptures were indeed God’s word, they must be interpreted through the lens of the cultures in which they were written, and examined using God-given reason. They began to reject the view that everything in the Bible was literally true; that the Genesis accounts, for example, should be viewed allegorically, not as literal history.
The response of fundamentalists was to either establish separate fundamentalist congregations within these denominations, or more often, create new denominations. Thus Pentecostalism was born. Religious revivals spread across the country, building enthusiasm for fundamentalism. Along with Biblical literalism, these movements reinforced their adherents’ rejection of many aspects of progressive thought – particularly tolerance of outside religious, ethnic, and cultural groups. In the early 20th century there was a struggle between the fundamentalists and mainline Protestants, mirroring the battles between rural and urban America. By mid-century, it seemed that mainline Protestantism had won, at least insofar as the fundamentalists were not able to have great influence in the national political sphere.
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After World War II, the baby boomer generation was born. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial object into orbit. This had an enormous impact on American politics and culture. America went into a virtual panic over the fact that this supposedly backward, communist country had achieved such an advanced technical feat. Immediately there was an emphasis on education in general, and science fields in particular. This carried through the 1960’s, and the baby boomers went to college in numbers never before seen. College enrollment in the U.S. increased 120% during the 1960’s. There was a pervasive sense that old parochialisms needed to step aside and make room for the “Space Age,” a new age in which science and technology would further improve lives. Mainline religious institutions moderated many of their doctrines further, and religious fundamentalism seemed to be a voice in the wilderness. There was a general understanding that sectarian religion was to be kept out of politics.
But as America beat the Soviet Union to the moon, and high profile assassinations made many Americans cynical about the future, this push for education faded as fast as it had waxed. The idealism and optimism of the 1960’s gave way to a strong cynicism and materialism in the 1970’s. Mainline Christian denominations lost membership, and many young people felt adrift, wanting something to attach themselves to, something that would promise rewards here and now. That something was just waiting to provide it – a new variety of fundamentalism, the charismatic movement. It used many of the same methods as the religious revivals of the early 20th century – music (this time with a contemporary feel), noisy, lively services, faith healing, and inspiring messages. But this time there was an important difference. The prosperity gospel.
Both Protestantism and Catholicism had long taught humility and service to others, and mainline Christianity was still teaching that. But the charismatic movement brought a very different message. Not only would your faith heal your body and bring you closer to God, but it would give you material wealth. Your shiny new house and shiny new car meant that you were one of God’s chosen. Your rewards were not just in the afterlife, but here and now. And you didn’t need an education, they said. All you needed was your faith. In fact, most of them vilified higher education, as a bastion of secular, ungodly forces.
Millions of young Americans joined these churches. At the same time, educational attainment in the U.S. dropped. After years of dramatic increases in the percentage of Americans obtaining Bachelor’s degrees, between 1975 and 1980 that number actually declined sharply. At the same time, fundamentalists began to dominate the religious airwaves. Although televangelism was familiar to many people in the 1960’s, in the form of Billy Graham’s crusades, Graham’s message was not a fundamentalist one. He did not spend his crusades ranting against abortion, evolution, liberalism, or the welfare state – his message was overwhelmingly focused on Christ and salvation. By contrast, televangelists that sprang up in the 1970’s, such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart, were overwhelmingly fundamentalist, and in many cases, overtly political.
Then along came Ronald Reagan. Not only did Reagan legitimize the materialism that had already established itself in many young minds, inspiring many young people to go into business and law rather than engineering and science, he ushered in the intrusion of religion into American politics that we have been dealing with ever since. Fundamentalist churches catering to white suburbanites and exurbanites exploded during the 1980’s. The megachurch, emphasizing entertainment and excitement and greatly minimizing self-sacrifice and social justice, came into its own. Many fundamentalist churches, and of course televangelists, were highly political, emphasizing abortion, intolerance of homosexuality, and other “culture war” issues.
Today, Christianity is deeply split. There are liberal, mainline denominations, emphasizing religious and ethnic tolerance, humility, social justice, and service to others, many of which are organized under the National Council of Churches. And there are fundamentalist churches, emphasizing Biblical literalism, abortion, evangelism, material prosperity, and political conservatism. Almost every mainline Christian denomination has its liberal wing and fundamentalist wing. In many cases these are actually separate denominations. Fundamentalists tend to be fragmented, isolated from other church organizations. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest fundamentalist Baptist denomination in the country, is completely separate from other BAPTIST organizations. But fundamentalist churches tend to be very politically active and often have a presence on radio and/or television. Fundamentalist organizations like the American Family Association, The Christian Coalition, and the now-defunct Moral Majority are not denominations of Christianity, or even, strictly speaking, religious organizations. They are political advocacy groups who have a strong presence in the media and in halls of power, constantly fighting for the intrusion of fundamentalist Christianity into the public sphere, and promoting nonsense such as young earth creationism that was rejected by mainline Christian churches decades ago.
By contrast, The National Council of Churches not only includes an array of Protestant denominations, but even some Catholic and Orthodox churches. Yet its political presence is much less apparent, partly because the very doctrines of these churches include the separation of church and state. Although these churches do fight for tolerance and social justice, they do so more quietly, and by and large do not proselytize on the airwaves.
Why have I taken you through this recent history of American religion? Because the question at hand is whether religion is in conflict with critical thinking, and I wanted you to understand that the word religion encompasses a huge range of theologies and political positions, even within Protestantism, which is only one branch of Christianity. Critical thinking, by and large, is something Americans learn in college. About 33% of Americans get Bachelor’s degrees these days – let’s see how this relates to religious groupings. Fully 35% of Methodists and 51% of Presbyterians in America get Bachelor’s degrees. These are mainline Christian denominations. Among Jews and Hindus the percentages are even higher – 58% and 67%. Yet only 16% of Pentecostals and 24% of Assemblies of God members obtain these degrees. These are fundamentalist denominations. Fundamentalists have consistently devalued higher education as secular and ungodly, rejected basic science when it conflicts with Biblical literalism, and preached that only faith is necessary for success, here and in the afterlife.
When fundamentalism came into prominence in American culture in the 1970’s, and captured the minds of many young Americans, what happened? After years of dramatic increases in the percentage of Americans obtaining Bachelor’s degrees, between 1975 and 1980 that number actually declined sharply. And over the next 20 years, the percentage of Americans receiving Bachelor’s degrees didn’t increase at all. The flattening of educational attainment after 1975 was particularly dramatic among American men. Over the next 10 years, the number of American men receiving Bachelor’s degrees declined by more than 5 million, despite the fact that the U.S. male population grew by more than 10 million. After 35 YEARS, in 2010, the percentage of American men who were obtaining Bachelor’s degrees still had not reached the level seen in 1975. State support of higher education has declined steadily since the late 1970’s. Political conservatives have consistently fought against funding for higher education, and encouraged the intrusion of religion into American politics. Many of the politicians on the forefront of such efforts have come right out of fundamentalist Christianity.
Some would argue, and do argue, that religious belief in general is incompatible with critical thinking, which demands evidence and reasoned argument, not blind faith, in making judgments and forming conclusions. But I think this misses the point, much as the debate between modernism and postmodernism misses the point. Because someone belongs to an organized religion does not mean they are incapable of critical thinking. And more importantly, organized religion per se is not an impediment to higher education. It is in fact religious, often devout people who have done much of the scholarship leading away from fundamentalist interpretations of scripture. Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, has demonstrated time and again that it is an adversary of critical thinking and higher education. Fundamentalism demands adherence to absurdities that any person of intellectual integrity, religious or not, must reject.
I will finish with an excerpt from an essay written by a religious man, Martin Luther King. During his time in seminary, he wrote a paper on Old Testament stories and their relationships to Babylonian and Sumerian myths. His conclusion: “Modern archaeology has proven to us that many of the ideas of the Old Testament have their roots in the ideas of surrounding cultures….we must conclude that many of the things which we have accepted as true historical happenings are merely mythological….If we accept the Old Testament as being ‘true’ we will find it full of errors, contradictions, and obvious impossibilities….” Dr. King accepted that the Old Testament contains “truths.” But because he was a man of intellectual integrity, he refused to say it was literally “true.” Many devout, religious people feel the same way.