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Are you interested in being right, or finding out the truth? Beware of confusing the two...

When I was 14, I was in a divinity class, and the school chaplain called me a fundamentalist.

Not many 14-year-olds knew what a fundamentalist was back then. I didn’t. I remember thinking, ‘A fundamentalist! That’s nice. Believing in the fundamentals of something is important.’

In those days, many church people would probably have interpreted the term as referring to someone who perhaps held a more literal interpretation of the Bible. It was the early 1990s, about ten years before the strike on the Twin Towers, and we hadn’t witnessed the terrible results of modern-day fundamentalism – when the word took on a whole new meaning: burning buildings, hate preachers, suicide bombers, and the rest. So when the chaplain said it, it didn’t feel as if he was having a go at me, or comparing me with terrorists or extremists.

But why had he called me a fundamentalist in the first place? It came up because I was arguing that Christians were right and everybody else was wrong. This was a regular habit for me at school, partly because I enjoyed arguing, and partly because I was convinced I was right. As far as I could see, the Bible was true, and it said certain things about ethics and religion and morality – things that meant everyone who didn’t believe them was wrong, and was almost certainly going to hell. And that was it. In my thinking, there was no room for persuasive discussion, or an honest exchange of views. I was right. They were wrong. End of story.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that you could use exactly the same sort of argument with reference to the Koran, or the Talmud, or the Book of Mormon, or the Declaration of Independence for that matter. I hadn’t noticed that billions of people in the world assumed their sacred texts were true, and that because those texts said certain things about ethics and religion and morality, anyone who believed differently was just plain ‘wrong’. I hadn’t studied enough history to see the problems – even wars – that this kind of dogmatic thinking could cause. None of these things had become part of my thoughtlife yet. It was just me in Room 26, representing Christianity, pitched against everyone else in the class. And at the front of the class was the chaplain, who thought all religions were equal, and all of us were reaching for the same god, and the only people who were wrong were the ones who thought theirs was the only way.

So he called me a fundamentalist.

Winning and losing

It was several years before I realised what the chaplain had meant that day; my problem was one of attitude. For most of my life at school, belief in God was something to be defended if the subject arose, but otherwise a bit of a side issue. When religion did come up in conversation I usually saw it as a battle which could either be won or lost and, because I was quite an articulate and aggressive person, I usually won. The idea that I ought to be debating rather than battling – or better still, discovering for myself whether what I believed was true or not – didn’t really occur.

Chambers online dictionary refers to ‘fundamentalism’ as: ‘strict adherence to the traditional teachings of a particular religion or political doctrine’. But when this means unquestioning belief which boils over into the language of winning and losing, we’re in trouble. It’s very easy for a statement like ‘this is true’ to become ‘we are right’…and for that then to turn into ‘we are winning’, and ultimately, ‘we are better’. I’ll bet this is part of the belief system of most young men who blow themselves up to help ‘win’ an ideological ‘war’. I wonder if most of them have ever even considered that their views might be wrong, or asked themselves how they might find out.

We’ve got to be careful; we have to watch our attitudes. I heard a lecture at UC Berkeley that described the four phases of fundamentalism, in which the lecturer said it goes superiority » isolation » caricature » persecution. If you think that you’re right and others are wrong, then you’re likely to look down on them. If you look down on them, you will often end up separating yourself from them, and that’s where ghettos and gulags and gated communities come from. If you do that, you’ll forget what other people are really like, and you’ll caricature them. And if you caricature people for long enough, it won’t be long before persecution starts. This is what happened with the Nazis, and apartheid, and the Wars of Religion, and suicide bombers, and I was well on the way by the age of 14. If I hadn’t been in a school surrounded by people who disagreed with me, it could have been a lot worse.

I’m not a sociologist, and I don’t want to be trivial about something so serious, but if that Berkeley lecture was along the right lines, then Mohammed Atta and the Spanish Inquisition and Heinrich Himmler and I all had pretty much the same problem, in different degrees. Although I never killed anybody, or even hit them, for disagreeing with me.

I visited a Sharia state in northern Nigeria three years ago, and it was pretty oppressive, to say the least. On the plane coming home, I wondered: how do you stop the slide? How do you stop teenage boys like me being arrogant and bigoted, and people in Nigeria imposing Sharia, or burning down churches? What am I supposed to say to those Christians who hold up signs in America saying ‘God hates fags’, or to the Taliban, or to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, or to Hindu extremists who burn Indian villages, or to communist dictators who try to wipe out religious belief, or to atheists on the Internet who say that no amount of evidence could convince them that a supernatural event had happened? Is there anything I can do about that sort of unquestioning fundamentalism, or do I just have to put up with it? I’ve thought about that quite a lot since then.

My own fundamentalism imploded at university. When I was talking to my friends, it became embarrassingly obvious that I didn’t have very good reasons for believing what I believed, because they asked such awkward questions. And I sat there wondering whether there was any reason to believe in Christianity at all.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a conversation like that – where everything you believe is being challenged by people who are cleverer than you. If you have, you’ll know that you have two options. One, you can investigate what you believe, to find out whether or not there is any evidence for it. Or, two, you can decide not to investigate, because your beliefs are really a question of faith – they are your opinions and none of anybody else’s business, and that’s that. If you choose option one, you run the risk of finding out you have been wrong for years, which most people don’t like very much. But if you choose option two, you are doomed to be completely irrelevant, because what you believe has no foundation that other people can understand or criticise. For some reason – maybe it was because I really liked my friends, or maybe I was just more worried about being irrelevant than being proved wrong – I chose option one.

A question of evidence

Richard Dawkins and I disagree about quite a few things, but we agree about fundamentalism. In A Devil’s Chaplain, he says, ‘Next time that somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.’ I think he’s absolutely right.

Having said that, there are literally billions of people in the world today who don’t have any evidence whatsoever for believing in their gods – and, in fairness, they don’t claim that they do. If you asked them what kind of evidence there was for belief in astrology, or Hinduism, or Kabbalah, or Sunni Islam, they would look at you as if you were a complete moron (and if you don’t believe me, try it). Oddly, quite a lot of secular people are the same – it’s weird how many people say things like ‘science has disproved God’ (how would that work?), or ‘faith means believing things without any evidence’, or ‘religions are the cause of all wars’, not because there’s any evidence for those things, but just because they’ve heard other people say them. I’m not sure unquestioning fundamentalism is limited to religious people.

Three years ago, for instance, I was reading Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, and I found a surprising number of mistakes in the bit where he talked about the Bible. In some ways this isn’t surprising, because Dawkins isn’t a theologian. But the odd thing was, when I pointed out these mistakes in debates, in print and on the radio, people often said simply that theology wasn’t a real subject, and that you couldn’t expect atheists to take it seriously, so who cares if they got their facts wrong about it? And I thought: ‘But what if everybody said that?’ What if everybody thought, ‘I know I’m right, so the other view is wrong, so there can’t be any evidence for it, so I don’t need to bother checking’? Surely that is exactly what unquestioning fundamentalists do? Isn’t that the very thing that Dawkins is opposing?

The apostles and prophets who wrote the scriptures grounded their biblical faith in public evidence, not just private experience. That’s why their psalms are full of historical accounts of what Yahweh had done for Israel. That’s why Elijah set up a massive experiment on Mount Carmel, and said, ‘The god who answers by fire – he is God.’ That’s why the apostle Paul said things like, ‘If the Messiah has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ These aren’t the sorts of things that unquestioning fundamentalists say. You only say these things if you are committed to answering the query: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’

Promoting engagement

I think we need to engage with people the same way. Maybe, when Britain was more ‘Christian’ than it is now, it was enough to insist that Christianity was right, without explaining why. But we don’t live in a world like that today. The towns I have lived in – Cambridge, London, Eastbourne – are full of people who are open to considering new ideas. But only if there is evidence for them.

In fact, this makes the message of Jesus much easier to communicate, not harder. If it all came down to which sacred text you chose out of a long list, there would be no way to separate the real from the unreal. But apostolic preaching to unbelievers didn’t work that way. Instead, it presented a historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, and two historical events for which there was, and is, huge amounts of evidence: his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead. And when people looked into these events, and the meaning that the first witnesses ascribed to them, they discovered something astonishing.

They discovered that there actually was evidence. Not just for the existence of God, but for the very specific God revealed in Jesus, executed as a criminal under Pontius Pilate, and then raised from death on the third day and shown to be Lord of the world. Now, as then, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus provide the best possible response to fundamentalism, both Christian and otherwise.

We live in a world that craves evidence for big ideas and rarely finds it, this is enormously important. Let’s be committed to presenting evidence for the most fundamental idea of all.