Fundamentalist Christianity's Philosophical Roots: An Infographic
Growing up in independent, fundamental Baptist churches, I couldn’t figure out why things made sense to the people in charge. Why did the preacher think his explanation of a biblical text made sense? Why did fundamentalist authors say their conclusions were obvious from a bunch of (random to me) “facts”? Didn’t they realize how illogical they were?
By the time I started writing about fundamentalist music for my doctoral research, I thought (and still think) that faith doesn't have to conform to contemporary American ideals of logic. But I still wondered why fundamentalists often reasoned so differently from this modern norm.
I soon found out there are clear historical reasons for the ways fundamentalists understand the world and the Bible.
Just as importantly, I discovered why their views and methods made so little sense to me in twenty-first century America: fundamentalists' philosophy and hermeneutics were mainstream in America prior to the 1870s but these approaches were gradually replaced by other perspectives. As a result, “the philosophical outlook that had graced America’s finest academic institutions came to be generally regarded as merely bizarre” (Marsden p. 8).
Three main philosophical traditions shape how fundamentalists interpret the Bible and how they understand the world: Scottish Common Sense Realism, the Baconian scientific method, and plain reading in the Baptist tradition.
Making sense of fundamentalists' arguments
Fundamentalists’ views make a lot more sense if you understand how their arguments often rely on elements from the Baconian and Common Sense traditions.
A “Big Leap” in the Baconian Scientific Method
Fundamentalist texts sometimes have conclusions that are disconnected from the facts or factual-seeming statements that are supposed to support them.
For example, a fundamentalist author may present extensive factual information—such as dozen of quotes on a topic—and a conclusion that does not actually result from the facts presented.
This is what one commentator calls “a big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable” (Hofstadter p. 35-6).
In the texts on music that I've studied, this approach can look like 15 rock musicians quoted saying something to the effect that "rock music is sexy." Then the author says, "Therefore, listening to rock music is sinful." But to get to that conclusion without a "big leap," many other arguments have to be made such as, "Sexual expression is sinful," and "Listening to a person's commercialized expression of sexuality is sinful"—and even, "Rock musicians' statements about their music should be trusted implicitly."
Though this "big leap" is common in some fundamentalist texts, it's not a necessary part of induction, nor it is pervasive across all fundamentalist texts.
Is Common Sense Realism a “No True Scotsman” fallacy?
From one angle, saying that any honest person will come to the same conclusions as the person arguing, is an example of a “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy. Here’s an example of how this fallacy works:
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
Person B: "But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge."
Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge." Source
Fundamentalist leaders like authors and pastors ward off disagreement by saying things like:
- "If you were a true Christian, then you would agree.”
- “If you were an honest reader, you’d come to the same conclusion as I have.”
- “If you were a faithful disciple of Christ, you would believe what I do about this Bible verse.”
So yes, from this angle, these statements are "No True Scotsman" logical fallacies.
However, the way fundamentalists employ Common Sense Realism results in a faith-based premise about the whole world and about how people can know God.
In other words, dismissing their methods as logical fallacy doesn’t necessarily take into account that faith-based perspectives don't have to conform to any particular model of logic. This is true for any religious group, not just fundamentalist Christianity.
Is there legitimate disagreement in Common Sense Realism?
No. In the ways fundamentalists have applied Common Sense Realism to the Bible, if you don’t agree with a fundamentalist’s conclusions, you fall into one of two categories: you have misunderstood the facts or you are willfully prejudiced. In spiritual matters, the second possibility is explained as willful rebellion against God’s clear teaching.
Fundamentalists can be very generous in applying the framework of misunderstanding to people they love. For example, rather than believing that their Roman Catholic Grandma is going to hell, they may say that Grandma doesn’t really understand Catholic teaching and if she did understand it, she would agree with them that it’s wrong.
Common Sense Realism and Expert Authority
Common Sense Realism seems like an egalitarian philosophy. So why do fundamentalist texts often appeal to expert authority?
These appeals say that if only you understood all the facts as this expert does, then you would agree that the expert’s conclusion is true.
In other words, the expert’s conclusion is still the result of common sense, but the facts themselves might be more accessible to some people (e.g. to people who read Koine Greek) than to others.
Find Out More
I hope this introduction to fundamentalists’ philosophical roots helps you better understand where fundamentalist Christians are coming from!
You can also learn more about fundamentalism and music here.
If you’d like to learn more about the philosophical roots of fundamentalist Christianity, two good sources to start with are:
- Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd edition (check out p. 14-16 and 55-61)
- Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (check out p. 94-130)
Common Sense Realism in American Evangelicalism:
The influence of the Baconian scientific method on Protestants’ hermeneutics:
- Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science
For perspectives on the baptistic plain reading:
- Dare and Woodman, eds., The “Plainly Revealed” Word of God?
See also Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style.”