Why I Am Not a Fundamentalist Christian

Celeste Rorem

In the pages that follow, we present three more statements of nonbelief—and an explanation of a stance against “membership” in any “group.” The first articles in this series were published in the February/March 2014 FREE INQUIRY. There’s more to come in the June/July and the August/September issues.—The Editors

Why I Am Not a Fundamentalist Christian

Celeste Rorem

 

My transition into the folds of Southern fundamentalist Christianity began, as I’m sure many such transitions do, with a dramatic life event that prompted new reflections about life and its meaning: the early death of my father and the subsequent unraveling of what remained of my family.

After a parade of relatives and foster homes, I finally found a permanent home at the tender age of thirteen. My foster parents were kind and quirky, loving and stable. They were a perfect fit for me. On the cusp of despair, I embraced their lifestyle—and the deep faith in Christ that went along with it. The Christian faith became a beacon of desperately needed sanity and strength during the mandatory monthly visits home to my shattered family.

Five years later, I struck up a friendship with a “backslidden” Catholic whose questions of faith I was eager to answer. At one point during our many long discussions, I lashed out at him, and I am ashamed to admit that I was judgmental and rude—far from Christ-like. Yet he handled the affront with grace and maturity, neither defending himself nor apologizing for what I labeled as his ethical and spiritual shortcomings.

His simple gesture stunned me. I had learned that Jesus was the answer to every emotional wound, the innate need of all souls without which no person could ever be truly at peace. Yet in one moment, I saw that this man’s kindness and dignity demonstrated an inner peace that existed independently of a relationship with God. Despite his questions about life, he had no desperate, secret longing for spiritual fulfillment. He was human, but he was fine. He did not need my message.

I was humbled—and challenged. Could I be wrong?

What began as a spark of realization turned into a full-fledged mission to examine my faith at the deepest possible level. Over the next year, I participated in religious Internet chat rooms, dialoguing with members of every faith to see if any of them could satisfy my need for immutable proof in the accuracy of my beliefs. When my theological questions backed believers into a corner, they merely encouraged me to put aside my doubts and have faith—an answer I was no longer willing to swallow without question. Ethically, I could only relinquish my beliefs if a genuine flaw in the logic of theism could be found, yet the few nonbelievers I encountered raved with a malicious immaturity, and I could not take them seriously.

I eventually stumbled upon Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, written in 1796. His rational, systematic deconstruction of the Bible was exactly what I was looking for. In part 2, chapter 1, “The Old Testament,” Paine revealed the misinterpretation of the prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ. He explains that the book of Isaiah depicted a time when Syria and Israel had allied to besiege King Ahaz of Judah. As they marched upon the capital city, Jerusalem, King Ahaz and his subjects panicked. The resident prophet, Isaiah, stepped forth to reassure his king that the invading forces would not overcome their city. He even encouraged Ahaz to request a specific sign in order to confirm the divination. Humbly, Ahaz declined. but Isaiah presented him with one, the words of which many of us know: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” (Isaiah 7:14–16).

When understood within the context in which he spoke, it becomes obvious that Isaiah was implying that by the time a child conceived at that moment was old enough to begin eating solid foods and to demonstrate early signs of reasoning, the present political turmoil would be resolved.

Furthermore, the Hebrew word almah translated into Greek as virgin does not always mean “virgin,” as does the word bethulah. Rather, it is a generic term for a young woman of marriageable age, much as the antiquated term maid implies a young female and not a literal housekeeper. Almah is used elsewhere to mean “girl” or “maiden” and is translated as such, occurring (as noted on a Christian-apologist website!) “in Genesis 24:43 (‘maiden’); Exodus 2:8 (‘girl’); Psalm 68:25 (‘maidens’); Proverbs 30:19 (‘maiden’); Song of Songs 1:3 (‘maidens’); 6:8 (‘virgins’).” In any case, stating that “a virgin shall conceive” is far from implying a miracle: it is quite obvious how to make a virgin conceive, and nothing indicates that she will be a virgin after this occurs.

As it happens, Isaiah’s prophecy was entirely wrong. Ahaz and his people were butchered and Jerusalem plundered. It may be further noted that in 2 Chronicles 28:1–5, this same defeat of Ahaz was attributed to divine punishment for sacrificing children and making idols to Baal, behavior for which he was “delivered . . . into the hands of the king of Aram. . . . He was also given into the hands of the king of Israel, who inflicted heavy casualties on him.”

Is it possible that God told one prophet that defeat would absolutely not occur and another that he permitted it because the king was wicked? That seems unlikely. Paine thus concluded that

it is upon the barefaced perversion of this story that the book of Matthew, and the impudence and sordid interest of priests in later times, have founded a theory, which they call the gospel; and have applied this story to signify the person they call Jesus Christ; begotten, they say, by a ghost, whom they call holy, on the body of a woman engaged in marriage, and afterwards married, whom they call a virgin, seven hundred years after this foolish story was told; a theory which, speaking for myself, I hesitate not to believe, and to say, is as fabulous and as false as God is true.

The prophecy of the virgin birth of the Messiah serves as the primary foundation for contemporary Protestant Christianity. With it thus convincingly deconstructed, I was free.

After more living (and reading), my beliefs have evolved from a generic deism, past a brief flirtation with feminist paganism, and finally into an atheistic secular humanism. Although these and other differences caused an as-yet-unrepaired rift between my dear foster parents and me—they have refused contact with me for ten years—I am more at peace and secure in my beliefs than I ever have been before. In secular humanism, I have found the concrete rationality I so craved, as well as practical and humane answers for the many questions of life. Its benevolent, socially oriented tenets inspired me to enter the field of nursing, and my growing passion for the deep interrogation of faith and other culturally ingrained assumptions have prompted me to pursue graduate study in multicultural literature.

I am grateful for publications such as FREE INQUIRY, which allow me to connect with other like-minded individuals across the globe and to continue my growth as a humanist and a human. As I continue to learn, question, and explore what it means to live my human life, it is my fervent hope that all those who have the courage to question their deepest beliefs do so without fe
ar, for the evolution of the mind and—dare I say it, perhaps only metaphorically—the spirit is an experience well worth the journey.

 

References

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. “Isaiah 7:14, in Hebrew means maiden, not virgin. Therefore, it is not a prophecy. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.” CARM – Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Accessed March 22, 2013.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. Amherst, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984.

 

Celeste Rorem

Celeste Rorem, RN, BSN, holds an MA in Multicultural and Transnational Literature from East Carolina University. She is currently pursuing a second graduate degree in history. She lives in central Texas with her dog, Franklin.


One man’s kindness started a strident fundamentalist on the road toward humanism.

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