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Plantinga on the definition of “fundamentalist”

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We must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2000), pg. 245.

27 Replies to “Plantinga on the definition of “fundamentalist”

  1. 1
    Josh Bozeman says:

    lol. Nice…a few months ago I watched a lecture by Platinga on the soul and the brain. Interesting guy.

    No doubt the word ‘fundamentalist’ is nearly always used by one side of the culture war as a VERY negative term. Akin to saying someone is a stuck-in-the-dark-ages lunatic for the most part from what I see in papers, magazines, and online articles. I always find it amazing that one group of people can be beaten up so much and so many think it’s perfectly fine and fair to do so.

  2. 2
    havoc says:

    I’ve always considered myself to be “mostly fundamentalist.” This really helps me understand myself better — at least in the instance that I am referred to indirectly by Professor P.Z. Meyers and friends.

  3. 3
    formlessandvoid says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever seen Barth referred to as a “fundamentalist.” (Barth himself once referred to an American theologian as a fundamentalist.) I guess anyone who dared to expose the bankruptcy of liberalism could earn this label of contempt.

    On the other hand, all of us are fundamentalists—we just have different fundamentals. If I believe proposition P is true and cannot be convinced otherwise, then I am a P-fundamentalist. My opponent insists that P is not true and cannot be convinced otherwise; hence, he is a (~P)-fundamentalist. The agnostic thinks that P cannot be known, and therefore he is a (unknowable-P)-fundamentalist. All of us have beliefs, whatever they be, and though sometimes we do change an opinion or two, everyone has his nonnegotiable commitments, most notably his belief about God.

  4. 4
    SteveB says:

    One definition I ran across said, “A point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views.”

    Hmmm… Sounds like Richard Dawkins to me.

  5. 5
    mentok says:

    from P. Carpenter a historian from his article What Qualifies as Demagoguery? at
    http://hnn.us/articles/7603.html

    A more useful definition of demagoguery arises from the interdisciplinary application of rhetorical studies, which here takes on the form of logical-fallacy analysis, which itself reduces to two inseparably linked constituents: simplicity of message content and its wholly unilateral point-of-view presentation. For greater ease of expression we shall hereafter refer to these constituents as “one-sided simplicity,” or alternatively, simply as unidimensionality. And it is this rhetorical quality (in addition to scapegoatism, addressed shortly) that is consistently identifiable in the history of American demagoguery and permits an unconditional point of reference for any given demagogic practitioner. Simplicity of message content and a one-sided presentation of that message–that is, one that systematically excludes competing arguments and differing points of view–are, to borrow from sociologist Sigmund Neumann, “The Steadfast Rules of the Demagogue.” His quality of oration has varied historically, his degree of “populist” commitment has waxed and waned, his level of dedication to principle has differed–but without fail the demagogue has exercised unidimensionality.

    He employs a gamut of logical fallacies to accomplish the common goal of all politicians: power and influence, whether merely for power’s sake or as a means to realize some given idealistic goal. Naturally he appeals to “the crowd” (ad populum exhortations)–nothing unique in itself, especially in a democratic forum–but commonly adds the logical fallacies of appeals to pity (argumentum ad misericordiam); appeals to reverence (argumentum ad verecundium); appeals to personality (argumentum ad hominem); and an assortment of other rhetorical devices. Suffice it to say that the term of “unidimensionality” is one that derives from the scholarly observations of diverse logicians of rhetoric. Professor S. Morris Engel of York University, for example, had a similar concept of unidimensionality in mind when he discussed the rhetorical problem of argumentation “omissions”: “Not all such omissions are innocent, or done for the sake of literary elegance or brevity…. More turns on them–the opportunity for gain, influence, deception–and hence a greater effort is made to hide the assumptions on which the argument rests.” (Again, the argument need not be an expressly “false” one. As stated above, it is more a matter of presentation.)

    University of Winnipeg philosophy professor and argumentation-analyst Douglas Walton had much the same in mind when he reflected on rhetorical “fairmindedness.” Its demagogic opposite–unidimensionality–is characterized by the abdication of “critical doubt,” “‘due consideration’ to criticisms or arguments from an opposed viewpoint” and “desist[ance] from judging another viewpoint before fully understanding it.” In One-Sided Arguments: A Dialectical Analysis of Bias, Walton succinctly stated his thesis in writing “there is supposed to be a genuine exchange of views,” which was another way of saying what Aristotle posited more than two-thousand years ago: that “rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.” Put simply, unidimensionality denies the synthetic benefit of the dialectic and therefore the necessary deliberative nature of an engaged, democratic society.

    Indigenous to the demagogue’s extensive use of unidimensionality has been the common practice of scapegoating: the hostile targeting of select groups for condemnation and blame. Important to note is that these groups may be identified by ethnicity, race, or religion, of course, but just as easily by political ideology. Akin to the notional convenience of scapegoats is the historiographical concept of the “Other”: those Americans, as Southern historian Sheldon Hackney described them, standing “in opposition to a presumed American norm.” As such, they are easy targets. It is they who are responsible for the problems of crime or unemployment, for instance; or they may be responsible for cultural upheavals that seemingly threaten traditional values, or even for America’s sagging international standing, if that is the case. The “Other” must be to blame for these conditions, for “we”—the true Americans–continue to uphold all that is good and socially manageable.

  6. 6
    Takumi4G63 says:

    Plantinga is great. I think this short piece from Warranted Christian Belief sheds a lot of light on the contentious use of words like “fundamentalist.”

    As for formlessandvoids comment, fundamentalist is not used in the sense that you imply, you are thinking of foundationalism, not fundamentalism.

  7. 7
    Red Reader says:

    Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt (here in Houston) are “fundamentalists”.
    They carefully practice the fundamentals of pitching.
    And, by golly, they’re good.

  8. 8
    russ says:

    I think this is obliquely related to this thread…Tom Bethell’s article defending ID in national review “acknowledges” that ID is not falsifiable (http://www.nationalreview.com/.....010829.asp), but says that macroevolution is not either.

    Is the falsification method sometimes offered for ID (If evolution is shown to be correct, there’s no need for ID) a weak proposition or can objective observers consider consider it iron-clad? In other words, how strong is this position? Does Bethell have a more correct view?

  9. 9
    keiths says:

    russ asks:
    “Is the falsification method sometimes offered for ID (If evolution is shown to be correct, there’s no need for ID) a weak proposition or can objective observers consider consider it iron-clad? In other words, how strong is this position? Does Bethell have a more correct view?”

    Russ,
    Bethell is correct on this (though not on much else). ID claims that evidence in nature points to a designer (or designers). For obvious reasons, ID proponents do not limit the designer to being part of the material universe; they allow the possibility that the designer might be supernatural, with supernatural powers.

    Despite having allowed the possibility of a supernatural designer, they cannot further characterize him/her/it, because this would make ID a religious idea and thus ineligible for the public school science classroom.

    The problem is that by not characterizing the (potentially) supernatural designer, they leave the designer’s powers and motives completely unspecified. That means that under ID, any possible world could be explained as designed, simply by arguing that the designer made it exactly as it appears. Even a world full of iron-clad evidence for evolution could have been created to appear that way, even if evolution never happened.

    I’m certainly not saying that ID proponents would argue for such a perverse, deceptive designer. Most of them have a particular sort of designer in mind, very much along the lines of the Christian God. The point is that by not being explicit about any of the designer’s attributes, they make the designer hypothesis unfalsifiable.

    So the IDers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they pin down the designer’s traits, then ID is labeled a religious idea and barred from the science classroom. If they don’t, then their central thesis becomes unfalsifiable (and therefore unscientific by Popper’s criterion).

    It’s a shame, really. The debate would be a lot more interesting if we were talking about a specific, falsiable concept of God as the designer. And even though the courts have held otherwise, I don’t believe that invoking the supernatural automatically makes a theory unscientific. A God whose powers and motives are sufficiently specified is regular and predictable enough to be the subject of scientific investigation.

    One final aside: This whole discussion has concerned the unfalsifiability of the designer hypothesis within ID. There are other ID claims offered in support of the designer hypothesis which are in fact falsifiable. The assertion that the blood clotting cascade is irreducibly complex is one example. The reliability of Dembski’s explanatory filter is another. But the falsifiability of these peripheral claims does nothing to mitigate the unfalsifiability of the central claim.

  10. 10
    Lutepisc says:

    Keiths, you wrote: “It’s a shame, really. The debate would be a lot more interesting if we were talking about a specific, falsiable concept of God as the designer.”

    Hmmm…please let your readers know how God is a falsifiable concept (whether ‘the Christian God” or any other).

  11. 11
    russ says:

    KeithS wrote: “Despite having allowed the possibility of a supernatural designer, they cannot further characterize him/her/it, because this would make ID a religious idea and thus ineligible for the public school science classroom.

    The problem is that by not characterizing the (potentially) supernatural designer, they leave the designer’s powers and motives completely unspecified. That means that under ID, any possible world could be explained as designed, simply by arguing that the designer made it exactly as it appears. Even a world full of iron-clad evidence for evolution could have been created to appear that way, even if evolution never happened.”

    I don’t follow your logic here. If criminal investigators find a guy with a knife in his back, they can infer an intelligent agent in the murder without knowing identity or motive. Why do the motives of ID folks disqualify their arguments and the motives of evolutionists (support for atheism or an impotent god) don’t?

  12. 12
    russ says:

    KeithS wrote: “The problem is that by not characterizing the (potentially) supernatural designer, they leave the designer’s powers and motives completely unspecified. That means that under ID, any possible world could be explained as designed, simply by arguing that the designer made it exactly as it appears.”

    Someone could do this, but I don’t hear anyone in the ID community doing this. Their claims appear to be very limited. But I do read about evolution supporters doing it. It seems that anytime problems are raised with the theory, the answer is invitably something along the lines of “We don’t know yet, but science is continually making progress towards an answer”. That’s fine if progress is actually being made, but it appears to a layman like myself that this answer can be used to brush off all scientific and philosophical objections from now to eternity. All problems are “solved in the future” no matter how improbable such answers may be. I’m confident that even a chronologically inverted fossil record, or any other “falsification” would be glossed over in the same manner, since the theory of evolution is “as established as the theory of gravity”. That’s my humble opinion, anyway.

  13. 13
    dcwade says:

    the light has been abandoned in all the above comments. plantinga ought to consider j.i.packer on the topic of fundamentalism. his 1958 examination of the terminology is considered complete – for that age. for this age, plantinga ought to consider an ageless tome of wisdom that defies critisism without that illusive quality “faith.” calling augustine,calvin and luther traditional Christians is uninformed as they all abused Holy Writ for their own political gain. while plantinga is at it he might consider the admonition in Ehp 5: 3-4. as far as id is concerned see Heb 11:6b.

  14. 14
    keiths says:

    Lutepisc requests:
    “Hmmm…please let your readers know how God is a falsifiable concept (whether ‘the Christian God” or any other).”

    Here are a couple of classes of God concepts which are quite falsifiable, together with the circumstances that would falsify them:

    1. The class of Gods who strive to optimize some particular feature of the universe.

    Examples:

    a. An omnipotent God who favors the state of Israel over all other nations, and who guarantees that they will never suffer a defeat or a humiliation on the world stage. A single battle lost by the Israelis would falsify such a God.

    b. An omnipotent God who wants to minimize the use of DNA in organisms, and does so by forcing all unnecessary DNA out of the organism, leaving only what is needed for basic survival. This God wouldn’t even make it out of the starting block, because we know that much of the DNA in organisms is not needed for survival.

    c. An omnipotent God who promises to return to Earth on a specific day and announce his presence on any TV set in the world that is tuned to channel 18. This could easily be falsified by a single person watching channel 18 all day on the forecast date. Think this is a ridiculous example? See the following:

    http://www.skeptictank.org/ufocult2.htm

    2. The class of Gods who actively guarantee that a certain ritual or test will produce a certain result.

    Examples:

    a. An omnipotent God who without fail performs the following miracle: Anytime someone dumps some salt on a piece of black paper, then waves a copy of “No Free Lunch” over it for more than 10 seconds, the salt grains rearrange themselves, just like iron filings under the influence of a magnetic field, to spell out “ID is True!”
    Try it. If it doesn’t happen, this particular God is falsified.

    b. An omnipotent God who guarantees that a woman’s thighs will literally rot if she is an adulteress who undergoes a certain test in the temple (See Numbers 5:12-28). How to falsify it? Find a known adulteress, put her through the ceremony, and see if her thighs rot. If they don’t, this God is falsified.

    All of these examples illustrate what I meant when I said that “A God whose powers and motives are sufficiently specified is regular and predictable enough to be the subject of scientific investigation.”

  15. 15
    keiths says:

    Russ asks:
    “I don’t follow your logic here. If criminal investigators find a guy with a knife in his back, they can infer an intelligent agent in the murder without knowing identity or motive.”

    Russ,
    The criterion of falsifiability requires us to ask the question, “How, in principle, could you show that ID’s central claim (that there is evidence in nature for a designer) is false?”

    In your example, you’re giving evidence (the knife in the back) which does NOT falsify your claim (that the man was killed by an intelligent agent). The knife in the back is the correct answer to the wrong question.

    russ continues:
    “Why do the motives of ID folks disqualify their arguments and the motives of evolutionists (support for atheism or an impotent god) don’t?”

    If you reread my post you’ll see that I’m not saying that IDers’ claims are disqualified by their motives. I’m saying that for certain tactical reasons, IDers choose to leave the designer unspecified, and that doing so renders the designer claim inherently unfalsifiable. It remains unfalsifiable even if it is advanced for completely different motives.

    In my post, I wrote: “The problem is that by not characterizing the (potentially) supernatural designer, they leave the designer’s powers and motives completely unspecified. That means that under ID, any possible world could be explained as designed, simply by arguing that the designer made it exactly as it appears.”

    russ responds:
    “Someone could do this, but I don’t hear anyone in the ID community doing this. Their claims appear to be very limited.”

    Russ,
    You must have missed the next paragraph, where I said
    “I’m certainly not saying that ID proponents would argue for such a perverse, deceptive designer. Most of them have a particular sort of designer in mind, very much along the lines of the Christian God. The point is that by not being explicit about any of the designer’s attributes, they make the designer hypothesis unfalsifiable.”

    russ continues:
    “I’m confident that even a chronologically inverted fossil record, or any other “falsification” would be glossed over in the same manner, since the theory of evolution is “as established as the theory of gravity”.

    No doubt there are some dogmatists who would cling to evolution even in the face of strong contrary evidence, especially if they had built their careers and reputations around ideas which were meaningless outside the context of evolution. For a parallel example from cosmology, look at Fred Hoyle. He was undoubtedly a brilliant and creative man, but he stubbornly clung to his Steady State theory long after the Big Bang had firmly established itself as a superior theory.

    I do not believe that scientists in general are so dogmatic. In fact, many would rush in with glee if evolution were disproved, because this would blow the field of biology wide open and create countless exciting opportunities for research. The reason they are not rushing in now is because they believe the scientific evidence for intelligent design is thin, and nobody wants to jump on a sinking ship.

  16. 16
    Lutepisc says:

    Hi, KeithS. Sorry I haven’t replied to you sooner. You wrote: “All of these examples illustrate what I meant when I said that “A God whose powers and motives are sufficiently specified is regular and predictable enough to be the subject of scientific investigation.”

    I see what you mean now. Yes, God conceptualized in the ways you suggested would be quite amenable to all sorts of scientific study. Do you suppose Christians (e.g.) will immediately recognize this God as the one whom they worship?

    I guess you’ll have to wait and see…

  17. 17
    keiths says:

    Lutepisc writes:
    “Yes, God conceptualized in the ways you suggested would be quite amenable to all sorts of scientific study. Do you suppose Christians (e.g.) will immediately recognize this God as the one whom they worship?”

    Lutepisc,

    Christianity is pretty heterogeneous. Some Christians argue that God is absolutely inscrutable, and whenever a theological problem arises, they punt and say “God moves in mysterious ways. Who are we to try to explain his actions?”. These folks have an unfalsifiable God, since difficult evidence will always be explained away using the ‘inscrutability’ escape hatch.

    Those Christians who assert that God inspired the Bible, word for word, and would never intentionally deceive us, have a falsifiable God. Contradictions and untruths in the Bible nicely falsify this God.

    Young-earth creationists posit a God who created the universe within the last 10,000 years; created the broad diversity of life, largely in its present form, in a period of one week; devastated Earth with a global flood, and then created rainbows as a symbol of his promise never to flood the earth again. Evidence from biology, geology, astronomy, archaeology, and physics overwhelmingly falsifies this God.

    Folks who believe that humans were created separately by God, in his image, and that he would never deceive us by making it appear that we are related to the apes, have a falsifiable God. Fossil records of hominid evolution and stunning evidence from molecular biology falsify this God.

    There are many other falsifiable Gods that would, I believe, be accepted by at least some Christians.

    So, yes, I believe that many Christians do have a falsifiable God concept. That’s why I said it was a shame that the ID folks refuse to pin down the designer and make it/him/her falsifiable, when some (perhaps most) of them already believe in a falsifiable God.

    There are at least five reasons why IDers won’t propose a falsifiable God as Designer:
    1. It would keep them out of the public school science classroom.
    2. It would confirm the suspicions of those who think the theory is religious.
    3. It would dissolve the “Big Tent” cohesiveness that they’ve carefully nurtured, because there might not be a single falsifiable God concept that is acceptable to all current ID supporters.
    4. A falsifiable Designer might actually get falsified.
    5. It would be an embarrassing reversal, since they’ve been so vigorous in denying that the theory makes any direct reference to God.

    By the way, is ‘Lutepisc’ a play on ‘lutefisk’?

  18. 18
    Josh Bozeman says:

    It’s not about God, so why would the posit a designer? Secondly- you haven’t falsified the God you mentioned…your take on the evidence says common descent when you can just as easily see common design. Miracles and the supernatural, or acts of God if you don’t consider them either of those 2 cannot be falsified by science in this manner…so there’s no way to say that such a God is falsified. You seem to be stuck on religion with this issue and you seem to have a major problem with religion- no wonder you can’t see the issue outside of that view.

    You’re implications that ID is bogus and IDers are being dishonest is also clearly false.

  19. 19
    Josh Bozeman says:

    btw. Keiths- you’re confused

    “Contradictions and untruths in the Bible nicely falsify this God.”

    You continually show your dislike for the Bible, God, Christians…and then you keep complaining that this and this are wrong in the Bible, yet you’ve distorted 2 bible passages that I saw and now you proclaim the bible is filled with contradictions and untruths…which is problematic, because you’ve already shown your not well versed on the book.

    You clearly don’t even get the concept of what it means for the Bible to be inpsired.

  20. 20
    Lutepisc says:

    Hi again, KeithS. You wrote:

    “Christianity is pretty heterogeneous. Some Christians argue that God is absolutely inscrutable, and whenever a theological problem arises, they punt and say “God moves in mysterious ways. Who are we to try to explain his actions?”. These folks have an unfalsifiable God, since difficult evidence will always be explained away using the ‘inscrutability’ escape hatch.”

    Now that we are dabbling in various conceptions of “God,” would it be fair to say that we have moved out of the domain of science and into the domain of theology? If so, then perhaps Martin Buber can be instructive here, with his notion of an “I/Thou” relationship. Buber argues that we can’t know God as an object…since that would be a characteristic of an “I/It” relationship. God is not an “it” to be known as objects are known, but rather a subject who calls us into a relationship.

    One does not properly worship an “it,” which could be defined as an object “regular and predictable enough to be the subject of scientific investigation.” In the Christian tradition, this has been defined as “idolatry.”

    Please feel welcome to regard this as an escape hatch. I really don’t see it as “punting,” though, but pretty much as mainline Judeo-Christian orthodoxy.

  21. 21
    keiths says:

    Hi, Lutepisc —

    You wrote:
    “One does not properly worship an ‘it,’ which could be defined as an object ‘regular and predictable enough to be the subject of scientific investigation.’ In the Christian tradition, this has been defined as ‘idolatry.'”

    Your dismissal of regularity as a characteristic of an “it” not worthy of worship is too harsh. Most Christians believe in a God who never deceives us. Such a God is “regular” with respect to the trait of honesty, but nevertheless continues to be worthy of worship.

    By your logic, God would have to (at least occasionally) lie, punish unfairly, exhibit great cruelty, forget things, make mistakes, etc., in order to remain unpredictable and therefore worthy of worship. Would you really want to worship such a God?

    Now that I think about it, Lutepisc, you may be on to something. That sounds a lot like the God of the Old Testament! 🙂

  22. 22
    keiths says:

    Josh writes:
    “It’s not about God, so why would they posit a designer?”

    Josh, guess what? It IS about God. Notice that ID proponents are very careful not to exclude the possibility that the designer is God. Further note that all of the leading ID figures are believers who admit that they believe the designer is God, even though they don’t claim this as part of the theory (Berlinski as an agnostic may be the one exception; he seems to be more of a career gadfly who enjoys taking on “the establishment”). And look at the cosmic fine-tuning arguments. Who, besides God, would be capable of creating a universe and tuning its constants for a particular purpose? (Except possibly a cosmic hacker of the kind described in Bill’s new “Intelligent Hacker” post!)

    And if that doesn’t convince you, check out these stated goals from the DI’s “Wedge Document”:

    “Governing Goals:

    To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
    To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

    Josh charges:
    “You continually show your dislike for the Bible, God, Christians…”

    The fact that I disbelieve the Bible does not mean that I dislike it, Josh. It’s a fascinating book, and parts of it are even inspiring. I find many Christians to be warm, personable, intelligent people, despite our disagreements. As for God, it’s hard to say whether I dislike him without knowing more about him. But I can say that the God of the Bible (and of the Old Testament, in particular), though he has his good side, is not very admirable in general, and downright despicable in spots, as when he endorses slavery and says that it’s okay to beat your slaves, as long as they don’t die immediately. On the other hand, there might exist a God worthy of love and worship. If so, once the evidence is there, I will become a believer.

    “you’ve distorted 2 bible passages…you’ve already shown your not well versed on the book.”

    Maybe you’re right. Please show me by citing the verses, explaining why my interpretation is wrong, and supplying your interpretation and the justification for it.

    “You clearly don’t even get the concept of what it means for the Bible to be inspired.”

    First of all, Christians as a group don’t even agree on what inspiration means. But if you think I’m wrong about it, why not show me why rather than simply accusing me of failing to “get the concept”?

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