Other Essays

Flavours of Christianity

Contrary to fundamentalist claims, Christianity is a label which actually encompasses many varied and diverse belief systems. Fundamentalists are fond of saying that they are the only "true" Christians, and all other Christians have "diluted" or "corrupted" their faith with those nasty, evil "secular values" or worse yet, "pagan blasphemy" (note that Islamic fundamentalists are the same way, so they accuse open-minded and/or moderate Muslims of "betraying Allah").

If the "Christian right" is aware of Christian ministries in Africa which are so inclusive that they make room for local medicine men and religious rituals in their worship servicess, they are undoubtedly of the opinion that they are irredeemably evil, because they "blaspheme against the Lord". Their opinion of fellow Christians can be equally caustic if anyone steps out of line; in fact, the popular evangelist Billy Graham has been attacked by numerous fundamentalist publications1 for daring to reach out to people of other faiths! Why? Because those other faiths are "blasphemy", and as far as they're concerned, Billy Graham is now in league with Satan.

At its heart, fundamentalism is nothing more than institutionalized religious narrow-mindedness [after seeing this page, Bruce Waldron wrote: as a minister friend of mine wryly observed of this branch of practice, "there is only one thing worse than being a non-believer and that's being the wrong sort of believer."] However, despite the fundamentalists' denials, there are actually a great many legitimate varieties of Christianity: too many to neatly categorize. However, while distinct categorization is not possible, there are certain popular, generalized schools of Christian thought, and it is important that we recognize the differences between them.

Mainstream Christianity

Mainstream Christianity is represented by the teeming millions who attend church most Sundays but are not "hardcore", ie- you won't find them proselytizing door to door, bombing family planning clinics, distributing hate literature about gays and lesbians, or promoting ideologically correct political fringe candidates. The majority have probably not read the Bible thoroughly (if at all), and they're probably most familiar with the passages that have been recited to them during Sunday schools and church services. I have found, in conversation with mainstream Christians, that a lot of them place great emphasis on their intuitive understanding of God, as opposed to detailed study of the Bible.

There are many different denominations: with names like "Presbyterian", "United Church", "Lutheran", etc. Denominations were often founded by an individual or small group of individuals, each with their own distinct set of specific beliefs and practices but generally sharing a few over-arching basic beliefs. I have tried to determine some of these common elements from speaking to numerous Christians, not to mention sitting through at least a hundred church services, spanning numerous denominations (I even sat through a Jehovah's Witness service once for the sake of research, although I would strongly advise against anyone else putting themselves through such an ordeal; it was full of classic brainwashing techniques, and it was so agonizingly long and boring that I was praying for unconsciousness by the time it was over). In any case, I have observed the following common denominator beliefs:

  1. You have an immortal soul, and when you die, your soul passes into the afterlife.

  2. In the afterlife, there is a Heaven which is good, and a Hell which is bad. Opinions vary on the details; some feel that Heaven and Hell are a kind of afterlife happiness and unhappiness, while others go for the whole nine yards: harp music in Heaven, and flaming agony in Hell. Of course, there is a whole spectrum in between these extremes.

  3. In theory, you enter Heaven if you accept Jesus as your saviour (or as they say it, "saved by God's grace, not by our works"). However, in practice, I have observed that this rule is routinely ignored. Bad people (ie- people who did bad things in this life) are assumed to go to Hell, and good people are assumed to go to Heaven. For example, most mainstream Christians believe that the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Centre went straight to Hell for their actions, but very few seem to think that Gandhi is in Hell for not accepting Jesus. Despite the "grace" idea, Hell is widely regarded as a form of "final justice" for evildoers.

  4. God does not interfere in worldly affairs. His domain is the afterlife, not this life. Faith healers and other self-proclaimed miracle workers are charlatans who use parlour tricks to take advantage of the desperate and the gullible. Therefore, when Christians become political or humanitarian activists, they should do so in the same spirit as secular activists: by helping in tangible, physical ways rather than merely praying for divine intervention.

  5. The Bible cannot be taken literally. In the case of the Old Testament, none of its stories were written down until centuries or in some cases, millenia after the events supposedly occurred, and it is ridiculous to expect accuracy. The New Testament suffers from similar inaccuracies: stories were written down from memory many years or even decades after the fact, and many of the original manuscripts were destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. Moreover, its authors never intended it to be taken literally anyway; it was meant to be used as parable and allegory, not a textbook. Storytellers of that era did not think in terms of modern concepts of scientific and/or historical accuracy, preferring to think in terms of meaning and message.

  6. Some of the Bible's values must be "taken with a grain of salt", due to the era of their origin. For example, it is widely accepted that the violence and religious intolerance of the ancient Israelites should not be mimicked by modern believers, even though they wrote that God encouraged them. It is also widely accepted that Paul's misogynism was a byproduct of an ignorant era and should not be copied today, and that the same is true of his failure to condemn slavery.

  7. Church and state should not join, but it's acceptable to make some "reasonable" concessions to Christianity. These might include manger scenes in City Hall at Christmas, school prayer, the "harmless" act of placing the Ten Commandments on the outside of a court house, the "In God We Trust" inscription on the coins, the "One Nation Under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance, laws against prostitution and pornography or public indecency, etc.

  8. It is wrong for scientists to "play God" (no one can ever explain why this is wrong, but we're supposed to accept that it's wrong anyway). This is the common justification for bans on cloning research, no matter how noble the purpose.

Mainstream Christianity has some good aspects. In particular, items #1 and #3 are very enticing; who wouldn't want to believe that he has an immortal soul, that there's a place where evildoers cannot escape justice, or that you can be excused for your moral failings if you just repent and ask God to forgive you (sort of a moral Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection clause)? Small wonder that similar features are found in many other religions (the most well-known example is the concept of "karma" in Hinduism and Buddhism, in which your destiny through many stages of existence is determined by your conduct in life).

Mainstream Christians are generally not obnoxious about their belief. They don't hide their religion but they're usually not pushy about it either, except at Christmas, when we hear the annual complaints that Christmas should not be allowed to turn into a "commercialized, secular holiday" (as if the rest of us shouldn't be allowed to take the day off, or celebrate it in our own way). I have observed that in a mainstream Christian service, a preacher will quote from the Bible but he will often attempt to reinforce the message with real-life parables (as opposed to the "fire and brimstone" preachers, for whom Bible passages require no further justification). I have also noted that mainstream Christian services tend to quote mostly from the New Testament, not the Old Testament.

However, there are also bad sides. There is a lot of negativity towards atheism and secularism, and a lack of religion is routinely equated to evil. For example, according to "uniter, not divider" (cough, cough) George W. Bush2, "those who celebrate the murder of innocent men, women and children have no religion". Their approval of religious influence in state laws and activities is also unacceptable; if we're going to make everyone abide by the religious rules of the majority, then how is this any different from simply forcing people to convert, as is done in all religious theocracies? And the latent "don't let science get out of hand" mentality (which plays out in countless sci-fi films such as "Jurassic Park", in which we are pointedly reminded that man should not play God or he will suffer) is unfortunate and impedes scientific progress. However, most mainstream Christians are open to discussion about these subjects, and may even amend their positions upon meeting someone who can make a strong case to do so.

Liberal Christianity

Liberal Christians are my favourites, but they're somewhat harder to find. As far as I'm concerned, they're the most courageous Christians, because they've taken a good look at their belief system, and they knowingly buck the mainstream for the sake of making the world a happier, friendlier place. I met a lot of liberal Christians at university, where people of all cultures and religions came together and discovered how much we actually have in common (it's much harder to hold onto ignorance and prejudice when you eat lunch with people from different cultures and different countries every day).

The beliefs of liberal Christians are similar to those of mainstream Christians, but there are some crucial differences:

  1. Hell, as envisioned by the mainstream, does not exist. God is merciful, and would not punish sins with an eternity of torture. The afterlife is probably more of a continuous spectrum, where the injustices of life are corrected. Some feel that perhaps your sins become visible in your soul, so that the soul of an evildoer is weak and ugly, while the soul of a a good person is beautiful and strong. Others believe that Hell is resurrection, ie- you have to come back here if you're not worthy of entering Heaven, and you have to keep trying and trying until you get it right (this sounds a bit like the karmic resurrection idea). In any case, they generally feel that the black and white dichotomy of the Heaven/Hell paradigm is oversimplistic, unmerciful, and wrong.

  2. Religion is personal, not collective or institutional. Each person has his own different conception of God, and we cannot arbitrarily dismiss other viewpoints. It is argued that God's reach is vast and so he probably did a lot of things that weren't described in the Bible (an idea which features prominently in religious discussions of the possibility of extraterrestrial life), and some even go so far as to suggest that the differing gods of all the world's various cultures are actually the same God, revealing himself in different ways to different peoples.

  3. Jesus was a real person, warts and all, as opposed to the perfect being that most fundamentalists would describe (I actually find the Jesus character much more likable when he's portrayed as a human being with human foibles, which may be one of the reasons I liked "The Last Temptation of Christ"). The virgin birth may not be the literal truth, and his parents may have made up that story to avoid persecution in an incredibly puritanical society3. However, he was sent by God, and any weaknesses came from the society he lived in. He was not infallible, but he was a great prophet and saviour, and he set his religion on the path toward a more enlightened future.

  4. There's some scary stuff in the Old Testament which should not be taken seriously. Rather than evading or denying it, liberal Christians will often freely admit their discomfort with the Book of Job, the fate of Jericho and other cities in the Israelites' path, God's terrorism in Egypt, etc. Some will argue that things did not literally happen that way. They are generally quick to point out that today's Christianity should not be judged by its historical roots. They are the most open-minded about issues such as homosexual rights, but they generally toe the party line on the issues of prostitution and pornography.

  5. Church and state should be separated. Yes, believe it or not, there are Christians who wholeheartedly support this rule (JFK is the most famous example; he was a Catholic, yet he spoke in public of the importance of the separation of church and state).

I've never seen what I would describe as a liberal Christian church service. As far as I can tell, liberal Christians attend mainstream Christian services, and their variations upon mainstream beliefs derive from their individual values and ideals rather than any kind of organized movement. It should be noted that there can be a lot of overlap between mainstream Christians and liberal Christians, with people holding liberal beliefs on some issues and mainstream beliefs on others.

Fundamentalist Christianity

Fundamentalism is religious reactionism. It instinctively resists change, progress, and all that is alien. The rest of the Christian world has gradually fallen away from the intolerance and anti-scientific attitudes of the past, but fundamentalists see this as a betrayal of their religion. They generally subscribe to the historically revisionist fantasy of a "golden age" of traditional values based upon religion, and as they see it, we are moving into an age of moral decay because we are not obeying God (interestingly enough, few of these people care to closely examine the sordid history of Christian theocracies at their peak in medieval Europe, presumably because it will upset their preconceived notions of theocratic utopia).

Social change is very frightening for some, particularly those who feel the need for the psychological security of a stable group identity (the psychological need for a strong group identity drives a lot of social phenomena, such as youth gangs, nationalism, and racism). Rapid progress and social change tend to disrupt stagnant social conditions. For those who are nimble enough to adjust to the changes or who were not well treated under the status quo, this is not a problem; progress is good, and change may even be exhilarating. However, for those who benefit from the status quo and/or fear the unknown, progress is disturbing, and perhaps even terrifying.

Theirs is a mentality of simple answers for complex problems. Crime? It's because we're not religious enough. Divorce rate? It's because we're not religious enough. Drug abuse? It's because we're not religious enough. War? It's because leaders aren't religious enough. Such is the mentality of the intellectually slothful and lazy, because it's much easier to propose their simple solution than it is to admit that these problems have much more complex causes than they realize. Facts which contradict their assumptions (eg- the lack of the predicted inverse correlation between Christian faith and the aforementioned social problems) are simply ignored.

Fundamentalism has a few simple tenets:

  1. The Bible is absolutely, literally true.

  2. The Bible is sacred. It cannot be questioned or criticized.

  3. All other religions and philosophies are false, blasphemous, and an immoral affront to God.

  4. We should live our lives according to God's laws. All of them, even the insane rules of the Old Testament. After seeing this page, Bruce Waldron made the following comment: "Its odd though how choosy they are about these. They insist on wives obeying their husbands (One of St Paul's statements) and on the homosexual issue, but not on the rules about pork, or about menstruating women, or about Sabbath keeping, or about a host of other things found in the Levitical books."

  5. The state has no right to defy the Bible.

It goes without saying that all fundamentalists are creationists. Beliefs #2-5 (as well as Biblical creationism) all result from belief #1, since the Bible encourages such thinking (particularly in the Old Testament). In essence, their belief in Biblical literalism is the source of all their intolerance, their antipathy for science and humanism, and their ignorance of the outside world. It is also their biggest sore spot: they do not distinguish between the New Testament and the Old Testament, so they must doggedly defend all of it against moral, scientific, or historical criticism, even though any intelligent person who honestly and diligently employs his faculties of reason will see that it is simply not possible to do so.

The Bible contains too many atrocities, absurdities, and inaccuracies to be used in such a literal way (or worse yet, used as a guideline for legislation). Most people can see this easily, so fundamentalists are often ridiculed (you know the stereotype: white, ignorant, gun-toting, "spare the rod, spoil the child" country bumpkin, probably from the southern states). They react to this negative perception not by softening their attitude, but by lashing out at anyone who would criticize or contradict their extremist belief system. They have become experts at appropriating the language of the genuinely oppressed for their own frivolous claims of oppression; they claim that criticism constitutes "persecution", and they often try to convince themselves that they are suffering for the Lord, just as Jesus' disciples did (if they say that all other religions are evil, or that your children should be forced to pray to their God in public school, you're not allowed to criticize or else you're viewed as the bigot!).


There are a lot of different flavours of Christianity in this world, and one might even view it as a spectrum, with liberalism at one end and fundamentalism at the other end. In any case, it is not the monolithic entity that some of its proponents and detractors perceive it to be. I have written this document partially to remind fundamentalist site visitors that they don't have a monopoly on the name "Christian", and also partially to remind other Christian visitors to this site that I am aware of the diversity of Christian belief, and that I do not tar them all as fundamentalists. It is my hope that I will be successful on both counts.


I would like to sincerely thank Bruce Waldron for his feedback on this page.


1Amazingly, there's actually a widely circulated article entitled "Billy Graham's Disobedience to the Word of God"! In the fundamentalist community, it apparently doesn't pay to be open minded.

2In his 35-minute long televised national speech of November 8, 2001, in which he rallied the nation to fight against the international forces of terrorism (read: "Islamic terrorists who oppose the United States, but not South American CIA-backed terrorists or domestic anti-abortion terrorists). Both George W. Bush and his father have made numerous astoundingly virulent anti-atheist statements over the years. The full quote is "This enemy tries to hide behind a peaceful faith, but those who celebrate the murder of innocent men, women and children have no religion, have no conscience, and have no mercy." Note how he casually claims that all remorseless killers are atheists, and then goes on to equate the absence of religion to the absence of conscience or mercy! Not only are all three claims hopelessly wrong, but consider this: these words passed through his entire staff of speech writers before he spoke it on national television! Obviously, there is not a single atheist in that staff, or this heinous slander would have been questioned.

3Bruce Waldron added the following note: "Only Matthew and Luke record the virgin birth. Their inclusion of it is very intentional, not as a defensive explanation but as a theological statement. Matthew uses the story to reinforce his message that Jesus is of the lineage of David, the Kingly line. Matthew wants to reinforce Christ's place as the promised King of Israel. Jesus is worshipped in a house by wise men from the East. Luke uses the story to reinforce his message of Jesus as the Son of God who has at his birth shepherds and an unwed mother and carpenter. Jesus is worshipped in a stable by shepherds, the lowest employees of the society, short of pig keepers. Luke has a strong message of the Christ of the lowly, the blind, the sick, the poor. The stories are very different."

Last updated: November 11, 2001

Continue to A Brief History of American Fundamentalism

Jump to: