From one fundamentalist to another

I really wanted to like this book.

With the subtitle From Christian Cleric to Ageing Atheist, Charles Cornwall’s The Path at My Feet had me intrigued the moment I saw it. When I discovered Cornwall was a fellow Baptist minister who, disillusioned by faith, resigned his ordination in a neighbouring state and walked away from the church, I pulled out the credit card. Here was a ‘brother’ in more ways than one and this was a story I wanted to hear.

I imagined an honest account of doubt and struggle–the slow and painful road from certainty to emptiness, from the known to the entirely unknown. God knows, I’ve struggled enough myself. Here was the story of someone courageous enough to let those uncertainties speak and to follow their lead, intelligently and reflectively. Even better, to let me listen in.

I really wanted to like this book, but I didn’t. In fact, just pages in I felt gypped.

In the introduction, Cornwall’s writes of his ‘defection’ from Baptist ministry. It was the first yellow light. According to my dictionary, defection is ‘the desertion of one’s country or cause in favour of an opposing one.’ Cornwall’s story is really the desertion of one brand of fundamentalism for another. There is no desert place in-between, just a decisive step from darkness to light, from the ‘sanctimonious cant’ of Christian faith to the glorious liberty of reason.

Cornwall divides his book into two parts. Part One is his story told in five brief chapters: family, indoctrination, conversion, reverend, atheist. It’s honest enough and at times quite moving, but the biting sarcasm that pervades his assessment of his own experiences and feelings and those of others is deeply frustrating, even jarring. The lack of nuance or sustained self-reflection feels almost sad.

Part Two, by far the larger part of the book, is a collection of 15 essays, most originally published in the Australian Atheist. To be perfectly honest, the book would be better without them. Had Cornwall been able to stay with his narrative and not surrender the worth of his own story to poorly argued propaganda for an alternative literalism, this could have been a very challenging book. But it’s not.

What is most irritating is that Cornwall sets himself up as someone with insider knowledge, one who, because of his theological studies for ministry, is one of the few who has actually read the bible, studied it and is prepared to name it for what it is: an ancient ‘nonsense’ so full of ‘ambiguities, self-contradictions, absurdities, unscientific nonsense and historical inaccuracies’ that it’s next to worthless. His inference is that while many of those still within the church know it too, they are not prepared to tell.

I don’t mind a serious critique of the bible. There are some powerful and persuasive ones around and I’ve read many of them. But Cornwall’s critique is, sadly, so one-dimensional–an almost kindergarten understanding of ancient literature and sacred texts–that it makes you wince.

Cornwall contends that there are two types of Christians (just two!), those who take the bible literally and those who don’t. To the non-literalists he asks, ‘if Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, Jesus walking on water and Jesus turning water into wine are not meant to be taken literally, what about other similarly incredible stories like the virgin birth and the resurrection? Eliminate these on the grounds of consistency and the whole edifice of Christian dogma collapses in a heap of rubble — just like the walls of Jericho.’ It’s this simplistic logic that pervades Cornwall’s essays. So much so, he begins to read like a proponent of creation science: if God didn’t create the world in a literal seven days then our entire faith is bankrupt. Really? It is telling that in his 195 pages, Cornwall only references other atheists to make his argument. Oh, and Jerry Falwell to illustrate the counter view!

To be honest, I come away feeling as though Cornwall is still so very angry at this God he doesn’t believe in that he might have well have been wise to find some resolution for his anger before putting pen to paper. I don’t mean to be dismissive of Cornwall’s story. Actually, I would genuinely like to hear more of it. It’s the long, repetitive and poorly researched and argued sermon that follows that I could do without.

Cornwall concludes his book with some good advice: ‘Think for yourself. Don’t be a sheep brain and – to mix farmyard animal metaphors – don’t let yourself be led by the nose about what to believe. … Investigate widely. Keep an open mind’ and ‘finally, don’t be arrogant about the way you hold your beliefs.’ I really wanted to like this book, to be moved and challenged by it. Perhaps if Cornwall had taken his own advice, I might have been.

13 Comments

    1. Hi Savana … I reckon the best memoirs of faith and doubt are written by the most unlikely people, and often women. Interestingly they often tell of a move away from a faith they can no longer sustain (or does not sustain them) to a very different expression of faith. Two worth reading: Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith’ and Anne Lamott’s ‘Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.’

      Reply

  1. Hmmm – disappointing – I love a good honest story of struggle, but it sounds like there wasn\’t much struggle.

    I don\’t know if you have read the stuff Frank Schaeffer has written about his exit from \’evangelicalism\’ (a form of it) and his thoughts on his father. Similarly I began reading it hoping to read some insightful stuff, but while there was some of that it was so tainted by his anger that it was hard to keep reading.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Andrew. I haven’t read Schaeffer but I have heard similar reports from others. Probably wrong of me to infer that there was no struggle for Cornwall. What would I know of his experience? I am sure there is pain there that I would not even begin to understand. It’s more that he gives so little space to it in his account and I think that’s a shame.

      Reply

  2. I’ve just finished reading Cornwall’s book, and I must say that I found it a reasonable and honest account of the man’s loss of his faith. Certainly, his biographical account is interesting, and indeed, in parts, very touching. It certainly goes some way in explaining Cornwall’s ‘defection’ to atheism. Whilst we, as Christians, may not find his atheistic arguments particularly convincing. Yet they are sincerely and clearly presented and expressed in unpretentious terms. By the way, my dictionary defines ‘fundamentalism as: “strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the literal aceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of Protestant Christianity” It is hard to see Simon, how atheism can fit into that description. I think, Simon your review is unnecessarily sophistical and somewhat mean-spirited: dare I say ‘un-Christian?

    Reply

    1. Hi Olaf, thanks for your comment and I’m glad you’ve read Cornwall’s book and had a different response to mine. I’m conscious that reviewing a book is a very subjective business. Responses to my own writing are always varied and I often wonder if disparate reviewers have read the same book! I am sorry you’ve heard my comments as ‘sophistical’ and ‘mean-spirited’. They are not meant that way. But a review is meant to be honest and, I think, appropriately critical.

      I am not sure what you mean by ‘un-Christian’? It makes me wonder if Cornwall has been ‘un-Athiest’ in his strident and honest critique of Christian faith. If being Christian means we cannot be critical of another perspective, to engage in the more rigorous debate about issues and arguments, that seems a bit odd to me. Still, I hear your criticism and will be a bit more careful in the future.

      I do have to disagree with you about confining fundamentalism to particular brands of religion and thus having no application to atheism. My dictionary definition of the word includes yours and adds another, ‘strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology’. I have just finished reading de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’. To me there is a wide gap between Cornwall’s fundamentalist atheism and de Botton’s more liberal expression of the same ideology.

      Reply

  3. Hi Simon, I have just received an email soliciting this book. I didn’t ask anyone for information concerning this book. So, I don’t know how I got the email solicitation.

    Nevertheless, the little info that I have gathered from the solicitation makes me wonder if some Christian out there has written something to counter the arguments used in favor of an atheistic position.

    Also, I am wondering if the book touches on my own stumbling block with regards to the biblical doctrine that God is the ultimate underlying cause of all that exists now (which would necessarily include that which He calls evil since, according to the Bible, there was no evil until after He who hates evil, created that which brought evil into being or that which introduced evil into His creation).

    Reply

    1. Hi Bob, there are certainly lots of arguments in the book against all manner of Christian beliefs. I just think you could find much better resources from an atheist perspective than this one. Critics of the Christian faith often talk dismissively of our ‘Sunday School’ ideas of God and the world. But this book, to be honest, is pretty ‘Sunday school’ in its argument for disbelief.

      Reply

      1. I think the idea of a ‘Sunday School’ of God refers to the rather childish ‘fairy-tale stories that many Christians adhere to, even as intelligent, educated adults e.g. the narration of Genesis or Noah’s ark. On the other hand, there is nothing ‘Sunday School-ish’ about atheism. If, through the complete lack of evidence, a person can no longer entertain the construct of a god, then that’s it! Atheism is a simple and clear cut result. There’s nothing either complicated or shallow about it.

      2. I’d have to disagree Jac. I think forms of atheism can be just as ‘Sunday Schoolish’ as forms of religious faith. Anyone who holds the view they hold without a rigorous engagement with the philosophical ideas than undergird it is doing their perspective a great disservice! To suggest that atheism is ‘simple and clear cut result’ of a simple and clear cut decision sounds very much like a fundamentalist Christian claiming their reading of faith is a ‘simple and clear cut’ and therefore, by inference, not open to critique.

  4. Pardon me Simon, but atheism is the disbelieve in the existence of God or gods. That’s fairly clear cut. There are no nuances there. There are no shades of atheism: no atheism with codicils; atheism with encumbrances. Atheists, as a demographic entity, are as diverse as any group of people anywhere; in terms socio-economic status, gender, or whatever. But if there’s one thing I can guarantee they are rock solid on, it’s this: gods do not exist. Whether or not all or many of them hold their view as a result of ‘rigorous engagement with the philosophical ideas…’ etc. neither you or I could readily say, but I would suggest that there’s a good possibility that atheists have come to their position as a result of at least some ‘naval gazing’; for they do, as a demographic entity, tend towards higher levels of education, involvement in the sciences, education, or the ‘professions, than the general population. And certainly, many of the atheists I’ve met (and I have met a great many) have come to their position precisely as a result of ‘rigorous engagement with the philosophical ideas…’ etc.
    Ironic, what?

    Reply

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