The fundamentalist atheist

Today’s blog post continues the series begun here, in the lead-up to the Australian Skeptics’ national convention, and concerns whether it makes sense to speak of a fundamentalist atheist. You’ve probably heard people argue that this is an oxymoron, but I’d like to present a contrary view.

Most readers probably know that the term fundamentalism derives from a specific Protestant movement of the early 20th century (a pamphlet from which I once discovered in my grandparents’ attic, incidentally). However, most people would agree that the word has moved on from its etymological origins, and now refers not to a specific religious movement but to a certain cluster of behaviours and attitudes. Precisely what these behaviours and attitudes are is less widely agreed upon, which means that the definition of fundamentalism in present day English — and thus the question of whether a given set of people can be described as fundamentalists — is a matter of opinion.

Now, it is hard to imagine an atheist who fits all of the connotations that the word fundamentalist has when applied to theists. Religious fundamentalism often seems motivated, at least in part, by a fear of ignorance. Creationists are creationists for all sorts of reasons, but quite a few seem uncomfortable with the idea that God could create a world in billions of years and not tell them about it. More liberal Christians accept the idea that there are some things God has chosen not to reveal, but fundamentalists tend to look to certainty for security and resent the idea of a god with secrets. Roy Pearson refers to this attitude when he writes, “Unassailable security is one of the most pathetic goals of man” (The Believer’s Unbelief, page 51). It is difficult (though probably not impossible) to imagine an atheist to whom this particular connotation of fundamentalism applies. Fear of ignorance is hardly likely to lead anyone to accept that when it comes to figuring out the nature of the universe and how to live in it, we’re on our own.

Secondly, fundamentalist Christians have a tendency to accept extreme ideas about morality, punishment, and the infinite, notably the idea that ordinary people deserve to burn in hell for failing to be perfect.  Vishal Mangalwadi writes (The World of Gurus, page 175), “Because we have sinned against an infinitely holy God, we have sinned infinitely and deserve infinite punishment – eternal seperation from God. That is hell.” This is a truly staggering claim, in which common sense morality is tossed aside for the sake of a narrow interpretation of a holy book. I could dedicate a whole post to explaining how my own beliefs, when I was a Christian myself, differed from this fundamentalist view, but the point I’m making today is that it would be difficult to find an equivalent in atheism. The atheist, as such, has no need to sacrifice common sense morality to reconcile it with anything.

Having acknowledged a couple of reasons why someone might argue that a fundamentalist atheist is, if not wholly oxymoronic then at least highly anomalous, I will now explain why I think the word fundamentalist actually applies to a subset of atheists very appropriately. So far, I’ve discussed connotations of fundamentalism that are not, in my opinion, central. When I think of the word fundamentalism, the connotation that comes to mind most strongly is a tendency to assume that religious assertions and belief systems are either literally true or else false — in contexts where most of us (whether believers or not) would recognise that as a false dichotomy. Notice the wriggle-room I’ve given myself by referring to a tendency – I am not saying that fundamentalists literally believe that everything is either literally true or else false; rather, I am identifying a spectrum of attitudes and drawing attention to one end of it.

Atheist fundamentalists (by this definition) reach diametrically opposite conclusions to religious fundamentalists, and therefore tend not to acknowledge how similar they really are. The Christian fundamentalist says, “The Bible is either literally true or else it is false, therefore it is literally true“, and fears that if one part of it were shown to be false then one might as well throw the whole thing on the trash heap. The atheist fundamentalist says, “The Bible is either literally true or else it is false, therefore it is false“, and frankly agrees that having shown one part of it to be false one might as well disregard the whole thing. The conclusion is the opposite but the way of getting there is hauntingly familiar, and my contention is that what makes you a fundamentalist is not the conclusion you reach after accepting the false dichotomy, but the fact that you accept the dichotomy in the first place.

I raised this topic on Usenet a while back, and received the following response:

True. I’ve had discussions with fundamentalist christians and fundamentalist atheists at the same time, and in between the name calling, they wholeheartedly agreed with each other how I should be interpreting the bible, and claimed I wasn’t a real christian because I had a slightly more open minded approach to the bible. It was funny and bizarre, seeing them agree like that, and I think it underlines your point.

Based on this definition, I do not think Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist atheist, as none of his arguments (that I know of) rely on a dichotomy in which the Bible is either literally true or worthless. But I might point to the Rational Response Squad as representing the epitome of fundamentalist atheism.

3 Responses to “The fundamentalist atheist”

  1. John S. Wilkins Says:

    I have to disagree with you about the meaning of “fundamentalist”. It is a historical term, not a type or grade. It refers to a movement that began with the Protestants in the 1910s. Trying to align Christian fundamentalism with, say, Islamism or atheist extremism is to make a category error. Wrong inferences can be made. It is better to try to define what they actually do have in common rather than to make impressionistic connections.

  2. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    As I say above, I regard the connection with the movement of the 1910s as merely the etymology of the word, not its meaning.

    I get the impression that what we disagree about here is really one example of a broader difference in priorities. You seem comparatively more interested in investigating how words can be defined in order to best assist logical reasoning about categories, whereas I’m comparatively more interested in accepting the phenomenon that a word appears subjectively appropriate in a given context and investigating the facts that account for that phenomenon.

  3. John S. Wilkins Says:

    This is not about etymology. It is about historical particulars and names. We name that sequence of events as fundamentalism and it functions thereafter as a proper noun. To use it as an adjectival descriptor invites the error of taking properties of the original source (Protestant fundamentalism) and imposing them on our interpretation of distinct historical movements. For example, literalism is a character of fundamentalism, but while all Muslims are effectively literalists, few are much like the fundamentalists. It pays, therefore, to use terms in a historical manner rather than a functionalistic one.

    In biology, this is the difference between genealogical (phylogenetic) thinking and functionalistic or grade-based thinking. The latter is often misleading.

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