Monday, November 16, 2009

Atheist Fundamentalism?

I got into a bit of a debate recently on twitter with someone who objected to my use of the term 'atheist fundamentalists'. My use of the phrase was in something of an offhand remark (as is the nature of twitter) to an article in the Guardian in which atheist philosopher Michael Ruse argued that the 'New Atheists', the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens etc, bring atheism into disrepute. I thought it was quite a reasonable and refreshing article but some of the comments showed that Ruse had touched on a raw nerve. These comments, to my mind, exhibited the classic behaviour of fundamentalism. By fundamentalism I meant an unthinking, narrow-minded, dogmatism, unwilling to see the other's point of view, and absolutely convinced of its own correctness. There is no such thing, my objector insisted, it is a misnomer. For one thing atheists, it is claimed, have no fundamental beliefs. For another thing, the term 'fundamentalist' has a particular provenance within a certain section of American Protestant Christianity. It is insulting, it was claimed, to genuine fundamentalists, to apply this term, willy-nilly, to people of other worldviews, of other faiths, or no faith.

On the one hand, I have to acknowledge that it was a bit of a cheap shot. Fundamentalist has become such a pejorative term that it is basically only used as an insult. I certainly wouldn't like to be called a fundamentalist, and by the rules that I claim to live by I thereby shouldn't apply this label to other people. I admit that part of my reason for calling some atheists 'fundamentalists' is that I know that it will wind them up. However, I would like to push back a little on my claim that atheists can be 'fundamentalists' as much as 'religious' folk.

Firstly, I have to disagree with the view that atheists have no fundamental beliefs. Whether you say atheists hold the view that there is no god or, as many atheists prefer to phrase it, they hold the view that there is not enough evidence to convince them of the the existence of god, this is a belief. Science is unable to adjudicate on the existence of God.

Secondly, like it or not, the word 'fundamentalist' has entered the popular discourse. 'Fundamentalist' is regularly applied to narrow-minded and dogmatic people of many different religions and worldviews. This may be unfair to the North American Christians who self-identify as fundamentalist but that is too bad. We talk of 'Islamic fundamentalists' or 'freemarket fundamentalists' and it is usually clearly understood what is being said. We don't have to be wooden literalists about the use of the word 'fundamentalist'

Thirdly, I'm in good company (in my opinion) as Alistair McGrath (who is nothing but gracious in his interactions with Dawkins et al) has labelled the viewpoint of 'the new atheists' as 'atheist fundamentalism'. See the subtitle of his response to Dawkins

'Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine'

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Michael Ruse supplies the blurb on the front cover of this book - 'The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why'. It is no wonder that Ruse has become anathema in some atheist circles. He has denied the faith.

Lastly, the 'New Atheists' themselves acknowledge that atheists can act religiously. When Hitchens is reminded in debates of the atrocities committed by prominent atheists in the 20th century he says 'ah, but they were acting religiously. They learnt all of their worst tricks from religion etc, etc.' I tend to agree, because I believe that all human beings are religious at heart. If people do not worship God they will devote themselves to something else and this can include worldviews. Atheists are just as capable of being narrow-minded and dogmatic as 'religious' people. That's what I saw in some of the responses to Ruse and, it seems to me, is something akin to fundamentalism.

So what do people think? Is there such a thing as an 'atheist fundamentalist'? Is it acceptable to apply the label fundamentalist to other people, or is it too much of a pejorative insult?


Lewis J. Boulton said...

To be honest, I'm not completely sure what I think - which is probably bad news for the rest of my reply...

I'm not sure whether the "beliefs" that [many] atheists have are actually beliefs or deductions, which I think are notably different. Do most [researched] atheists look at what they consider to be the evidence and deduce from this that there is no god, rather than simply believing there isn't?

Of course, the history of "fundamentalism" is interesting (considering it began as an attempt to be inclusive rather than exclusive - though that ship has sailed, and has sunk, I think!). As you note, the label in modern usage is both self-imposed, yet also applied to others (whether as an insult or not). To say its meaning isn't static and one-dimensional is an understatement.

It seems an issue of hermeneutics to me. Perhaps many of the 'New Atheists' despise the title simply because it is a "religious" title - thereby, in their opinion, one that is applied to "irrational people". As their argument is put forward as completely rational (i.e. based on deduction), it is, to them, abhorrent to see their "ekklesia" in some way joined to this irrational bunch?

As you state, I believe what is meant when using the label is that such people are seemingly unable to even consider the believes (or deductions) of others. This is certainly a narrow-mindedness. Whether they want to accept the label, whether they are offended by it or not, that does not change the fact that the New Atheists are behaving as such.

There are some who want dialogue, yourself included. However, it appears that dialogue is simply not a concern for others. They would rather "put right", or maybe "educate" - in the hope of some day ridding the world of 'belief in god(s)' or of ridding the world of atheists. This, in my mind, constitutes a fundamentalist attitude.

Jon said...

Hi Lewis, for someone who is not sure what they think, that was a great reply :) thanks a lot.

I think the claim that the belief that there is no god is a deduction is simply that, a claim. It is surely not a valid deduction, but then I would think that.

Anonymous said...

What strikes me with too many atheists - or at least the blogger variety - is that they are just as narrow-minded as any religious fundamentalist. How often have we heard "we KNOW there's no God"? Well no folks, you don't know. You don't believe it, because you haven't physical evidence for it. Do you have to have proof of everything before you can believe it? How about your instinct, or intuiton - or aren't they allowed? Are we to be the predetermined robots that Dawkins seems to think we are?

That's another thing that irks me. It's so often framed as if the choice is Biblical literalism or science/atheism. Plenty of Christians out there read the Bible as myth, metaphor, works of their time - morality tales - not as history. They aren't all creationists, but you'd never know it from the way some atheists carry on. It makes as much sense as claiming atheism is devil worship!

I'd also like to know why the idea that everything is material is such a - dare I say - fundamental, no-argument issue with some atheists. It's so reductionist: nothing exists outside the physical, preferably measurable universe ... and they dismiss the idea that there may be more than this with stock sneers about "woo woo," unicorns, Santa and so on. Why must the natural world be limited to the measurable? Why can't what is called the divine/supernatural/paranormal be seen as equally natural, but different? Just because religions have made different stories, interpretations, about it, doesn't mean there isn't something to inspire them. Humans have had lots of fiction written about them, too ... does that mean that humans aren't real? The atheists' stock response about the FSM and such sound like someone saying "Harry Potter isn't real, therefore neither is Isaac Newton."

That other people have experiences which are real, which are significant, is dismissed as being brain chemicals. It's all so deadening, this sort of talk; like we're supposed to be some sort of robots. It also sends the message "we're so smart and your experiences are just delusions, but you're too dumb to know it" - that, or they're calling anyone who's had spiritual experiences a liar.

I'm not Christian, nor a follower of any faith. I've been agnostic-verging-on-atheist and it was a matter of opening my mind to its own abilities, its own possibilities, that changed it. Would any of these sneering types of atheist (whom I don't take as necessarily representative; people vary too much) ever open their minds that much? I doubt it, somehow.

elfgirk said...

Hi Jon,
I realize you posted this a while ago however I would like to comment.

When I think of fundamentalism I think of:
- proselytizing
- criticizing to the point of ridicule other beliefs
- refusing to allow their children to be exposed to other ideas
- an inability to consider whether other beliefs are even possible

On the other hand I belief that one can be a person or faith or atheism
- by accepting that individuals will come to the spiritually or not that makes sense for them - not try to force them to change their minds (or for that matter assume everyone else must be wrong and you must be right)
-I believe unexamined belief of any faith or lack thereof is not worth having
- teach their children about their own faith or lack thereof while being respectful and tolerant of the global community with its multitude of belief systems
- finally for those atheists who claim that science is on their side I would only state they are in the same boat as the rest of us as you cannot prove the null hypothesis

elfgirk said...

Sorry I meant to finish by saying I know atheist that ft into both those categories, and would therefore define atheists in the first category as fundamentalist atheists