Concerning Fundamentalist Atheism

January 26, 2009

Philosophy has always fascinated me and the fact that I am now interested in pursuing a life and career more focused on World Religion, Theology and Social Work doesn’t change that. It’s no different from the fact that even though I am now an Episcopal I still read things pertaining to the history and beliefs of other denominations, or that though I am a Christian I read and study Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism. So even though I read primarily Religious works in that regard now where when I was a philosophy student I eschewed the “other end of the hall” where the religion students resided (literally–Philosophy classes were at the opposite end of the same floor from where the Religion classes were when I did my undergraduate work), I still read philosophy work that falls far outside of the “Christian” or even “Religious” label.
I say this as a preamble to mentioning atheist and secular humanism philosophies. See, I never got riled up at such things as a philosophy student. I’m not so much angry now as flabbergasted at philosophers and social critics that narrow their viewpoint so much that they totally miss the point. What I’m referring to are the Fundamentalist Atheists, what progressive Christian writers like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg refer to as “Fact Fundamentalists.” For these type of folks, like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, if you can’t scientifically measure, label and mathematically define something it isn’t real and therefore is useless if not an outright dangerous delusion.
Hitchens leans toward the vehemently mean end, proselytizing his version of Atheism as loudly as any fire breathing evangelical does their version of Christianity. Hitchens insists that it is dangerous to believe in any religion, that religion is the primary cause of every horrible thing in the world today, and that when a person of faith educates their children in that faith they are committing child abuse. Less hostile in this camp is the scientist Dawkins, who is brilliant in his own field yet misguided in others. He’s a proud sponsor of a campaign that advertises a slogan on city buses in London that proclaims that “There’s probably no God, so relax and enjoy life.” Even eminent and historical philosophers like Bertrand Russell were seriously guilty of missing the point, as was the case in his work “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Russell rejected the Christian faith for a few specific reasons and stated that although many of the primary tenants of the faith were admirable, ultimately he had to reject it because he felt Jesus expected the end of the world in a mere few years and was wrong, and Jesus believed in Hell and thus lacked compassion among other similar reasons.
The problem I have with the work of the above people is not that they are not Christian nor is it because they speak out against Christianity and the Church. Russell was very right in stating that most of the people he ran into declaring themselves Christian behaved and believed nothing like the historical Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels for many reasons, not the least of which that in their pursuit of capitalism they were in direct opposition to much of Jesus’ more socialistic statements. Russell ended his life with a biography that embraced most of the important aspects of progressive Christian without explicitly realizing it, from the support of pacifism to the hope that he had done all he could in his life to spread peace, justice, love and wisdom. I can even acknowledge Hitchens assertion in the sense that fundamentalist religion is the cause of much (but not all) of the worlds biggest evils. I nod with Dawkins that people should quite often “relax and enjoy life.” My major problem with these folks is that they blanket all of religion with legalism, fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness. Even scholars like George H. Smith, who wrote the modern textbook for Atheism, “The Case Against God,” seem to assume that right wing religion is all religion. Every serious work of Atheism seems to attack the scientific or ethical arguments and “proofs” of God (such as the ontological argument) and each author seems to assume that by disproving such arguments they prove God does not exist. This is what I take most issue with. Any logician, philosopher, lawyer or scientist can disprove any “proof” of God that has been laid out in an argument by Augustine, Aquinas, Kant or the modern religious right with proper argument and work, but they cannot disprove God–merely the arguments that philosophers have assumed proved God’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt. But they have nothing to combat progressive, modern, liberal Christian faith. They really have nothing with which to combat traditional faith with either . When it comes to faith, you can’t prove or disprove it. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but rather certainty. When you jump from doubt to certainty you don’t need faith because you know the object or your prior faith with absolution…in a way your faith is then dead. So there are two true, viable forms faith can take that no fundamentalist atheism can touch. A Kierkegarrdian “leap of faith” into doubt and trust can’t be dismantled through argument and neither can a modern liberal faith in which the believer brings all of his doubts to the table and constantly reevaluates his/her faith in light of history, progress, culture and personal revelation. Modern Anglican inspired liberals from Spong to Borg and Crossan have stated that were the bones of Jesus to be discovered their faith wouldn’t be wavered because their perception of the resurrection was metaphorical and yet still miraculous, and they know Jesus from how he has expressed himself to them in their personal lives and his historical earthly teachings live on in those that truly hold to them and seek to follow them to bring about his vision of peace through justice in the ever-present kingdom of God.
My point is that Atheism is as prone to fundamentalism as Christianity or Islam. When it steps out from being a personal philosophy in which the believer holds to its tenants yet keeps his/her mind open to possibility and becomes a dogmatic and systemized system in which anything that cannot be measured and labeled is unacceptable and in which the believer holds with utter disdain anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their same beliefs, when Atheists begin to campaign with advertising slogans and use slurs to describe non-atheists, guess what? They become fundamentalists.
There is room for all faiths and all non-faiths and there can be dialogue between all believers and non-believers if all keep their minds open to further revelations, new possibilities, new evidence and alternative concepts. Real faith is life-changing and evolutionary, all doubts must be brought to the table so that they can aid in new growth. Any faith that leads toward peace, acceptance, mutuality and love can’t be all bad.

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6 Responses to “Concerning Fundamentalist Atheism”

  1. morsec0de said

    fundamentalism: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles

    Notice the plural. Atheism, by definition, cannot be fundamentalist because there is no ‘set’ of ‘basic principles’ to follow.

    Not saying all of your points are necessarily wrong. You just happen to be using the word ‘fundamentalist’ incorrectly.

  2. Samuel Skinner said

    “My major problem with these folks is that they blanket all of religion with legalism, fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness. Even scholars like George H. Smith, who wrote the modern textbook for Atheism, “The Case Against God,” seem to assume that right wing religion is all religion.”

    Radical religion cannot exist without the acceptance of its more moderate cousin.

    “Even scholars like George H. Smith, who wrote the modern textbook for Atheism, “The Case Against God,” seem to assume that right wing religion is all religion. Every serious work of Atheism seems to attack the scientific or ethical arguments and “proofs” of God (such as the ontological argument) and each author seems to assume that by disproving such arguments they prove God does not exist. This is what I take most issue with. Any logician, philosopher, lawyer or scientist can disprove any “proof” of God that has been laid out in an argument by Augustine, Aquinas, Kant or the modern religious right with proper argument and work, but they cannot disprove God–merely the arguments that philosophers have assumed proved God’s existence beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

    …It is customary to give reason to your position and if all those reasons have been shown to be wrong, admit there is no reason for holding a position and change it to one that is better supported.

    “My point is that Atheism is as prone to fundamentalism as Christianity or Islam. When it steps out from being a personal philosophy in which the believer holds to its tenants yet keeps his/her mind open to possibility and becomes a dogmatic and systemized system in which anything that cannot be measured and labeled is unacceptable and in which the believer holds with utter disdain anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their same beliefs, when Atheists begin to campaign with advertising slogans and use slurs to describe non-atheists, guess what? They become fundamentalists.”

    No, they become… antitheists. So much has been done in the name of antitheism- so many good things… and so many bad. You can actually criticize it as an ideology.

    “Any faith that leads toward peace, acceptance, mutuality and love can’t be all bad.”

    Except faith has social side effects and if you can get those without faith, than why go the more ineffective road.

  3. Jesse said

    “Atheism is as prone to fundamentalism as Christianity or Islam.” One hears this type of argument quite often, but doesn’t it commit the same error of an Atheist who thinks that “right wing religion is all religion”?

    Besides that minor objection, thank you for such a conciliatory post. I am an Atheist, but I do not at all agree with the methods of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, et al. In actuality, they do not represent true Atheist views, and they over-estimate the unlimited-ness of scientific apparatuses (empricial inquiry), a notion that was discarded by philosophy years ago. But their errors and miscalculations are worth a post of its own.

    But its worth watching the self-engendering polarity of the discourse–this oppositional framework that only produces or represents the extremists at either end of the spectrum, faith and non-faith. It dangerously narrows the diversity of possible viewpoints. I’m sure it sells books and makes a few unimaginative jerks very rich, but they really seem to give very little thought to the folks (i.e., everyone) who are made to feel like they are on the rack between certainty and uncertainty, and are forced to live their lives in anticipation of a certainty that doesn’t exist. Essentially, the current discourse between Atheists and the Faithful is shaped only pop-culture and politics, not informed debate. Doesn’t this poison the autonomy and capability of both views? Aren’t both sides wrong in that regard, that of forcing folks to forfeit their creative autonomy to participate in the discourse? Isn’t that exactly the kind of ideology that Atheism and Faith are supposed to oppose?

    As John Dewey said,

    “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”

    Thanks again, wonderful post!

  4. Sam said

    Great article… Did you know that there are churches where atheists gather to celebrate their world view, fellowship and have services? I found that kinda weird when I first heard about it. I thought, how could a world view with the moto of “non belief” have church? The reality is that atheism is a strong belief system especially since it takes faith to believe that god doesn’t exist. Dawkins and his ilk could be considered the fundamentalists or “atheist activists” with followers who blindly follow their every word without question or thought. Kinda puts a kink in the whole “freethinker” notion eh?

  5. Derik said

    I liked your article. The idea that atheism can’t be fundamental is wrong. The comment given by response number 1 was that

    “fundamentalism: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles”

    He argued atheism couldn’t be this. I disagree (and agree with you).

    The current crop of authors you talked about actually do have a ‘religion’ of sorts. Religion doesn’t have to include God/gods/etc. The arguments I hear from Dawkins and co is very much a attitude that is strict and has no room for anyone else. They have devised their own system and actually are not very tolerant to those who disagree.

    The comment about atheists gathering in church settings is interesting (response 4). I read an article about a Sunday School for atheists! They get up on Sundays and take their kids to a center where they study their beliefs/etc. It was in TIME or some other magazine I forget. It’s not huge but it exists.

    In the end I believe that this new breed of popular atheists like Dawkins and company are making lots of money and selling books. It’s not different than the Ann Coulters who saw outrageous things to attack democrats to sell books! True atheists I would hope are less militant and angry. These guys are over the top!

    As a Christian and a minister I don’t worry about the Dawkins crowd as much as those who are really struggling with real issues about God. Those guys sell books and may add to the confusion but they are surely a minority. Atheism itself is still a minority (I suspect more would be agnostic) and yet we as believers need to pay attention to their questions and concerns and not dismiss them. Intelligent and friendly conversation can exist. I don’t think one could with Hitchens and those guys but with the average man on the street who struggles I think there is a different spirit to talk and for Christians we need to also listen.
    Great article!!

  6. […] on this site before (see a-response-to-ricky-gervais-defense-of-atheism,   the-secular-bible, or concerning-fundamentalist-atheism), yet I understand and respect those who see themselves as Atheists or Agnostics. My own views […]

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