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Atheist fundamentalism is an oft-used snarl word by critics of atheism. It is most commonly applied to more outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, making a direct comparison between them and religious fundamentalists. While the term fundamentalism is generally used when referring to a religious position, the etymology of the word in standard English defines it as 'necessary base or core; of central importance'. Richard Dawkins clarified his use of the word as 'atheists who cannot accept the religious position of others'.
The term "fundamentalist atheist" is relatively recent, being developed and popularised in response to the "new atheists" (NAs): a group of authors, scientists, and journalists who don't just have the bad taste to be atheists, but also the damnable audacity to write books about it! Although, many NA critics -- who are often atheists themselves -- feel as Ed Brayton did, that some NAs are "right-wing neo-cons who are cloaking themselves under the umbrella of atheism." Some of the term's notable appearances include:
- Christian apologist and theologian Alister McGrath's critique of Dawkins' The God Delusion is titled The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.
- In December 2007, the Anglican Church in Wales' Archbishop warned that "atheistic fundamentalism" was exerting a growing influence in Britain, in a speech regarding the alleged War on Christmas.
- The Discovery Institute's "Evolution News & Views" website includes an article entitled "Atheist Fundamentalism and the Limits of Science".
- Frank Schaeffer, son of Frances Schaeffer who was a "leading guru" to millions of Christian fundamentalists in the 70s and 80s. Frank is the author of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in GOD: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace,[note 1] and utterly repudiates his father's fundamentalist beliefs and the religious right, but also criticizes many NAs as "fundamentalists" in their own right.
As atheism is agreed on by pretty much all atheists as not a religion, and certainly not possessing any active dogmas or beliefs, it is difficult for an atheist to be a fundamentalist in the usual sense. If an atheist believes unwaveringly that there is no God and cannot and will not be convinced otherwise even in the face of evidence, then they might be "irrational" but still not "fundamentalist"; however, very few people actually hold that sort of position. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins proposes a 7-point scale of theistic belief, similar to the various Kinsey scales: 1 being complete belief and 7 being complete disbelief. Dawkins argues that while there appear to be plenty of individuals that would place themselves as "1", no thinking atheist would consider themselves "7", as atheism arises from a lack of evidence and evidence can always change a thinking person's mind.
Therefore fundamentalist atheism is, at best, a distortion of the accepted definition of fundamentalism. In most common usage, the phrase is used by authors similarly to terms like "atheist thumper", meaning those who are zealous, vocal, and possibly forceful in their atheist views. It is also used as an exaggerated straw man in criticisms of atheism in general, rather than just a critic of vocal atheists themselves.
Perhaps the best examples of what could be described as "fundamentalist atheists" (or at least fundamentalist skeptics) occur in fiction. In a number of fictional universes, evidence of gods and the supernatural is abundant, but there are still characters who don't believe in them.
Problems with the term
Atheism isn't a religion
A fundamentalist is somebody who adheres strictly to a particular doctrine or dogma, and allows no room for change or deviation from these ideas and practices. Doctrines to which a fundamentalist can adhere include the fundamental tenets of a religion, philosophy or any other dogma. Examples include Biblical literalism and creationism. Atheism, by the definition accepted by most atheists, has no positive beliefs intrinsic to it, and thereby no doctrine. It is only defined as a lack of belief in any of the many gods found in holy books throughout the world. There is no set of people who can be considered "more atheist" than the mainstream or moderate belief and hence there is no distinction between a "fundamentalist" and any other kind of atheist.
Critics often accuse the more vehement atheists of adhering to science in the same way that a theist adheres to religion - even though science and atheism are distinct entities, so fundamental belief in the power of science does not equate to fundamental belief in atheism. Although this is undoubtedly a poignant criticism in the eyes of religious apologists, it is very much a false analogy for two reasons. Firstly, science deals with knowledge which has been tested and proven through falsifiability and in its application. This is something that religion does not do, and in most cases cannot do or refuses to - indeed religious apologists often reiterate how religion isn't supposed to be validated through scientific means. Secondly, science, "scientific belief" and the body of knowledge developed through the scientific method is capable of, and indeed thrives on challenging, testing and change, anyone adhering strictly to science won't be adhering to an unchanging dogma. Therefore science cannot be classed as fundamentalism.
Misidentified as fundamentalism
Richard Dawkins does address the idea of fundamentalist atheism in The God Delusion and any accusations made towards him regarding being a fundamentalist. In this refutation, he states that people using the term are merely confusing "passion" with fundamentalism. Dawkins is clearly passionate. But, as he openly admits that sufficient evidence will change his mind, he cannot possibly be described as a fundamentalist, someone who by definition can't, and won't, change their views.
Certainly there are people whose worldview is not just atheistic, but antitheistic or anti-religious, where their philosophy is not just limited to the rejection of gods, but expands to a quite active abhorrence of religion and all things associated with it. These individuals or groups may attempt to convince (or convert) others who have no wish to listen of their beliefs; they're often referred to as so-called "militant" atheists. Often they are guilty of using the same kind of fallacious arguments and forceful tactics that religious fundamentalists apply in their own conversion attempts. Though, even in this case we are drawing a similarity not between the beliefs promoted, but the techniques used, therefore the term "fundamentalist" is probably still inaccurate - and quite unnecessary - as "arsehole" will do just fine.
Communist persecution of religion
The New Atheists are not atheist fundamentalists by any reasonable definition of the term because, as stated above, they don't have any "fundamental" text to which they can adhere. And, unlike some hard-core religious zealots, they would not oppose the idea of freedom of religion in any context. They would oppose special rights for religions (such as tax exemptions or government funding for churches), but they don't oppose religious groups having the same rights which secular groups have. However, historically there have been some groups of who have included atheists who have opposed the rights of religious people.
The Soviet Union, and many other communist states, were officially atheist — and they didn't just reject religion, they also persecuted religious people[note 2] along with homosexuals and ethnic minorities.
Religious people were barred from many jobs — the better jobs all required Communist Party membership, and atheism was compulsory for all Communist Party members. Religious buildings were confiscated and destroyed or converted to secular uses — which resulted in the destruction of many historic buildings and items of artwork. Many priests and monks were sent to gulags or executed. Religious publications were subjected to severe censorship. Atheism and scientific materialism were taught in schools as part of the official ideology, while religious education was banned. In Albania, religion was itself outlawed by the government, although it was the only communist country to do this.
Religious organisations were denied the autonomy and freedom of association to choose their own leadership — their leadership was chosen for them by the state, and filled by stooges and agents of the secret police. These anti-religious policies were officially justified in terms of atheism. The New Atheists, and the vast majority of atheists today, would not support these measures.
However the "fundamentalism" (If such it was) of the Soviet regimes was not an atheist fundamentalism so much as a
Marxist Marxist-Leninist fundamentalism, of which their atheism was just one part. The driving factor behind the draconian measures was an adherence to a political philosophy, not a spiritual one. This doesn't make them good guys but the important point here is that it's not the atheism that drives the oppression so much as the political views.
But even in the context of the Soviet Union, it is to be noted that Marx never advocated for the oppression of religion — he just believed that religion would not be practiced anymore if a utopian communist society was to come to fruition, and thus the policies of communist countries towards religion were yet another hypocritical violation of his beliefs.
- Atheist thumper
- Militant atheism
- New Atheism
- Secular religions
- Straw man
- Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Atheist Fundamentalism by Simon Watson, published in Anthropoetics XV,2 Spring 2010
- "Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?", The Guardian, 3 May 2006.
- "On Atheist Fundamentalism" at Daylight Atheism
- "What is Fundamentalist Atheism? Who are Fundamentalist Atheists?" at About.com.
- Fundamentalists compared
- He seems to believe creating art is God.
- One of the largest organizations dedicated to this purpose was appropriately known as the "League of Militant Atheists" or "Society of the Godless."
- BBC Radio 4 'The Scientific Life' first broadcast April 26 2001
- See the Wikipedia article on The Dawkins Delusion?.
- BBC News, 22 December 2007.
- "Atheist Fundamentalism and the Limits of Science" at the DI's "Evolution" site.
- TV Tropes: Flat Earth Atheist