Atheist Fundamentalism?

Kelly: You are an atheist fundamentalist, Jaime.

Jaime: That’s impossible, there can be no such thing. Atheism itself is just “a lack of belief”. There is no holy book or other source of “fundamental” positions any atheist must hold. Not every atheist even needs to be an atheist in the same way. Some can only lack belief in gods, as some sort of agnostic atheist, while others can think they know, or have good reasons to believe, that there are no gods and so have an active disbelief in gods. Holding either position makes someone an atheist and holding no other positions is necessary.

Kelly: But there would be no atheist movement if that’s all that atheists like you meant by “atheism”. There would be no four horsemen or “consciousness raising” if it was just a matter of affirming what PZ Myers derisively called “Dictionary Atheism”, that is, this barebones “lack of belief and that’s all, folks!” kind of atheism. That “mere lack of belief” was resting comfortably and ineffectually on the political and cultural sidelines before something more robust stormed the mainstream cultural discussion and got branded “New Atheism”.

Jaime: I hate that term, there is nothing “new” about us. There have long been atheists who have seen through religion and who have made arguments comparable to ours. The only difference is a handful of newer scientific arguments which have developed in recent decades or centuries, but many of the reasons we disbelieve in gods go back decades and others go back centuries or millennia even.

Kelly: You didn’t listen to what I just said. What makes you “new” is not that you’re the first existing atheists—

Jaime: Let me guess–it’s that we’re the first “strident” and “in your face” confrontational atheists? That’s not true either. Robert G. Ingersoll and Friedrich Nietzsche and countless other historical atheists were denouncing Christianity in tones as unequivocally harsh as any contemporary atheist’s.

Kelly: No, it’s not the harsh tones either. What makes you “new” is that you are now an identity movement, modeled off of other modern identity movements like the gay rights movement. You talk about “coming out of the closet”, you fall all over yourselves trying to prove you can be “good without god” and cry bloody murder about stereotypes about you in the media and the culture. You combine your merciless and meticulous dissection of religious beliefs and unsympathetic assessments of religious motives with an insistence that you never have your character questioned on account of your atheism. You simultaneously want to insist that religious beliefs be assessed with reason and yet accuse even rational challenges against you (like questions about how you can rationally form or justify your beliefs about values) of being attacks against your personal moralities and your identities as atheists. You want acceptance for your atheism as a matter of identity and you want religion criticized as a matter of belief—and make it a matter of principle to trample all over all considerations of its possible value as an identity or a non-cognitively important and beneficial practice.

Jaime: That’s not entirely fair. We are willing to have our atheism critiqued as a matter of belief. It is religious believers and their sympathizers, like you, who constantly shift the question from debate about beliefs to personal attacks on us atheists. All we want is for these issues to be settled on the grounds of reason and evidence. We are open to counter-arguments, but we rarely ever get anything even resembling them. All we get from liberal believers and sympathizers are attempts to redefine religious beliefs until they are so meaningless that they can hardly be attacked, hardly be consequentially believed, and hardly be attributed to the average actual religious believer. And from the religious themselves we get explicit attacks on reason itself because they know that reason is against them. So they either say reason does not matter, or that it is sometimes rightly trumped by “the heart”, or that to “properly” reason you must accept their arbitrary and implausible beliefs about God. Sometimes they go so far as to mischaracterize science and make it sound like it is just a bunch of prejudices even as they themselves explicitly advocate for willfully believing in prejudicial ways, that is, for having faith. We would love actual arguments. We would love to be offered reasons to disbelieve. This is not just “identity” to us. We want our beliefs challenged and will not hide behind some need or willful, arbitrary faith commitment if our views are rationally challenged. But instead we get appeals to the heart, assertions of willful defiant belief indifferent to evidence, etc. And, from the more liberally inclined, we just get empty, meaningless sophistry.

Kelly: But you still agitate to be respected for your beliefs even by those who disagree with them. You want to say, “even if you don’t like us, respect that these beliefs matter to us as part of our identity”. You want to say it is discriminatory to judge you for your atheism as though your beliefs (or non-beliefs as the case may be) have no consequences. Yet, when it comes to religious believers you want to insist they can be judged for their religious beliefs because beliefs have consequences. You can’t have it both ways. Either you can insist that people can be discriminated against or mistrusted for beliefs, since beliefs have consequences, and therefore people have every right to mistrust you based on what they think of the wrongness of your beliefs, or you can say that people should not be mistrusted based on their religious identities and beliefs themselves.

Jaime: But you’re conflating many different issues here. There is nothing about atheist beliefs or non-beliefs that should be a cause for suspicion. Atheists do not hold beliefs that murder is good or that slavery is good. We are normal people with normal values for the most part.

Kelly: And so are religious people! So why villainize them and say that they believe or value especially terrible things when most of them are just normal people with normal values.

Jaime: Look, we don’t villainize them. We—

Kelly: Yes you do! You are always drawing out literalistic, extremist implications of their religious texts and saying that by believing in the Bible they must condone its genocides or infanticide or slavery, etc.

Jaime: No, obviously what we are trying to do is shake believers who unthinkingly say they believe the Bible is the Word of God out of that notion by showing them that they implicitly reject it on all those issues. They reject genocide and slavery and infanticide and so they ignore the Bible on those issues and reveal that they do not slavishly defer to it as the Almighty and unquestionable Word of God like they say they do. They use their moral consciences to pick and choose the good and reject the bad, and they should do that. We are just trying to get them to that that’s what they do and give up the pretense of believing a book they don’t believe in. And we want to expose the lie that we need their book to learn how to be moral. We know they don’t believe this stuff in practice and that’s why we point out what the Bible says. We are appealing to their existing moral consciences to get them to reject the Bible.  Now, sometimes we find a believer willing to defend the unconscionable rather than give up the idea that the Bible is a moral guide and, I’m sorry to be so “harsh” but that’s sick. It’s immoral, disgusting, and scary. I don’t think it makes me a fundamentalist to say that. It makes me someone concerned for morality and reason.

Kelly: Well, whatever they say in theory, I doubt if asked to support a contemporary genocide I doubt they would.

Jaime: Excuse me? You haven’t heard of Jihadist terrorists willing to kill civilians or about laws proposed in Uganda calling for the execution of gays? The violence of religious texts can and does return with some of these true believers.

Kelly: But you go further than just criticizing those things. You argue that those genocidal interpretations are correct readings of those texts. Or that a correct reading of the Bible actually should make people homophobes and misogynists. Or that in the case of extremist Muslims that they are rightly reading their religious texts when they are inspired to do violence against non-believers. You credit the extremist, reactionary fundamentalist religious people with reading their religious texts correctly and attack the moderates who continue centuries of progressive interpretative traditions, which have long improved both their religions and their larger cultures. You share the reactionary fundamentalists’ insistence on reading religious texts as books filled with propositions which must only be read literally and you refuse to support the validity of the moderating, alternative hermeneutics and philosophies which have been developed over centuries. Fundamentalism is a very late, modern invention. It is a reaction against the progressive tides in theology and against the modern world which gave rise to them. Why would you want to legitimize the fundamentalists’ narratives in which they claim they are the only correct interpreters of their traditions. Why not instead denounce them as what they really are—reactionaries standing in the way of modernizing, secularizing progress in their traditions?

Jaime: Because the books actually support the fundamentalists. Those are the beliefs of those traditions and they have consistently been there for centuries.

Kelly: Yes, many of the fundamentalists’ beliefs are centuries old but when they were most literally held were in eras where they were more reasonable (or at least less painfully obviously false). Believing in the things fundamentalists believe in back in 50AD was more intellectually understandable than it is today. And even back then there was more savvy about the differences between literal facts and edifying myths. There was a grasp of non-literal meaning.  There were philosophically sophisticated interpretations that justified the stories which were sold to the common folk who could not understand such abstractions. Why not acknowledge that?

Jaime: Because all these sophisticated abstractions for elite intellectuals are irrelevant when the average American parishioner still, in 2011, believes in literal talking snakes and a 6,000 year old earth. When 38% of Americans refuse to accept evolution happened and another 40% of “sophisticated” believers essentially deny the existence of natural selection by saying God “guided” evolution—all the sophisticated interpretations of millennia have resulted in either hostility to accepting science or inabilities to understand the real philosophical implications of what it implies.

Kelly: You’re saying there is no way to both accept evolution and believe in God?

Jaime: No, I’m saying, even if you believe in God, you should understand that evolution by natural selection means evolution without any intelligent tinkering. You can still believe in a God who serves some other metaphysical purpose, I guess. But saying you believe in evolution—but that God guides, it is like saying you believe lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge—caused by Thor. That is what “sophisticated” theology amounts to—sentences that use scientific words but have religious clauses that reveal no proper understanding of what the scientific words mean. But how does all this make me a fundamentalist again?

Kelly: Because like a fundamentalist you make everything about in-group and out-group. Religious believers can’t just be wrong, they have to be evil.

Jaime: So they’re not homophobic or misogynistic or irrationalistic?

Kelly: Not all of them.

Jaime: Look, I’m not saying they are all unilaterally evil in everything they do. But is there a greater influence keeping people homophobic than religion? Worldwide, is there any kind of institution offering more moral, social, and political support for patriarchy and oppressive practices like female genital mutilation and veiling than religious ones?

Kelly: I get that. Those are evils. Plenty of people realize that. Even millions of religious people. 

Jaime: But the moderates do not undermine the belief in the books and traditions that lead to those interpretations by their fundamentalist coreligionists. In this way they accommodate them.

Kelly: Don’t you get it, Jaime? The fundamentalists came into being explicitly as a rejection of the “moderates”. They coined the word “fundamentalist” to distinguish themselves from other believers who got away from “the fundamentals”. They quite often don’t see them as even being “true believers”. They have immense scorn and derision for liberal interpretations of their faiths. They see them as heretics and traitors and false prophets. They are not thriving on their aid any more than monstrous, oppressive atheistic communist regimes require or have the support of liberal, democratic atheists like you.

Jaime: Oh here we go with the atheists are mass murderers canard. Communist regimes don’t kill “in the name of atheism”. Atheism does not lead there. I have nothing to do with such oppression just because I am an atheist.

Kelly: Did I say you did? No, I said the opposite. But it is worth pointing out that atheism did not stop atheists from imposing illiberal, murderous regimes anymore than religiosity ever stopped religious people from imposing illiberal murderous regimes. No one is immune to hate or arrogant overestimation of their own absolute correctness. And no one who succumbs to hate or such arrogant absolutism about beliefs can be trusted with power—no matter whether they are the most religious or the most irreligious person on the planet.

Jaime: But I don’t hate.

Kelly: You’d better not.

Jaime: And more than that, unlike the communists we contemporary atheists make our stand on science and against dogmatism itself, unlike the communists who were just dogmatic absolutists impervious to empiricism.

Kelly: If you are really so rationalistic and so impervious to absolutism and fundamentalism, then show it. Don’t demonize, stigmatize, or deliberately disrespect religious people, don’t exaggerate your correct objections to their false beliefs and false practices into attacks on even their salvageable ideas and harmless or benign practices. Look to understand them and how their beliefs and practices, despite being false and ludicrous, actually stick around by also providing good things in spite of themselves. When you cross the line from merely disliking what they do that is wrong, or correcting what they think which is false, to hating every signifier of their existence and thinking every influence and every effect they could ever possibly have on the world must be pernicious, you move from rational, targeted critique to irrational, reflexive, dogmatic, generalized, hatred and the desire to eradicate them. You lose all nuance, balance, understanding, and charitableness, and instead become a bigot.

Jaime: I’m not a bigot! I just believe in calling false beliefs false and harmful practices wrong, and not giving any special deference to the sense of privilege that the religious feel. These are institutions with the gall to set themselves up as the arbiters of right and wrong, and yet they set up deliberate obstacles to free thinking and to conscientious, progressive introspection which can lead to improved values in light of improved understanding of truth. And yes, I want there to be no more religious people—in that I want to dissuade them from their false beliefs. That’s not because I want to commit genocide!

Kelly: I get that, I concede you can criticize many things legitimately. But you risk crossing the line when you start to find something devious in every positive effect religions have, the ones they have in spite of their falsehoods and bad values. Or when you start assuming that they each adopt the worst interpretations of their faiths (even when such interpretations are relatively rare), or into assuming they have evil motives, or into seeing them as only enemies—defined ever and always only by what is wrong with them. Do those sorts of things and you are on a worrisome path to a fundamentalist sort of hate that says, “agree with me on everything or go to hell”. Fundamentalism is not really about what you believe or about whether it is correct or false, but about how you believe it—i.e., with an unblinking assurance you are absolutely right and absolutely good and all who disagree with you are absolutely wrong and absolutely bad. When you start thinking those who disagree with you are so wrong they never have anything worth saying and they are so corrupt that they cannot be trusted with children, and when those who essentially agree with you are traitors to your cause for small divergences from orthodoxy—you are essentially a fundamentalist in most of the ways that make fundamentalism so odious.

Jaime: I assure you I do not think that way. I just want to combat falsehoods, counter religious training in fallacious and anti-rational thinking, and work to protect gays, women, minorities, and non-believers the world over from religious abuse. I don’t hate anyone. I’m not an absolutist. I’m not a fundamentalist.

Your Thoughts?

More debates between Jaime and Kelly:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

A Debate About the Wisdom of Trying to Deconvert People

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Zinc Avenger

    it is like saying you believe lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge—caused by Thor

    This is going straight into my toolbox.

    • Irreverend Bastard

      Nah, too moderate for me.

      I’m going to have it tattooed on my penis.

  • justawriter

    As to the murderous atheist libel, Pol Pot attended Catholic School in his youth and Stalin actually attended seminary on a scholarship. It’s clear where their moral inspiration came from. (Actually not, but it does raise the issue of how many murderous dictators received religious education. Plus, it is an excellent debating point since debates are about winning and not learning.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I do always think that’s relevant in some respect too.

    • http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com SocraticGadfly

      This “Stalin went to seminary” claim is one of the stupidest ones Gnu Atheists make, and one I’ve refuted before, with the simple counterexample that John Loftus is then a Christian, too. What maroons.

      http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/08/gnu-athests-are-also-guilty-of.html

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com Ivan

    Wow, this is a fantastic and insightful post, Daniel! I will definitely be reposting some of it.

  • http://ogremk5.wordpress.com ogremk5

    Yep, don’t attack the people who are religious. Attack their ideas, attack their beliefs (or lack thereof).

    No, if a religious person kills a doctor because he performed an abortion or a man because he’s gay… then that person has explicitly used religion as a reason for a crime. Then attack that person.

    But most religious folks are not doctor killers. They are just innocent dupes who haven’t actually read the books they believe in.

  • jamessweet

    I agree somewhat with “Kelly” in that what is new about New Atheism is that it is in many ways an identity movement. I’d never heard it put that way before, and I like that. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

    One thing that I think this Jaime/Kelly debate is missing (although it’s long enough already!) is the cultural context. For instance, the special deference shown to religion in terms of what can and cannot be criticized is so entrenched that IMO it is a legitimate tactic to be unsparingly critical of religion even when the criticism in question is a little unfair or over-the-top. To borrow the title from a book I’m afraid I have not yet read, it is about breaking the spell. In this context, publicly making a critique that is actually incorrect can still potentially be a net positive.

    We don’t lapse into hysterics when someone makes an incorrect or unsupportable critique of, say, a football coach’s decision to go for it or not on 4th down, or even of a political stance. Criticism of these ideas is expected and is considered okay. When someone makes a lousy criticism, we might point out what is lousy about it, but we don’t attack the very idea of criticism. Why should criticism of religion be any different?

    Mind you, this is not to say that we shouldn’t always strive to make our criticisms accurate and legitimate. In fact, part of what distinguishes the identity movement New Atheism is that, as a movement, we are not only concerned with promoting non-belief and opposing religion, but we also tend to pride ourselves on accuracy. Which is not to say we don’t fail to live up to that standard: we slip up constantly, as is expected for a group largely made up of H. sapiens. But as a movement, we at least value accuracy and correctness and defensibility, which cannot be said of all movements I’m afraid.

    But it does not trouble me that in our no-holds-barred opposition to religion, we as a movement sometimes over-reach with our criticisms. On a case-by-case basis, of course, I want to see us get it right; but on the whole, the ability to criticize is almost as important as the correctness of the criticisms.

    Are we sometimes guilty of a double-standard as a result of this? Well yeah, but so fucking what? I would argue there is a double-standard (in America at least) when it comes to criticizing whites vs. minorities, when it comes to making unfair generalizations about men vs. women, when it comes to saying things that might be offensive to straight vs. LGBT people — as well there should be! When one group has been getting shat on while the other group enjoys privilege, you don’t fix that by now treating everyone exactly equally. That’s idealistic and unrealistic, IMO.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      Many goddists get quite annoyed by the mere existence of atheists, let alone any of our arguments. We’re “militant” and “strident” just by announcing our lack of belief in god(s).

  • The Lorax

    Very nice, and quite applicable.

    I can definitely see where Kelly might be coming from; the behavior of many atheists is confrontational and powerful, as is the behavior of many religious fundamentalists. It is very easy to group the two under that perspective.

    However, Jamie was correct when he said that he was not a fundamentalist; to be a fundamentalist, you must reject all notions contrary to your opinion. You must be fundamental to your opinion. You’re not allowed to change it. Most atheists are NOT like that. Most atheists embrace science and rationality, and if they have one of their ideas or opinions proven wrong or immoral, they may bark and snap and steam for a bit (they are human, after all), but they will eventually come around if the argument and the evidence is worthy.

    I think Jamie’s clarification on his position proved that he wasn’t a fundamentalist; he stated specifically (at least, that’s how I read it) that he only wants to combat demonstrably immoral or dangerous beliefs. Many of us do get our morals from the Bible; it’s a really old book, after all. But we get our morals from other places as well. Many other places. Many of them are books. Should we say all morals derived from books are false if the books are fictional? No, absolutely not. But if we ever close our minds to new ideas, if we ever refuse to be questioned on our decisions, then we have become a fundamentalist.

    As long as we are open minded and allow our morals to be questioned (and we are allowed to defend them, but we shall require evidence and a sound argument) and ultimately improved upon, then it doesn’t matter where you get your morals. What matters is that you don’t cling stubbornly to them like… well, like a fundamentalist.

    I would like to see less ire in debates regarding these topics… but we’re human, these things happen. On both sides. And they will continue to do so. But the side who has a more open mind will be the side to come out on top; either they’re right and they can prove it with a wonderful argument, or they’re wrong and they learn and grow. The side with the closed mind will never grow.

    And, as Jamie said, none of this invalidates God’s existence… just the words of the bible. I’m surprised more people aren’t ok with this. Oh well.

  • Jim

    It never stops surprising me how much projection is part of christian argumentation. Christians know that the religious fundamentalists are not well received, so they attack atheists by labeling them fundamentalist.

    It also never stops surprising how any believers get when presented with facts. Christians in America oppose equality for gays. American christians helped draft the Uganda kill the gays bill. It is christians who picket family planning centers, intimidate women from using the services, and kill doctors who provide abortions. And yet when these facts are raised, the christian claim persecution. Not a thought to the women they persecute by picketing clinics and loudly condemning them.

    The killer for me is the Stalin was a monster so atheists are monsters argument. Totalitarian regimes are brutal, whether they be atheistic or religious. Hitler’s christian regime was just as brutal as was Stalin’s non religious regime. The authoritarian christian kingdoms were brutal, unfair, and repressive. It was the advent of secular democracy that led to improved living conditions.

    For those who don’t know the connection between christians and nazis, see The Churches and the Third Reich by Klaus Scholder. It the definitive text on the relationship between christians and nazis. Briefly, huge numbers of protestants supported Hitler and were encouraged to do so by protestant clergy. Hitler would not have been elected without christian support, much like his equivalent, Buchanan, would never get elected without American christian support. The catholics were a bit more resistant, but once they the concordat of 1933 was signed–with a secret provision that the church would not oppose any assault on Jews–catholic opposition was over. For the documentation about the catholic secret provision about their position on nazi hostility towards Jews, see the documentary Constantine’s Sword. Further Hitler was very clear in his speeches that Germany was a christian nation with christian values that he, Hitler, would implement enthusiastically. Considering that his main targets to kill were gays and Jews, christia

  • Jim

    (posted accidentally)

    Considering that his main targets to kill gays and Jews, christians traditional targets, Hitler kept to his christian sensibilities. Further, most leading nazis were devout christians, see Steigman-Gall “Holy Reich. . .” One can very easily make a valid argument that the nazis were an expression of christian totalitarianism, just as one can make a valid argument that Buchanan, Barton, Perkins represent a christian totalitarian moment in the US.

  • Lauren Ipsum

    You know, in the entire Jamie/Kelly series, I generally agree with Kelly and I get frustrated with Jamie’s stubborn refusal to “get it,” but it’s the other way around for this issue.

    I think Kelly is making the No True Scotsman argument here. “Only religious fundamentalist nutjobs do X, Y, and Z bad things! The real Christians don’t behave that way!”

    And Jamie correctly points out (a) the fundies are getting the religious justification for their despicable behavior from the texts which the same “real,” “moderate” religious folks consider holy, infallible, and the only legitimate and correct source of morals and values (b) a whole lot of “real” Christians do behave abominally towards particular groups (LGBT people, women, non-Christians, non-theists). And they cite the same texts as the fundie nutjobs do to rationalize their terrible behavior. So despite Kelly’s protestations, the difference between the moderates and the fundies is primarily one of degree, not of intent, thought, or action. (“We’ve already established what you are; now we’re just haggling over the price.”)

    The only way I’m going to believe that “real,” “moderate” religious people are truly separate from the fundie nutjobs is for the moderates to completely and utterly denounce the source texts which inspire the fundies.

    Which would make them, you know, non-theists.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Well, the reason I call out stereotypes about atheists is that they’re almost always false as a general description of atheists, usually false when applied to specific atheists of note, and often false when applied to me personally. I don’t know how it’s possible to have a civil discussion when I’m advocating [x], but the other person wants to argue against [y].

    But as Jamie points out, most criticisms of atheism become personal. The basic reason for this is that liberal theology (at the risk of over-generalizing) has thrown the towel when it comes to saying that religious belief is true, preferring instead to say that religious belief is morally or psychologically good for believers. While I’m not generally inclined to “deconvert” people, I do resent being told that my atheism is primarily the function of bad relationships, moral anomie, or deafness to spiritual experience.

  • http://themidwestatheist.blogspot.com Leo Buzalsky

    …[Y]ou risk crossing the line when you start to find something devious in every positive effect religions have, the ones they have in spite of their falsehoods and bad values.

    And Kelly runs the risk (OK, she’s already been doing it) of defending every negative effect religions have because she is protective of their falsehoods and bad values simply because good can come out of it.

  • Ash

    I actually think the final rebuttal by “Jaime” was utterly inadequate. “Kelly’s” last attack was filled with numerous ideas that are commonly held, and Jaime did not really answer them. I would like to see a more robust answer to the following charges:

    1) atheists find something devious in every positive effect religions have
    2) atheists think that the majority of believers adopt the “worst” interpretations of their faiths
    3) those worst interpretations are rare
    4) atheists think that most adherents have evil motives and identify them as corrupt, defective enemies that cannot be trusted with children
    5) atheists hate believers
    6) “new” atheists have an unblinking assurance that we are absolutely right and absolutely good and all who disagree with us are absolutely wrong and absolutely bad.
    7) we have an atheist orthodoxy; anyone who diverges from it slightly are considered traitors

    These are obviously wrong and outrageous accusations, but it isn’t enough to say “please believe me when I say I don’t think this way.”

    • Bruce Gorton

      Okay, I’ll give it a bash. The first one irritated me though, so my writing will appear angrier than it really should be.

      1:) We highlight issues such as the Christian Brothers’ ramphant peadophilia, forced labour and abuses in the Magdelene Laundries, American evangalical missionaries pushing laws intended to exterminate gays in Uganda, those same missionaries setting up sects in Nigeria which torture children as witches, more American evangelicals advertising prayer as a cure for AIDS in South Africa etc…

      And Islam does pretty much the same.

      That harms in the name of charity are particularly common amongst religious charities is not the fault of atheists who point those harms out. I view with utter contempt and disgust the assertion that we are making out religious “good works” to always be devious. It is little more than saying “shut up” to real world harms.

      2:) Actually no. The majority of any believer group has a very loose and ill defined idea of what the actual teachings of their religion are. However they do tend to identify their religion as the major source of moral standards. They tend to identify the very concept of “good” with their group identity.

      Thus the extremists end up gaining support if the harms those extremes bring aren’t highlighted. For example, America is not attending church and irreligion has been steadily rising for decades.

      Yet right now the Religious Right are a serious political force that pretty much has a lock over one of the two major political parties in America, and Americans in general wouldn’t vote for an atheist president. This same process is why so much of the Islamic world tends to end up being so repressive.

      3:) This is a very Western way of looking at things. A belief in witchcraft may be rare in say America, but what about in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, India, or any number of other countries? While the worst beliefs in religion aren’t the majority, they are hardly rare.

      4:) Incorrect. Even the fundementalists for the most part believe themselves to be doing good. You get occassional conmen, but for the most part the religious think what they are doing is the right thing to do – as do most human beings. Motivation for the most part is irrelevant.

      As to child abuse – there are cases where religion does in fact mean that the parent shouldn’t be trusted with their own child. Consider those who follow the Pearls, or do you think beating a child with a length of PVC piping in the name of getting its submission is a great upbringing?

      One should always qualify the idea of religion not equalling child abuse by recognising not all religions are the sodding same and sometimes it really does equal child abuse.

      5:) If we hated believers we wouldn’t be complaining about the religious leaders and practices that harm them. You don’t see us celebrating Islamic school girls getting acid thrown in their faces, you see us protesting against that sort of thing.

      6:) Incorrect. New Atheists hold that any knowledge we have is provisional upon the evidence. Present evidence and we will change our minds. And calling us closed minded? That is not evidence.

      7:) Call me when a “New Atheist” goes and kills someone for liking Chris Mooney. Accusations of orthodoxy are the cries of one who wants to force their own orthodoxy and yet doesn’t have the data to back up their arguments. We don’t care if a position is orthodox or not, we want to see the data.

      And if you can’t provide it, then don’t expect the rest of us to all suddenly start agreeing with you.

      Good enough?

  • Lord Shplanington, Not A Frenchman

    So I’m gonna take what may be an unpopular position here: It’s entirely justified to be wary of allowing children to be around particularly religious individuals. Devout religiosity is the second highest indicator for child abuse. There is absolutely nothing morally wrong with not trusting an individual when they have proven themselves untrustworthy, and I find no reason not to extend this to groups.

    • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

      You find no reason not to extend this to groups?! Isn’t that basically the root of all racism, classism, sexism, etc.? You notice something you dislike in some individuals, and then generalize it to all members of their group, and prejudge any new members of the group that you encounter? That might perhaps count as a reason to avoid doing so…

    • Lord Shplanington, Not A Frenchman

      The root of racism/classism/sexism is unjustified prejudice. If it were justified, such as in this particular instance, it would simply be a matter of practicality, not bigotry.

      Note that I’m not advocating never letting your children interact with the religious, or having the state remove children born in religious households. I’m simply saying to exercise a little caution. Avoid using the babysitting service that mentions Jesus in its ads. Don’t leave your children alone with a priest. Don’t leave your child unattended with the crazy old relative who always babbles about spared rods and spoiled children.

      If a religious person proves themselves trustworthy, absolutely go ahead and trust them. But until then, consider the fact that they draw their morality from a book that considers children property.

    • Lord Shplanington, Not A Frenchman

      Also, there is a distinct difference between not trusting someone due to their biology and not trusting them due to their ideology. In fact, the two are barely similar at all.

  • http://icarusswims.blogspot.com Anne C. Hanna

    I think Jaime’s arguments start to get weak right around hir response to what Kelly says here:

    But it is worth pointing out that atheism did not stop atheists from imposing illiberal, murderous regimes anymore than religiosity ever stopped religious people from imposing illiberal murderous regimes.

    Of course atheism doesn’t stop people from being jerks, any more than the belief that the sky is blue stops people from being jerks! Why on earth would anyone attribute that much power to the mere lack of belief in sky fairies?

    Dictionary atheism is only one minor side effect of the larger program of rational inquiry and compassionate action that’s being promoted by the Gnus. It’s just that it’s the minor side effect that everybody gets all excited about, so it’s lent its name to the whole movement. Dictionary atheism can arise from a whole giant stack of other philosophical stances as well, including Objectivism and Marxism, both of which are ultimately dogmatic, absolutist, and immune to empiricism (as Jaime does point out). And that’s not to mention Buddhism, which has a less ferocious reputation but is unfortunately rather supernaturally entangled in most of its incarnations.

    The whole point of the Gnu movement, IMO, is that we throw away *all* of the dogmas, supernatural and secular alike, and base our decisions on evidence and reason, modulated by compassion and a commitment to liberty. Stalin and Mao and Ayn Rand and Buddha are no more representative of Gnu attitudes than Joseph Ratzinger is. They’re all dogmatists, and we’re trying really really hard not to be.

  • laurentweppe

    Since fundamentalism is not even primarily about belief per se, but about proclaiming one’s own parochial tribe as ontologically superior to anyone else (“unblinking assurance you are absolutely right and absolutely good and all who disagree with you are absolutely wrong and absolutely bad“) and therefore entitled to oppress, exile or slaughter any social group percieved as a threat toward said parochial tribe; and -to paraphrase one of my previous comments-, since to believe that the mere fact of being an atheist inoculates one from parochial tribalism is already to indulge oneself into parochial tribalism, and therefore already taking the dangerous first steps toward fundamentalism, I’m going to say that the existence of atheist fundamentalists is a given.
    *
    After all, this whole hypothetical conversation is about wether Atheist fundamentalist exists or not, since it starts with “Jaime” claiming that he cannot be an atheist fundamentalist because atheist fundamentalists do not exist, period.
    And honestly, I cannot see the “atheist fundamentalism is non-existent” argument as anything but a failed from the very begining postulate, because all it takes to invalidate it is to find one atheist behaving like a fundie:
    *

    Atheists do not hold beliefs that murder is good or that slavery is good

    And from this simple falsehood, we can already deduce the reality of atheist fundamentalism: “Jaime” claim that atheist fundies cannot exist because they do not hold beliefs that murder is good or that slavery is good… except that famous Atheists have been caught toying with the justification of murder and genocide, and others have built pseudo-philosophical systems which implementation would inevitably leads to the institutionalisation of slavery.
    Either “Jaime” means “most of us” when he means “Atheists”, but if that’s the case, the same can be said about religious people, or he means “All of us”, in which case he’s being willfully ignorant. In any case, his postulate is already disproven.
    *

    You argue that those genocidal interpretations are correct readings of those texts. Or that a correct reading of the Bible actually should make people homophobes and misogynists. Or that in the case of extremist Muslims that they are rightly reading their religious texts when they are inspired to do violence against non-believers. You credit the extremist, reactionary fundamentalist religious people with reading their religious texts correctly and attack the moderates who continue centuries of progressive interpretative traditions, which have long improved both their religions and their larger cultures

    Here I am going to be both personal (talking about My Life©) and aggressively controversial:
    *
    The first time I heard that argument, it was not from New Atheists. It was from a bunch of french far-right activists lost in a collective masturbatory fantasy which included the ethnic cleansing of France’s mainland, the employ of nuclear weapons against Algiers and the biggest algerian cities, the re-colonization of algerian arable lands, and, oh yeah, turning the surviving people of arabic and berber descent into a race of slaves and living sex-toys for their white overlords. The argument summarized by “Kelly” was invocked by these fascistic wankers because they saw it as a mean to legitimize the clusterfuck of depravity that served as their souls: “Islamic extremists are dangerous murderers, therefore it is ok to kill them before they kill us. The extremist interpretation of Islam is the correct one, ergo the muslim “moderates” are either perfidious extremists faking moderation or abject weaklings who will never free themselves from their extremist brethrens, therefore it is ok to kill the moderates as well“.
    *
    Now that’s where I become aggressively controversial:
    The argument summarized by “Kelly” is not an atheistic argument, or a philosophical argument, or an “anything” argument which has been twisted by fascists to serve their goals: it is not an argument at all: this is an ontologically fascistic rhetorical artifice, a lexical arabesque: pretty words used to cover a ugly, disgusting, unacceptable agenda. This talking point is all about taking the worst, the rump, the scum of a human group (in this case, fanatic murderous islamists), and using their existence as a pretense to attempt to justify the bloodlust, desire to enslave and rape fantasies entertained about the whole group (here, every Muslims who would leave within the grasp of the far-right extremists).
    This is the modern equivalant of nazis mimicing Nietzsche style in order to pretend that he would have agreed with them in order to look smarter and less depraved than they really were. This is the kind of talking point that should be avoided by anyone who see themselves as civilized.
    I cannot see this argument being used without a desire to throw up. Would it be acceptable to claim that Red Khmers were the epitome of left-wing policies and keynesians their hapless accomplices? Would it be acceptable to claim that Teabaggers and imperialistic neocons being the “Real America” and the rest of the US citizenry being unimportant accessory?
    *
    I commented earlier that Atheists were starting to sometimes look fascistic because fascists were increasingly adopting Atheists outward attitude. I think that this is a big part of the “fundamentalist atheist” problem: increasingly secular societies provide a diminishing the incentive to pretend to be religious in order to manipulate people, which means that people who, by opportunism would have been religious fundamentalists in decades and centuries past are now turning to atheism (less beliefs to fake means less effort to make), while the core aspect of their personalities, behaviors and ambitions remain unchanged. I considere the “moderates are the accomplices of fundies” used by the heirs of fundies from past eras to be one symptom of this phenomenum.
    ***
    ***
    More worthwhile would be for atheists to ask themselves how to differenciate the unapologetic atheist from the extremist, but that would mean the gut-wrenching admission that the similarities between the Atheists and the Religious overwhelm the differences, which in turns weaken the sense of identity:
    Hurray, we proudly announce to the world that we have freed ourselves from the shackles of Religion. This is a Bold New World which lie before us, a Greater world, a Better world, a Magnificient world where we are… confronting the same problems and inner-contradiction than the religious people we left behind
    *

    You combine your merciless and meticulous dissection of religious beliefs and unsympathetic assessments of religious motives with an insistence that you never have your character questioned on account of your atheism

    Personally, I’m all in favor of meticulously and mercilessly dissecting and assessing the motives of the religious and atheists alike. But there is are two important caveat: the burden of proof must be a heavy one, and it must be done on an individual basis. A big part of what makes a fundie is the fact that a fundie will not care about building a compelling argument when pointing fingers at his ennemies and that he will treat whole groups of human beings as a monolithic entities: if the dissecting and assessing are not meticulous or even demonstrably false, they are worthless.
    *

    No, obviously what we are trying to do is shake believers who unthinkingly say they believe the Bible is the Word of God

    That’s what biblical litteralists believe. A lot of religious people believe that their religious books are “The Word of God: Very Imperfectly Translated by Priests Reader’s Digest Version“.
    Of course, that does not means that shaking those who believe that the Bible -with all its slaughters, rapes, slavery, and other nastiness- is integrally sanctionned-by-God™ is not a worthy goal: but this does not make it a specifically atheistic goal.
    ***
    ***
    Finally, this whole hypothetical conversation skimp on something that I think is constantly overlooked despite being at the core of human behavior: motive.
    *

    You haven’t heard of Jihadist terrorists willing to kill civilians or about laws proposed in Uganda calling for the execution of gays? The violence of religious texts can and does return with some of these true believers.

    Now, here’s a question which fascinates me: are religious texts invocked to justify murder, plunder, oppression, etc, a cause or an excuse. Atheists most often claim that religious texts are an important cause of human suffering. Religious people most often claim that religious texts are not a cause but an excuse, that criminals who commit crimes in the name of God would commit the same crimes even if religion did not exists, and that such criminals were not even really religious to begin with; often such statements are the targets of sneering “No True Scotsman” replies, but such replies oversimplify the argument of religious people: its not much a claim that No True Christian (or Jew, or Whatever) would commit a crime: it’s the assessment that one is entitled, in front of depraved people, to doubt the sincerity of their statement of belief. The “religion is at the root of evil” postulate is again expressed later, here:

    Look, I’m not saying they are all unilaterally evil in everything they do. But is there a greater influence keeping people homophobic than religion? Worldwide, is there any kind of institution offering more moral, social, and political support for patriarchy and oppressive practices like female genital mutilation and veiling than religious ones?

    and here:

    But the moderates do not undermine the belief in the books and traditions that lead to those interpretations by their fundamentalist coreligionists

    *
    As my “Tartuffes Hypothesis” shows, I am quite in favor of the “religion as an excuse” argument, when it is used to justify oppression: If someone comes and say “God wants me to build and/or rule a polity when I will have obscene privileges and power over the population“, it is difficult to not considere such “Statement of Belief” to be closer to self-serving opportunism than to religious devotion. And since a lot of the most despicable religious statements are linked to demands of privileges (for instance dominionists are all about becoming the ruling aristocracy of the planet -in the name of Jesus, of course-) I have a hard time believing in the sincerity of the fundies’ self-proclaimed devotion.
    *

    Because the books actually support the fundamentalists. Those are the beliefs of those traditions and they have consistently been there for centuries.

    Except they don’t.
    Let’s take an easy exemple: Salafists claim that they want to go back to the pure, original tradition of Islam. Except they don’t want to let Jews and God forbid women in their armies. You’d think, something like Muhammad praising Nusaybah bint Ka’ab’s badassery would move them a little, but no: because religious fundies, when it comes to choose between their most revered founding figures and their prejudices, will vote for their prejudices all-the-fucking-time.
    This is something that I find very annoying: in order to defend an ideological postulate (“Religion leads to Evil deeds”) all the “Jaime”s in the world are willfully overlooking one key aspect of the behavior of fundies: they break their own religious rules every time it is covenient to them. The moral failing of fundies who ignore all the populist aspects of their holy texts because they side with the upper-class is incomparably worse than the arrangements done by moderates eager to remain decent human beings.
    *

    When 38% of Americans refuse to accept evolution happened and another 40% of “sophisticated” believers essentially deny the existence of natural selection by saying God “guided” evolution

    Of course, the fact that evolution has become a litmus test within the Right means that a lot of conservative who should know better are willingly lying about the issue…
    It always baffles me when someone comes and say “Oh My God! 20% of liberals believe that 9/11 was an inside job, 40% of conservatives believe that Obama was not born in Hawaii: stupidity is taking over!”
    No: what it means is that 20% of liberals hate Cheney so much that they’re willing to lie about him, and 40% of Republicans hate the fact that Obama is in the White House so much that they are willing to play dumb about his birthplace: better look stupid and principled than admitting to be a sore looser.
    *
    In fact, I’d say that the behavior of fundies not onle makes the assumption that religion is their primary motive uncertain, it may also betray a much more cynical and calculating -and all the more dangerous- disposition on their part.

    • Bruce Gorton

      Since fundamentalism is not even primarily about belief per se, but about proclaiming one’s own parochial tribe as ontologically superior to anyone else

      Stop right there.

      You might just want to consult a dictionary before saying that.

      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fundamentalism

      In fact outside of you I know of nobody that seriously defines or uses the word in that manner. Do you perhaps mean supremacist?

      Given that the word plainly and simply does not work the way you think it does, the rest of your argument is moot.

    • laurentweppe

      In fact outside of you I know of nobody that seriously defines or uses the word in that manner
      [...]
      Given that the word plainly and simply does not work the way you think it does, the rest of your argument is moot

      Now I feel that my intelligence is being insulted: you’re playing dumb by telling a transparant lie (“I know of nobody that seriously defines or uses the word in that manner”) right under a blog post by Fincke which is for a good part built upon “my” manner to define the word, just because I have the nerve to tell an argument that makes you feel unconfortable:
      “What: I may not be that different from a cafetaria catholic? Inconceivable!!! I better pretend that this argument does not exist”
      *
      It reminds me of a scene in Citizen X: early in the movie, one of the sovietic higher-ups tells the protagonist (and real-world forensic analyst) Viktor Burakov who’s busy trying to catch a serial killer that there are no serial killers in the USSR, because this is an exclusively “decadant capitalist” vice.
      That’s your attitude. That’s “Jaime” attitude. That’s the attitude of a lot of atheists who, when showed other atheists who have the same behavior, and possibly the same deep motives than fundamentalists decide to pretend that they do not see them: this is praising Galileo while acting like Cremonini.

    • Bruce Gorton

      Actually no – Kelly’s argument doesn’t rest on “Fundementalists are dicks and you are acting like dicks”, hir argument rests on the idea that atheism has become an identity movement with defined tenets. Considering she doesn’t point out what any of these tenets are, one can safely assume that hir argument is bullshit.

      As Jaime points out – there are no fundementals beyond a disbelief in God. You can be fundamentalist about whatever throught process brought you to that conclusion, but a disbelief in god in and of itself isn’t enough.

      Now if one was to argue “Atheist supremacists” then you would have a case. You do in fact get atheists who believe atheists are superior to theists and thus should rule. Just look at the communist states.

      However this argument is not terribly relevant to the current Western atheist movement, which is mostly concerned with keeping government religion neutral and reducing prejudice against atheists.

      To say atheism fundamentalism cannot exist isn’t a mark of atheist superiority, it is a mark of atheism’s lack of fundamentals.

    • laurentweppe

      To say atheism fundamentalism cannot exist isn’t a mark of atheist superiority, it is a mark of atheism’s lack of fundamentals.

      You’re putting what you seem to believe are elaborate sophistic ribbons on an expression of parochial tribalism.
      First thing: your ribbons are not elaborate: they’re at the level of shoolyard clappy-humor: “I’m not telling you I’m smarter, I’m telling you I’m lacking the dumbass chromosome”: One can only be awed by the ability of the human brain to produce so much wit.
      Second thing: Refer to Rule 13, again.

    • Bruce Gorton

      Bollocks Laurent. It is simply to say that fundamentalist =/= dick.

      And this is in part a defence of religious fundamentalists because quite frankly you do get ones who aren’t in the least bit the way you describe them.

      It isn’t fair to them to mutate the word the way you are doing, and it isn’t an accurate description of the behaviours you are objecting to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    This was good food for thought on a snowy day, Dan! I shall be linking later tonight, because it is well worth a read. It’s actually worth more time to reply to than I can offer at the moment – Ockham is calling, unfortunately!

    One thing that jumped out to me, though, was your (or rather Jaime’s) claim that atheism does not have beliefs. Even if we grant that not all atheists have specific beliefs about the existence of God, I do think they have beliefs of other sorts. For example, the belief that it is wrong to believe something on insufficient evidence; or the belief that all beliefs (all other beliefs?) must be falsifiable; or the belief that beliefs should only be accepted if they have positive practical effects. These often underlie atheism or naturalism or whatever, in my experience.

    Having beliefs doesn’t make you a fundamentalist, of course. But requiring others to accept those beliefs for some reason other than rationality is an important first step down that road, I think. Reading this dialogue I was reminded of philosophical controversies like whether the verification principle could itself be verified – which is far from a closed topic, I know, but I think it does make it more reasonable to question some of the beliefs I mentioned above. There is also the way some naturalists/atheists use loaded language (the meme “brights,” for example, or this site’s own label of freethought) – that painting people who disagree with you as stupid or evil again is a part of what fundamentalism does. This does not mean that all atheists are fundamentalists, but it does make me think it’s possible the two could occur together.

  • Sam N

    The claim isn’t that there are not atheists that are fundamentalists. As already pointed out, objectivism can be a fundamentally held belief. Rather that it isn’t the atheism part of objectivism that would make an objectivist a fundamentlist. Atheism alone can not be fundamentalist, it requires an additional dogma for that to be the case. Especially because every atheist I know holds the position provisionally in that they would change their mind with sufficient evidence: studies demonstrating prayer curing amputees, for example, would cause me to rethink my position.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    @ The Lorax and others… How do we know the gender of either Jaime or KellY? Just thought it was curious…

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

      I mean , I assume the names were picked for that very reason ;)

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    To tell the truth, the only point made by Kelly that I wish to address is this one

    No, it’s not the harsh tones either. What makes you “new” is that you are now an identity movement, modeled off of other modern identity movements like the gay rights movement.

    OF course it is. That’s what the atheist movement has to do to move forward. We have adopted the tactics of identity poilitics because they work. In modern America identity politics is the strongest lever available to us to make our case as a civil rights movement. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all. Identity politics got us womens sufferage and its on its way to getting us gay marriage. Chastising the atheist movement for playing identity politics is like scoffing at stealing bases because its bad form.

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    This is super-great. I’d love to find a time to meet sometime to talk over some of these issues as I think we share a lot!

  • http://www.secularcafe.org/index.php davidb

    Jaime could be speaking for me, and Kelly mis-characterises Jaime in the last long post.

    That is how I see it, anyway

    David B

  • Murray

    Why should a “dissection of religious beliefs” not be “merciless”? Why should one’s “assessments of religious motives” be anything other than “unsympathetic”? Religionists believe in something that does not exist. My only sympathy for them is a sadness they are suffering from a delusion that is as close as can be to a mental illness.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      as close as can be to a mental illness.

      No, that’s false. Normal human psychology is prone to erroneously infer all complex designs need intelligent designers and to posit agency in things where there is none and to make fallacious inferences about cause and effect when there are only coincidental corrolations, to trust their community’s authorities and the common sense wisdom of people around them. If that’s “mentally ill” then nearly the whole species is mentally ill. But then the meaning of the phrase “mental illness” no longer distinguishes those truly incapable of functioning coherently and successfully in the world from everyone else.


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