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:

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