On Atheist Fundamentalism

There has been something of a spat lately in the atheist blogosphere, due to an announcement from Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard. Epstein and the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy are sponsoring an event to, in their own words, “take on… atheist ‘fundamentalists’” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and promote the value of humanism and inclusiveness. The Associated Press has run an article on Epstein’s announcement.

These comments have drawn a sharp response from those who feel that Epstein is lending support to the slurs religious zealots frequently hurl against atheists who dare to speak out. Austin Cline and Brian Flemming take the lead in raking him over the coals, while Friendly Atheist has an insider’s perspective on the feud, along with a link to Greg Epstein’s own response.

Much of my feelings on the matter depends on the precise sentiment that Epstein intended to convey. If he is saying that it is possible and desirable to speak our minds, but that we should take care to do so in a way that does not cause needless personal offense, then I agree with that. I have said as much myself many times. We can and should strongly criticize religious belief systems with which we disagree, but we should not generalize religious people as stupid, dishonest, or brainwashed. Those terms are not true and using them adds nothing to the conversation except to pointlessly offend and alienate believers. Regardless of how strongly we may disagree with them, there are many people who are sincere in their belief and believe for what are, to them, clear and convincing reasons. We should acknowledge this. Again, I am not in disagreement with any of this so far.

However, Epstein’s use of the word “fundamentalist” – even in scare quotes – to describe his fellow nonbelievers was a poor choice. Even if he meant something more benign than the AP story’s interpretation of its meaning, he had to know that word would be seized upon by opponents of atheism who are eager to overlook such subtle distinctions. That is a disreputable word for a reason, and Epstein’s long list of clarifications pointing out ways in which Dawkins, Harris and others differentiate themselves from literalist religious fanatics shows that he knows this. If he chose this word just to drum up controversy, that was wrong, and he should retract it. For his graceful response, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I hope he will be more careful in the future.

The problem is that use of this word only gives credibility to truly obnoxious and dishonest examples of anti-atheist sophistry, such as this article by Guardian writer Stuart Jeffries:

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England.

Let’s slow down and think about this for a moment. Atheists like Richard Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as these other groups? Have any atheists claimed that Christians should not be permitted to marry each other or adopt children, the way some Christians do about gays? How many buses has Richard Dawkins bombed in the name of converting people to atheism?

What I find truly repugnant is the attitude that would equate atheists honestly and forthrightly speaking their minds with the religious zealots who try to terrify others into obedience through deliberate and planned campaigns of murderous violence. In what bizarre and demented ethical system are these two things comparable? Apparently, as far as Slee is concerned, having Richard Dawkins say some mean things to him would be every bit as bad as being blown into bloody shreds by a fanatic who sets off an explosive belt in a crowded public place. No one who espouses such a ludicrous view deserves to be taken seriously.

Or take Jeffries’ comments on Christopher Hitchens’ upcoming God Is Not Great:

Its first chapter, drolly entitled Putting it Mildly, concludes: “As I write these words and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.”

…John Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins.

Again, let us set aside this condescending stereotyping and consider the facts. Is Hitchens’ point actually wrong? Is Jeffries denying that there are religious believers who seek to murder and destroy in the name of their god? Surely not, since he alludes to the July 7, 2005 London transit bombings earlier in this same essay. But if Hitchens’ point is accurate – which it is – then Jeffries must be saying that even if it is true, we atheists shouldn’t talk about it. After all, correctly pointing out true facts would obviously be rude, uncivil and (heaven forbid!) “fundamentalist”. Apparently, “respecting” another person’s religion requires not criticizing that religion even for the wrong things it has actually done.

“What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” [Rabbi Neuberger] says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.”

No, the true intellectual dishonesty is displayed by apologists who accuse atheists of being dogmatic simply because they have any opinion at all. I will not presume the right to speak for Richard Dawkins, but I can speak for myself. Like many atheists, I would be perfectly willing to change my mind if the correct evidence turns up, but no such evidence has turned up. (EDIT: Dawkins agrees.)

Having doubt in all things means reserving the right to change your opinion if contradictory evidence comes to light. It most certainly does not mean you cannot have confidence in your opinion or cannot argue strongly in its favor in the absence of such evidence. This attitude – the sophistic demand for “doubt” – is nothing more nor less than saying, “Since nobody can be absolutely sure that their view is correct, we should act as if every view is equally plausible and never state any opinion too strongly.” The only thing this position would accomplish is to ensure that we never find out who, if anyone, is in error. In that regard, Dawkins and others who take a strong stand for atheism – and expose it to criticism if it proves to be incorrect – are far greater friends of reason and doubt than religious apologists who make these facetious demands for false humility.

Jeffries closes with a revealing comment about the kind of discourse he and others are actually seeking:

What should such a public square be like? It might not be Menckian, but it could be based on respectful understanding of others’ most cherished beliefs, argues Spencer: “We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

But what if I do not think that a value system is coherent, reasonable or valuable? Should I lie through a pasted-on smile, speaking words I do not believe, just for the sake of ensuring that people I disagree with don’t feel bad?

The position being advanced here seems to be that if a belief system is held by many people, it automatically becomes “coherent, reasonable and even valuable” and should be treated accordingly. This is categorically wrong. An absurdity remains an absurdity, a contradiction remains a contradiction, and an atrocity remains an atrocity, even if a billion people believe it.

In opposition to this, I believe the public square should see many more sharp-edged, uncompromising, unapologetic debates between people who strongly disagree with each other. I think every point of contention should be hammered out in full public view, every grievance and argument given a thorough airing, and the evidence for every position tried, scrutinized, and tested. It is in the vigorous cut and thrust of open debate that our critical thinking skills are honed and our understanding is truly advanced – not in the bland, insipid porridge of relativism. A few bruised egos are a small price to pay for all the intellectual and cultural benefits such an approach would bring, and I would much rather live in a society where everyone’s positions, including mine, are constantly challenged than in one where people with passionate opinions are silenced in the name of not hurting anyone’s feelings.

Does this make me a “fundamentalist”? Some will doubtless say so. And there is one sense in which I will accept this charge: I am a truth fundamentalist. I believe that the truth is superior to error, that the truth should be pursued above all things, and that we should uncompromisingly defend the truth once we have discovered it (and it can be discovered, though not everyone who thinks they have done so is correct). I am unapologetic about this position. This places me in contrast to people who apparently feel that other values, such as not hurting people’s feelings, take precedence over the truth. I am proud not to be among those people.

Since I believe atheism is among the catalogue of true things, I will defend it. If anyone believes I am wrong, they’re welcome to take their best shot and offer whatever evidence they have that contradicts me, and I will gladly engage them. But I will never bow to those who illogically embrace contradictory positions as equally plausible and valid, and who think that, by mutual consent, we should abandon our quest to seek the truth.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.