A Letter to Religion’s Cultured Admirers

When I left college I was at a religious crossroads. I had grown up as a moderate Episcopalian. That was now comfort food that I didn’t want to eat every Sunday. My college had been extremely liberal, and the religion there had been wispy and uninteresting. I was in the Bible Belt, and the evangelicals around me had too many pat answers and not enough intellectual underpinnings.

I found my middle way in John Shelby Spong’s autobiography Here I Stand. Spong insisted that I could keep my modern principles and still be a Christian. Spong’s higher criticism and philosophy gave his progressive Christianity more heft than the new-agey mix I had found in college, and it was wedded to the political liberalism that was a non-negotiable part of my worldview. I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on.

Years later I was listening to Spong being interviewed on a public radio call-in show. After 30 minutes of him explaining his latest book they took a call from a woman in tears. She was a traditional Christian and she was horrified at what this man – a priest! – was saying. Spong was rejecting the divinity of Christ and she demanded how he justified that against a passage in John.

Spong waved her away. “I don’t want to argue with people who believe the world is flat.”

I understood his meaning, and I also recognized that this radio show was not the proper format for a debate. But I still felt that he had blown an opportunity to reach out to a more conservative audience and explain the principles of liberal Christianity.

Having read more of Spong, plus people like Don Cupitt and Karen Armstrong, I wonder now if he didn’t feel that the “theological realism” expressed by the caller was on the way out. Why bicker over something that is headed for the dustbin of history? I don’t agree with that view, and even if I did it was still a wasted opportunity and a tactless response.

I bring all this up to explain my reaction to posts like Tenzan Eaghll’s A Brief Letter to Richard Dawkins Regarding “Religion”. This is the epitome of what we call the Courtier’s reply. Whether that makes it invalid or not is up to the reader. But one section got under my skin:

Now, just to be clear, let me state that I, and most of the thinkers in my field, are in agreement with the general aim of The Richard Dawkins Foundation. We too want to challenge the false claims of fundamentalists and are opposed to unscientific narratives such as creationism, the belief in the soul, and any sort of cultural relativism that pretends scripture and science are equivalent.

Wonderful. And what are you doing about it?

Understand, from our perspective fundamentalism is causing real harm. It’s not just a case of the information haves vs. the information have nots. Fundamentalism underwrites some of the most abusive structures in our society: patriarchy, homophobia, racism, and so on. Take a spin on such sites as Love, Joy, Feminism or No Longer Quivering to get a taste of what fundamentalism does with patriachal gender roles, and realize that this is just the start.

When I look for people who are putting real social and political pressure on fundamentalists, I see two groups. The first is the ex-fundamentalists who are mostly still conservative-to-moderate Christians. That’s people like Wartburg Watch and Jeri Massi. The others are atheists like Dawkins, Harris, et. al.

There seems to be a role for liberal Christianity and the students of religious philosophy. Somewhere between the sweeping denunciations of the atheists and the narrow focus of the ex-fundies. There are plenty of individual progressives evangelicals who are doing great work, like Matthew Paul Turneron the pop culture side, James McGrath on the academic side and Fred Clark on the political side. But they don’t seem to add up to much of a social force. They lack the inside angle of the ex-fundies or the volume and conviction of the atheists.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m stuck with the impression that Spong left with me. But my impression is still that most progressive Christians and religious academics can’t be bothered to confront fundamentalists, and would much rather kibitz the atheists with whom they seem to have more in common. Eaghil “can not simply standby and watch [Dawkins] propagate an unnecessary binary between religion and science,” but he can apparently sit by while fundamentalists and conservatives wreck science.

I’d really like to be proven wrong. I’d love to see Karen Armstrong walk into a megachurch and explain to the congregation what they’re doing wrong. I’d love to see the religious studies professors hold shows on Christian radio, write books for the average pewsitter and generally try to talk fundamentalists down from their authoritarian ledge. I’d love to see more outreach from the cultured admirers of religion.

But I don’t expect to see that in my lifetime. I suspect that I will continue to see more religious intellectuals expend their energies telling atheists what they’re doing wrong, while fundies never encounter a proponent of the more honest and humane approach to religion.

  • Teilhard

    Good article. As a mainstream Christian, I absolutely agree with you on the need to confront religious fundamentalists. There is an anti-intellectualism and anti-science agenda that is very dangerous for society, which I have blogged about.


    I also believe that there is an atheistic fundamentalism, which suffers from the same anti-intellectualism, anti-openness echo chamber that characterizes religious fundamentalism. As such, I believe that atheistic fundamentalism is equally dangerous. Along those lines, I am in full agreement with the award-winning author Chris Hedges who has written about the twin dangers of religious and atheistic fundamentalists (http://tinyurl.com/qxrd6tr and http://tinyurl.com/prj5d7x)

    Reasonable people can differ on basic issues such as the existence of God, ethics and morality while still finding common ground on many areas, as long as they adhere to basic reason and respect for the views of others. Fundamentalists on both sides do not help the cause.

    W. Ockham

    • David_Evans

      “As such, I believe that atheistic fundamentalism is equally dangerous.”

      I am surprised to read those words after 9/11 and after the continuing violent efforts by Muslims to stifle anything they disapprove of. What have atheist fundamentalists done, this century, that is comparable?

      • The Other Weirdo

        What have atheists done any century that is comparable?

        • David_Evans

          I didn’t want to get into an argument about Stalin or Mao.

          • The Other Weirdo


          • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

            You’re aware, I’m sure, that Stalin was religious? He’d been a seminarian.

            What was that … you didn’t know that? Well, now you do. And you also see how well your militant theist brethren have conditioned you with their anti-atheist propaganda … !

            • David_Evans

              I’m not sure that’s relevant. I was educated in Church in Wales schools from age 7 to 13, sang in the choir, read lessons in church, went to Sunday school…That doesn’t make me now any less of an atheist.

            • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

              It’s relevant because it means Stalin might have been religious. You see … all the raging Christianist ideologues love to bluster and fume about how Stalin was an “atheist.” What they’re doing, of course is to assume he was an atheist, without having any evidence as to whether or not he actually was one. Other than the fact that, supposedly, his regime suppressed religion. (That it suppressed religions other than the Russian Orthodox Church, which it subverted to become another house organ of the Kremlin, is something they purposely ignore.)

              On the other hand, the fact that Stalin had been a seminarian, is an indication that leans in the opposite direction. It shows he may have been religious and not an atheist after all. It’s not proof he was religious; but had Stalin been a committed atheist from an early age, it would seem unlikely he’d have enrolled in a seminary.

              Christianists also rage and fume over Hitler having been an atheist, too, but we all know he was Catholic, and that most of his cadre of minions were either Christian of some variety or were occult-obsessed wannabe Neopagans trying to follow an “Aryan” religion of their own design.

      • Teilhard

        OK, I’m not going to debate Stalin and Mao (not to mention Hitler) as they essentially prove my point that any form of fundamentalism that creates an “other” group is dangerous. As Chris Hedges said in the Salon article linked above in reference to comments made by Sam Harris and others in targeting Muslims:

        “this kind of rhetoric, which is racist, is allowed to infect the civil discourse — whether it comes from the Christian right or the New Atheists — toward Muslims, who are one-fifth of the world population, most of whom are not Arabs, then what I worry about is that in a moment of collective humiliation and fear, these two strands come together and call for an assault on Muslims, both outside our gates and on the 6 million Muslims who live within our borders. And that frightens me, that demonization of a people — turning human beings into abstractions, so that they’re not human anymore. They don’t have hopes, dreams, aspirations, pains, sufferings. They represent an unmitigated evil that must be vanquished. That’s very scary, and that is at the bedrock of the ideology of the New Atheists as it is with the Christian fundamentalists.”

        W. Ockham

        • David_Evans

          Harris argued that militant Islam is a threat to the West.
          The 9/11 hijackers proved his point by killing thousands of people.

          Do you really think that arguing is comparable to killing?

          A secondary point, but attacking Islam is not racist. It can’t be, because a Muslim can be of any race, and in fact Islam’s declared aim is to spread itself to all people of whatever race. Declaring any attack on one’s beliefs to be racist is a good trick, but we mustn’t fall for it.

          • Teilhard

            Harris argued that Islam, broadly speaking, is a threat to the West and that all Muslims should be segmented. I agree that the small segment of “Islamic” fundamentalists (which is simply a heretical version of Islam) is a threat to humanity (not just the West). However, it is not fair to say that mainstream Muslims are a threat. We currently have over 6 million Muslims in the U.S. who are peaceful, contributing members of society.

            Also, I never said that Harris was racist (I do not believe he is). I simply said that his attacks on Islam as a religion were unfair. Pointing to 9/11 as a justification is an unfair logical leap. This is akin to blaming all Germans for Nazism or all Russians for Stalin, both of which are unfair logical leaps (although shorter logical stretches than 9/11 as both Nazism and Communism were official state actors rather than isolated individuals).

            W. Ockham

            • David_Evans

              “Also, I never said that Harris was racist (I do not believe he is)”

              But you quote, with approval, Chris Hedges saying his rhetoric is racist.

              It’s not clear to me that fundamentalism is merely a heresy of Islam. Islam has no central authority able to define heresy (as the Catholic church used to) so we either have to count heads or look at the scriptures. I think there is enough in the Qur’an to justify the view that approval of war for the sake of religious conquest is central in Islam, not a heresy.

              If fundamentalism means going back to the holy book, then almost all Muslims are fundamentalists. The Qur’an, especially for those who read it in the original Arabic, is considered the unaltered word of God in a way that the Bible mostly isn’t.

              In the UK there is documented evidence of invited speakers in mainstream mosques describing the killing of Jews and apostates, and holy war in general, as religious duties. When the evidence is published there is some wringing of hands but not much seems to change. Unsurprising since to really condemn those views would risk being declared oneself an apostate.

            • kessy_athena

              I don’t think there’s a significant difference between hatred of people based on them belonging to a racial group and hatred based on them belonging to any other kind of group. I think bigotry may be a better, more general term. And I think there is definitely an awful lot of Islamophobia going around, and it’s every bit as ugly as any other sort of prejudice or bigotry.

            • David_Evans

              I agree, any kind of group-based hatred is ugly and dangerous. And there is a lot of Islamophobia, some of it coming from white supremacists where it really is disguised racism.

              However I’m unhappy with the tendency to label as Islamophobic any criticism that hurts Muslims’ feelings. In a multicultural society feelings are going to get hurt, particularly since the dogma of one religion is often blasphemous to another.

            • Brian K

              While I agree that most Muslims are in their daily lives peaceful people, Islam is in fact a Supremacist ideology at its core.
              I would also note that at the level of the opinion poll, the moderate Muslim mainstream accomodations speak so blithely about has some rather…scary opinions…on a wide range of topics. Especially in Arab countries but not exclusively so. Note that there are blasphemy trials going on in Islamic cultures other than the Arabic ones.

        • David_Evans

          PS I don’t agree with everything Harris says. I think that his most extreme positions on Islam are not specifically atheist. I would describe them as Western chauvinist, and think they could be shared (as history shows) by many Christians.

          • Teilhard

            I agree that Harris’ positions on Islam are shared by many Christian fundamentalists. However, Harris does frame his attack as anti-religious fundamentalism. This highlights the strange alliance between Christian and atheistic fundamentalists as promoting Western chauvinism.

      • kessy_athena

        Isn’t asking what atheist fundamentalists have ever done and then immediately saying you don’t want to talk about Stalin or Mao a little bit like someone asking what Christian fundamentalists have ever done, but they don’t want to talk about the Inquisition or the Crusades?

        And if you want to know what intolerant, abusive atheistic fundamentalism looks like, just look at Jabster.

        The problem with any sort of fundamentalism or ideology in general is not what they believe but how they believe it. Remember the story about the woman who went to a psychiatrist because she kept feeling like the FBI was after her, except that it turned out that her husband was on Nixon’s enemies list and the FBI really was watching her? Fundamentalists believe that they are right, that their beliefs are based on some sort of supreme source of truth, and that anything that would challenge *any* of their beliefs must be wrong, deceptive, contradicted by the evidence, etc. They also believe that other people holding views different from theirs is somehow harmful to society as a whole. and most importantly, they don’t make the distinction between being morally right and being factually right; they think that holding the correct beliefs makes you a better person. It’s something of a slippery slope. “We’re right,” turns into, “We’re Right,” and then, “We’re Right and everyone else is Wrong,” then adding on, “We’re Right and everyone else is Wrong, so we’re better then everyone else,” from which it’s a frighteningly short step to, “We’re Right and everyone else is Wrong, so we’re better then everyone else and therefore we’re morally justified in whatever we choose to do to everyone else.”

        Of course the road from ideas to ideology, from opinion to belief to fundamentalism is a process and a continuum. There isn’t a sharp line, a single moment when you go from a simple believer to a radical willing to kill or worse. Sometimes people use the metaphor of going beyond the moral event horizon. The interesting thing is that with a black hole, you don’t particularly notice anything different at the event horizon if you’re falling into it. It’s only a distant observer who can see the relativistic effects that mark you as becoming causally disconnected from the rest of the universe.

        • David_Evans

          Surely if someone says atheist fundamentalism is (i.e. is now) dangerous, one is entitled to ask for proof in the present or the recent past? I specifically didn’t ask what anyone had ever done, so as to avoid the tedious matching of past atrocities.

          “The problem with any sort of fundamentalism or ideology in general is not what they believe but how they believe it.”

          I partly agree. If someone believes that apostates and unbelievers should be killed, they may be more or less dangerous to society depending on how sincere or committed they are, but it’s a bad belief in any case. My impression is that more Muslims are highly committed to such beliefs than are people in general. Not surprising, since they believe they have the unaltered word of God to guide them.

          Ask yourself this. You hear one of these phrases, shouted in the street. Which would make you fear for your life?

          “There is no God!”

          “Praise the Lord!”

          “Allahu akbar!”

          • kessy_athena

            Well, it also depends on what sort of dangerous you’re talking about. If you’re only talking about posing a threat of physical harm to others, very few fundamentalists of any stripe are dangerous. I mean, as nasty as Westboro is, I don’t think they’ve ever actually physically attacked anyone, have they? I think that for the most part we’re talking about a slightly more abstract danger, perhaps the danger of making society more intolerant and oppressive or something similar.

            I agree that fundamentalism is a matter of degree, and some fundamentalists are much more worrying then others. However, I think that all forms of fundamentalism and ideology are part of a process that leads to very dark and terrible places. A bit like drug abuse. Abusing a less dangerous drug like alcohol or pot is much less of a concern then more dangerous drugs like heroine or crack. And smoking pot certainly doesn’t automatically lead to worse things (despite what some people seem to think.) But abusing a low level drug puts you at greater risk of getting involved with harder drugs, and most people who abuse hard drugs started out with lower level ones.

            I think that we are seeing a relatively large amount of Islamic terrorism right now simply because of the social, political, and economic situations in many Muslim countries. For example, in many Arab countries, you have very young populations with relatively high unemployment and little economic opportunity. There’s also the social stresses caused by very conservative cultures starting to modernize. And then there’s the political situation with Israel, and the more general Western dominance of the region. All of which are formulas for unrest. While I think there’s a case to be made that monotheism is somewhat more given to ideology and fundamentalism, I don’t think there are very large differences between the different varieties of monotheism.

    • The Other Weirdo

      I would like to see more info about this atheistic fundamentalism that’s not behind a book-hawking paywall. Religious fundamentalism flies airplanes into other people’s skyscrapers and tries to touch off Armageddon by instigating a race war in the U.S. It also prefers to see women die than save them with an operation. What is it atheistic fundamentalism, if it exists at all, has done? Where is the anti-intellectualism of atheism, fundamentalist or not? Where is the anti-openness?

      • Teilhard

        Here is a link to an extended interview podcast and transcript with Chris Hedges within the context of the “New Atheists”.


        W. Ockham

        • The Other Weirdo

          That article is one guy’s opinion, and not even a very good one. Also, it doesn’t talk about anything “fundamentalist atheists” have actually done in the world to warrant rating them as bad as religious fundamentalists.

          You say at one point in the book that the New Atheists, “like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class.” But I wonder what you would say to someone like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a victim of genital cutting who fled her faith-based homeland for the secular West, when she says that the secularism of Western society is better than the religiosity of her native Somalia?

          It was better, for her.

          She doesn’t qualify that. She says it’s better.

          That’s all I needed to know about this guy and his opinions.

          Got anything newer than 5 years ago?

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Go find a dictionary and look up the meaning of “fundamentalism.” Then get back to us. Or not.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      as long as they adhere to … respect for the views of others.

      Of course I don’t respect the views of the religious. I think they’re wrong. In some cases, they are dangerously wrong. Respecting someone’s views and respecting their right to hold those views are two very different things. This is hardly a novel thought, so that I have to wonder what cave you have been living in for the last 10 years or more, that you apparently haven’t heard it before.

      • kessy_athena

        You know, it *is* actually possible to respect a view that you disagree with. At least assuming that you’re willing to accept that there are times when people you disagree with will turn out to be less wrong then you… Remember that ultimately we’re all wrong about everything. There’s no such thing as an idea that perfectly represents reality. Even an idea that gets as near to being perfect as possible is still going to be limited in what it represents; there’s always going to be more to the story. Which is why it’s important to listen to people with different points of view to yours – every once in a while you’ll learn something from them.

        It seems to me that sometimes it’s easy for us to loose sight of the distinction between a reasonable, respectable opinion that you disagree with, and craziness that’s out of touch with reality. For example, I disagree with the idea that there should always be a preference for private sector solutions to problems rather then government solutions. I think that there are some things the government just does better, and so there are times when a government based solution is preferable, even if there’s a viable private sector approach. But you know what? I could be wrong. And sometimes the folks who believe so strongly in the private sector come up with innovative and useful approaches that I’d never have come up with. On the other hand, people who believe that government is always oppressive by definition and that government is the only sort of organization that can infringe on people’s rights and that *nothing* the government does can ever be good… Well, that just seems ridiculous to me.

        • Cafeeine

          ” Well, that just seems ridiculous to me.”
          Way to show respect for that view. Can’t you be wrong that being closed-minded about government involvement is ridiculous?

          You’re making Reginald Selkirk’s point. Yes, it is possible to view positions you disagree with with respect, if they seem to be well-thought, and refer to subjects where you don’t have all the facts.
          There are however positions that are indisputably wrong, and it is not arrogant to say so, or to hold those positions in contempt.

          • kessy_athena

            Actually, I’d say you’re making my point for me. There is a difference between positions that you disagree with and positions that are ridiculous and unreasonable, and it’s an important distinction to make. A simple belief in the existence of gods just is not in the same category as, say, young Earth creationism.

            • Cafeeine

              And who gets to decide what positions are objectively ridiculous rather than simply positions I disagree with? Is kessy_athena’s opinion the yardstick to use or Cafeeine’s?

              We both agree on how to treat various categories of beliefs, but differ when it comes to placing the beliefs on their respective piles.

              I don’t lump the moderate believer with the creationist. I do think they are both holding unreasonable beliefs with regards to the existence of God, but the creationist has an ark full of additional lunacy that compounds his position. I can discuss with the moderate. I respect most moderates I’ve discussed with, however being closer to the middle between atheism and creationism doesn’t make the position a reasonable middle ground.

            • kessy_athena

              You’re absolutely right that there’s a lot of subjectivity in deciding what is or is not completely ridiculous. However, I think an important thing to remember is that it’s a continuum of ridiculousness, and the difference between lunacy and just being wrong is often just a matter of degree.

              Personally, when I talk about a position being reasonable, I mean a position that someone could seriously believe without them being clinically delusional, grossly misinformed about established facts, or somehow being outright dishonest either with themselves or with others in some way. Basically, I’m using “reasonable” in a fairly literal sense – is it a conclusion that can be reached using reason and logic along with established facts, or is it something that can only be reached by means other then reason, such as beginning with a conclusion and looking for support for it?

            • Cafeeine

              “Personally, when I talk about a position being reasonable, I mean a
              position that someone could seriously believe without them a) being
              clinically delusional, b) grossly misinformed about established facts, c) or
              somehow being outright dishonest either with themselves or with others
              in some way.”
              (I added the enumeration)

              I mostly agree with that definition. In my experience most believers fail somewhere in (b) or (c), and I’m unable to affirm (a) in any case, not being a doctor.
              Of course, there is the question of is a decision reasonable if it fits one’s best current understanding, even if it happens to be ultimately wrong? I think so, so I may be more charitable with believers in practice than I am in theory, but I do believe that a well-informed modern person cannot accept theistic claims reasonably. It would take too long to describe why in a comment thread. Perhaps I should blog about it.
              Going back to the original question, this is why I do not respect theistic positions. This does not mean that I disrespect the people that hold those beliefs. The problem often is that too many theists take criticism of their beliefs as criticism of their person (the personal insult and irrational anger some Muslims display at disparagement of their prophet, for example)

            • kessy_athena

              When you talk about theistic positions, are you talking specifically about the christian variety or about anything concerning gods in general? Because while Christian theology has some very serious logical problems (such as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity) that probably do put it into unreasonable territory, those are specific to Christianity and its relatives, and not of religion in general. I think it’s also likely that many if not most moderate christains have never really thought too deeply about those issues and as a practical matter have a much vaguer concept of god that is much more tenable then the formal christian positions.

    • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

      Re: “I also believe that there is an atheistic fundamentalism …”

      Bzzzt! Wrong. There’s no such thing as “atheistic fundamentalism.” It quite literally can’t exist. “Fundamentalism,” as everyone knows, refers to an intense veneration of (or obsession with) one or more “fundamental” things which become the core of one’s religion. In the case of Christian fundamentalists, this is their Bible as well as their doctrine of literalism.

      Atheists, on the other hand, have no “fundamentals.” They don’t have any, because they have no fixed beliefs about anything metaphysical.

      By calling some atheists “fundamentalists,” all you’re doing is saying you disagree with them and dislike them. I’m sorry to say, though, that this means nothing whatsoever, and is irrelevant to anyone but yourself. That you disagree with them and dislike them, doesn’t make them wrong. It just means you hate them so much that you apply terms to them incorrectly in order to express your hatred of them.

      I hardly see where this kind of illogical tactic is any less childish than any of the myriad juvenile tactics that the Christian fundamentalists themselves love to engage in.

      • Teilhard

        W PsiCop: Lots of unrelated issues there, but I will try to respond:

        1. I like atheists. The majority of people I work with are either actual or practical atheists. I generally find atheists intelligent, insightful and willing to think about deep philosophical issues and come up with a reasonable world view.

        2. Atheists do have a metaphysical belief system: there is no God.

        3. For purposes of this discussion, I define “fundamentalist” as someone who holds to a fixed position without looking critically and honestly at evidence or other viewpoints. Most atheists are not fundamentalists. However, there are a small minority that hold to a fixed position of atheism without bothering to learn about the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the five major world religions or addressing the positions of these religions in a serious manner. I view these atheists as fundamentalists in that they have a fixed conclusion and do not honestly engage in any evidence or rationale that disagrees with their conclusion. In this manner, they are similar to Christian fundamentalists who take Genesis literally.

        W. Ockham

        • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

          Re: “Atheists do have a metaphysical belief system: there is no God.”

          Bzzzt! Wrong. To say there is no God, is NOT a metaphysical position at all. It’s the rejection of a metaphysical position held by a lot of other folks … but there is quite literally nothing “metaphysical” about not believing in a deity.

          Re: “For purposes of this discussion, I define “fundamentalist” as someone who holds to a fixed position without looking critically and honestly at evidence or other viewpoints.”

          Aha. So you’re making up your own definition of “fundamentalist,” and using it in a way that slanders others. I don’t see how that’s anything but irrational and childish … but please, by all means, don’t let me stop you from doing it.

          Re: “I view these atheists as fundamentalists in that they have a fixed conclusion and do not honestly engage in any evidence or rationale that disagrees with their conclusion.”

          You’re assuming these atheists you talk about have never seriously considered any position other than atheism and have rejected all forms of theism out-of-hand. I’d like to know how you know them so well that you can say that about them? Are you sure none of them might have started out as believers, then over time … and yes, after having seriously considered theism and all of its ramifications … reached the conclusion that there’s no God?

          If so, why should they then turn around and indulge your belief and accommodate it — when the truth is, they’ve already been there before and decided it was B.S. — just so you can personally feel they’re “listening” to you and “addressing the positions of these religions in a serious manner”?

          Sorry, but they don’t owe you anything. For you to leap to conclusions about them, based on your own subjective determination that they somehow haven’t thought seriously enough about your theism, is irrational.

          • kessy_athena

            In common usage, “fundamentalist” refers to anyone who adheres to a strict and inflexible belief system. If you want to be really strict about the definition, the terms refers specifically to an early 20th century movement in American Protestantism that advocated a return to “fundamentals” as opposed to the modernist movement of the time. So if you want to pick nits, it’s not really correct to even refer to a Catholic as a fundamentalist, much less a Muslim.

            • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

              Re: “In common usage, “fundamentalist” refers to anyone who adheres to a strict and inflexible belief system.”

              Actually, no it doesn’t refer to that. At all. People may misuse the term in that way, but if they do, they’re misusing it. That means they need to stop and use some other term.

              And yes, you’re right about Catholics not really being “fundamentalists.” Not unless they’ve somehow diverged from traditional Catechetical Catholicism in some way … but if so, they’vee stopped being “Catholics” and have become something else. Like Hutton Gibson and his type, or any of the other sedevacantist “Catholic” splinter sects that have sprung up after II Vatican.

            • kessy_athena

              (shrugs) Words are just symbols, they mean whatever we decide they mean. The definition you’re using of “fundamentalist” may have been how the word was used a century ago, but it’s not how it’s used now. Language changes over time, that’s just how it is.

            • Cafeeine

              Words do change meaning, but not every change is a legitimate shift in the language. Some are concerted efforts to make some connotations work in favor of whoever is doing the propaganda.

              Talking of ‘atheist fundamentalism’ is similar to talking about ‘militant atheism’. One might argue that they mean ‘militant’ in terms of strident argumentation, but what in effect happens is that “militant atheism” is consistently used to refer to people putting out books, speeches and press statements, while “militant (any religious denomination)” for those engaged in military operations. That will color people’s view of atheism, and claims of different definitions are just disingenuous.

              “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

            • kessy_athena

              And sometimes people resisting a change in meaning are doing so in a concerted effort to control the connotations in exactly the same manner. Liberals who insist that blacks can’t be racist come to mind.

              *Any* set of ideas can turn into ideology – the ideas simply become a rationalization for bad behavior. You can start out saying that the rich shouldn’t be able to monopolize control of society and wind up with Stalinism. You can start out with democracy and wind up with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. And so on and so on. Pretending that atheism is somehow immune to humans being human is simple hubris.

              As for the word “militant,” how many people would object to describing Westboro Baptist Church as militant? Even though they’ve never engaged in physical violence.

            • Cafeeine

              “As for the word “militant,” how many people would object to describing Westboro Baptist Church as militant?”

              I would. They aren’t militant. In fact, they are litigious sticklers, and ride the limit of the law, suing others when they overstep the law in opposing them. Calling them militant would actually help them, as it encourages vigilanteism that they can attack through the courts.

              Furthermore, the WBC is a single organization, with specific actions that characterize them. Whether the description fits the actions, it ill-befits the comparison with atheism, whereas the adjective colors every atheist. A better example would be if, alluding to the WBC, you talked about “militant Baptists” or “militant Christianity”. But no, Christianity gets shielded and WBC is refered to as a “fringe unaffiliated church”.

              And moreover they aren’t described as militant all that much, not to the extent that atheism is, so the example is poor on more than one front.

              “And sometimes people resisting a change in meaning are doing so in a
              concerted effort to control the connotations in exactly the same manner.”

              I agree, and some time this resistance is justified.
              When someone is changing the definition of a term just to create a false equivalence, I am justified to call them on it.
              The claim that atheists are fundamentalists is meant to place the moderate believer in the reasonable middle. I am entitled to call shenanigans on that.

              “Pretending that atheism is somehow immune to humans being human is simple hubris.”

              This is completely true. Also, completely irrelevant. My point is not that atheists are immune to bad behavior, it’s that atheist behavior is consistently described in much darker hues than equivalent theistic behavior.

            • kessy_athena

              By the way, I should make clear that I agree that use of the term “militant atheist” is almost always real hyperbole. I just think you’re overreacting a bit. For one thing, off hand I can’t remember ever hearing the term used by anyone other then atheists complaining about it. Admittedly, I don’t travel in Christian Fundie circles, but still it’s not as if it’s a term you hear on the street every day.

              And you can’t act as if any time anyone talks about an atheist acting like a fundamentalist, or ideologically, or closed minded, that that implies that all atheists are that way. Reacting like that implies (intentionally or not) that no atheists are like that. Clearly, there are some atheists who are closed minded, intolerant, and dogmatic, but there are many more who aren’t. Which is actually true of almost any large group of people.

              I understand that you’re sensitive to criticism of atheists because of the way some Christians portray atheists as being amoral monsters. But reacting as if anyone who criticizes atheists is a minion of Pat Robertson or something does not help the situation.

            • Cafeeine

              ” one thing, off hand I can’t remember ever hearing the term used by anyone other then atheists complaining about it. ”

              That’s a fair remark,
              Just as a benchmark, do a google search for “atheism” and do for “militant atheism” (with quotes). Look at what of the first search results is the second.
              Then try the same with Islam and Christianity in place of atheism.
              It’s not the same as a rigorous study, but it gives you an idea.

              “And you can’t act as if any time anyone talks about an atheist acting
              like a fundamentalist, or ideologically, or closed minded, that that
              implies that all atheists are that way. ”

              The problem is the reasons given for atheists to be called fundamentalists. Even by the definition of someone with intransigent beliefs it often doesn’t follow. And that is for the times when examples are given. Most of the time it is just thrown in as punctuation, as if it is an uncontroversial claim.

              I don’t dispute that there are close-minded atheists. I do question how do you know what people mean when they call atheists “fundamentalist” when you say you haven’t heard it all that much. Can you give me any examples you remember?

              “Clearly, there are some atheists who are closed minded, intolerant”
              But that is not a call to use it as an adjective for ‘atheism’ in general. It would be like me talking about Christianity picketing funerals, when I’m really referring to the WBC.

              “But reacting as if anyone who criticizes atheists is a minion of Pat Robertson or something does not help the situation.”

              Neither does extreme hyperbole like the above. Where in my words did you derive even a hint of this?

            • kessy_athena

              I would remind you that this conversation began with Teilhard saying,

              “I also believe that there is an atheistic fundamentalism, which suffers from the same anti-intellectualism, anti-openness echo chamber that characterizes religious fundamentalism. As such, I believe that atheistic fundamentalism is equally dangerous.”

              To which PsiCop and others responded by saying that there’s no such thing as atheistic fundamentalism. In this case, I think it’s quite clear that Teilhard was talking about certain groups of atheists, not atheism in general. I was rebutting the claim that atheism can’t be fundamentalist, and you were the one who brought up the phrase “militant atheism.”

              Since you say that you don’t dispute that there are closed minded atheists, it doesn’t sound like you’re significantly disagreeing with what Teilhard said. So what exactly are you taking issue with? The way I read it, it sounded like you were objecting to the use of the word “fundamentalist” to describe any atheists at all, and I responded to your comments as such. If that’s not what you meant, then I apologize, but I’m not at all clear what you *did* mean.


    Liberal Christians can attempt to elevate the discussion all they want but, in the end, the idea humanity was ever in need of redemption in the first place is predicated on two nudists, in the very distant past, taking dietary advice from a talking snake. Personally, I find this less than compelling.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    Re: “Wonderful. And what are you [moderate Christians] doing about [fundamentalism]?”

    I can answer that in 4 words: They. Won’t. Do. Anything.

    Honestly, they’ve had decades to deal with the onslaught of Christian fundamentalism, but so far have chosen not to do anything about it. Quite the opposite: A lot of them have caved in to the fundies and forfeited control of their religion to them.

    Given the fact that they’ve only accommodated fundamentalism rather than facing it head-on, staring it down, confronting it, correcting its followers and rebuking its leaders, it’s unreasonable to assume that so-called moderate Christians are going to suddenly change their minds, grow some cojones and finally decide they need to stop their co-religionists.

    • kessy_athena

      Humans in general seem to be pretty bad about standing up to members of their group who take things too far, regardless of what that group is. Didn’t Nancy Pelosi say something a little while ago to the effect that raising the retirement age would be nothing but a political stunt that wouldn’t actually help? How many Democrats stood up to her publicly and called her out for saying something so whacky? There are plenty more examples, including a few things that have happened in the comments on this very blog. We *all* need to work on doing a better job on that issue.

      • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

        I agree it’s not just a religious thing, it’s a group thing. Still, that it’s an innate social tendency that human beings have, is not a rational reason to grant “moderate” Christians license to ignore the excesses of their co-religionists or even to surrender to those excesses and go along with them (which is largely what they’re doing now). I grant it will take a lot of courage for them to act … but the cold fact is, they have to. It’s their religion, so it’s their responsibility.

        Put another way … if these “moderate” Christians truly think their religion has a particular meaning, and if the fundies aren’t living up to it, then by all rights they should wish to force them to do so. If they can’t or won’t respect their own religion enough to ensure its followers abide by it as they should, then they have no right to expect outside observers (such as myself) to respect it, or respect them, for believing in it.

        • kessy_athena

          I agree that moderate Christians have a certain responsibility to stand up to their crazy wing. But so do atheists, and everyone else. I’m just saying you should be careful about falling into the trap of sounding holier then thou…

          • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

            Whether or not you think atheists don’t stand up to other atheists enough … which I’m not sure is the case, given e.g. the accusations Sam Harris is taking for being a “racist” … is completely and totally irrelevant to the duty that “moderate” Christians have to take their own religion back and correct their co-religionists.

            And to top it off … even if I’m being “holier than thou,” this STILL remains the case.

            In other words, nothing I, or any other non-Christian, says or does, has the slightest thing to do with “moderate” Christians’ duty to ensure their religion has integrity. Either they think it does, or they don’t.

            That’s just the way it is. Yes, it’s a harsh reality … but it IS reality. They can either deal with it in a mature and courageous fashion, or they can be the cowards they’ve been to date and hide from it.

            • kessy_athena

              While that’s true, if you want to try to persuade people to change how they act, the best way to do it is to lead by example. “Do as I say, not as I do,” just doesn’t wash with most people.

            • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

              OK, so, go ahead and use little old me as your excuse for not taking back your own religion; for refusing to confront the extremists who supposedly misrepresent it; and for surrendering to them instead.

              Yes … your refusal to look after your own religion’s integrity, is solely because of me. Thank you for explaining that to me. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I could possibly have such influence over the country’s “moderate” Christians … but now I understand it.

            • Noelle

              You know Kessy’s a pagan, right psi?

            • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

              She’s defending “moderate” Christians who refuse to take their own religion back from the extremists. Beyond that, does it really matter?

              Besides, her point … in case she or you missed my sarcastic response highlighting it … is that because she views me as an imperfect critic of cowardly “moderate” Christians, my imperfection as a critic grants them license to do nothing.

              But logically, it doesn’t fly. And in the same way, logically it doesn’t matter what her own religion is. She’s rationalizing cowardice and collaboration. Beyond that, nothing else is really relevant.

            • kessy_athena

              I also never said I’m a she.

              In any case, you’re the one who’s completely missing the point. I am *not* defending moderate christians. In fact, I’ve agreed with you several times that they do have a responsibility to stand up to their fundies. What I’ve been saying really boils down to “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

              If you want to lead, lead by example. If you want to fix the world, start with your own home. Just making snide remarks about how wimpy moderate christians are accomplishes nothing.

            • http://www.facebook.com/anonomouse.fred Anonomouse Fred

              “I also never said I’m a she.”

              So what?
              The name Athena definitely has some feminine connotation.
              I notice you didn’t correct Psi either.

            • kessy_athena

              Athena is my patron goddess, my name is Kes. I make no statements about my gender one way or the other. I’m simply warning you: you make assumptions at your own risk.

            • http://www.facebook.com/anonomouse.fred Anonomouse Fred

              Either your gender is unimportant to the argument at hand, or important enough to conceal. Either way it seems the only reason for you to bring it up would be to score some passive aggressive “ha you’re wrong” points.

            • Noelle

              Your words: “go ahead and use little old me as your excuse for not taking back your own religion”

              Though the attachment to paganism in this day and age is something I don’t understand, pagans are hardly considered dangerous and need no taking back to a more ancient or nicer form. Kessy’s continued arguing against you, despite possibly well-reasoned arguments is more a style and personality thing, and has nothing to do with her religion.

              As to whether I can recognize sarcasm, well sure I can. I appreciate artful sarcasm and word-play, and have known to participate in it myself. But it doesn’t count as a valid argument, nor does it dismiss attacking the religion of the person you are arguing against when it is not even their religion.

              Should liberal and moderate members of a religion speak out and fight back against the dangerous conservative and fundamentalists of those who share the same religious name? Of course they should, just as any decent human being should fight back against other humans doing wrong. As an ex-liberal Christian, I can tell you that Christians are happy to eat their own. Liberal and moderate Christians are not real Christians anyway, as any fundy could tell you.

              The current president of the US is a liberal church-going, prayer-saying, god-name-dropping Christian, and the Christian Right is perfectly content with calling him Satan’s puppet and letting us all know he’s really a secret Muslim extremist.

              Christian OBGYNs and atheist OBGYNs who perform abortions are both at risk for murder from a violent religious extremist. Dr. George Tiller was shot while he was at church. That’s what one risks for fighting back against crazy people, getting murdered. Is it cowardice to not want to be murdered?

              Many separation of church and state battles have been started by religious people, and they are not cut any less slack than an atheist. They and their children are harrassed just as much as a non-believer. Is is cowardice to not want one’s children tormented by their peers? Is it corwadice to not want one’s home and property vandalized? Is it cowardice to not want to lose one’s employment?

              Hundreds of ministers sign a petition in a state asking the that marriage ceremonies they already perform for same-sex couples be recognized legally by the state, and they are still shot down by the conservative Christian version. Many liberal social political policies are championed and strongly supported by moderate and liberal Christians. They are not silent. They are not ignoring the wrongs committed by their fellow Christians. They are not cowards. Should more be encouraged to recognize those wrongs, see how if they don’t fight out against the problem that they are part of it, and then start acting agaist fundamentalists? Absolutely. To generalize that none are doing so when so many already are and have faced serious consequences for doing so, ignores and belittles their efforts. And Jesus-love might not be enough for these opposing groups to have any effect on the other.

  • ctcss

    ” I’d love to see Karen Armstrong walk into a megachurch and explain to the congregation what they’re doing wrong.” (from vorjack)

    “”Put another way … if these “moderate” Christians truly think their religion has a particular meaning, and if the fundies aren’t living up to it, then by all rights they should wish to force them to do so.” (from PsiCop)

    In what insane world is doing something like the above going to be considered acceptable behavior? Should I, a Christian, march into a large Jewish synagogue and lecture them on what they are doing “wrong” and try to force them to adhere to the religious standards I consider to be “right”? They would consider me to be beyond arrogant. Similarly, should I, a non-mainstream Christian, march into a fundamentalist Christian church and lecture them on what they are doing “wrong” and try to force them to adhere to the religious standards I consider to be “right”? They, being much more “standard” in their Christianity would consider me to be a cult member and an apostate (and they actually do) and want to lecture me on what I was doing “wrong”.

    How is behaving arrogantly toward another religious group going to get them to listen? If a group behaves illegally (as in terrorism or murder), there is cause to confront them. But if what they are doing is simply expressing their thoughts and acting withing the law, both socially and politically, why should any of us complain about them?

    If we don’t like their politics, we can organize opposing political movements to counteract theirs and let the best organized one win. Similarly, if we don’t like their free speech, we can exercise our own right to free speech and express our own message and let the general public make up its own mind.

    But to try to force another group to “conform” sounds abhorrent in any kind of a free society.

    • Cafeeine

      “How is behaving arrogantly toward another religious group going to get
      them to listen? If a group behaves illegally (as in terrorism or
      murder), there is cause to confront them. But if what they are doing is
      simply expressing their thoughts and acting withing the law, both
      socially and politically, why should any of us complain about them?”

      The point has to do with “True Christianity”. Quite often, when arguing against a position or statement taken by some fundamentalist Christian or other, some other Christian will come and say “This guy is obviously a loon, don’t use him to malign True Christianity”. At this point I explain that it isn’t my job to differentiate between Christians and “Christians”. I recognize the differences in individuals, but I can’t declare one to be a false Christian and the other genuine. They need to work it out amongst themselves.

      If you’re going to come to me and tell me that this priest/pastor doesn’t represent Christianity, you’re doing it wrong.

      Its this kind of believer that should stop coming to atheists to tell them what doesn’t actually reflect Christianity and take it up with the fundies. The fundies are the ones crapping in the nest, so the moderates need to do cleanup, rather than telling us to shut up when we complain about the smell.

      • kessy_athena

        Do you judge environmentalism as a whole by the Earth Liberation Front? Everybody has their lunatic fringe, even atheists. The problem is that on the American Right these days, the inmates seem to be running the asylum. Although it’s worth remembering that 40 years ago, that was true of the American Left. So although I think that moderate Christians do deserve criticism for not opposing the fundies more actively, don’t loose sight of the fact that they are distinct group. It may not be our place to decide which group are the “real” Christians, but we should still recognize that they are objectively different groups.

        • Cafeeine

          “Do you judge environmentalism as a whole by the Earth Liberation Front”
          Not a good example.Environmentalism is broad, joined by a vague goal of improving/ preserving the environment. They don’t have a set of scriptures they all consider true, yet interpret radically differently. A better comparison would be if I judge all ELF cells for the actions of a single cell, and my answer would be yes, until they distance themselves. It is their responsibility to do that.
          Likewise, it is the responsibility of every single catholic in a diocese to protest if its bishop covered up child abuse, once they find out, or they get tarred with the same brush.

          In the atheist community, there is a recent example. Brian Dunning, who ran a skeptic website, was convicted of wire fraud. I heard about it on several atheist podcasts and blogs, all of which denounced the action, as is the moral thing to do.

      • ctcss

        ” I recognize the differences in individuals, but I can’t declare one to be a false Christian and the other genuine.”

        You don’t need to differentiate between false and true Christians. What you need to do IMO is to clearly identify which individual Christian or which group of individual Christians did something wrong. Broad brush techniques just foster bigotry and prejudice among people. If priest A molests children, call out priest A. If Bishop B covers up A’s actions, as well as several other specific priests’ actions, call out B and those other specific priests. But don’t label the whole church or the whole religious sect as corrupt, and certainly don’t label an even wider swath of religious groups and individuals as being deficient.

        All atheists aren’t evil, all Christians aren’t evil, and all Muslims aren’t evil. And people who haven’t been privy to a clear and unbiased examination of the facts regarding any specific crime (such as that presented in a legal trial or a disciplinary hearing) are not in a good position to sit in judgement on any particular news item or piece of hearsay.

        About the best anyone can do is to advocate justice or fairness, or careful thinking. But even there, the question of standing is going to be an issue. If state A’s school board is considering teaching creationism and I live in state B, I don’t have standing in A. They shouldn’t allow me to speak at their hearing. (Would it be fair or just for millions of Texans to ram their opinions down the throats of Rhode Island’s school board?)

        Furthermore, thoughtful, carefully considered examination of the specific facts in any case of is going to be required in order for people’s comments to be considered helpful. Far too many internet comments are emotional in nature, and far too few spend any time at all examining actual facts and trying to offer balanced and nuanced input. Basically, people are acting as gossips and verbal lynch mob members rather than as careful investigators.

        As a Christian, I am not going to sit in judgement on Jews for believing in Jewish theology, nor am I going to sit in judgement on some specific Christian sect for believing in their particular Christian theology. If their actions are in question (as in criminal) and no one else knows of it, I would probably report them for those actions. Similarly, if their actions, while not criminal, may cause harm to my group or to society in general, I may organize a political group to oppose their actions. I may even write an online response, but way too often those kinds of things get buried in all of the noise and it’s often not worth it. Battles and participation should be thoughtfully chosen.

        But I am not about to lecture a different Christian sect for thinking differently from me, even if I find their thoughts to be objectionable. If they consider themselves to be Christian, that is fine by me. But if you have an issue with something about them, please identify them as specifically as you can. Doing otherwise is simply throwing more fuel on the tribal wars (atheist vs Christian vs Muslim vs Jew vs Hindu etc.) that we currently seem to be foolishly engaging in.

        And we really don’t need more of that kind of thinking.