Last month when I was doing the Interview an Atheist at Church thing, at one point in the interview I said, “There are people out there who believe the stuff you do that’s good for the world is wasted unless it’s done in the right belief system.” At that moment I was thinking about how many evangelical Christians criticize Humanists for trying to “do good” in the world because true goodness, according to Evangelicalism, only comes from a life of faith (in particular their faith, and no one else’s). If you didn’t grow up in that tradition, you might not be familiar with that perspective. I wrote more about this just the other day, in fact.
What’s funny is that after the interview got posted on a popular national atheist organization’s Facebook page, one of the commenters fumed, “…he mischaracterized anti-theists by defining them partly as people who believe that the good things religious people do in the world is wasted because it’s done as a matter of faith. What a shallow way of thinking.” See what happened there? I was talking about fundamentalism in general, and I was thinking of evangelical Christianity in particular (I’ve explained before that I consider the latter a child of the former because they actually believe the same things, even though they express them differently), but he thought I was talking about him. Now, in his defense, just before that statement during the interview I had mentioned that “not all atheists are anti-theists” and evidently he deduced that the strain of fundamentalism I was critiquing was fundamentalist atheism (Is there such a thing? More on that in a second). I suppose I should have been more specific, but then again the beauty of a generalized statement is that it often cuts in two directions simultaneously. That can be a good thing.
A.C. Grayling wrote a thought-provoking article about whether or not there is such a thing as “fundamentalist atheism,” and in it he asks:
What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?
Grayling asks some good questions, and he is correct that when most people say they’re not “fundamentalist atheists” they mean that they don’t feel the personal need to combat religious belief in their neighbors. At its bottom, all kinds of fundamentalism are about insisting that only one specific form of an ideology is valid and all others must be opposed, usually with sound and fury. “If you don’t believe X,” they say, “then you’re not a true (fill-in-the-blank).” But it seems that, for Grayling, the fact that older forms of Christianity were violently oppressive is sufficient to merit an openly combative posture towards all of it, even our current forms. He says this in spite of his insightfully witty recognition that:
Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breathtaking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the gullible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen’s Sleeper, would not be able to recognise the faith that bears the same name as his own.
Even after recognizing the discontinuity, he and others like him feel we must openly combat all forms of Christianity—including the progressive ones—presumably because of the sins of their forebears. I repeat that I do not personally identify with that stance even though I still feel that certain expressions of the Christian faith are harmful to those who hold them and to everyone else. Many anti-theists have told me they felt thrown under the bus by my comments during the interview, and I’ve apologized if I misrepresented their view. Like the aforementioned commenter who misunderstood which fundamentalism I was critiquing, many of them chafed at how I framed the whole concept. For what it’s worth, I was painting with a fairly broad brush during that interview because I was addressing an audience who had likely never even heard someone allowed to speak openly about atheism (welcome to the Bible Belt).
But if the shoe fits, wear it, ya know? There are a number of ways you can interact with people who do not share your own worldview, but some people seem convinced that open and direct opposition is the only valid way. I know this because I’ve lost count of how many have written me to tell me I should not be so friendly with evangelical Christians. They have chastised me for showing up at a church and neglecting to tell them all that their beliefs are ancient myths which should be discarded post haste. Some (but not all) even feel that we should hold nothing back, so that even face-to-face mockery and personal insults are fair game. Many are convinced—and have told me as much—that a “true atheist” makes no room for conversations like this because they feel it enables the religious to continue in their fallacies. My approach is invalid, they argue, because it’s not sufficiently combative of the Christian faith. My response continues to be: Which version of the Christian faith? There are dozens in my own country alone, and my response to one will not be identical to my response to the others.
I posted a status update on my Facebook page yesterday that received more “likes” than anything else I’ve said in the last three or four years. The post said the following:
Yes, I know that finding fault with someone’s religion—even openly expressing disdain for said religion—does NOT equal personal insults or disrespect for the person himself or herself. Trust me, I have had this conversation numerous times with my Christian friends. When I disagree with one of your religious assumptions, I am not disrespecting you personally. People deserve respect, but ideas must earn it. And just as a Christian can “hate the sin and love the sinner,” so an atheist can “hate the belief but love the believer.” More than that, wherever a particular religion exerts oppressive control over people, mockery becomes an indispensable tool for social change. Like a good American, I believe the only appropriate responses to an abusive, controlling system of thought are ridicule and defiance. But that doesn’t mean that all forms of a religion are the same, nor does it mean that you should be unable to hold a charitable, friendly conversation with someone who adheres to a worldview different from your own.
That takes a lot of work, though, doesn’t it? Yes, I know it does. It takes work on both sides. When you hold a civil conversation with people who have opinions opposite your own, it means you are all holding your tongues and editing yourselves. You’re not the only one doing it. But I think the end result is well worth the effort. I find that, if I listen a little longer and let them speak their mind, I get just a little closer to understanding why they think the way they do (even though I was certain I understood before we even began the conversation, just like they were). That’s progress, because the next time I have a similar conversation, I can save myself a lot of time and effort by communicating more precisely and therefore more efficiently, saving all of us the headache of making the same mistakes we made in the last conversation. I’m not saying the next person’s not gonna whip out the exact same stale arguments for X, Y, or Z as everyone before him, but I’ll be able to pick my battles a little more wisely because I chose to have a conversation instead of dueling monologues.
Maybe you disagree with me on that. Maybe you feel there’s nothing to learn from such a conversation. Then you should do it your way, and I’ll do it mine. Each of our approaches probably best fits a different context, and will accomplish different (but mutually beneficial) goals in the end. Just don’t say that your approach is the only one that’s valid. That, to me, is the core feature of fundamentalism.