So at Chris Stedman’s blog, two atheists are talking about whether atheist fundamentalism can exist or not. The one we’re concerned about here is Sarah Jones’s article. She argues that there are atheist fundamentalists. And I seem to be among those atheists she talks about. So I say, OK. If you wish to call us atheist fundamentalists, we accept the pejorative, just like Stedman himself who accepted the label “faitheist”. But even if we accept the existence of fundamentalist atheism, we see how meaningless and empty that insult is, and how it proves the arguments of firebrand atheists, and vindicates their attitude.
Let me make it clear: we’re going by fundamentalist atheism as defined by Jones. It’s her concept and we accept as the ultimate authority for the purpose of this article. OK? OK.
So let us take a look at those scary atheists:
But New Atheism itself is a nebulous category. Many who identify as New Atheists don’t believe that society would benefit from the erasure of religion, and focus their criticisms instead on specific doctrines.
I do think society would benefit from the erasure of religion. I’d go beyond that and become more fundie: not only religion, the whole cultures (western and eastern) that gave birth to these religions should be erased and a new culture based on human rights should arise before we can begin to talk about a truly secular and free society.
So yes, this is me.
I limit my argument here to an atheism that actively seeks to end religion. You’ve probably encountered its adherents online arguing that people of faith are mentally ill, intellectually limited, or intrinsically predisposed to bigotry. These arguments, and the people who make them, rely on a reductionist approach to religion.
Well I don’t call religious people mentally ill, or intellectually limited. I doubt any of us fundamentalists does. Like which atheist has called Newton or Francis Collins intellectually limited? Now “intrinsically predisposed to bigotry” I agree with, but if Jones had said “bigoted” I would again protest. And with “predisposed to irrational belief” I would also agree.
What we fundamentalists say is that religions rely on scriptures, traditions, and power structures that are irrational, superstitious, tyrannical, and bigoted. So of course if you’re born into this hegemony and you are raised to hold them as part of your identity and morals, you are “predisposed” to be bigoted and irrational. And the fact that there are subversive rational and tolerant elements and traditions within the larger hegemony doesn’t mean this point is wrong. Religion is not monolithic. It can’t be. But the hegemonic system of it has been the same. The rational and tolerant side are slowly winning, but that doesn’t vindicate religion either. All these fake nuances only fog the most important part that is the hegemony at the heart of religion.
And individuals are complex. Francis Collins’s defense of his faith is laughable. Doesn’t mean he’s not one of my heroes and one of the coolest people ever lived. Just means he’s (comically) wrong about that one issue.
To illustrate, I think arguments like these strengthen the religious hegemony. We give religion a special status we give to no other ideology. I’m still waiting for a liberal to say “not all conservatives are pro-life so saying pro-life is a conservative stance is a reductionist approach towards conservatism”. But at the same time Sarah Jones does many things that don’t strengthen the religious hegemony, so I’m not going to say “Sarah Jones strengthens the religious hegemony” but “this particular argument does that”.
Of course we are the fundamentalists, so we can’t rely on Jones to actually address our arguments instead of straw-manning us. No hard feelings.
Contrast and compare the goals, too. Religious fundamentalists of all stripes seek the domination of their specific ideology. For the Pat Robertsons of the world, it isn’t even enough to be a Christian; if you are not the right sort of Christian you are still the enemy. Promote feminism or LGBTQ rights, and to Christianity’s most extreme adherents you resemble exactly what they’re trying to eliminate.
Wow. I’m not only an atheist fundamentalist, I’m also a liberal fundamentalist, a feminist fundamentalist, a reformist fundamentalist, an anti-nationalist fundamentalist, all sorts of fundamentalist! Because I think these positions are true and I hope I’m able to convince people to believe in them. Yes, I do want to eliminate religion and conservatism and misogyny and nation-states.
Also, I think you’re a morally pathetic person if you don’t want to. I don’t care if you agree with me or not. This is something that goes beyond religion and atheism. It’s what distinguishes a citizen from a parasite. Whatever your beliefs, you clearly thing they are true and moral, and it is your duty to try and spread them as far as you can. It should be a fair game – no censorship, no oppression, no silencing tactics – but it should be a game that you play to win.
I respect this kind of a religious person. The one who says: “I tolerate and respect you as a person but I don’t respect your atheism and I will try to convince you and others that you’re wrong”. To me, anyone who doesn’t adhere to both of these things is simply overpopulation. If you’re intolerant you will cause pain, and if you’re indifferent you don’t make life better for your fellow citizens.
(Disclaimer: Someone might say I’m not interested in religion at all and I want to focus my energy on other issues. I completely respect that.)
(Disclaimer 2: This is not meant as an attack on Sarah Jones. She clearly tries to persuade people to her own brand of things, and she does so out of concern for other people. So she’s fine in my book. BUT, here is clearly an incoherence, and I’m pointing that out).
I have never understood this attitude.
The result? There are, undeniably, atheists who define their belief identity by a certain set of rigid fundamentals. By extension, they believe that identity is undermined by people who don’t adhere to the same principles. Participate in interfaith work or affirm queer people of faith, and suddenly you are no longer the right sort of atheist. The concept of heresy is not unique to theists.
I do define my identity around a set of rigid fundamentals. Don’t we all?
But actually I’m not opposed to interfaith or accomodationalist atheism. I think the world would be poor without firebrand atheism and accomidationlist atheism and that we strengthen and complement each other. My ideals are rigid, my methods aren’t. We’re all working towards a freer more tolerant society.
However, isn’t the one who’s rejecting a specific kind of atheism here Sarah Jones? I’m confused. Sarah, are you also a fundie?
As an ex-fundamentalist, I am keen to avoid the sins of my fathers. So I criticize religion; I criticize it daily. But I know the most deserving target of my ire isn’t theism itself, but rather oppressive interpretations of it.
Some would argue that distinction doesn’t matter; that theism is the root of the problem. In a way, this is a very optimistic view. If theism is the problem, the solution is obviously atheism. Who knew we could transcend our basest flaws so easily?
But here I agree with John Gray: The problem isn’t theism, it’s people. It can’t, therefore, be solved by atheism alone.
The presence of misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia among atheists is evidence that atheism, by itself, isn’t the answer to the world’s problems. There is no rational basis for the belief that an atheist world would be a significantly better one, by numerous measures—and yet many passionately cling to it.
As a current fundamentalist, I have always wanted to pull my hair off when I come across this argument.
Of course theism is not the root of the problem, theism is the assertion that there is a god. But Abrahamic religions are PART of the problem. The root of the problem is the culture. Hegemonic religion is part of that culture. Also nationalism and other things. So the hegemonic culture is the root of the problem.
People are not the problem. People are more affected by the social structures and the dominant discourses of their time than their own convictions. Most people don’t spout racist or sexist thoughts because they actually hate races or women, they do it because their grandparents and parents taught them it was true. Most Iranian fundamentalists that I know of, and the majority of regime supporters, simply have had zero access to dissenting opinions and have been completely in a bubble. So they don’t support things like child marriage or stoning or homophobia because they’re evil, they do it because of their religion. Or their version of religion. But it is religion. Their reasoning is religion-based and their source of that belief is religion. If they were born in some other country they would support those ideas.
Also, no, if the problem is the religious hegemony, the obvious solution is not atheism. Atheists don’t magically drop all the dogmas and even the superstitions they grew up with. Atheists are still part of the same oppressive hegemony. My last post was about my own ongoing struggles with religiously planted sexual taboos. Atheists can be misogynists and homophobic and it could still be the fault of the religion.
Also, I think Sarah Jones sneaks in the fallacy that religious people and their atheist babysitters constantly resort to and that is saying “atheism won’t usher in the utopia“. WE NEVER PROMISED YOU A UTOPIA. It’s funny how she jumps from “well there are some misogynistic atheists” to “well an atheist world is not significantly better”. But it is. The mere elimination of the concept of “sacred” moves the world a million steps forward, no one can argue from a heavenly position. There would be terrorists in an atheist world, but ISIS and Al- Qaeda would not be there.
Just look at the world around you. Now, remove all religious conflicts, all theocracies, and all religiously motivated repression and discrimination. It’s not utopia. There is still conflict and oppressive regimes and intolerance in that world. But sure as hell it is “significantly better”.
This strain of atheism is simply an echo of religious fundamentalism, by virtue of being principally a reaction to it. It should therefore be placed in the same ideological category, and treated the same way we treat religious fundamentalism: As an impediment to pluralism.
So there we have it. I’m on the same intellectual category as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. I’m a threat to pluralism. That is Jones’s conclusion, and that’s why I addressed that article in detail.
Except, the premises don’t support this conclusion. I’m sure there are atheists who fit the descriptions of Jones completely. Even they are not on the same intellectual category as Baghdadi. Or Khomeini. Whoever you think is a fundamentalist Muslim.
But it’s funny how Jones is completely confident those arguments can never be thoughtful or nuanced. It’s funny how she completely misrepresents people like Hitchens. It’s funny how she bases her argument on a bunch of Twitter trolls. It’s funny how she says people like me are an impediment to pluralism, while I am motivated by pluralistic fundamentals in the first place, thus declaring that we are “heretic” in our pluralism. And I assume she plans to change the minds of atheists like me by writing that article. Or if not, she won’t regret it if it changes somebody’s minds. It’s funny because she does everything she accuses fundamentalists atheists of.
But all that aside – OK, I’m, the fundamentalist atheist, whose caricature is unskillfully drawn by Sarah Jones. Now what?
As an atheist fundamentalist, I respect people who disagree with me, I believe in debate, I know I’m wrong on many issues and I’m open to change, I believe in absolute freedom of speech (remember I’m also a liberal fundamentalist), and I believe opinions must clash and people looking at the debate should decide who is right for themselves. I don’t think there should be any discrimination against religion, or that religious people should not be judged based on their religion.
Sounds like, if I were a Muslim rather than a fundamentalist atheist, I would be considered a moderate. And it sounds like I belong more to the same intellectual category as moderate Muslims, because at least I have dedicated my life to fighting for them to make sure they gain power in Iran. It sounds like my views on religion, although firebrand and unapologetic, are more like a disagreement than a prejudice.
That is why ultimately “fundamentalist” is such an empty and meaningless buzzword and insult here, and such a glaringly false equivalence.
Sam Harris, in one of his clever quotes, says “The problem with Muslim fundamentalists is the fundamentals of Islam”. I’m proud of the fundamentals of my own ideology. My fundamentals are liberty and truth. And I am where I am because I have looked for the truth and I have tried to be as truthful as possible. I am passionate about ideals and I will never apologize for fighting for them tirelessly. I have been born in an oppressive theocracy and I have learned from my experience. I do everything I do for the love of my people, and because of that love I have never pulled punches or softened my criticism when it comes to religion and its destructive effect on society. If that makes me an atheist fundamentalist, then I’m proud to be an atheist fundamentalist, and I believe that will be the best argument against religion. Just compare me with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. If this is the difference between the fundamentalists of atheism and Islam, if these people are the two ends of the spectrum, then you know which one is better for human society.