Atheists can be fundamentalists, but not “atheist fundamentalists”

Atheists can be fundamentalists, but not “atheist fundamentalists” December 19, 2014

Illustration by Lynn, (CC)
Illustration by Lynn, (CC)

This week, Chris Stedman’s Faitheist column featured a fascinating debate over whether or not atheists can be fundamentalists. Stedman’s decision to host the debate was rooted in his own ambivalence about employing terms like “militant” and “fundamentalist” about atheists:

Just as there are religious people who denigrate any and all who do not share in their beliefs, or who argue that the only path forward to building a better world is the universal adoption of their worldview, there are some atheists who think we will only progress as individuals and as a species if religion is eliminated—and who express that view through an unflinching unwillingness to engage those with perspectives other than their own. But are they really fundamentalists in the same way we mean it when we refer to religious fundamentalists?

On Thursday, Sarah Jones, who works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (and who has written for NPS), kicked off the conversation, arguing that “Yes, atheists can be fundamentalists”:

Fundamentalism as an ideological category has historically been limited to religion. But as atheism grows and begins to double as a political identity for many, I propose expanding that category to include nonbelievers…

Jones then goes on to specify that she limits her argument to “atheism that actively seeks to end religion.” As evidence, she cites the way in which fundamentalists, both religious and atheistic “seek the domination of their specific ideology,” as well as the tendency among hardline atheists toward establishing fundamental tenets:

Atheists reject the concept of divine inspiration—but I don’t think they’ve all rejected the concept of canon. Individuals who take the hardline approach I’ve criticized here do generally refer to the same body of texts, and to the same figureheads, repeatedly. You don’t need to believe someone’s a prophet in order to sacralize them.

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.

Her conclusion:

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.

James Croft, who is a leader in training at the Ethical Society of St. Louis (and whom we interviewed about Ferguson a while back), recognizes some of the tendencies Jones mentions, but ultimately disagrees with her conclusion:

“[F]undamentalism” is a more specific and more limited term than “dogmatism.” To be a “fundamentalist” one must adhere closely to a set of core principles agreed upon by a community of belief, usually drawn from scripture—the “fundamentals.”

“We have no scripture from which to draw fundamentals,” argues Croft, “so how can we be fundamentalists?” He then goes on to argue that the term can be when used to shut down conversation and marginalize nonbelievers:

That the charge of “atheist fundamentalism” is frequently a fig leaf for distaste of atheism in general is clear in the way the term is used by enormously powerful religious individuals to push their own agendas. The Archbishop of Wales, for instance, once decried “atheistic fundamentalism” for, among other things, wanting public hospitals to not assume all of their clients are Christian, and wanting public schools to respect the religious diversity of their students. To the archbishop, the desire of atheists to be equal is “atheist fundamentalism.”

This nefarious use of the term reveals the charge of “atheist fundamentalism” for what it sometimes is: A weapon to marginalize critique of religion and the religious, and to maintain a status quo in which religious viewpoints, practices, and communities are privileged over nonreligious ones.

On one hand, I think Croft is right that “atheist fundamentalism” can be inaccurate and in some cases harmful. In a particularly salient section, he points out that to some people, atheism itself is seen as an affront. In this view, rejection of the seemingly self-evident fact that there is a God seems to signify a kind of closed-mindedness that can only be described as fundamentalist.

At the same time, I think Jones is also right that a certain strain of atheism—the fiercely anti-theistic one—does have all the trappings of fundamentalist religion. The unrelenting certainty in (non)belief, the figureheads, the literature—and, probably most importantly, the disdain for “heretics.”

In atheism, heretics are often referred to as “faitheists.” Definitions of the term varies, but the general gist is that faitheists aren’t harsh enough in their criticism of religion. The fact that such a term exists is, I think, illuminating. If “faitheists” didn’t violate what some people believe to be fundamental to atheism, would anybody bother to coin a separate term to illustrate that they aren’t “real atheists”?

Therefore, I propose that the problem with the term “fundamentalist atheist” is not the word “fundamentalist”—the root of the disagreement is the word “atheist.”

Strictly speaking, Croft is right that there are no central tenets of atheism. But the strain of atheists Jones refers to do hold central tenets, one of which being that the world must be rid of religion. Let’s call them “anti-theists.” Many anti-theists believe they have a stronger claim to the term atheist than do faitheists, and refer to their view simply as “atheism.”

These people are atheists, and I do think they can be properly described as “fundamentalists.” But their fundamentalism is anti-theistic, not atheistic.

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