That’s Not (De)conversion

That’s Not (De)conversion November 19, 2015

If someone moves from fundamentalist religion to fundamentalist atheism

If someone moves from fundamentalist religion to fundamentalist atheism, or vice versa, they haven’t actually converted or deconverted. It is only when you move from fundamentalism to a more mature and balanced view that you’ve actually undergone a fundamental change.

I wrote the above words when sharing Allan Bevere’s tips for diagnosing and curing unreformed fundamentalism on Facebook. That post of his sure has generated a lot of interesting reflection and discussion!

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  • Who is a fundamentalist atheist?

  • The kind that tells neighbors that the religious symbols they are showing in their windows during the holidays are offensive so they need to remove them from public view. Yes, I have met one of those.

  • David Evans

    As I understand it, a fundamentalist Christian is one who wants to return to (what he regards as) the earliest form of his religion, or to a literal reading of his holy book. I do not know any equivalent among atheists.

    Nor can I understand what a “balanced” view would be in this context. A belief that the probability of God’s existence is 50%?

    • arcseconds

      Even on that reading of fundamentalist, we can have fundamentalist athiests: i.e. those who insist on a literal reading of the Bible and some original version of the religion defining the religion, and on that basis rejecting religion and criticising anyone with a different understanding of the religion. There are plenty of these about. Some of them even openly say that Christian fundamentalists are the only real Christians.

      But of course, ‘fundamentalist’ actually doesn’t mean just that. If someone were to read the Bible ‘literally’ and on that basis ply free booze to parties, hang out with prostitutes, tax collectors, and Black Power members, it would be misleading to label them a ‘Christian fundamentalist’ without qualification, because what we mean by that is more than just a supposedly literal reading of the Bible. Among other things it covers being doctrinaire, engaging in false propaganda against other ways of life, and insisting that their way is the only way for everyone. Again, there are plenty of atheists who share those tropes with Christian fundamentalists.

      On the topic of balance, there is clearly more going on in religion and in atheism than belief in God, so there’s plenty of things to have a mature and balanced view on.

      But even just on the belief in God thing, there’s more involved than merely the probability of God’s existence. One could think the existence of God is highly unlikely, but think it’s in some sense a reasonable view to hold. Or one could think it’s an entirely unreasonable and utterly irrational and even morally bad thing to hold. Those are distinct views.

      I would have thought all of this would be obvious to someone who is generally thoughtful and has reflected on the matter, particularly if they also read this blog, which I would think would both prompt such reflection and encourage a degree of sophistication about this…

  • Dave Again

    Unfortunate quasi religious mumbo jumbo. Maybe Ben Carson will borrow it.

    • arcseconds

      What is quasi religious mumbo jumbo, and why?

      • Dave Again

        Balanced view.? This is a ‘Have you stopped beating your wife statement?’ Do you understand?

        • arcseconds

          No, I don’t understand.

          “Have you stopped beating your wife?” contains a built-in assumption that you have been beating your wife, an assumption that can’t be denied by simply saying ‘no’.

          What analogous assumption are you seeing here?

          • Dave Again

            McGrath’s statement has the implication that the fundamentalist believer needs to go to a more mature and balanced view (read his view) rather than becoming a ‘fundamentalist atheist’.
            Consider this theoretical converter. It is highly likely they have gone through agonies before their conversion. Just because their prior belief was so simplistic does not imply their new belief is the same, yet McGrath makes this implication in his statement.

          • arcseconds

            Why are you ignoring the possibility of mature and balanced atheists?

          • Dave Again

            You need to read my last sentence. That is precisely my point. I understand the majority of atheists are mature and balanced. Not quite as sure about McGrath.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, I understand you think McGrath is not allowing for the possibility, but I’m wondering why you think this?

            It seems to me the entire point of McGrath’s statement is that there are all four possibilities: fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist atheists, mature balanced Christians, and mature balanced atheists, and the dimension that is important is not the Christian/atheist one, but the fundamentalist/mature balance one.

            Which means of course there is not the implication you say there is. There’s a possibility of moving from fundamentalist Christianity to mature and balanced atheism, and this would be a fundamental change and a true conversion.

          • Dave Again

            There is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist. There is no dogma associated with atheism.

          • arcseconds

            That’s false, of course, but it’s also irrelevant: McGrath clearly thinks there is such a thing as a fundamentalist atheist. The question is whether he also believes in mature and balanced atheists. I think the quote actually suggests he does. What makes you think that he does not?

          • Dave Again

            By definition it is true. The ‘balanced view’ is from his Christian perspective, not atheist. He would like the fundimentalists to be more like his version of ‘enlightened’ Christianity, not atheists. Christians are all fundimentalists, but it is simply a matter of degree. In order to accept Christianity you have to accept various degrees of dogma. Mature and balanced really have little to with any form of Christianity.

          • arcseconds

            Again, how do you know that McGrath wants people to be Christians? This is an assumption that isn’t supported by what is written here.

            Having read his blog for a while, it’s pretty clear that McGrath is quite happy with people being atheists, he just wants them to be mature and balanced ones.

            Also, what definition of ‘atheist’ are you using? Surely not the one where it means ‘doesn’t believe in God’, because there’s no mention of balance in that definition.

            Presumably you don’t think maturity and balance are entailed by not believing in God, do you?

          • Dave Again

            It is a quite reasonable assumption to expect McGrath to expect Christians to remain as Christians evolving in their faith. He is after all writing a Christian blog. I would expect the same attitude with Hermant Mehta to evolve in his writing about atheism.
            You keep talking about McGrath’s words mature and balanced. I rather like the word rational.

          • arcseconds

            It’s a quite reasonable assumption until you read what he actually says, which is that the real change is from fundamentalism to mature and balanced, and changing from Christianity to atheism, or from atheism to Christianity, is not a real change if it’s accompanied by a continuing fundamentalist attitude.

            So you’ve learned something now! A good day!

            I am using the term ‘mature and balanced’ because we are discussing McGrath’s post.

            I’m still waiting to hear from you how atheism is rational and undogmatic by definition?

          • Dave Again

            Atheism has no beliefs associated with it and therefore no doctrine.
            Yes, you keep parroting McGrath’s mature and balanced. What do you think his agenda is using these words?

          • arcseconds

            By its very definition there is a belief associated with it: that there is no God, or at least the probability of a God’s existence is negligible.

            Like any belief this can be dogmatic, or non-dogmatic, or held for rational reasons or for irrational ones.

            If an 8-year old thinks there is no God because her atheist parents have told her there isn’t any, she’s no more rational than an 8-year old who thinks there is a God because his theist parents have told him so, just as a trivial example.

            I’m pretty sure McGrath’s agenda is to encourage maturity and balance (and reflection and respectful dialogue) no matter what one’s metaphysical or spiritual commitments.

            It’s not a secret agenda, obviously.

            What do you think his agenda is?

          • Dave Again

            I’ve already answered your question two comments back.

          • arcseconds

            I’m sorry, I can’t see any answer to my question there.

            You say that you think he’s expecting Christians to remain Christians, but an expectation isn’t an agenda.

            Plus, it’s also false, so I was hoping you might have updated your belief in the face of new evidence. You know, like a rational and non-dogmatic person would.

            Perhaps you need to think a bit more about how you’re communicating, because you’re not being very clear.

          • Mark

            I don’t know … isn’t ‘There is no God’ something that atheists imagine they believe? So, it looks like there are beliefs associated with atheism.

            Certainly this belief was preached as ‘dogma’ in e.g. the Stalin period. They also declared this teaching to be ‘rational’, and e.g. the teaching the Russian church to be a form of irrationalism etc. At least under Stalinism some traces of Marxism were abroad, so the intellectual level and the capacity for reflection were generally higher than among the internets.

          • Mark

            If their new belief is the negation of the old one, or the affirmation of what was denied in the old one, then of course it is exactly as ‘simplistic’; it has the same content.

          • Dave Again

            The problem is in the dated term fundamental atheists. They may be two things.
            Firstly they may be atheists with no belief in a god. Secondly they may be anti-theists with a dislike of all things religious. The two are not necessarily synonymous.

          • Mark

            What do you mean, ‘dated’? Are you thinking there are more intellectually advanced forms of atheism abroad now than e.g. 10 or 100 years ago?

          • Dave Again

            Certainly there are. Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion would possibly the most obvious example of this train of thought.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I wouldn’t say that Dawkins is an “advanced” thinker in this area. Consider his idea of memetic evolution, for example. Genes and memes both have the power to survive. Now, if you leave it at that, the statement is vacuous.

            In the case of genes, you don’t have to leave it at that. The attempt to explain why certain genes survive opens up a fruitful area of inquiry. A gene may survive because it enables its owner to run faster and thereby escape predators, for example. We can explore in detail how certain traits promote survival, and we can do that by looking at concrete aspects of the physical world.

            But what happens when we try to explore memetic evolution? How do memes survive? What kind of properties must a meme have in order to survive? When we ask questions like this, we quickly realise that there is no hope of any fruitful research into memetic evolution such as there is with biological evolution.

            The ONLY thing you can say about memes is that they are ideas which survive. So when Dawkins tries to explain the prevalence of religious ideas in terms of memetic evolution, what is he doing? Answer: he is saying that religious ideas prosper because they have the power to prosper – an entirely vacuous statement.

          • Mark

            Dawkins doesn’t pretend that his ‘atheism’ is any different from standard issue Victorian period atheism – this is the atheism that was made a topic of popular preaching by labor parties in the advanced European countries in the late 19th – early 20th c.

            It is basically a form of empiricism tailored to forbid all philosophical questions. In this respect it is very close to American ‘fundamentalism’, which is also a form of empiricism, but one that credits a sacred book as a source of ‘evidence’.

          • arcseconds

            Not synonymous in the same sense as Christianity and Fundamentalism are not synonymous, maybe?

            You have got as far as recognising that McGrath doesn’t think all atheists are fundamentalist atheists, right?

            So not believing in God is not sufficient for him to think someone is a fundamentalist atheist. Someone who doesn’t believe in God might well be a mature and balanced atheist.

            An anti-theist is looking more like a fundamentalist atheist, though: antipathy towards other sects is a bit of a hallmark of fundamentalism.

          • Dave Again

            Your last comment makes no sense. Just because someone is anti-theist does not make them atheist.

          • arcseconds

            Things can look like other things without being those other things. You do understand this, yes?

            For example, you presumably aren’t confused by statements like “sharks look like dolphins” or “babies look like Winston Churchill” even though sharks aren’t dolphins, and the babies aren’t Winston Churchill?

            So my statement makes sense even if no anti-theist is an atheist.

            However, of course, most of them are. I have never met anyone who exhibited antipathy towards religion in general who wasn’t an atheist. Have you met many? Or even any?

          • Dave Again

            You must live in a very different country to mine. Over 30% of people in my country say they have no religion, so it is highly probable many are atheist. We had a former Prime Minister who was a stated atheist and very few people had a problem with this. Yes I know many atheists who don’t show antipathy towards religion but will call out the BS when they see it. A popular radio show here features a well known atheist and Catholic priest who are the best of friends. If you don’t already, check out the Patheos Friendly Atheist.

          • arcseconds

            I pointed out that most (if not all) anti-theists are atheists.

            But you are responding as though I said “most atheists are anti-theists”.

            You seem to be having difficulty with some basic logic here.

            “Most Xs are Ys” does not mean the same thing as “Most Ys are Xs”.

            For example, most cats have hair. But it’s not true that most things that have hair are cats.

            Are you just being phenomenally lazy when reading my comments? Or perhaps deliberately twisting my words? It’s hard to believe you could be actually this confused about the non-symmetric nature of ‘most’.

          • Dave Again

            You asked for my experience and got it. Tough if my experience don’t match your world view.

          • arcseconds

            Dave, I know perfectly well that many atheists have no particular beef with religion, this is not a problem for my worldview, I know many myself, and I haven’t said anything that suggests otherwise, except for someone like you who either can’t or won’t understand simple English.

            The experience that I asked for was if you had met many (or any) anti-theists who weren’t atheists, and you didn’t answer this question.

            The person who appears to have problems with experience not matching their worldview is you, as far as I can see.

            You came in here complaining about religious mumbo-jumbo, apparently misunderstanding McGrath as suggesting all atheists are fundamentalists.

            You presumed he wanted people to remain Christian.

            You resisted any notion that atheists could be anything other than rational and reasonable.

            And you misinterpreted me as saying that most atheists are anti-theists.

            Have you managed to update your view on the basis of new evidence, i.e. that McGrath is more interested in people being reasonable and respectful than people being Christian or atheist, that he isn’t particularly interested in people remaining Christian or becoming Christian, that no-one has being saying that all atheists are fundamentalists or dogmatic?

            Or are you stuck with the same presumptions that you came in here?

          • Dave Again

            Any anti-theists who weren’t atheists. Yeah lots. Our local Catholic Church was burnt down. The former priest was a notorious paedophile who fled to another country. At least ten boys who he had abused in the past have killed themselves. Do you get this? Catholics disgusted at this have burnt down the church for smuggling the priest out of the country. Believers who have clearly become anti-theists.

          • arcseconds

            Dave, you’re hilarious. You have consistently misunderstood virtually every part of this conversation, and yet you insist on treating me as though I’m the stupid one!

            And here is yet another extraordinary misunderstanding of yours. You interpret this act as though it was an expression of general anti-religious sentiment, but that seems very unlikely. It is far more likely that this is specifically against the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, and isn’t even against Roman Catholicism as a form of worship, let alone Christianity, let alone theistic religion, let alone religion in general.

            Do you see what I mean? It’s not very likely that these people have remained Roman Catholics, yet have decided that no-one ought to practice any religion.

            That is, of course, assuming that the church was in fact burnt down by Catholics, and not, say, atheists (even if formerly Catholic ones), or protestants. Do you know this for sure, or is it just a guess?

            (Even if you think you know this for sure, your proclivity to interpret things to suit yourself does put doubt in my mind that you can be trusted to report such things accurately. )

          • Dave Again

            Theists behaving antithiestically? Try the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition’s treatment of Jews. Or more recently Orthedox Serbs slaughtering Muslims. The murder of Yazidi by Isis.

          • arcseconds

            If by ‘anti-theist’ you mean someone who is against some religion, somewhere, then virtually all atheists are anti-theists.

          • Dave Again

            You would need to supply some statics on this or is this just an opinion? I would suggest that a significant proportion of theists are also anti-theist.

          • arcseconds

            Virtually everyone is against some religion somewhere. So everyone is anti-theistic, according to the treatment you are giving this now. Few are fans of radical Islam, for example, apart from the radical Muslims themselves, who are against all other religions. Jim Jones also has a distinct lack of popularity in the general public, atheists included.

            However, this not the normal definition of ‘anti-theism’, and I question it’s usefulness.

            It’s also not the same definition as you gave earlier:

            Secondly they may be anti-theists with a dislike of all things religious.

            Again, it seems you are just reinterpreting things to suit yourself, with no memory of what has gone before, even things you said yourself. Quite remarkable, given that this is all present on one easy-to-read webpage.

            Which definition do you want to use?

            If anti-theism is a dislike of all things religious, then your examples of Crusades or whatnot are not examples, because they like one particular religion. The only people I have ever met that are anti-religious across the board have been atheists.

            (I don’t doubt it possible that someone could believe in God and yet be against any and all form of religion, but doesn’t this seem a wee bit unusual to you? )

            If it’s dislike of any religion, anywhere, then atheists, along with everyone else, are anti-theistic, because few, if any, athiests (or anyone else) like all forms of religion.

          • Mark

            You are thinking that BS is somehow more common among ‘religious’ writers than among internet atheists?

          • Dave Again

            As there are more religious writers, most likely, yes.

          • Mark

            Hm, I guess that was ambiguous; I meant to ask whether you thought that ‘BS’ was more characteristic of religious types than moderne internet atheists.

          • arcseconds

            It’s not at all ambiguous. it’s just more of his continual will to misunderstand us… in order to ‘win’ by presuming we’re saying something totally stupid, i think.

            In this case, he is reading “Are BS-writing religious writers more common than BS-writing atheists?”.

            If some property is more common among one group than another, then clearly it’s relative proportions that are relevant.

            “Glaucoma is more common among asian-americans than the general population” is not false because only a small proportion of the general american population are asian americans.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            In a way, I can see your point: the belief that there is no God does not entail the other beliefs that many atheists have. But those atheists who are interested enough in the issue to discuss it on blogs such as this, often have other beliefs that are very dubious.

            You may be familiar with the blog “Debunking Christianity”. Apparently, this blog will soon be putting up a post titled “Why Atheists Must Assert Jesus Never Existed”.

            Clearly, the belief that there is no God does not entail the belief that Jesus never existed, but it just so happens that the latter belief is becoming very common amongst atheists. In view of this, it does not seem unreasonable to talk about “atheist fundamentalism”.

          • arcseconds

            I would be surprised to find it’s very common among atheists, actually. Most atheists I know personally aren’t terribly interested in duking it out with religion (aside from the occasional snide remark, maybe) , and haven’t given the matter much thought. A few have thought a historical Jesus to be the most likely hypothesis, but don’t think it’s certain.

            But they also aren’t all that interested in discussing atheism online… none of this is important to them.

          • Dave Again

            I would suggest many ‘religious writers’ where the faith is far less progressive or not progressive at all account for more BS than internet atheists. Try reading Patheos Friendly Athiest to see BS being called out.

          • Mark

            I’m not really familiar with non-BS internet atheism. Serious people say they don’t know whether there is anything to discuss under the heading ‘God’. Certainly it is ludicrous for people to pretend that they know that e.g. Spinoza was wrong.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’m increasingly inclined to think that the word “fundamentalist” has outlived its usefulness, through overuse as a boo-word – which is rather how Bevere uses it. IIRC, it was originally a self-designation by a group of American inerrantist Protestants, more specifically Presbyterians; its use then expanded to cover other groups who took a particular text (usually but not always the Bible) as beyond question; and then to anyone with strong views with which the self-designated anti-fundamentalist strongly disagreed. A few years ago I might have unhesitatingly applied it to the American religious right and their imitators elsewhere. But the American religious right includes Calvinists, Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, most of whom would traditionally have regarded members of all the other groups as heretics and blasphemers bound for damnation; and many of them now appear to be following Donald Trump, who only a complete numpty could think has any interest in religion whatever – unless the worship of Donald Trump counts as such. “Intolerant” and “dogmatic” between them seem to cover all the word’s useful meaning.