What Would Martin Do?

There’s some consternation around the godless blogohedron about the term “atheist fundamentalist.” While the Friendly Atheist has been dealing with this for some time, as has PZ, it’s Action Skeptic Akusai who really manages to hit my thoughts on the subject, toward the end of that post. I tend to agree with Hemant more than PZ on this subject, though (as usual) I can see the merits of both sides.

First, let’s get the nasty business of “fundamentalist” out of the way. When applied to religion or philosophy, it’s supposed to denote a strict, conservative adherence to some book or set of principles. Naturally, since there is no book or unifying doctrine for atheists, the term “atheist fundamentalist” is contradictory on its face. There might be “fundamentalist Objectivists” or even “fundamentalist God Delusionists,” but these would be people for whom atheism is incidental to belief in some text or ideology.

But we all know what’s really meant by the term; it’s adopted a new meaning through its associations with fundamentalist extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Army of God, or even through fundamentalist ideologues like Jerry Falwell and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The term “fundamentalist” here might be better replaced with “zealot” or “fanatic,” though in this culture all three manage to express the same point. They suggest a person who adheres to a certain religion or philosophy with militant zeal. They selectively interpret their pet text or doctrine as infallible, internally consistent, and superior to all other sources of knowledge, including human senses. They believe that anything which conflicts with their interpretation is wrong, even when that belief is logically absurd (such as those who will claim that where the KJV and the original Hebrew or Greek differ, the KJV is correct). They are able to simultaneously hold two contradictory positions, and to support them with equal zeal (i.e., “Thou shalt not kill” and “Gays should be put to death”). This is because rationality, if not seen as a fault, is not perceived as a virtue. They prize fervent, blind obedience and devalue independent thought. They look to their doctrine as a primary guide in all situations, and they see it as an ultimate, perfect, and final authority on all matters. They are outspoken, usually charismatic, often militant and violent, especially when they have the support of the governmental or social power structure. This is the common connotation of “fundamentalist”

And looking in there, I don’t see much that could even apply to atheists, much less to Dawkins and Harris and the others that people usually cite as “fundamentalist atheists.” Outspoken, charismatic, sure. Violent, irrational, and demanding thoughtless obedience? Quite the contrary. The problem with applying this connotation to atheists is that you really have to stretch one of the terms. Either you have to lump Richard Dawkins in with the folks who bomb abortion clinics and Israeli discos, with politicians who call for the eradication or suppression of various minority groups, or you have to stretch what you mean by “atheist,” talking perhaps about Stalin as if the atrocities he committed were due to a fanatical devotion to the concept of there being no god(s). Neither is correct or even logically supportable.

So, what the debate in the blogoblag has really come down to is not “what is an atheist fundamentalist” or even “what do atheists believe,” but “how do we deal with believers?”

I can see, on one hand, the point made by PZ and the like. Atheists have every right and reason to be upset, being continually marginalized and vilified. Religion permeates the culture and the legislature, to the point where our rights to be areligious are infringed, and many people in power would like to see said rights obliterated entirely. Theists outnumber us in population and even moreso in representation, and quite a lot of them want to see their superstitions and irrationalities made law. We look at theism and we see so many ills and injustices which could be undone. Debates over abortion and gay marriage and science education and war in the Middle East would be so much easier if people’s religious prejudices could be taken out of the equation. Besides, theists don’t treat us with kid gloves, why should we afford them the same?

And yet, I can see the point made by the friendlier sort of atheist. I think Christopher Hitchens is an asshole (though I still don’t see where people get that Dawkins is an “angry atheist”). We’re not going to be able to suddenly deconvert the world. We could shout to the top of our lungs, and people would continue believing. By becoming loud and outspoken, we just play into the theists’ stereotype that we are angry, dour buzzkills who disbelieve for the sake of disbelieving, who want to disprove love or engage in sin. We should fight for our rights and do so in a calm, rational, amiable fashion; the more we can make the ideologues look like the angry, out-of-touch, aggressive fools that they are, the more people will be sympathetic to our cause. Furthermore, we all know some theists who aren’t insane or irrational, who don’t try to impose their beliefs on others, why should we be forcing disbelief down their throats? What harm are unprovable beliefs if they aren’t turned into action or law?

When I see these debates, what keeps coming up for me is “what about Martin Gardner” and “what about Albert Einstein.” Here, we have one of the world’s most outspoken skeptics, who has influenced some of our most revered skeptical thinkers, like James Randi and Michael Shermer and Carl Sagan, who has done as much for skeptical causes as any of them, and who espouses a god-belief because it makes him feel good. He’s a fideist, he recognizes that there’s no proof and no provability to his belief, and so he doesn’t try. He doesn’t force his beliefs on anyone, and in fact criticizes most religious theism. Are we to see him as a threat? Are we to lump him in with the irrational theists who seek to undermine our rights? Are we to dismiss his contributions because he holds a belief on faith?
Or Albert Einstein or any number of other deists, what of them? Deists have no religion save perhaps a reverence for the natural world. They do not proselytize, they do not profess any real supernatural belief, they hold god to be, essentially, an emergent property of the natural universe. They do not even necessarily have a lot of faith, just a mostly-rhetorical belief. Do we lump Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin in with today’s religious ideologues because they all believe in some sort of god? Do we perceive old Uncle Albert as an appeaser, as part of the theists’ support structure? Do these beliefs impair their abilities to be otherwise rational and scientific?

I certainly don’t mean to be railing against any strawmen here. I’m not suggesting that these positions are espoused by PZ and Hemant explicitly, I’m just stating my own reactions to this debate and to some of the generalizations and comments tossed about herein. I’ve read quite a lot in this debate, and I think the one thing nearly everybody has agreed on is that “atheist fundamentalist” is basically a talking point meme passed around the Religious Right to discredit atheism and to try to suggest that Richard Dawkins is as bad as Osama bin Laden. I think that’s the thing I primarily agree with as well, and we need to take a stand and not allow these ideologues to frame the discussion with their loaded terms.

Overall, I’d just caution atheists in general. Yes, we should be passionate and resolute in defending our rights. However, I don’t think it’s reasonable to treat all god-belief as an equal threat, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that people shouldn’t be able to believe what they want. Much though I’d love everyone to spontaneously deconvert, I’m not going to force the matter, because I’d expect the same treatment from people who’d love everyone to be spontaneously born again. Yes, there’s a danger inherent in faith, and I can see it as a “gateway drug” into other forms of irrationality. But just as not every pot user becomes a crackhead, not every god-believer becomes a fanatic.

Thomas Paine said “my mind is my own church.” I see no reason to deny that right to anyone.

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7 Responses to What Would Martin Do?

  1. Bronze Dog says:

    Like how you say you can’t see where they’re getting the nastiness of Dawkins, I don’t see anyone whose ever implicitly, much less explicitly treated all theism as a equal threat.There are a fair number of softer-spoken theistic skeptics out there, and I won’t challenge them unless they take the initiative by making a fallacious argument. In such a case, I’ll try to restrain my tone a bit more while still pointing out the fallacies.Right now, I’d say the big theistic threats are active terrorists and those trying to knock over the wall of separation between church and state.Deists who hang out on philosophy forums arguing about falsifiability or making nebulous beings, for me, fall into about the same category as this one guy who was endorsing a rather stupid Armored Core strategy. Occasionally worth venting on, but not something to be given a priority.

  2. Dikkii says:

    I have to echo Bronze Dog’s thoughts on this.Although I’ve been critical of Dawkins’ attacks on agnostics recently, he’s by no means militant and that’s a good thing.When you compare Dawkins to the likes of Robertson, Phelps and bin Laden, he really is a voice of reason.I think the term “fundamentalist atheist” is an attempt by fundamentalist Christians to perpetuate some sort of persecution complex – BD has posted on this in the past to great effect in his excellent Doggerel series.Incidentally, and I hope you don’t mind, Tom, you’ve been tagged.

  3. Doubting Tom says:

    Like how you say you can’t see where they’re getting the nastiness of Dawkins, I don’t see anyone whose ever implicitly, much less explicitly treated all theism as a equal threat.You’re right; I got sloppy there towards the end. While I’ve seen posts talking about how liberal and moderate theists provide support and protection for the extremists, and while I’ve seen people talking about the inherent dangers in supernatural/religious thought, I haven’t seen anyone calling liberal and moderate theists an equal threat. A threat, yes, but not an equal one. I still find a bit of fault with that. I’ll agree with one of Vjack’s recent posts that it’s difficult for us to coexist with any theistic folks when our belief is essentially “your beliefs are silly,” but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Nor would I say that all theists are a threat to atheists. Perhaps all theists provide that support structure, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re really part of the problem. Atheists and moderate and liberal Christians (for instance) may never get along, so long as they continue making testable claims about objective reality, but there’s a small segment of theists who don’t, who don’t look to prove their beliefs, who don’t proselytize, and who hate the fundamentalists just as much as we do. And when people talk about the threat of liberal theism, I cringe a little, because there are exceptions. You know, I walked away from that post thinking I’d misrepresented something, but unable to figure out what it was. Thanks for pointing it out; you’re absolutely right.Dikkii: That’s at least twice, since Akusai tagged me a week or two ago. I’ve really got to get on top of that at some point.

  4. Jon says:

    I think believers and nonbelivers can both agree that private faith has never been a problem, but what the freethinking community needs to show is the danger of public accommodation of private faith. Empirical knowledge should never have to stand on equal footing as a faith statement, for example, ID and evolution are not equally supported positions, the federally-owned gift shop at the Grand Canyon should not be carrying two books about the formation of the Canyon, and prayer and chemotherapy are not equally effective cancer treatments; they should not be treated as such. Much worse is when knowledge is silenced for fear of offending someone’s private faith. Its one thing if you want to go through life with blinders on, saying “I’m not going to expose myself to Darwin or Big Bang theory, or geological evidence,” but you have to right to expect other people to do so as well, or require them to not discuss their knowledge of the outside world; that’s not American, that’s Theocracy Lite. Statements like that may make me look like a militant atheist in the eyes of the strongest believers, but that’s really an equivocation, as my objection is not to personal faith, but to the privileged position that faith has taken in the public sphere. This position was said best by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We are each entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.”

  5. I agree with jon that there is a major difference between people who believe things that cannot be proven, and those who try to deny facts which can be proven.Regarding “What harm are unprovable beliefs if they aren’t turned into action or law?” I would say, what USE are unprovable beliefs if they aren’t turned into action or law?Of course your beliefs affect your actions. As I pointed out in a previous comment, Tom, you have “beliefs” – convictions which cannot be proven. Judging by your own words, you believe in freedom. Not only that, but you expect our law to be based on freedom.I am quite happy that our constitution is based on freedom, and not theocracy, but don’t be telling me that all beliefs are silly.

  6. Doubting Tom says:

    I would say, what USE are unprovable beliefs if they aren’t turned into action or law?I’d say that many such beliefs are comforting for those who believe them, and in some ways help people understand the world. Of course your beliefs affect your actions. As I pointed out in a previous comment, Tom, you have “beliefs” – convictions which cannot be proven. Judging by your own words, you believe in freedom. Not only that, but you expect our law to be based on freedom.Certainly, though I think there’s some difference between faith-based religious “belief” and “belief” in ideals or opinions. I don’t have to subscribe to any doctrine or sect in order to place a value on freedom or equality or inquiry. I wouldn’t say that “all beliefs are silly;” as you rightly point out, we all believe things (even in the statement you’re referencing, I say that “your beliefs are silly” is itself a belief), but I also wouldn’t say that all beliefs are the same. Belief in ideals is different from belief in ideologies. Incidentally the post I was responding to can be found here. Vjack was quoting Dennett regarding the big obstacle in atheist-theist communication, that being that certain beliefs of both parties are mutually exclusive. So, specifically, when one group believes “there is a god” and another believes “belief in god is silly,” they’ll find it difficult to talk about those matters.

  7. Anonymous says:

    My apologies.I knew you weren’t calling all belief silly. I was ranting against others and I shouldn’t take it out on you. (Especially when signed in as Augiephysics – I make Augie and physics look bad:-)Now that I read the post you were referencing, I see you making a point that the difficulty with dialogue comes from both sides – both in the way believers deal with non-believers and vice versa.I don’t have to subscribe to any doctrine or sect in order to place a value on freedom or equality or inquiry. You don’t HAVE to subscribe to any doctrine or sect in order to believe in God (thought most believers do).-CJV

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