What Would Martin Do?
April 6, 2007 7 Comments
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.