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Myth: Militant Atheists are Atheist Fundamentalists, a New Atheism

Does Fundamentalist Atheism Exist? Does Atheistic Fundamentalism Exist?

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Myth:
Militant atheists are just another type of fundamentalist, rudely pushing their religion on everyone else. These atheist fundamentalists are just as dangerous, intolerant, and dogmatic as any Christian fundamentalist.

Response:
There seems to be an increasing number of people responding to atheist critiques of religion or theism by labeling the person a "fundamentalist" atheist. The label is problematic because there are no essential or "fundamental" beliefs for an atheist to be "fundamentalist" about. So why do people use the label? Why do so many people feel that the label is appropriate? This seems to be mostly due to misunderstandings about and prejudice against fundamentalism.

Far too often, the word "fundamentalism" is used as short-hand for unreflective, unquestioning dogmatism. People are considered "fundamentalists" if they are rude, uncompromising, and committed to absolutist positions. This is not an accurate or fair understanding of fundamentalism: it misrepresents fundamentalism as an attitude or personality type rather than a type of doctrine and it is unfair to fundamentalists, not all of whom are described by this sort of attitude.

The term "fundamentalism" originated in American Christianity when The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth was published between 1910 and 1912. This 12-volume set of books outlines the "fundamental" beliefs which were supposed to be required of all Christians:

  • The infallibility and inspiration of Scripture.
  • The virgin birth of Christ and the Deity of Christ.
  • The substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for sinners and the blood atonement.
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ and His visible return to earth.
  • A judgment of the saved and lost followed by a literal heaven and a literal hell.

If fundamentalism is primarily about the promotion of "fundamental" beliefs, it's not possible for this to be applied to atheism because atheism has no beliefs, much less "fundamental" beliefs. Atheism is the absence of belief in gods, nothing more and nothing less, so there is nothing "fundamental" for atheists to "get back to" in order to achieve a more pure or original atheism.

Although originally applied just to a class of Protestant Christians, the term quickly acquired broader usage to movements in many other religions where a focus is placed on "fundamental" beliefs as well as a number of other positions. The Fundamentalism Project offers these "family resemblances" found in most fundamentalist movements:

  • religious idealism is used as a foundation for personal and communal identity
  • truth is revealed and unified
  • fundamentalism is intentionally "scandalous" (i.e., makes dramatic and fundamental challenges to prevailing norms)
  • members are part of a cosmic struggle
  • historical events are reinterpreted in light of their cosmic struggle
  • opposition is demonized (because the opposition is on the opposite side of the cosmic struggle)
  • what parts of their tradition and heritage are stressed are chosen selectively
  • men almost always control positions of power as part of a patriarchal, even misogynistic set of doctrines
  • the modernist, often secular, cultural hegemony is envied, even as they try to overturn it
  • the erosion of religion and its proper role in society is normally presented as their primary concern
  • some form of Manicheanism (dualism) is used
  • absolutism and inerrancy in their sources of revelation is stressed
  • some form of Millennialism or Messianism is used

A person or movement can be a "fundamentalist" without all of these characteristics being true — they are simply common ones which appear much or most of the time. The more of these characteristics a person or movement has, the more "fundamentalist" they are. Even a cursory examination of them reveals, however, that only one or two could possibly be applied to atheists — and even then, no more so than most other people in the world. Atheists can certainly demonize opposition, for example, but they are no more likely to do so than liberals, conservatives, librarians, etc.

It is possible to be a dogmatic atheist who doesn't reason well, doesn't listen to others' arguments, and doesn't adjust their ideas as new data comes in. Such atheists may be called "fundamentalist atheists" and their atheism called "fundamentalist atheism" by some Christians. Sometimes, people even go so far as to conclude that all atheists and all of atheism is like this, based solely on a few interactions with a few people. If this is what people mean, though, then why not simply say "dogmatic atheist" instead of "fundamentalist atheist"? It's as if they are trying to draw an inappropriate parallel with religion — and this may indeed be the point.

As I note above, this is also very unfair to fundamentalists. Some are arrogant and dogmatic, but not all. Many are "rigid" when it comes to their religious beliefs, but are quite relaxed outside their religion. I've received a number of complimentary emails from fundamentalists who agree with many of my critiques of religion and Christianity. Some even agree with my arguments that civil law and government should not be defined according to Christian standards — not even their own.

Fundamentalists like these would naturally be happy if others agreed with them and lived according to their religion, but only if it is chosen voluntarily. They wouldn't impose their religious standards via the force of law — not even to ban gay marriage! I realize that it may be hard to believe, but not all fundamentalists are alike and not all are like those who are loudest in the public square. Thus the equation of fundamentalism with rigidity and dogmatism really is unfair to fundamentalists themselves and Christian critics of atheism should know better. Fundamentalists have done plenty of things worthy of criticism, but that's no excuse for transforming the label into a synonym for things that are bad.

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