Saturday, 22 December 2007

Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?

Barry Morgan, the archbishop of Wales, has complained about a phenomenon which he calls 'atheistic fundamentalism'. According to the archbishop, it is every bit as dangerous as Biblical or Islamic fundamentalism. It consists primarily of the belief that "religion in general and Christianity in particular have no substance", and indeed the belief that they are "superstitious nonsense".

I have trouble seeing what is quite so fundamentalist about this viewpoint. Surely it's normal for atheists to believe that religion has no substance? If atheists didn't think that Christianity was "supserstitious nonsense", they probably wouldn't be atheists in the first place.

The archbishop continues: "All of this is what I would call the new 'fundamentalism' of our age. It allows no room for disagreement, for doubt, for debate, for discussion. It leads to the language of expulsion and exclusivity, of extremism and polarisation, and the claim that because God is on our side, he is not on yours."

I find this argument utterly two-faced. The archbishop talks about God's existence as a given, as an axiom - perfectly fair behaviour for a Christian. But if people talk in certain terms about God not existing - perfectly fair behaviour for atheists - they are 'fundamentalists', and should be condemned for allowing no room for debate. The archbishop's logical error is so basic and so glaring that it almost doesn't need pointing out.

Personally, I very much doubt that atheism could ever be considered a 'fundamentalist' philosophy. There's a crucial difference between atheism and religion: religions actively promote a certain belief, whereas atheism is a rejection of such beliefs. Atheists don't actively disbelieve in God any more than they actively disbelieve in the tooth fairy, or indeed the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They simply reject them, complaining about the lack of evidence. You may agree with them, or you may disagree, but I can't detect anything even approaching fundamentalism in that sort of approach.

It's ironic that this story comes on the same day as a nine-year-old boy was banned from his school's Christmas party for not believing in God. In the middle of the perennial and largely fictitious war against Christmas, surely the headteacher should be pleased to see a non-Christian child joining in the celebrations? A minority of Christians believe with paranoid fervour that secularists hate Christmas, and are trying to get it cancelled - yet this man was prepared to punish and exclude a small child who doesn't believe in God, but sees Christmas as a culturally important time of shared celebration, and wants to join in with it. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I'm a secularist, but that doesn't make me in any way anti-religious - indeed, as a Jew, I'm very proud of my religious background and heritage. Secularism, for me, is the belief that religion, or lack of it, should be a private choice for each individual, rather than a matter of state. I find it a little sad, for example, that Tony Blair felt he had to wait until he'd resigned his office before becoming a Catholic. This clearly hasn't happened overnight; he must have been planning it for quite some time, and it's a shame to think that he felt unable to join the Roman Catholic Church whilst in his role as Prime Minister. As long as the PM legislates for the entire population, rather than simply those of a religious bent, he or she ought to be allowed to hold and practice any creed whatsoever. One of the few genuinely praiseworthy aspects of Tony Blair's premiership was the way he ignored religious objections, notably against gay rights, and instead liberalised the law in that area. In effect, he allowed everyone to make their own judgement call, rather than permitting a certain brand of Christianity to dictate morality to the entire population. It contrasts sharply with the moralising tone of the Brown administration.

Principally, secularism means that no belief system should be privileged above any other, and that faith shouldn't be accorded any more respect than lack of faith. In practical terms, this means that the archbishop can talk about Jesus's teaching to his heart's content, if it makes him happy - but that Dawkins, Grayling (one of whose essays inspired that title of this post) et al are equally entitled to express their own views. To call them 'fundamentalists' is to bring politically-charged smears into what ought to be a reasonable and level-headed discussion.

Whatever personal position people take on God's existence, I hope they'll celebrate the next few days in whatever manner they like, loudly and proudly - but that they'll extend the same courtesy to others with opposing views, who want to enjoy the festive season in a different way.


Anonymous said...

"Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?"

What kind of question is that? Just think about the Soviet Union and the persecutions of the clergy.

a radical writes said...

The church is creating a bit of a straw man with this it must be said, but then again they always have and will continue to fight to protect their own interests. But atheists can be fundamentalists in that they can lack understanding or empathy for other people's positions and try to persuade people actively (and at times through force) to absolve themselves from religions. People like Richard Dawkins who consider religion 'the root of all evil' are in their own strange way fundamentalist atheists as they consider all religions in a negative light and actively try to rid the world of them by argument. It doesn't make them terribly bad people and neither are they in any position of strength in Britain but they do exist.

Tristan said...

Soviet persecution of the clergy was due more to the clergy being an opposing power source and representing the old regime. That was political.

a radical writes:
the 'Root of all evil' thing was not what Dawkins wanted to call it. He certainly does not view religion as the root of all evil, or necessarily always evil, but he attacks the immense damage religion does do.

You can get atheist fundamentalists - although often they take a political creed as a religion...
Dawkins and co. are not fundamentalists. The Archbishop of Wales seems to be illustrating a tendency towards fundamentalism in the Anglican Church though, joining in with the age old reaction against science and the open society... (along with the deep greens, socialists and other religious fundamentalists)

Doug Indeap said...

Is the irony lost on religionists who seek to denigrate atheism by calling it a "religion"--or in this instance "fundamentalism?" I suppose if religionists want to stretch those terms beyond their recognized meaning (both pertain to those who believe in god(s)), they have the numbers to pull it off. Then we'll have to come up with a whole new vocabulary in order to talk about this stuff. We'll have to speak, I suppose, of religious atheists and non-religious atheists. Kinda chasing our tails though, ain't it.

Steven Allan said...

Having read the article on the BBC website, Jonny, it seems to me that the Archbishop is talking about the religion branch of political correctness.

He refers to the deliberate removal of Christian symbols, rites etc. from things that are essentially Christian. I think this is what he means by aetheistic fundamentalism.

If the people to whom he refers were simply trying to create an even playing field with their so-called political correctness, then I would see that as necessarily an even playing field.

However, by removing the Christianity from Christianity, as it were, such people are taking away the basic freedom to allow others to choose Christianity. This is extremism. I, therefore, agree with him.

I have always seen Richard Dawkins as too obsessive for a normal aetheist. I do believe in God, but if I didn't, then I think I would just have no interest. The fact that he hates the idea that anyone should believe in God to the extent of writng books and giving lectures on the subject suggests to me that he is obsessive. One could call that aetheistic fundamentalism too, surely ?

Anonymous said...

Tristan: "Soviet persecution of the clergy was due more to the clergy being an opposing power source and representing the old regime. That was political."

Of course politics and religion are interwoven (though they shouldn't be), but it might be worth to remember that Soviet Union was officially atheistic. Ironically in Soviet Union atheism had de facto the status of the state religion, which kind of proves it actually is a religion, or at least a religious position. The only true irreligiousness is unconcerned agnostism.

Doug Indeap said...

Steven Allen,

Not having read the BBC article myself, I can't offer any opinion on it--other than to note that from what you say about it, you may well have a good point.

About Dawkins appearing hateful and obsessive because he writes books about atheism, though, I think you are off the mark. There are plenty of good reasons--having nothing to do with hate or obsession--for those who do not have a belief in god(s) to be very interested in and rightfully concerned about religions. Religions, particularly in the U.S., profoundly affect atheists, so it's hardly surprising that some choose to voice their views rather than stand silently by.

Here are a few of the countless reasons atheists care about religion: 1. Because the constitutions of seven states--Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Texas--contain provisions prohibiting atheists from holding public office or testifying in court. 2. Atheist boys cannot be members of the Boy Scouts even though the Boy Scouts commonly receive public funds and special consideration in the use of public lands. 3. Politicians like President Bush Sr. feel free to say: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." 4. "Blue laws" in many states restrict what can be sold on Sundays based on religious considerations. 5. The phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. 6. The phrase "In god we trust" was added to U.S. coins in 1864 and to dollar bills in 1957. 7. The U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, yet atheists see some Christians seriously attempting to make it so. 8. Those professing religious beliefs are attempting to control what is taught in public schools so as to conform to, or at least not conflict with, their dogma. Some seek, for instance, to have creationism or intelligent design passed off as science in public schools. 9. National, state, and local policy decisions are being decided based not on rational thought and discourse, but religious belief and fervor.
10. Fanatics are killing people in the name of religion. 11. Atheists are the least trusted minority in the U.S. simply because they have no belief in god(s).

These are drawn from a YouTube video:

Stephen Glenn said...

Tristan, while the Soviet Union was de facto Athiest, it never totally removed Churches from exisiting and carrying on, despite the best efforts especially in Stalin's days.

Later on there was an official recognition of some Chruches, these were ones that were willing to water down what they were prepared to say and preach. Many Churches carried on out with this control and still faced prosecution.

The churches that remained outwith the state intervention when I went to visit in the dying days of the USSR were nervous of Western Churches that were part of large organisations because of how they had been brought. So instead of being a power per se, they were small indivual units.

The Archbishop does appear to be condemning Christian Fundamentalism as much as Atheistic or Islamic or whatever. Obviously anyone with a belief structure will have some fundamentals that they hold dear personally. We are fundamentalist therefore to an extend.

It is however, how we act towards others that do not share those fundamental values that is the issue. If we condemn and persecute rather than allowing to co-exist that is where the issue overflows. When minutia of difference is taken away instead of focusing on the commonality. When preventing rather than allowance is the norm, that is when the fundamentalism which the Archbishop was talking about becomes dangerous.

It can apply to anything even attacking the architectural and style tastes of Bryan Ferry, even if the ideology that created them is not something he would adhere to.

Steven Allan said...

To Doug Indeap ( above ) and anyone else who wants to know, the BBC article is here :

Aetheistic Fundamentalism Fears

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, Jonny, but I'd just like to reciprocate your Christmas greetings, albeit a day late.

Hope you had a good day!

Lobster Blogster said...

Interesting to see you trying to tackle this topic without giving any thought to what fundamentalism is. The definition I found at expresses the term as having a desire to return to the literal meaning of scripture. Since the archbishop doesn't fill us in as to what scripture an atheist might be using, we can only assume he is talking utter nonsense.

monsterravingloony said...

The Archbishop is leveraging soundbite culture to get more publicity for his message. It doesn't matter whether "fundamentalist atheism" makes any sense at all, just that it's quotable and makes good copy.

If you can accept that the term is just there to grab attention, forget it and focus on what the Archbishop is actually droning on about, whatever that is ...

Miller 2.0 said...

I think an atheist can be a fundamentalist; many atheists are tempted to go with a doctrinal approach to science rather than a scientific approach, if that makes any sense.

For something to be a scientific fact it must be falsifiable (one of the few bits of Popper I have to say that I agree with). Further, there being little evidence that there is a god is not conclusive proof that there is not one (though in the face of all the evidence it is extremely unlikely - but this is just weighted agnosticism, and, coincidentally, my own point of view).

Also, rather different category, but evangelistic atheists annoy me, as do compulsive anti-vegetarians. They are of course entitled to freedom to evangelise, but to do so is often irresponsible to the point where they actively seek to remove the freedom of others to be wrong (in their eyes at least).

More to the point, no pub banter is more boring than being told you are an idiot by an atheist/christian/vegetarian/non-vegetarian... we all know the arguments already.

But yeah, an atheist fundamentalist is one who is not prepared either to change or modify the basis or totality of their atheism, or to accept any point which may be aimed at it.

I think at least some of thee point should be accepted, because they are often made on a scientifically sound basis; the existence of a god, to my mind, is a matter of probability, not certainty; and I don't think such a point should be dismissed fleetingly, though it often unfortunately is.