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Ignominiously Defining (Fundamatheism)

In Christianity & Atheism, Ignominiously Defining on June 14, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , , , ,

During the course of her response to a piece by David Gibson, in her Butterflies and Wheels blog yesterday, Ophelia Benson was quick to claim that “[w]e [explicit atheists] are not ‘fundamentalists’ in any meaningful sense.”  The full post is here.  With a careful caveat that I don’t think that all explicit atheists are “‘fundamentalists’ in any meaningful sense, I disagree.

Historically, fundamentalism was an ecumenical Christian movement in North America premised upon certain fundamental truths all Christians shared (most prominently the authority of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection and the atoning work of Christ, and the second coming) and reflected by a series of tracts called The Fundamentals. Over time, the idea developed in general terms to denote strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles or, in the words of the American Heritage Dictionary, “a usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.”

Strictly speaking, atheists cannot fit that definition.  They share no common fundamental ideas or principles to which they can return and aren’t necessarily religious.  However, if we focus on behavior rather than belief, the similarities become clear.

In my view, all fundamentalisms share a very narrow epistemology. Christian fundamentalism is based upon the idea that the Bible + common sense = readily ascertainable truth. What I call fundamatheism is a similarly narrow epistemology whereby science + reason = readily ascertainable truth. In each case, the emphasis is on the readily ascertainable part, with the (capital T) Truth so obvious that those who disagree aren’t just in error, they’re evil or damned or irrational or delusional or mentally ill or or or. Both fundamentalist and fundamatheist have a base-level arrogance. The fundy mindset isn’t at all humble and rejects the idea that being wrong is even a remote possibility, except perhaps in theory. Moreover and most (a-hem) fundamentally, those who disagree are inferior — and that idea is incredibly dangerous and not terribly constructive, as history makes ever so clear.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Benson isn’t alone in rejecting the connection.  For example, Richard Dawkins vociferously objects to this kind of description.  My idea of a fundamatheist is designed to get at a particular form of zealotry that is more than just aggressive advocacy and which is common to theist (fundamentalist) and atheist (fundamatheist) alike.  Note here with respect to Dawkins, wherein he says of certain scientists:

“What I can’t understand is why we are expected to show respect for good scientists, even great scientists, who at the same time believe in a god who does things like listen to our prayers, forgive our sins, perform cheap miracles,” he said, prompting a burst of nervous laughter to ripple through the audience, “which go against, presumably, everything that the god of the physicist, the divine cosmologist, set up when he set up his great laws of nature. So I don’t understand a scientist who says, ‘I am a Roman Catholic’ or ‘I am a Baptist.’ ”

Thus no scientists, even admittedly great scientists, can earn respect from Dawkins if they are believers — they’re necessarily inferior. Note too, further down in the linked piece, Dawkins’s specific condescending attack on Ken Miller (who is an excellent scientist). If someone with Miller’s academic pedigree and history of couragious support for science is seen as inferior and unworthy of respect by Dawkins, then all Christians are necessarily inferior per se.

That’s fundamatheism.

To be clear, I’m not troubled by strong criticism or strong language in the least.  I don’t care about tone.  If we believe what we say to be the truth, we should be willing to defend it against vigorous attack.  What does trouble me is the claimed (or at least inferred) inferiority of opponents.  As a general rule, we’re all too confident and think too much of ourselves (and while, in my experience, the most common Christian sin is hypocrisy, the most common atheist “sin” is arrogance). Such claimed superiority is hardly conducive to constructive engagement.  It’s that kind of excessive certainty and a demonization of the opposition that qualifies certain explicit atheists as fundamatheists.

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16 Responses to “Ignominiously Defining (Fundamatheism)”

  1. […] In Christianity & Atheism, Quote Unquote on June 19, 2010 at 5:54 am Fundamatheism isn’t a 21st Century invention.  To wit: “I have had a most shameful and distressing […]

  2. I think most people would say that you’ve already abandoned your own conclusion. Fundamentalism is plausibly characterized as being about textual or philosophical approach, which you recognize in your preamble. But then you abandon the point in favor of something else entirely: behavior, arrogance, etc.

    The reason why I think this can’t work is that it entails that any time I tell someone they have made a mistake, it is (under your definition) fundamentalist. (“Mistake”, here, meaning not just an error, but also a preventable and unreasonable error.) If a fifth-grader gives me an erroneous conclusion for a math problem, then it is perfectly reasonable for me to assert that they have made a mistake, because I am confident that they have the tools to figure out the mistake on their own (and/or the tools are available to them). Yet I am, under your definition, a fundamentalist. I’ve treated the math problem as a readily ascertainable truth, and have arrogantly asserted that someone has made a mistake.

  3. “If a fifth-grader gives me an erroneous conclusion for a math problem, then it is perfectly reasonable for me to assert that they have made a mistake, because I am confident that they have the tools to figure out the mistake on their own (and/or the tools are available to them).”

    I think that there are two reasons to differentiate the situation you describe from anything approaching similarity to a sort of fundamentalism. Firstly, I wouldn’t expect you to communicate your young student’s mistake with arrogance and disdain. You have given me no reason to expect that from you. Secondly, a math problem is susceptible to definitive demonstration the way most matters in life — such as matters or religion — are not.

    “I’ve treated the math problem as a readily ascertainable truth, and have arrogantly asserted that someone has made a mistake.”

    Most dictionaries define “arrogance” to include something like overbearing hubris. You haven’t demonstrated that towards me even when you have been sure that I am wrong. I expect no less with a fifth-grader. Indeed, you needn’t convey that attitude no matter how certain you are that you are correct and that the fifth grader is in error. Paul Woodruff’s “Reverence” (Oxford University Press, 2002) nicely conveys the approach I think we could all benefit from, whatever we think about “the God question.”

  4. “Firstly, I wouldn’t expect you to communicate your young student’s mistake with arrogance and disdain.”

    But so much of arrogance is in the eye of the beholder. From the child’s point of view, they are treated unfairly *all the time* — or at least, that’s how I remember it. That’s because being wrong is unpleasant so you lash out in any direction that has a plausible fit.

    “Secondly, a math problem is susceptible to definitive demonstration the way most matters in life — such as matters or religion — are not.”

    In that case, the issue really is more than behavior — it’s epistemic. Right?

    • I’ll think on this a bit and reply when I have more time. Thanks.

    • Thanks for being gracious about my tardy reply. I had two of my three kids here for Father’s Day (three of five if I count in-laws).

      “But so much of arrogance is in the eye of the beholder.”

      True enough. The measure is subjective. But children aren’t usually seen as inferior. They are more likely to be seen as lacking in knowledge or experience.

      “In that case, the issue really is more than behavior — it’s epistemic. Right?”

      If the claim is “excessive certainty,” then there is necessarily an epistemic element. Such excessive certainty may have a philosophical origin. For example, Jerry Coyne’s mentor, Richard Lewontin:

      We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. (Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997)(emphasis in original).

      On the other hand, this philosophical error may be denied in principle, but accepted in practice. An example is Richard Dawkins, who claims that evidence could convince him of God’s existence (at least in theory), but who asserts the philosophical incompatibility of science and faith. Such incompatibility only “fits” if the commitment to materialism is philosophical and a priori.

      • The expression of “excessive certainty” is one of those phrases that I would lump in with “arrogance”. They both seem to be in the eye of the beholder.

        However, the phrase can be saved. You would have to define “excessive” in an epistemic way. That is, you would have to define “excessive” as something like, “asserted with force that is out of proportion with the justification of the belief”. And once you do that, we’re doing a kind of epistemology. (They call it “virtue epistemology”.)

        It is inconsistent, in your view, to express Dawkinsean certainty when it comes to a posteriori claims. (Or at least that’s the only way I can read you as coming to your conclusions.) But this presumes a Kantian “apriori” and “aposteriori” distinction to begin with. This divide is something that many epistemologists do not find useful, because it leads us to think that meaning derives its content apart from how we organise the rest of our beliefs.

        So we might say, instead, that all we have to go on are inferences to the best explanation. And the best explanation does not require divine intervention.

        That doesn’t mean that science couldn’t find a divine intervener at some point. It just means that science has to take a dim view of it, given the paucity of evidence in its favor.

      • They both seem to be in the eye of the beholder.

        There are surely subjective elements to the analysis.

        That is, you would have to define “excessive” as something like, “asserted with force that is out of proportion with the justification of the belief”.

        I would say something like “asserted with force that is dramatically out of proportion with the justification of the belief,” but I see your point.

        So we might say, instead, that all we have to go on are inferences to the best explanation. And the best explanation does not require divine intervention.

        I would define “best” in a way with which I suspect you might disagree. I concede that I have the tougher argument — it’s much easier to destroy than to create after all. Yet I heard a presentation recently by Andrew Lo of MIT related to my professional life and he stressed that point that when we make decisions entirely “rationally” (devoid of emotions and the like), they aren’t as good or as often correct as decisions with some “irrationality” sprinkled in. I haven’t had the opportunity to run down all the supporting research yet, but the claim makes sense to me. Moreover, a probabilistic analysis without an evaluation of the consequences of the various viewpoints is similarly irrational and misses the point of empiricism — deciding where, as a matter of default, our errors are going to be (since errors are inevitable). In this sense, Pascal’s Wager is valuable. Even though I’m not a “hellfire” guy, I see little downside to informed belief and huge upside while I see little upside and significant downside to disbelief. Thus, even though divine intervention is not required by the data, I think it’s the best explanation we have to this point.

        It just means that science has to take a dim view of it, given the paucity of evidence in its favor.

        Methodological naturalism is entirely appropriate; philosophical naturalism not so much.

  5. Sure thing. No problem.

  6. I have two points to address: one on intuition, one on consequences.

    On intuition. I can’t comment on the content of that lecture in particular. But I can observe that it’s true that intuitive judgments can be the result of reliable processes, and in some contexts produce better (more effective and efficient) results than seemingly rational deliberation. Gerd Gigerenzer has done some very interesting work on intuitions (and his work was the basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, “Blink”).

    However, it is extremely important to see the limits of this method. If I give a list of baseball players to a baseball ignoramus, and ask them to pick the best ones based on their gut instinct, then they’ll probably still give me a respectable set of answers. That’s because the subconscious can pick up data just on the basis of having heard some names more frequently than others. But if I give a list of utterly random names and ask the ignoramus to pick the best baseball players, I am not at all confident that they could get the job done better than chance.

    The lesson here is that not all intuitions are created equal. We know that intuitions work when we can specify a reliable causal process, and use it in relevant context. That isn’t a blanket license to use intuitions as a substitute for deliberation.

    The question, then, is: do you think that your intuitions have a reliable causal process that allows them to produce knowledge of the First Cause of the universe? That seems extremely unlikely to me.

    (Aside: Also notice one other thing. When modern epistemologists challenge the distinction between the apriori and the aposteriori, one consequence is that the line between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism is blurred as well. The fact is, people will use whatever excuses they are most comfortable with in order to continue doing the things they want to do. If they are bothered less frequently by people at church when they say they’re “methodological naturalists”, then so be it. Arguably, that doesn’t make it the best explanation as much as it makes it the best cover story.)

    On consequences. I don’t buy Pascal’s Wager, because its priors are so fully loaded with goo that they aren’t worth taking seriously. But bet-hedging is fine in and of itself, I agree completely.

    My version of bet-hedging involves the problem of evil. The problem of evil entails that, logically speaking, only the following possibilities are live:

    1) God is Satan / … the indifferent watchmaker / …a deity with multiple personality disorder. (omniscient, omnipotent, existent) In which case, the dictates of morality demand defiance and/or apathy towards Him.
    2) God is a beefed-up Gandalf with Alzheimer’s. (omnipotent, benevolent, existent) In which case, He has my pity.
    3) God is Zeus. (omnipotent, existent) In which case, we’re all screwed, no matter what we do or how we feel.
    4) God is Santa. (omniscient, benevolent, existent) In which case, I’ll be good. Though I was probably going to try to be good anyway.
    5) God is Carnac the Magnificent. (omniscient, existent) In which case, I’ll hope he doesn’t blackmail me.
    6) God is the man Jesus. (benevolent, existent) In which case, I owe him a thank-you and a hug.
    7) God is just a slob like one of us. (existent) In which case, I owe him nothing.
    8) God is not. (non-existent) In which case, nothing follows.

    Most theists are especially attracted by/repulsed by the consequences of option (1). They have to overcome it with Hellfire talk, because frankly it really does seem like the most plausible candidate (if we’re to assume there is a God). When I read the Old Testament — Cain, Job, Lot, Noah — I get the very distinct impression that the Authority behind this mischief is not God, but rather, the ultimate incarnation of evil.

    It is only against the backdrop of these considerations that I feel like I can think about Pascal’s Wager. But they seem to show that Pascal’s Wager is a mug’s game.

    • Gerd Gigerenzer has done some very interesting work on intuitions….

      His Reckoning with Risk is on my mightstand as we “speak.”

      However, it is extremely important to see the limits of this method.

      Lo’s point was not that intuition is somehow better or that it isn’t limited. His point is that “rationality” without an emotional component isn’t as good as it can be.

      The lesson here is that not all intuitions are created equal.

      I agee. But I’ll also note that I’m talking about more than intuition.

      We know that intuitions work when we can specify a reliable causal process, and use it in relevant context. That isn’t a blanket license to use intuitions as a substitute for deliberation.

      Agreed.

      The question, then, is: do you think that your intuitions have a reliable causal process that allows them to produce knowledge of the First Cause of the universe? That seems extremely unlikely to me.

      I think your question is too precise. To oversimplify: I think the evidence for human volition (despite the difficulty in setting parameters on what it is) is too overwhelming to ignore. Since cause and effect are relentless, a naturalistic universe precludes volition. Yet we know at least that the universe is indeterministic — that doesn’t get us to volition but it’s a decent start. Based on this evidence, I posit God. What that God is like and how He acts are separate questions, obviously.

      The fact is, people will use whatever excuses they are most comfortable with in order to continue doing the things they want to do.

      Sure. But if you’re trying the make the case for universal application (e.g., science and religion are incompatible), if the presumptions aren’t shared, communication is difficult (at a minimum).

      On consequences. I don’t buy Pascal’s Wager, because its priors are so fully loaded with goo that they aren’t worth taking seriously.

      I generally agree.

      But bet-hedging is fine in and of itself, I agree completely.

      I would suggest that it’s more than just bet-hedging. We (at least in theory) do security checks at airports without evidence because the costs of terrorism are so high and the inconvenience relatively slight (despite my frequent complaints about TSA).

  7. Ah, my comments on intuition might not be as useful as I had thought, then.

    So the free will problem is your root problem. I think it’s a solvable problem — but there’s no need to go too far down that road for present purposes. The important thing is that you have an epistemic problem, and you posit a kind of substance dualism as a solution. And we reject substance dualism because we don’t think it’s the best explanation.

    That seems like a clear contrast of positions to me. But it’s on epistemic grounds, not on grounds of behavior; and it’s on grounds that, even from your epistemic viewpoint, is an inference to the best explanation. Since you admit that your behavioral argument is subjective, it makes me think that you’re explicitly abandoning your original conclusion.

    On consequences — call it a risk-assessment, then. On my schema, bet-hedging comes out 50-50, if we presume to be moral actors. (1,3,7,8) all require disbelief or defiance, while (2,4,5,6) permit belief or devotion.

    Now add risk. The personal cost for being a moral actor is greatest when it comes to (1,3), while things turn out more or less mellow in all other cases. Does that mean that (1,3) are respectable arguments for immorality? I don’t think so.

  8. […] note that I have repeatedly said that excessive certainty is a hallmark of both fundamentalism and fundamatheism alike.  As Einstein said, “ [t]hen there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is […]

  9. Ophelia is right. Atheists are simply misunderstood. There is lots of attempts to claim that atheists just carrying another belief. Rather, it is just the same rejection that you fundamentally hold for the tooth-fairy, the lock-ness-monster and the flying spagetti monster. It is not fundamentalist to reject unfounded categories, labels, inventions. And rejection them is not the same as saying they don’t exist.

    But it is very easy to appear fundamental when rejecting strongly held beliefs. Just questioning them is outrageous.

    Religious people ask atheists all the time “what if you are wrong?” but very few people ask religious people “what if you are wrong?”

    It’s OK to paint atheists as extreme and dogmatic. It serves a political purpose. The majority is invested in having them appear as badly as possible.

    It is hardly necessary. Atheists (even the most soft spoken, tolerant ones) have a horrible image.

    Yes we are barraged with ever new neologisms and attributes to attach atheism to extremes.

    “militant” “aggressive” “angry” “fundamentalist”

    Intriguing how we have seen this before. When second wave feminists spoke up, they too were declared militant, aggressive, angry and unreasonable, often by their own peers.

    Now we have the same. The only “good” atheist is one who never criticizes religion.

    So yes you will find outspoke atheists who will not mince words and express certainty.

    But we don’t have any discussion how by your definition virtually every believer who says with certainty “there is a god” is a fundamentalist.

    But to the sources you cite. The discover article is evidentally not sympathetic of Dawkins and presents excerpt quotes, with otherwise disfavorable interpretation.

    In fact I encourage people to read the discover article in full. Perhaps one can get at least some context.

    You say: “Note too, further down in the linked piece, Dawkins’s specific condescending attack on Ken Miller (who is an excellent scientist).”

    Which one would that be? You don’t cite it but just call his attack condescending. What was the attack? Well Miller said he believes in Christian Doctrine. Dawkins challenged him. Miller mocked Dawkins in return. Yet later Miller says “I don’t think Richard realizes how condescending he is when he says those things.”

    Hmm. Yes, clearly Dawkins asking if Miller believes in doctrine explicitly is condescending. And hence fundamentalist. No, I’m sorry he isn’t.

    Dawkins caricature is a fundamentalist though. Quite a number of people on the internet spend a lot of time to paint a Dawkins who just gets angry, yells and is intolerant. Who asks condescending questions (where any question about doctrine can be interpreted as such) and so forth.

    And how about Miller taunting Dawkins and mocking his questions? No we are supposed to believe that Dawkins is aggressive here.

    People do this to Dawkins and Hitchens all the time. Quote short segments and claim they are fundamentalist. Why not quote their books, their primary sources, their own direct words in the context they meant it? Well because it is actually really hard to make them appear as unreasonable and fundamentalist if one does!

    That is basically the center piece of your article, that quote from the Discover article that branded Dawkins “Darwin’s Rottweiler” and painted him as aggressive.

    I’m sorry you are doing to atheists exactly what so many others do. Negative stereotyping by quoting out of context, by quoting already tendentious sources, but not quoting them directly or their primary writings.

    And I’m sorry that is not fair arguing either.

    There are certainly narrow-minded atheists out there, but you fail to find one.

    It’s rather part of the fashionable sport of painting people worse than they really are if you look at what they really do and say in the context in which they say it!

    • Now we have the same. The only “good” atheist is one who never criticizes religion.

      I don’t think so. I think criticism is fine — necessary and important even.

      But we don’t have any discussion how by your definition virtually every believer who says with certainty “there is a god” is a fundamentalist.

      I thought I was clear that there are far too many fundamatheists and fundamentalists.

      Why not quote their books, their primary sources, their own direct words in the context they meant it? Well because it is actually really hard to make them appear as unreasonable and fundamentalist if one does!

      Nonsense. For starters, TGD suggests (or stronger) that I’m mentally ill and a child abuser because of my faith and because I taught it to my (now grown) children. That’s fundamatheist.

  10. “Nonsense. For starters, TGD suggests (or stronger) that I’m mentally ill and a child abuser because of my faith and because I taught it to my (now grown) children. That’s fundamatheist.”

    I see, because someone held an opinion that you find offensive they are fundamentalists…

    Doesn’t really matter how they argued their case. In any case of course he doesn’t literally say what you say. But I can see how you feel that way. Yes delusion can be viewed as a medical condition, or it can be seen as wide-spread. “The celtics were delusional if they thought they’d win against the Lakers”. Is not read as a charge of severe psychopathology on the celtics.

    Nor is it the same to criticize that people teach their children unfounded stuff as someone who locks them in a cellar and physically mistreats them.

    But mental exaggeration always makes it easier to paint someone as extreme or fundamentalist.

    Do you really show the same moral outrage when atheists are told they are the devil, they go to hell, they should not be citizen, they should not be allowed to hold office and so forth?

    I don’t see it. You basically want to paint Dawkins as worse than he is to create this case that atheists are horrible, for disagreeing with your world view. For disagreeing that it’s helpful to children to learn about the bible. Who disagree that religious beliefs are reasoned world views but rather think that it’s mental concepts (or delusions).

    Virtually any atheist will think of religious beliefs as man made. You essentially brand all atheists as fundamentalist for disagreeing with you. And yes I understand it does hurt to be told that perhaps ones world view is not what you think it is.

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