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.
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.