Saturday, January 16, 2010

Are "New Atheists" Fundamentalists?

A comment on my recent post on the religious right says that Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and Sam Harris "do an awful lot to propel their brand of fundamentalism to new heights" implying that their "fundamentalism" is akin to a "different flavor" of the fundamentalism offered by religious textual literalists.

Is that true? Are these gentlemen fundamentalists? And if so, in what sense? And if they are in a certain sense, is that a bad thing?

Well, Dawkins at least has addressed this in his book The God Delusion, and I won't repeat what he says there in this post, nor will I repeat whatever other critics have said (a sampling can be found at links on Wikipedia).

I will however, quote a dictionary definition of fundamentalism:

1. religious beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, regarded as fundamental to Christian faith and morals
2. the 20th-cent. movement among some American Protestants, based on these beliefs
3. a strict adherence to or interpretation of a doctrine, set of principles, etc., as of a social, legal, political, or religious group or system

Now by the 3rd definition everyone who adheres to a strict adherence of a set of principles of a religious group might be called a fundamentalist. I would admit atheism as a religious group despite what some muddled conservatives might say (especially being ignorant of certain religions that do not admit the existence of deities).

But, as an example, let's take Dawkins. Dawkins is an avowed atheist, but what he means by that is that the evidence that we as humans can observe is so overwhelmingly against the possibility of a deity as to lead one to conclude that one does not exist. If, there were evidence revealed to the contrary, he would have changed his opinion. Ideologically he expresses kinship with Bertrand Russell, who, when asked what he would say when he died and a hypothetical deity asked why he did not profess belief would say, "Not enough evidence."

As a counter example, there are fundamentalist creationists aplenty who, when presented with the evidence of dinosaurs, distant galaxies, and what-not that clearly demonstrate the existence of an earth and universe billions of years old engage in all kinds of special pleading to try to wiggle out of the obvious evidence. This includes, but is not limited to:

Our lives are permeated by feeling, emotion, passion and the like, but if we are trying to talk about the Big Things, (Why are we here? What should I do? God? Death? Immortality? Ethics?) we should try to employ reason. As a Buddhist, I try to do this, and where any Buddhism contradicts what can be observed, measured, and logically discussed, we should be wary. True, logical systems come with limitations, and our choice of axioms dictates how our reasoning goes. But - I've got to appeal to my professional deformation here - we should choose our axioms based on their utility to achieve our ends, and as a general rule the fewer the better as long as they have sufficient utility.

Of course the diatribes against the "New Atheists" are by and large done as a defense against the beliefs of those who criticize them (although I think most reasonable people might say, on reflection that "New" is superfluous here and so that criticism should stand).

But stop the tu quoque arguments when you discuss these people. They aren't true.


Petteri Sulonen said...

I only have a problem with Dawkins's followers is when they characterize all religions as categorically and intrinsically bad -- "mind viruses" that should (implicitly or explicitly) be "cured." That attitude is very similar to that of crusading fundamentalists of any of a number of religions, Christianity being the most common one in this neck o' the woods.

I'm technically an atheist too, but I've developed a distaste for the term because of the strong antireligious connotations it carries.

I'm not antireligious. For a great many people I know, religious practice and identity are an enormously enriching part of their experience (and I believe I get something similar from practicing Zen in a particular tradition rather than, say, regular mindfulness-based cognitive therapy).

Of course, lots of people are fuckwads, and lots of fuckwads are religious. I believe that some religions are likely to nudge people to be less fuckwadly, but all of them have plenty of bits and pieces to make them more so, should they be so inclined. Fuckwads will be fuckwads, whatever their religion, or lack thereof -- and blaming religion for fuckwaddery, as Dawkins & co often do, is barking up the wrong tree.

Adam said...

I really can't stand religious fundamentalists because of the way they deliver their message. I think it would be intellectually dishonest to excuse the very same behavior of fundamentalist atheists, simply because I tend to agree more with their message.

Kyle Lovett said...

I think, like Dawkins says, if evidence to the contrary comes to light he will change his mind. I think most Atheists that I have run in's with suffer from what I can only describe as willful ignorance. This isn't any different than the Christian Funddies in the sense that no matter what you show or how you say it they stand by their stubbornness.

Perhaps though, their is a very big difference between those who do not believe in God and those who are against any religion. It is when an anti-theist shows willful ignorance under the banner of being an atheist.

Kyle Lovett said...

Oh btw, great post!

Mumon said...


I agree with you; I don't have a problem with any of the gentlemen in the post, but I have been engaged with those who categorize any religion as bad (although "meme" to me is a very useful concept, and some of them, such as the idea of making good coffee and artisan cheese available in the suburbs isn't entirely bad).

The "every religion is bad folks" can't wrap their head around the religion as a matrix for the development of skilled discipline (and conservative Christians do, too).

Regarding the jerks, there do seem to be some that can make jerkiness out of anything - I totally agree. I adhered to Buddhism because I saw its practice help my life, and it helped and continues to help at deeper and deeper and more profound levels. Evidently - evidently because I can name them and some I know personally - there are adherents to Buddhism and other religious and non-religious paths (notice in the list I left out Christopher Hitchens!) for whom that is insufficient to heal them of their jerkiness.

Mumon said...

Thanks. I've seen the willful ignorance too, actually in people all around as well.

Mumon said...

P.S. to all: I consider myself a "nontheist," by which I wish to mean that the question of presence or absence of belief in a deity to me is irrelevant altogether.

Of course that probably makes me an atheist too, perhaps a more doctrinaire one then the guys in the post, but only because experientially, I have found the of adherence or actively maintaining a lack of belief or even pursuing the question particularly useful.

Chris said...

Christopher Hedges wrote a book titled, I don't Believe in Atheists. His previous book lampooned Christian fundamentalists. If you truly don't find strands of fundtamentalism listening to sam harris, you should certainly consider his work and seek it out. Here is a taste from an interview (

Hedges identifies the main pillars of the new atheist belief system, including a simplified world view of us versus them, intolerance and an irrational belief in science as the force that will resolve all problems, including the irredeemable flaws of human nature. He argues that this belief is itself an act of faith. Most of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity in the battle against terrorism and irrational religion. They divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, which never posits that moral evolution is possible, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. Hedges argues that they are a secular version of the religious Right.