“Fundamentalist atheist” is a term I hear thrown around every so often. It’s almost always flung by a Christian fundie who is upset about something, probably yet another perceived persecution.
When the term crops up, usually a few atheists try to figure out whether such a beast is even possible. Let’s look at the concept and see if there’s anything to it.
The first thing to do is to try to come up with a generic definition of a fundamentalist. These are the characteristics I’ve identified. Feel free to add your own. I’d like to try to keep this list focussed on the core characteristics that they all seem to share, not peripheral characteristics that aren’t so defining or not all of them have. Here’s my first attempt…
A fundamentalist has these core characteristics:
- Rabid adherence to and faith in a rigid dogma
Now let’s take these characteristics and see if they might be applied to some of the more enthusiastic atheists.
1. Rabid adherence to and faith in a rigid dogma
There is no dogma of atheism. It is simply a lack of belief. There is no evidence for a god, so atheists live their lives as if a god doesn’t exist. This is different from making the affirmative statement “God does not exist”.
For all practical purposes, God does not exist. If there is not now nor has there ever been any evidence for a god, then in practical, real-world terms, it is identical to making the statement that a god does not exist. But actually making the statement that “God absolutely does not exist” seems (to me at least) to be making as much of an unsupportable claim as saying that a god does exist.
This is where the Invisible Pink Unicorn is useful. We don’t know that it doesn’t exist somewhere. All we know is that there is no evidence that it does, and we can go about our business as if it doesn’t.
For this category, then, I suppose anybody who makes the affirmative statement “I know God does not exist” could qualify as having faith in a dogma. Note that this category requires not just faith in a dogma, but rabid adherence to that dogma. You need both to qualify for this requirement.
Every atheist I have met has at least expressed a willingness to change his opinion on various freethought topics if given sufficient evidence. I haven’t tested them, so I’ll just have to take their word for it.
There could easily be atheists who are inflexible here. I just haven’t seen inflexibility in action.
This would be an intolerance for other people and other beliefs.
Don’t confuse impatience and frustration (two of my traits) with intolerance. I don’t give a hoot what another person believes or does (except where that person’s actions interfere with society).
Some fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, can’t stand the mere idea that homosexuals exist.
This category, then, requires an actual hatred for the existence or thoughts of another group of people. I haven’t seen this trait in atheists, but there could always be a few out there.
This is an inability to use logic, which results in irrational beliefs. Christian fundies have this in spades.
You’d be hard pressed to find this trait in atheists. Most atheists arrive at their rejection of theism through a logical thought process.
One place you might see this trait is if they have an over-attachment to a philosophy, which causes blind spots in their logic. I have seen people who think that libertarianism or objectivism can do no wrong. I don’t think this leads to the whoppers of illogic that you get with Christians, but it is a possible vulnerability.
This is a celebration of under-education. It’s one of the defining characteristics of most fundies. Even the ones with PhDs have to get their degrees at Bible colleges in order to protect their deluded worldview from being challenged.
I do not see this in atheists. Period. There’s bound to be one or two out there. There’s always somebody living at the extreme end of the bell-shaped curve. I sure haven’t seen them.
I wanted to see what other people thought, so I took a quick look at the Wikipedia Fundamentalism page. They have a section on that page called Non-Theistic Fundamentalism. It has some interesting paragraphs:
Some refer to any literal-minded philosophy with pretense of being the sole source of objective truth, as fundamentalist, regardless of whether it is usually called a religion
“[T]he sole source of objective truth” is an interesting statement. I can’t think of anything other than science as being capable of giving us an objective truth. However, there are two important distinctions:
a. Science is a process. Therefore it isn’t dogma, because the answers can change.
b. Science can never give us “Truth” with a capital T. We lack divine knowledge. We are at the mercy of our senses and our instruments. The best we can do is get at something approaching the truth. Hopefully very close, but we’ll never achieve total knowledge (“The Truth”).
Therefore, if I say “all we can know must come from science”, that is not a fundamentalist statement.
Wikipedia also says:
Others, including the blogger Austin Cline of atheism.about.com, argue that fundamentalist atheism does not exist, because it cannot exist on the grounds that atheism has no fundamental doctrines, and that fundamentalism is not a personality type.
True, but aren’t certain personality types drawn to fundamentalism? Couldn’t somebody with a fundie personality latch on to atheism? I did meet a new atheist who had recently thrown off the shackles of religion. He was angry that he had been deluded by it all of those years. I wonder if he will take that anger and use atheism as a weapon to swing back at the people who he feels oppressed him all of those years. Would he count as a fundamentalist atheist?
The high-profile atheists are the ones who are most often labeled as fundamentalists. Wikipedia says this about Richard Dawkins:
Some atheists and those called “evolutionists” by creationists, for example, have been called fundamentalists due to their outspokenness and high level of certainty. On the Canadian talk show The Bigger Picture, the biologist Richard Dawkins said that his critics mistook passion for fundamentalism. He has also stated that, unlike religious fundamentalists, he would willingly change his mind if new evidence challenged his current position.
Clearly in this case, the charge of fundie atheism is unfounded. This illustrates, in fact, that the vast majority of times that label is thrown that it is done so unjustifiably by people who feel threatened by our outspokenness.
It seems to me that the requirements that must be met to make oneself a fundamentalist atheist are quite hard to achieve. I suspect that maybe a few people, out of the millions of atheists in the U.S., could qualify. I don’t know for a fact that they exist, but I think they could. Maybe they’re riding the Invisible Pink Unicorn.