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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Am I a Fundamentalist Atheist?

Some people have termed me a "fundamentalist atheist." When I first heard the term a couple of years ago, I thought it a clear oxymoron. As one said:
"Atheist fundamentalism" is essentially meaningless as a label because atheism is not a religion (no more than baldness is a hair color). A fundamentalist is somebody who adheres strictly to the fundamental tenets of a religion, philosophy or any other prescribed thought or dogma - and will have no room for change or deviation from these ideas and practices, such as Biblical literalism and creationism. Atheism, by the definition accepted by most atheists, has no positive beliefs intrinsic to it. It is only defined as a lack of belief in any of the many gods found in holy books throughout the world. There is no set of people who can be considered "more atheist" than the mainstream or moderate belief and hence there is no distinction between a "fundamentalist" and any other kind of atheist.

The term seems to have originated in 2007 and was popularized by the subtitle of Alister McGrath's response to Richard Dawkins published that year: The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. McGrath compares Dawkins to a religious fundamentalist. He writes:
Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking. . . . Dawkins preaches to his god-hating choirs, who are clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hands high in adulation. Those who think biological evolution can be reconciled with religion are dishonest! Amen! They belong to the "Neville Chamberlain school" of evolutionists! They are appeasers! Amen! Real scientists reject belief in God! Halleujah! The God that Jews believed in back in Old Testament times is a psychotic child abuser! Amen! You tell them brother (pp. 11-12)!

McGrath continues: The total dogmatic conviction of correctness which pervades some sections of Western atheism today . . . immediately aligns it with a religious fundamentalism that refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged (p. 14).  For McGrath, apparently, one is a "fundamentalist atheist" if one holds to his non-belief in god(s) with such dogmatism that he refuses to consider any evidence to the contrary.

An evangelical Christian (albeit a left-wing evangelical), Pete Enns, sees a similarity between Christian fundamentalists and Atheist fundamentalists, he states:
I've read enough of the New Atheists to see a pattern in their thinking about the Bible, and it is disturbingly similar to what you see in the Southern Baptist Convention or Bob Jones University. Conservative Christians and New Atheists share naïve views of what the Bible "ought" to be, namely the notion that if the Bible is really the "Word of God," it will provide accurate historical and scientific information.

Conservative Christians are very clear about this assumption, and it is just under the surface for New Atheists. This shared assumption is taken in polar opposite conclusions.

New Atheists point out that Genesis is wholly out of sync with scientific reality. This is true, but they assume that this sort of thing is sufficient grounds to declare the Bible a stupid book, Christianity a stupid religion, and Christians stupid people. "See how sloppy the Bible is with basic facts known to every middle schooler? And you call this the 'Word of God!' Get over it."

Lack of elementary scientific credibility renders the Bible suspect. Oddly enough, conservative Christians hold the same assumption. If the Bible is not historically, even scientifically, accurate, then God is a "liar" and there is no reason to trust him. The Word of God cannot make such huge factual errors. Based on this assumption, the scientific evidence is either ignored, marginalized, selectively appealed to, or re-interpreted to ease the tension.

New Atheists and conservative Christians have all sorts of reasons to be at odds, and their shared naïveté about the Bible is certainly one of them. Both have false expectation of what the Bible ought to deliver, and this sets them on a collision course. Both sides have some homework to do
("Does God Talk to Us Through Fiction? Unpacking a Non-Literal Interpretation of the Bible").
So, for Enns, "fundamentalism" has to do with how one approaches the Bible. If one expects it to be inerrant and show obvious internal markers that it is of divine origin, then one is a fundamentalist. The difference between Christian fundamentalists and Atheist fundamentalists is that they come to different conclusion regarding whether the Bible shows such evidence of divine origin. He claims that they both are naive in how they approach the Bible. He and his left-wing evangelical brethren believe that the Bible reflects the mindset of the times and the culture in which it was written and may contain some errors and still be the Word of God.

According to this definition, I would acknowledge being a "fundamentalist Atheist." I think that if the Bible is really the divine Word of God, it ought to reflect a different mindset than the times and culture in which it was written. It should be markedly different than other books written during the time. If it reflects the same kinds of ideas as found in the writings of other civilizations at the time, I see no reason to think the Bible is special. For example, Enns admits that the Genesis creation story is not much different than the other creation stories told in other cultures at the time. He writes:

Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, archaeologists unearthed other creations stories from the ancient Mesopotamian world, the same environment that produced the Bible. These discoveries have helped us understand a lot about how creation stories worked in the ancient world.

Ancient peoples did not investigate how things came to be; they assumed that there was a "beginning" when the gods formed the earth, people, animals, trees, etc., as you see them now. You can hardly blame them for making this assumption. The "how" question of creation was settled. They were interested in the "who" question: which of the gods is responsible for all of this? Each society had its own answer to this question, which they told in story form. The biblical story cannot claim a scientific higher ground. It, too, works with ancient themes and categories to tell Israel's distinct story.
So for people like Enns, the fact that the Bible reflects a cosmology which we all know is erroneous is okay. One shouldn't expect the Bible to teach anything different than what the peoples of that time believed. But if that is the case, then why should I think there is anything special about the Bible? Why should I think that it is the Word of God? In addition, how can I know what parts of it are true and accurate and what parts are not? Harold Lindsell, many years ago spoke of the problem faced by those who believe the Bible contains error, he said they have to find a "canon within the canon" (The Battle for the Bible). Moises Silva, in a Presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society (which makes belief in inerrancy a requirement for membership) states:
The doctrine of Biblical infallibility is not a piece of abstract theorizing but an immensely practical conviction. For if the Scriptures are characterized by errors such as are found in any other book, then it is up to my less-than-reliable mind and moral judgment to determine what in the Bible is truth or error. And thus the notion of the Bible as a reliable disclosure of the divine will loses any distinctive meaning (“Can Two Walk Together Unless They Be Agreed?”: Evangelical Theology And Biblical Scholarship, 1998).

I agree with Silva, Lindsell, and the historic Evangelical position that divine inspiration demands inerrancy. If the Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) which all evangelicals believe, then its origin is God and if God cannot err, then the Bible cannot err. B. B. Warfield of Princeton laid this argument out clearly over 100 years ago in The Inspiration And Authority Of The Bible . One's understanding of what it means and how it should be interpreted might err but the text itself cannot err. Left-wing evangelicals such as Enns would say that the problem in Genesis that it is be interpreted wrongly by fundamentalists. It should be interpreted as the kind of literature that it is, i.e., creation myth and then one can properly understand what the message from God is in the text. To me, there is no reason to believe that the text is from God if its format and its teaching are essentially the same as other creation myths of the time. Why should I believe this one is a message from God but the others are not? So, I guess I am a fundamentalist after all. I expect much more from a divine book than liberal and left-wing Evangelical Christians do.


  1. One thing I notice about the more liberal brands of Christianity is that they have an ad hoc way of determining what's supposed to be literal and what's supposed to be allegory.

    If Genesis is not scientifically accurate, then it's meant to be allegory. It can't just be a mistake. If the Christian thinks that paralysis isn't caused by sin (Mark 2:1-12) then it must be allegory. But Jesus' resurrection is literal, because... well, it just is! But Paul claiming that upon Jesus' return, all those who died in Christ will rise and meet Jesus in the air on a cloud followed by those who are still alive floating up into the air to meet them (1 Thes 4:16-18) must be allegory, because Christians all of the sudden floating into the air with a bunch of zombies meeting Jesus in the tropopause is just too absurd for our modern sensibilities.

    There's no clear cut methodology for finding "the bible within the bible" other than what the liberal Christian feels comfortable defending as literal and what they cannot defend as literal. What's stopping someone from declaring the entire New Testament to be allegory?

  2. J. Quinto: Nothing is stopping them. That's why the Bible says we must each rightly divide the word of truth. Having to think for yourself when interpreting the Bible is one of the responsibilities that come with bring a Christian. Just because it's hard doesn't mean we can forego reason and pretend the Bible is a science textbook.

  3. According to this definition, I would acknowledge being a "fundamentalist Atheist." I think that if the Bible is really the divine Word of God, it ought to reflect a different mindset than the times and culture in which it was written.

    Then I guess I am, too...

    That was one of the big problems that I had with the Bible that began taking me down the path to non-Christianity. The Bible is historically and scientifically inaccurate all over the place, which is not a problem if you read it in the same way you read The Epic of Gilgamesh or Greek myths. But people don't gather around every Sunday to figure out what message Anu is trying to send us through the story of Enkidu's life in the wild or to tell us how to avoid Hades and reach the Elysian Fields. We look at those stories as human inventions to explain their world.

    Yet we're supposed to look at Genesis as god's one true revelation to man. But not actually all of Genesis, because science has told us that we've been around for longer than 6000 years and that whole Noah's Ark story is totally impossible to believe. But, other than that, it's all the revelation of god to man.

    But the Jesus story is dependent on the Garden of Eden story. So if I don't have to believe the Garden of Eden story because it's allegory, then do I have to believe the Jesus story? Moreover, if Jesus came to reconcile everyone to god and rescue the entire world, why do I have to choose to believe in Jesus in a specifically sectarian way that the Bible itself doesn't seem to support by praying a "Sinner's Prayer" that exists absolutely nowhere in scripture?

    I eventually came to the conclusion that I had to believe that the Bible was the work of god or humans. If it was the work of god, that meant god was an extremely unreliable narrator. If it was the work of humans then they had no more knowledge than I do (and, seeing as how I have the advantage of being able to study the beliefs of people all over the world, world history, and science, that means they knew significantly less than I do).

    Quite frankly, I can see no way that, "You just have to accept that the word of god is limited and stop asking questions," isn't an ultimately self-defeating argument.

    Paul D.: That's why the Bible says we must each rightly divide the word of truth. Having to think for yourself when interpreting the Bible is one of the responsibilities that come with bring a Christian.

    I don't recall the bit of the Bible where it tells you what method to use to "rightly divide" it. Therein lies the rub.

    I, personally, divided it in to sections I could believe and sections I could not. As the latter category kept growing I realized it is not a trustworthy document for telling me about its own world. So how could the Bible possibly tell me about the world I currently inhabit or the afterlife?

  4. Just because the American Christian tradition reads the Bible in a more literal sense, does not make anyone else who does not "liberal" or that it is somehow a new thing. The Anabaptist and Jewish traditions have long read the bible differently than others. It's one reason why Luther lumped us Mennonites in with the Jews. He hated how we read the Bible, we read it in a more Judaic way which worked against his interpretations. I would say American Christianity has adopted Luther's way of thinking and that's why it's so fucked up. As a side note, Enns is a Mennonite name, which is probably one of the reasons he seems so "liberal". Oh, and Mennonites were one of the first to come up with separation of Church and state, another reason everyone hated them.
    Is it still Ad Hoc if you've been reading it in a non-literal way for longer than America has been a country?

  5. Is it still Ad Hoc if you've been reading it in a non-literal way for longer than America has been a country?

    Yes. Because if you're picking and choosing the parts to take as literal and the parts to take as allegory you are, by definition, making ad hoc decisions.

    It doesn't matter if you're doing it now or talking about someone who did it a thousand years ago. The simple fact of the matter is that all Biblical interpretation is to some extent a series of ad hoc choices of what to focus on based on the interpreter's chosen scheme. The fact that there are as many ways of interpreting the Bible as there are readers of the Bible and the number of interpretations and denominations continues to increase only proves the point.

    If the Bible is the Word of God, whether it's infallible or inspired, why does it always sound so much like it speaks in a human voice?

  6. What if I decide to start reading a poem, or some other non-literal literature, literally and say that it has to be read that way, and anyone else who chooses not to do so is picking and choosing?
    Forget the whole word of God thing, that's not my concern, my concern is the fundy arrogance that says I read the Bible this way, therefore everyone else before me has to read the Bible this way, and this is the way it was meant to be read!
    It does matter how the people before me read a book. If I start taking Lord of The Rings as a literal historical book, you would laugh, but I don't see the difference between that and this.
    Fundies of all stripes seem to want to shut down critical thinking when it comes to ancient literature. "This is how I read it, so therefore this is how it should be read."
    So what if people get different interpretations? What do you expect? The Mennonites and Jews had no problem with multiple interpretations of the same passages.

    Again, I don't care about the word of God issue. Excuse me while I go read Moby Dick and pretend it's a factual and historical. I don't like to pick and choose, so everything has to be literal. Don't want to make that Ad Hoc mistake. *whew*

  7. Oh, and what does "Bible is the Word of God" even mean? I would chuck that whole sentence out. It's too loaded. I have a rough idea what most fundies want it to mean, but it's basically meaningless.

  8. What if I decide to start reading a poem, or some other non-literal literature, literally and say that it has to be read that way, and anyone else who chooses not to do so is picking and choosing?

    Feel free? Until you start telling me that I have to believe in your interpretation of "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and start trying to prove that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on a strict interpretation of John Keats your specific and insistent interpretation of a random work of fiction doesn't matter.

    And that's the problem. We can both agree that Moby Dick is fiction. We can argue until the sun burns out about Melville's symbolism and it doesn't matter.

    The problem is that the Bible is not considered fiction. You don't consider the Bible to be fiction. You're trying to use it as a guidebook that tells you how to live your life. And as long as you are attempting to use it in that extremely limited context you neither pick my pocket nor break my leg, so I don't care.

    I reject the authority of the Bible in exactly the same way I reject the authority of Moby Dick. The difference between those two things is that everyone agrees with the latter but there are an awful lot of people who think I'm evil because of the former.

    Can we not agree that this is a problem?

  9. I personally agree with your conclusions about the bible, but at the same time I appreciate the work people like Enns are doing against the fundamentalist Christian reading of the text because it is working towards the truth of the matter one way or another. I didn't find much in the bible to hold onto once the inerrent reading was gone, but if others do that's fine with me. I guess I want people to cast off the fundamentalist reading of the bible, but once they have, I don't care what they do with it.

  10. ---

    So, let me get this straight. If a book containing errors, mythology, contradictions and histocial inaccuracies can be considered the very Word of God, than what of a book that doesn't contain these things? I have a DVD player manual at home which is ocmpletely free of errors, contradictions and historical inaccuracies. More than that, it's directions are simple, easy to understand and, most of all, TRUE! Everything it told me to do worked. It has never once failed me, and I've never felt misled or betrayed by it. It has been everything it claimed to be from the start.

    Moreover, people who pick it up for the first time immediately recognize it as a DVD player manual, and have no trouble following its clear, concise and effective instructions.

    So, how is it possible that Sony, a company with more foibles and issues then it knows what to do with, can create an impeccable guide on how to use a DVD player, but the OMNISCIENT, OMNIPOTENT God of the universe can't hack the simple collection of 66 books into one volume? Remember, he's all powerful/knowing.

    Christian Fundies need to be confronted and debunked, but at least they are forthright about what they believe and are willing to take a stand on it. Christian liberals are cowards who won't take a stand for anything other than the evasive and vague notion that this error-riddled book known as the Bible is the Word of God, whatever that means to them. Like Greta Christian said on her blog, arguing with a liberal Christian is like wrestling a fish. They are stand for nothing and deserve to be mocked for their cowardice. If I were God, I wouldn't even want the feigned worship of liberals. I can at least understand why God would be attracted to the obsequious fawning of fundies, but liberals; what a joke!

  11. @ Geds
    "I reject the authority of the Bible in exactly the same way I reject the authority of Moby Dick. The difference between those two things is that everyone agrees with the latter but there are an awful lot of people who think I'm evil because of the former.
    Can we not agree that this is a problem?"

    I would most definitely agree this is a problem.

  12. Noophy: I would most definitely agree this is a problem.

    Okay, then.

    Here's the problem (at least from my perspective): Evangelical Christianity starts from a default assumption that the Bible is the "inerrant Word of God." Since that is kind of a slippery term, I'll try to make it more concrete.

    The basic idea is this: if the Bible says that the sky is purple with yellow polka dots and you look outside and see the sky is blue, then observable reality is wrong. The more time you spend walking around under a sky that is not purple with yellow polka dots, however, the harder it is to deny that the Bible trumps reality. So we would spend an awful lot of time in church trying to figure out why the Bible could possibly say that the sky is purple with yellow polka dots when it isn't.

    There would be theories. Maybe the sky was like that during Bible times. Maybe someone made that specific observation on a specific day, but when it was translated in to English the description was made universal. Maybe it was poetic license.

    At no point would anyone actually offer the most likely explanation: the Bible was wrong.

    When I began my journey out of Christianity it started with having to accept that in some cases the Bible is wrong. I have, in fact, often said that if I grew up in a church that wasn't so hyper-literal about the whole thing I probably wouldn't have left. I, in fact, attempted to start attending a non-hyper-literal, liberal Presbyterian church. And it was nice. I can't say enough good things about that church.

    I gradually came to realize, though, that without the whole "inerrant Word of God" thing my ability to buy the Bible as a whole was shot. There were parts of it I still liked, but there were also parts of it that I didn't. And there were parts of it that I knew were flat-out wrong.

    I could no longer see why the Bible needed to receive any special place over, say, a book of Greek myths, the philosophies of Plato, or M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled.

    And that's where things stand. As I've said, if you want to use the Bible as a guidebook for your life, feel free. But if you want to tell me that I'm damned if I don't or that my country needs to build itself on Christian principles, I'll tell you to shove it.

    And I think that's why the New Atheists get the whole "atheist fundamentalist" tag. They don't really need to speak out against people who don't want to push the Bible on everyone. I mean, why fight against someone who is doing no harm? So they stand up against the injustices they see from fundamentalists. And they get painted with the same brush.

  13. Ken,

    I like your reasoning here, and place myself where you do, IN the way you define "fundamentalist atheist," with precision. Thus it's good writing and I like and agree with the main point about expectations of a divine book.

    At the same time, I AM concerned about what is often meant (including by McGrath, apparently, per your excerpt of him) by "fundamentalist atheist" or even "New Atheist." It's not just the stridency or anger (a natural part of perceiving that dangerous deception is going on), though I think authors like Harris and Dawkins would be wise to tone it down some. It is that they at least leave the impression of the kind of closed-minded rigidity McGrath accuses them of. Of the "big three" of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens, I have limited exposure to the last two, but have read Harris carefully, so will just speak about him....

    He seems to be pretty open and claims to actually have pursued a long meditational practice, with openness to "dimensions" (my term) beyond just matter and crude-form energy. So, in fairness, he may NOT quite fit what does seem common among most atheistic scientists or other atheists... the lack of that openness. The "closedness" seems to me clearly a product of a seriously oversimplified paradigm often called "(scientific) materialism."

    So I see an extension of the Enns' description of expectations of the Bible by two "opposite" camps. That is the two major competing paradigms that influence culture, education, research funding, and lots of important things: supernatural theism (a 2-tier universe) and materialism (a 1-tier universe). If those WERE in fact the only options, I'm not sure which I'd align with because I see major flaws with both, as held by most Westerners. While there ARE some points of outward conflict, it's as though religious leaders and scientists effectively "divided up the territory" and agreed that each neither would nor could encroach on the other's. So as long as science stays away from "origins" and "destinies," religious leaders are ok. As long as religion doesn't claim origin myths are SCIENCE, scientists are ok (in both cases, for the most part).

    But really, now we have sufficient sophistication in both areas that the simplistic two-paradigm system is breaking down, and the purists in both camps don't know how to handle it or how to proceed.... I don't completely, either, but by reading fairly broadly, I have some fair sense of it I think, and of the kind of more complete, helpful paradigm of reality we should move toward. (The blog I lately have not updated, and do not link here for now, has a little re. this. If anyone IS interested it is

  14. When I use the term fundamentalist to describe some atheists I do so because I see them employ many of the same methods I saw in my fundamentalist Baptist days. For me it is not about their message (I agree with it) as much as it is the way they go about it. Some atheists would make good KJVO Baptist preachers. :)

    When I first deconverted I was eviscerated by several atheists. They attacked instead of taught. They thought by clubbing me over my inconsistencies I would come to see their way of things. All it did was cause me to withdraw like a turtle into its shell.

    Some atheists need to work on how they interact with others. Either that or they need to wear a sign that says "does not play well with others."

  15. Nothing is stopping them. That's why the Bible says we must each rightly divide the word of truth. Having to think for yourself when interpreting the Bible is one of the responsibilities that come with bring a Christian. Just because it's hard doesn't mean we can forego reason and pretend the Bible is a science textbook

    The bible may not pretend to be a science textbook, but it does pretend to be a history book. If an event in history didn't literally occur, then your faith is in vain. (1 Cor 15:14-15). Christianity is just as "allegorical" as its book.

    Considering that the vast majority of the Bible is supposed to be "allegory" because taking it literally either leads to fundamentalism or absurdities, there's a very strong inductive inference to think that the resurrection of Jesus is just as fictional (read: "allegorical") as the majority of the book.

    I doubt there are scientists who say that Alchemy is still a valid form of inquiry because you "allegorically" change sulfur into gold. The allegory claim seems to me to be a cop out to prevent certain beliefs from being shown to be false.

  16. Another way to look at it is that you still retain some distinctly fundy cultural and personality traits. As gangsta rappers are fond of saying, "you can take a man outta the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto outta the man". (not to offend rappers or fundys of course; it's just saying that culture leaves indelible marks on a person)

  17. By your definition, sure, many atheists are fundamentalists. But one must be careful with this label... It is designed to draw a moral equivalence between outspoken atheistic critics of religion generally (not just the `strident' criticisms) and religious fundamentalists. I'm not willing to grant that, at least not in the case of a well-known atheist like Dawkins or Hitchens. Certainly, I've met atheists on the internet that think in rather black and white, simplistic terms about the overall issues associated with religion, which is certainly a tendency deserving of the `fundamentalist' marker, but the term has been thrown around very casually lately. Also, it's the internet, which has to be factored in.

    For widely known atheists, the markers of fundamentalism, from black and white thinking to unreasonable levels of certainty, are the exception rather than the rule, even at the sites supposed to be textbook examples.

    In short, I rather resent the "fundamentalist" label being applied for reasons like `criticizing faith' or `advocating a secular state'. It's in these contexts that I usually see this smear, and it is clearly intended as a smear, used. It's also an ironic smear whenever it comes from the "we have to use nicer language" crowd.

  18. Thanks for the comments. Zach, I agree with you that the term "fundamentalist atheist" is a term of derision used to try to lump atheists with non-thinking fundamentalists. In that sense, of course its untrue.

  19. Zach came closest to what would be my primary objection to the label. I've seen enough critiques, of Dawkins especially, characterizing so-called "New Atheists" as essentially close-minded and fundamentalist. In Dawkins' case this is particularly unfair, as he's gone out of his way to fabricate a "belief grayscale" with the numbers one through seven representing absolute belief in God (one) to absolute disbelief (seven) - and then labeled himself a six! His argument is entirely about certainty, and his rhetoric constantly and consistently calls for framing possibilities in terms of likelihood, based on the available evidence. So he always allows for the possibility that the Christian God and story really are real … he just assigns a very low probability to their reality.

    I don't know any Christian fundamentalist who thinks this way.