Monday, May 23, 2011

Are Outspoken Atheists Fundamentalist? What about Militant?

“Atheists are as fundamentalist as those they rally against!” “Militant atheism on the rise.” Sentiments like these are heard on a daily basis now, in response to the “rise of the new atheism,” a concept I have some issue with, but will let fall by the wayside for the purpose of this particular post. So what do these words mean, and does their usage as applied to atheists constitute a fair charge, or are they charges falsely levied?

Let's find out, shall we? We'll start with fundamentalist atheism.

Fundamentalist atheism:

Fundamentalism is the belief in a strict adherence to a basic set of principles. It is the dogmatic clinging to a set of beliefs with the insistence in the inerrancy of said beliefs being a prime aspect. Fundamentalism has its origins in the Protestant movement within Christianity. In the early part of the 20th century, a 12 volume set of books which outlined a set of fundamental beliefs that all Christians were said to be required to adhere to was published. These fundamental beliefs were as follows:

•The infallibility and inspiration of Scripture.
•The virgin birth of Christ and the Deity of Christ.
•The substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for sinners and the blood atonement.
•The bodily resurrection of Christ and His visible return to earth.
•A judgement of the saved and lost followed by a literal heaven and a literal hell.

These beliefs were said to be required for one to be considered a Christian. A modern day fundamentalist Christian would believe these in addition to some other ideas, for example, depending of course on denomination, a literal belief in Genesis and a 6,000 year old Earth (with the disbelief in evolution as a corollary). A dogmatic belief is one which cannot be disputed or diverged from. It is believed to be correct, and held to with a conviction that is said to be impossible to break, no matter what evidence is presented. A fundamentalist who believes in intelligent design does not change their mind when confronted with evidence for evolution. They reject evolution outright, as they have presupposed the inerrant nature of intelligent design/creationism.

Does this fit the bill when it comes to atheists? Are atheists dogmatic? Well, first of all, apart from the lack of belief, there are no beliefs required of one to be an atheist. The only thing necessary is the lack of a belief in god(s). Anything beyond that, while important, is extraneous in this context. So, if atheism is fundamentalist in nature, we must be talking about the lack of belief in god(s). Can a lack of belief be inerrant, indisputable, and impossible to diverge from?

Does that make any sense? The lack of a belief implies that one has not been convinced. There is no positive claim there. There is no content. Atheism, at its purest, is devoid of any claims. How can the lack of a claim be dogmatic in nature? How can one hold the fundamentalist belief in the inerrancy of nothing? If one is not convinced, then the implication is that one could be convinced, given a satisfactory, reasoned, evidence based argument.

Now, there are atheists, like myself, who go a step further and hold the positive belief that there is no god. This belief is based upon not only the lack of evidence for a god, but the evidence that contradicts the specific god claims made by religions. If I can scientifically and philosophically chip away at the god claims, I make it more likely that the gods, at least as understood, do not exist. In cases of the supernatural, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Not proof, mind you, just evidence. Combine that with the evidence against specific claims, and you have someone like me who believes that there's probably no god out there. Now, does someone like myself claim to KNOW there is no god? No, of course not. This is a belief claim, not a knowledge claim. That's a digression from the main point, however. The main point/question, is this:

Can a person hold a fundamentalist view of the positive belief in the lack of any gods?

Recall that in order for a person to be considered a fundamentalist, this necessitates the dogmatic clinging to a set of beliefs with the insistence in the inerrancy of said beliefs being a prime aspect. Strict adherence to a set of principles. A dogmatic belief is one which cannot be disputed or diverged from. It is believed to be correct, and held to with a conviction that is said to be impossible to break, no matter what evidence is presented. Remember the example I gave regarding a fundamentalist Christian who holds to a view of the origins of life that consists of creationism and only creationism? What happens when they are confronted with evidence for evolution? A true fundamentalist rejects this evidence, no matter how compelling. Creationism is correct-period. Can the belief in the nonexistence of any gods based upon the lack of evidence for one and the evidence against be fundamentalist in nature? I suppose, for some irrational individuals. For atheism as a whole, no.

We have already established that atheism is not a belief system. A non belief system with no mandates, edicts, tenets of dogmas cannot be dogmatic. Atheism does not have a governing body. It does not have a 12 volume set of books written for it in which atheist are told what they need to believe in order to be an atheist, and how they must believe in these tenets, with absolutely zero divergence. That is simply not the case.

Atheism is an intellectual divergence from theistic belief based upon an evidentiary rationale. At least, non fallacious atheism is. There certainly exist those atheists who are atheists for emotional reasons, for example, and I would argue that their atheism is built upon a piss poor foundation. There may be those who are dogmatic in their belief that there is no god, although I find myself hard pressed to sympathize with this position, as this belief should be based upon evidence (both for and the lack of evidence for the opposite hypothesis) and beliefs based upon evidence are non dogmatic. All it takes to change such a belief is evidence.

My disbelief is contingent upon the evidence, and so, if evidence of the existence of a god(s) were to come to light, I would find myself convinced, assuming the evidence was convincing. The atheists against whom the charge of fundamentalism is levied; Richard Dawkins, for example, say the same thing. Dawkins states it in The God Delusion. Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, they too, say that they could be convinced by evidence. They are all amenable to argument. I have heard some theists say that while they maintain that they could be convinced, atheists don't really expect to be convinced. And to this I say, so what? Do I honestly expect to be convinced? Fuck no! My experience tells me that this is quite unlikely. But that DOES NOT make me dogmatic in m view, as I absolutely maintain that it COULD happen. A dogmatic fundamentalism precludes that chance, however slight as it may be perceived, from ever coming to fruition.

Getting back off of the positive disbelief in god, and back to the simple lack of belief, this argument becomes even sillier. As I asked earlier, can a lack of belief be inerrant, indisputable, and impossible to diverge from? Of course not. That's an absurd proposition. It's possible to be dogmatic in your belief that hockey is a terrible sport. It is not possible to be dogmatic in your lack of belief that hockey is a good sport.

Verdict: Nonsense.

Having dealt with the fundamentalism claim (to sum up, atheism is the lack of belief and a lack of belief cannot be dogmatic; positive/strong atheism is based upon evidence/lack of evidence, and so evidence can
change one's position, meaning positions can change ie not fundamentalist) we come to the 'militant' claim:
So, is Richard Dawkins a 'militant atheist?' Am I a 'militant atheist'? Is any outspoken atheist a 'militant' atheist?' Well, in order to answer this question, we must ascertain just what it is meant by the word militant. Militant seems to have two main meanings, one of which we can discard, as it deals with armed physical warfare. The other, however, actually seems applicable. The second meaning is “having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause.” Well, outspoken atheists are certainly in the service of a cause, although this cause is not the same for all atheists. Different causes aside though, we are certainly working towards one goal or another, lack of a unified front and all. What about a “combative character?” Sure, many do, and some, myself included, can get combative, even if their default disposition is one of combativeness.

So if activist atheist have a goal and some of us are combative, the charge of militant atheism seems.....fair. Sure, its usage in the popular lexicon, as used in this context, especially in the mainstream media, is a bit disingenuous, as it is certainly used as a pejorative, and meant to evoke images of armed soldiers fighting a war of ideas, as opposed to simple meaning an aggressive or combative approach, but the meaning is certainly applicable.

Interestingly enough, this is evidence for the fact that I am not dogmatic in my beliefs. I started researching and writing this with the idea in mind that the 'militant' tag was, well, bullshit, as I was thinking within the context of its pejorative meaning- uniform clad, armed atheists marching somewhere. Instead, I came to realize that, regardless of the images that its usage in this context call to mind (something the people who levy the charge are certainly aware of) the word militant as applied to a subset of activist/outspoken atheists fits. So, it's not the word that's bullshit. The intent behind its usage might be in many instances, but the word itself fits and therefore, to my initial surprise, I must conclude that I am, at least at times, a militant atheist, and people like Dawkins are militant atheists.

Verdict: True.

Call me militant from now on and I guess I'll be inclined to agree that I am, at least some of the time, militant. I don't like the connotation, even now, but it appears that we need to get over that, because the one definition fits. Call me a fundamentalist, however, and I'll fight you to the death! Oh, jeez, there's that militarism peeking out.....

So, next time you hear someone saying something to the effect of “atheists are just like the fundamentalist theists they are always complaining about” you can set them straight. It's high time people stopped conflating confidence and surety backed by evidence with the bare assertions and irrationality that constitute dogmatic belief. However, if you hear them call atheists militant, well, as long as they are using the definition that does not include physical warfare, and they are levying the charge against the right atheists, you don't have to do a damn thing, because as far as I can now see, they're correct.

Well this was certainly surprising......


  1. Good blog.

    People often use certain words for rhetorical value, typically derived from some type of negative cultural stigma (ie: Cult).

    I often times make it my "job" to point this out when people make such an incorrect and unfair distinction.

    Fundamentalism is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as if its used in a proper manner. Certain things have fundamentals; for example, to be a race car driver, it is fundamental one must actually drive a car (otherwise it just doesn't make sense). But when people start playing the no-true-Scotsman fallacy (typically due to the ambiguous nature of certain things), then the word "fundamental" loses its defining meaning and becomes just rhetoric.

    As far as militant goes, I'm glad you are able to make the discernment. Rhetorical value of words only has power if one lets it become an emotional issue. And it is up to people like you and me to educate people on making the distinctions.

    I am by no means a militant atheist. But I am militant when it comes to nonsense. And by nonsense, I mean outright lies in the face of facts. For example, a FB friend claiming wars and natural disasters were more frequent and it was a sign of the end of days.. I had to call her out on it and provide evidence that her claims were just not true (I might have shared this story with you already). Now, if someone just felt like it was the end of times, then I can't really argue with that as they are not really making any claims, nor bringing in any supposed evidence to back themselves up. Ok you can feel how you want, I have no problems, as long as you're not trying to convert others or anything.

    I am also militant against nonsensical rhetoric. Rhetoric in the form of a type of poetry, in which case the words used make sense with the line of thinking and points being made.. I have no problem with (like, for example, a literal poem.. for art I should say). But rhetoric in the political sense, where words lose their defining meaning and appeal to emotion instead, all to confuse others in order to make it seem like you have a point, I am completely against. In fact, its something I despise.

    If you are making points and claims, then those should stand up against scrutiny. Using rhetoric (appeal to emotion) to work around this is despicable and vile.

  2. Yes, we discussed those particular FB discussions.

    Are you as surprised as I was to find that I actually came to agree with the charge of militantism?

    And great comment, dude.

  3. Haha, yes, I was somewhat surprised that you actually came to agree with the charge of militantism. But was glad to see that you looked up the actual definition of the word to see what it meant. Though of course the ones making the accusations are using the rhetorical approach, based on the negative stigma the word holds. But this just opens up the approach to educate others on the actual definitions, rather than getting all up in arms (no pun intended) about it.


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