Fundamentalist Atheism

I've been thinking about this (again) since I read Amanda Marcotte's piece on Houston electing its first openly gay mayor. She writes:

What’s it going to take to get people to stop misusing the word “believe”? If you think homosexuality is a sin, then you think that it exists, and therefore you absolutely believe in it. I’m usually sanguine on the way that words shift meanings, but in this case, I have to protest. People are using the word “believe” instead of the more accurate words “approve” or even “accept”, because they want cover for their bigotry. They hope the word “believe” puts their bigotry into the Religion Zone, therefore above criticism.
She's responding to a woman who said she doesn't "believe in homosexuality," and her analysis of where the usage comes from is spot-on, so far as I can tell. That's why, for instance, I refuse to say I believe in evolution--I say I understand how evolution works instead, because 1) I do, and 2) belief in it is sort of beside the point. It happens whether I believe in it or not, and this is proven by the fact that evolution happens around us every day and the lack of belief by a (sadly) significant percentage of the population has no effect on that.

It's this misuse of words that has me upset (again) about the notion of fundamentalist atheism; well, that and the people who, in my experience, tend to use the term. Let's start with the term, though. When used to describe a religious group, fundamentalism refers to those worshipers who claim to revert to the fundamentals of the faith. In Christianity, they tend to be Creationists who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and they come in lots of flavors--Jehovah's Witnesses are fundamentalists, for example, along with many of the charismatic Protestant sects. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists, as are the more radical Muslim sects. What these groups all have in common is that they claim to be the purest form of a religious tradition which stretches back centuries, and which they claim has been corrupted by modern thinking and secularism.

So in order for a group to be fundamentalist, there has to be a dogma, and that dogma has to have changed over time, so that there is a desire to return to a simpler, more fundamental era. Which is why there's no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist. Atheism lacks a dogma, which means its dogma can't have evolved (heh) and therefore there are no fundamentals to return to. There are no tenets of atheism, no liturgies, no ethical requirements or suggestions for behavior. There's simply the lack of belief in a personal God who is involved in the affairs of humans.

One could argue, I suppose, that all atheists are fundamentalists, if they all hold to that basic definition, but that would be like saying that everyone who believes Jesus was divine is a fundamentalist Christian. The definition would be so general as to be meaningless, since fundamentalists generally separate themselves from the mainstream.

But just as the woman Amanda quoted didn't mean "believe" when she said she didn't "believe in homosexuality," people who refer to those of us who openly espouse our atheism as fundamentalists don't really mean "fundamentalist." No, they mean something a bit more hurtful--they're just too cowardly to use the word they mean.

In my experience, the people who call atheists like Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers or Amanda Marcotte "fundamentalists" really want to call them "assholes." We're assholes because we point out that religion isn't always a force for good, and in fact, it's often quite damaging to societies. We're assholes because we refer to religion as magical thinking even though that's what it is. We're assholes because we we're not ashamed to not believe, and we're especially assholes because we've been a bit more vocal about that lack of belief in recent years.

And to be fair, some of us are assholes. Christopher Hitchens is a loud and proud atheist, but he's also Prime-Cut quality asshole. Many's the time I've read an opinion piece by him and I've thought to myself "why on earth does he get to be the spokesperson?" because I really don't want to be associated with him. What can I say? There are assholes in any group. I'm sure there are Catholics who cringe every time Bill Donohue opens his piehole and who would love to distance themselves from that douche-hound's version of Catholicism.

But that's not fundamentalism.

The reason that people who use the term "fundamentalist atheism" use it is because they see themselves as moderates in the great religious debate, and calling us fundamentalists is a way of distancing themselves from those noisy people who make jokes about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They often identify as agnostic, and claim that just as one can't prove the existence of a personal god, one can't disprove the existence of a personal god, as though those are two equally valid propositions. They erect straw atheists who claim absolute certainty about the non-existence of any manner of deity, from a universal consciousness to Yahweh, and then call them as extreme as people who believe the earth is only 6,000 years old, and they do this so they can play the part of the open-minded sage, inoffensive and mild, who no one could ever object to. It's the safest position to take. No one can ever accuse them of extremism.

But I accuse them of dishonesty, of misusing language, and of cowardice. Don't tell me what I believe or don't believe in. Ask me, and when I tell you, take me at my word. When I say to you that I see no reason to believe in a personal God who interferes in the affairs of humans, don't distend that definition to mean I don't believe in the possibility of some as-yet-undiscovered connection between all matter in the universe that you call God. And most of all, if you honestly think I'm an asshole for being open about my atheism, just call me one. I can take that a whole lot better than I can being called a fundamentalist.

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