Yes, atheists can be fundamentalists

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Sign from the 2012 Reason Rally. Photo by Brad Pennock via Flickr Commons.

Sign from the 2012 Reason Rally. Photo by Brad Pennock via Flickr Commons.

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"Fundamentalism as an ideological category has historically been limited to religion. But as atheism grows and begins to double as a political identity for many, I propose expanding that category to include nonbelievers."

  • Bill Thacker

    “I limit my argument here to an atheism that actively seeks to end religion.”

    Let’s turn that around. Would you say that any religion that actively seeks to end atheism is also fundamentalist?

    Every Christian faith from Catholicism on down has the goal of bringing Jesus to everyone in the world — they all want (and believe they are destined) to end, not just atheism, but every other religion. So is Christianity an inherently fundamentalist sect?

    Can we say that any Muslim sect that denounces atheism is Fundamentalist? Are there any that don’t?

    I think the author has abused the definition of “fundamentalist” to try to make it apply to atheists.

  • Bill Thacker

    “I limit my argument here to an atheism that actively seeks to end religion.”

    Religion is an idea. If I think an idea is false, why is it “fundamentalist” to try to convince people not to pursue that idea? How’s that any different from actively seeking to end belief in Young Earth Creationism, or actively seeking to end belief that the Holocaust was a hoax? Are high school debate teams actually teaching fundamentalism?

    See, this is what science does… it tells us which ideas are false. Science isn’t content to let false ideas stand. It didn’t just refuse to accept the phlogiston theory or heliocentrism, it absolutely eradicated those beliefs. But apparently the author would say scientists need to tolerate Creationism being taught in public schools, because telling people Creationism isn’t true would be “fundamentalist”.

  • Bill Thacker

    “But I know the most deserving target of my ire isn’t theism itself, but rather oppressive interpretations of it. Some would argue that distinction doesn’t matter; that theism is the root of the problem. […] But here I agree with John Gray: The problem isn’t theism, it’s people. It can’t, therefore, be solved by atheism alone.”

    Anyone who says atheism ALONE can solve a problem is obviously a fool. But nobody says that. What some atheists say is that ending religion is an important STEP toward solving the problem.

    What is the problem? Not simply “people”, but the way people sometimes do harmful, even monstrous things for very poor reasons. The world would be better if there were less of that; if people didn’t take extreme actions unless they had a rational, compelling reason. E.g., if you’re going to deny medical care to your sick child in favor of praying for his recovery, you ought to have a better reason than, “A guy at my church swears this will work.”

    Why do people do things like that? Because they have undeserved confidence in their (incorrect) beliefs. That sick kid’s parent doesn’t just think prayer *might* work; he has convinced himself it absolutely *will* work. We would be better off if people were less confident about such unlikely events.

    Thus enters faith. Faith is confidence in something you can’t prove is true. This is inherently dangerous and we ought to teach people to be very careful about the assumptions they make through faith; to rely on faith only when there’s no better information at hand.

    And thus enters religion, which does the exact opposite. It tells people they are NOTHING without faith, promises rewards for strong faith, and warns them they will be punished for not being faithful. It tells people it is *respectable* to believe improbable things without proof and to maintain that belief even in the face of conflicting evidence (which, after all, might just be God testing your faith like he did Job’s.).

    Grounded in the epistemology that “Faith is a means of discovering truth”, religion is impotent to reign in ANY bad idea, including those “oppressive interpretations” Sarah Jones mentions. If you believe Jesus threw the money-changers out of the Temple, you can’t criticize me for believing Jesus wants me to suicide-bomb an abortion clinic. I’ve got as much proof as you do — faith, and you can’t denounce faith without renouncing your own beliefs.

    So religion encourages the exact sort of unearned confidence that causes the problem we want to solve. It’s perfectly logical for atheists to believe that eliminating religion would significantly reduce the frequency of people doing horrible things for bad reasons.

  • Mike84

    Atheism, like theism, isn’t a belief system itself, it’s merely the position on a claim. To go from atheism or theism to a set of beliefs, you need to adopt a ideology separate from these theological positions.
    That’s why I squirm when anyone starts mentioning things like “atheistic society means this..” or ….”doesn’t do that….” I don’t see how you can link atheism, a position on theology with anything external to that. Or theism for that matter. You can blame individual religions and ideologies.

    “The presence of misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia among atheists is evidence that atheism, by itself, isn’t the answer to the world’s problems.”
    Atheism isn’t supposed to address any one of these issues. It’s not an ideology. You can critically evaluate secular humanism to see if that addresses any one of the points listed above.

  • Mike84

    Also, let us not confuse acts of individual/groups of atheists, with atheism, ‘the position’.
    It would be akin to blaming theism for the acts of theists. I could blame individual religions, if their doctrines espouse certain acts, but not theism, which is merely a single position on theology.

  • Human

    Well, if you look at all the presented argument, not just a sentence it makes sense. And yes, I would say religion that actively seeks to punish atheists (like Sam Harris wants to make a War with Islam) is sort of fundamentalist. And yes, many Muslims are okay with atheists as well as other religions. Many aren’t of course

  • Human

    When you as an atheist stick to this notion that for example Islam is ONE entity without diversity, reduce all the diverse beliefs to one and insist that every Muslim represents that line of beliefs (while they are not), you have a dogmatic view of religion yourself. Islam is defined by those who practice it and those who practice it do this in different ways. So, if you say Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, you are missing the good part. You are acting based on a preconceived dogmatic notion, hence the definition of fundamentalism

  • Human

    She is focusing on one specific kind of atheism namely militant anti-theistic atheism. and anti-theism is a set of beliefs. It is not not having beliefs but being AGAINST having beliefs, and this kind commonly claims the religion is the root source of evil, so they should be able to address it.

  • Hmm, my comment isn’t showing up. Lemme try this again.

    At first, “atheist fundamentalist” sounds like an oxymoron. Religious fundamentalists reject any piece of information that contradicts their worldview, while atheists claim they’ll gladly change their minds when a new piece of evidence comes up. But trust me, a lot of atheists are too hung-up on their own worldview to accept any contradictory information.

    Here’s an example. I got into an argument over at r/atheism about transgender identity. I, as a genderqueer person, tried to explain how biological sex and gender identity are two different things, but a lot of them said, “Nope, you have a penis, therefore you’re a boy, period!” So much for that!

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  • Stephen Kahn

    I consider myself a “fundamentalist atheist.” I have never believed in God. I have never found the idea of God a good idea. Most humans have an idea of what ethical behavior is, although we seldom follow it very well. I call myself an “Ethical Nihilist.” I define ethical behavior as “Don’t murder, torture, and rape. Do help others when feasible, sensible, practical, and fun.” If you follow those guidelines reasonably well, I will try to live in peace and harmony with you, no matter what kind of nonsense you believe in.

  • Dave

    Quote Sarah Jones “I limit my argument here to an atheism that actively seeks to end religion. You’ve probably encountered its adherents online arguing that people of faith are mentally ill, intellectually limited, or intrinsically predisposed to bigotry. These arguments, and the people who make them, rely on a reductionist approach to religion.”

    Psalm 14:1King James Version (KJV)

    14 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

    Christianity seeks to convert every human, and thus seeks to end atheism.And to do so, religion also uses some of the same type of tactics ,that Sarah accuses the atheists of using

    If this is a form of fundamentalism .Then Christianity is a form of fundamentalism too

  • Bill Thacker

    “When you as an atheist stick to this notion that for example Islam is ONE entity without diversity…”

    First, how did you get that from what I wrote? I plainly spoke of multiple Muslim sects. And I’m quite aware that each believer is an individual; indeed, I’ll go farther than you probably would and state that I think each believer is actually worshiping his own unique, personalized god.

    Second, atheists aren’t the one who applied a singular noun (“Islam” or “Christianity”) to a vast diversity of beliefs. Religious people do that. So don’t blame atheists when the singular nouns you chose make it seem like every member of the faith is a clone. If you don’t like it being stereotyped when you identify yourself as a “Christian”, use more specific labels for your beliefs.

    You do realize the purpose of labels is to invite people to stereotype, right? I call myself an atheist because I want you to apply stereotypes you have of atheists to me: specifically, I want you to assume I don’t believe in gods. This saves a lot of time I’d have to spend explaining my views to you. When someone tells me they’re a Muslim, they’re doing the same thing. They want me to generalize from my stereotype of Muslims to them. Specifically, they want me to generalize that all Muslims love peace and are good people, so I will immediately assume THEY are a good person.

    So religious people are INVITING me to stereotype when they label their beliefs. You just don’t like the fact that some of my stereotypes of religions are negative — that I don’t ignore the bad side-effects of religious belief.

    Finally, most of the religious diversity is irrelevant to my point. Religion can be boiled down to one central idea: the belief that undetectable, supernatural forces exist and can be manipulated to benefit humans. I think that idea is false, and that many of the behaviors it encourages are problematic.

  • Zeno

    Most atheists I encounter are equal in their capacity to irritate and bore those around them as is any christian. The two groups have more in common than not. They should get together more often. Zealots of any stripe are a pain to be around.

  • Stuart

    By the authors definition, I am a “fundamentalist chicken eggs come from hens believer” – I am not content merely to believe that chicken eggs come from hens, I think people who don’t believe that chicken eggs come from hens are “are mentally ill, intellectually limited, or intrinsically predisposed to bigotry” – and further, I would seek to persuade them that chicken eggs really do come from hens.

  • People use categorical reasoning too much. This whole subject would work better as an argument by analogy.

  • raborn

    Atheism isn’t a world view. Every atheist has a world view informed by atheism, but atheism is not it. It’s a single answer to a binary position, that in itself cannot be the entirety of how one views the world, and to limit it to that is inaccurate. They have many things that will inform their views, to contribute to overall world view. You being gender queer has fuck all to do with atheism. Atheists being wrong about an unrelated topic does not point to some fundamentalism derived from atheism.

  • Bill Thacker

    So you admit you’re an eggstremist !

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  • RandyW

    Agreed. She has actually stretched it so far that it envelopes anybody who is convinced they’re right about something and seek to bring others to their way of thinking. Congratulations, Ms. Jones…you’ve effectively defined everyone as a fundamentalist, thus removing any useful meaning from the term.

  • RandyW

    If you had a sandwich, and there was half a teaspoon of feces in it, would you eat it because, hey, there’s a lot of good stuff in there if you disregard the crap?

  • DBM

    First I’d like to know who Atheists and Humanists scream out to during sex? OH ME OH ME OH MEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Couldnt resist that one but seriously atheists and humanists are some of the most intolerant people I’ve ever met. Many openly calling people of faith every version of idiot you can think of and then expect them to be tolerant of their anti God views. Personally I couldnt give a rats behind if you worship yourself. And would someone please fill me in on the basis that laws would be written on? There is no such thing as inherent good human nature.

  • DBM

    Last post has touched on something. Like Islam it has become a political entity and a religion in and of itself.

    I just can’t help but wonder if atheism became a dominant force would it be more tolerant of others religion than communism and Islam. NO it wouldnt.

  • Under your new definition of fundamentalism, if I am to avoid being labeled a fundamentalist as an Anti-Theist, I must only argue with moderate theists. The moment I continue not believing with the insane ramblings of a fundamentalist theist, I have crossed in to the zone.

    If someone says bullshit, I have to call bullshit. Whether it is Astrology, Garlic Oil, Multi-Level Marketing, Baby Jesus or Chiropractic.

    If someones opinion is shared, and the facts to not support it, and with the possibility it causes harm…remaining silent makes you part of the problem.

    In the above mentioned light then, I would like to encourage you to correct your opinion, it is wrong.

  • Schon

    Well, biologically speaking, if you have an XY chromosome then you are a male. I do I see what you are saying though and I almost agree with you. Technically, there is no specific doctrine that atheists prescribe to as atheism simply states what ideas you don’t agree with rather than which ones you do.

  • Rod Mollise

    No. Sorry. Atheism is not a religion. It is not a movement. It is not cause. It is not “faith of any sort.” It is simply the lack of belief in paranormal gods and goddesses due to the absence of evidence for their existence. Nothing more. Got it? Good. LOL

  • Rod Mollise

    Sorry. Atheism is not “religion” as defined in any rational way. It is the lack of belief in paranormal gods and goddesses due to a lack of evidence for their reality. That’s all.

  • Jason

    Or making Abraham put the knife to his son’s throat as a test of Faith.

    I see zero evidence that God Loves Humanity. His Liberal minded Son had to willingly be tortured before Dad would consider forgiving Adam and Eve’s Original Sin, which our own Laws don’t even agree with as on Principal as Justice.

    I understand why Communal Prayer is so important. You want people to Repeat and Believe, not to Evaluate and Think. Peer pressure from those who don’t observe you toeing the line used to mean Death if you lived in the wrong place and the wrong time…over thousands of years.

  • Leonardo

    Yeah, sure… this was responded in advance by The Oatmeal

  • Mykelb


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  • Seathanaich

    Nope. There is nothing about atheism to be fundamentalist about. Anyone claiming so is dishonest, ignorant, or more likely both.

    You need to learn what the term “anti-theist” means, and how it differs from the term “atheist”. Then, you need to learn what “fundamentalist” means, what “false equivalency” and “smear tactic” mean, and lastly how fundamentalism differs from “criticism”.

  • Seathanaich

    I just can’t help wonder if a-unicornism became a dominant force would it be more tolerlant of others’ religion than communism and Islam.

    Well duh, of course it would be more tolerant than those horrible dogmas, because it isn’t a political or social dogma. The most “atheist” country on earth is Sweden. You know, the people who routinely top all the polls as having one of the most generous, educated, and free societies on earth. Feel free to compare them against any Muslim or communist society.

  • realBKW

    I didn’t realize I was expected to work so hard at something that, to me, just is. Fundamentalist atheist just sounds like an oxymoron. My head hurts after reading this.

  • Leonardo

    Here’s a response from a fundamentalist ex-muslim (?), to this brilliant exercise of fundamentalist political correctness and fundamentalist liberal Khumbaya.

  • Leonardo

    And you know this because… you draw conclusions from communism, which was a pseudo-religion of state?

    Please, say Hitler was an atheist, please, I haven´t heard that sort of bollocks for a while.

  • grazzer

    How can a position without dogma allow fundimentalism? What does an athiest have to be fundimental about? There is no scripture. There is no communal infrastructure demanding anything of them as a demographic. An athiest cannot tell another he is “doing athiesm wrong” or that there is a better form of athiesm.

    Once again thiests fail to grasp that athiesm is not just another form of thiesm.

    A distinction should also be made between athiesm and anti-thiesm because athiesm deals with only one issue and one issue only; whether you believe in a diety or not. Seeking to destroy religion is not an athiest agenda.

    This writer should take more care to investigate what he writes about. Like, researching what athiesm is and what it involves (it actually doesn’t involve anything). What the definition of the terms he is using are, such as athiesm and anti-thiesm, etc. I mean come on… this is rudimentary journalism, right?

  • Patrick

    “Belief, whether it is theistic or not, is naturally diverse; that’s an inescapable feature of the human condition. And that means it is entirely possible to apply a dogmatic and even legalistic approach to atheism—one that I think should be characterized as a fundamentalism.”

    This is an essential mistake that invalidates the rest of your argument. Atheism is not a belief, it is the lack of belief in a god or gods. It has no other philosophical, ethical, or political entailments. You may be looking for the word “antitheist”.

  • Noel

    Theism is a belief that there is a god. Atheism is a belief that there is no god.
    No-one can prove that there is or isn’t a god, so either way it’s a belief.
    I’ve met many atheists who believe that they are sane and the rest are deluded. Of course, that in itself is a delusion.
    Typically it goes like this:- “So you believe there’s a god, well, prove it”
    “I can’t”
    “You see, there’s no god”
    “Okay, prove there’s no god”
    “I don’t need to prove it!”
    I admit that most atheists I have met are uneducated and unintelligent, but even Richard Dawkins types fail to see that their opinion is no more than a belief.