There’s no such thing as atheist fundamentalism

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A 2009 bus ad in Toronto with the slogan, "There's Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life." Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A 2009 bus ad in Toronto with the slogan, "There's Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life." Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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"This nefarious use of the term reveals the charge of 'atheist fundamentalism' for what it sometimes is: A weapon to marginalize critique of religion and the religious, and to maintain a status quo in which religious viewpoints, practices, and communities are privileged over nonreligious ones."

  • Human

    James thanks for the opinion piece. There are several problems though. One is that fundamentalism has now a much wider definition. Some of the new-atheists (or anti-theists if you will) have significant set of dogmas that constitutes the very basis of their everyday life. They want to wipe out religious people, attack the countries with those religious beliefs, profile their people, etc. You don’t need to have a scripture really to do that, but if you need one, read “end of the Faith”. fundamentals can be unwritten though, this is neither necessary nor sufficient to the people of that belief to be fundamentalists. importantly, I strongly believe that some of the new-atheists can be categorized as religious. Because, they have a strong set of beliefs that as you said they take every attack on it as the attack to their identity. The context (living in a religious society) is completely understandable, but is not justifiable. If you look at Muslim majority countries’ reaction to the West, the same can be said about them. But does this mean we have no fundamentalists there? no. In other words, there is reason for every phenomenon on the earth. But here we are not talking about why they exist, but whether they exist.
    Again, another point: charges of fundamentalism are used to shut down the criticism of religion: totally true. But does this mean fundamentalism does not exist? no. Your premise is not related to your conclusion in a logical manner. Rather, it means charges of fundamentalism are being used excessively where they should not.

  • DougSlug

    It is a good thing that there aren’t “atheist fundamentals” because atheism is supposed to be a complete lack of religion. The whole point of being an atheist is to not have to deal with a set of rules or beliefs intended to govern thoughts and behaviors. Anybody who “preaches” an atheist doctrine is missing the point of atheism altogether.

    There are plenty of non-theistic religions available if one prefers to adhere to a set of fundamentals while excluding the concept of “god”; atheists who want fundamentals should call themselves those names instead (or make up a new name, if necessary). Don’t lump the people who just don’t give a damn about religion together with those that need to cling to a set of fundamentals.

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  • Seathanaich

    There’s nothing about “atheism” to be “fundamentalist” about.

    Atheism is lack of belief in gods. That’s it, that’s all. You either believe in a god (or gods), or you don’t.’

    It’s like being pregnant. You either are, or aren’t. There’s no such thing as a pregnant fundamentalist.

    Many theists confuse “atheism” with “anti-theism”. They think that persistent and vocal anti-theists are somehow “fundamentalist atheists”. This is also untrue. These people are not “fundamentalist”. They are lots of other things – vocal, public, etc – but they are not “fundamentalist”, because there is nothing about anti-theism that one can be fundamentalist about.

    In the end, calling anti-theists “fundamentalist” is just a smear tactic; one intended to pretend that such critics are no better than the people they criticise. It’s used because it’s an effective tactic, but that doesn’t make it a true or a logical argument – just an effective tactic.

  • Lars Pallesen

    Human wrote:
    “Some of the new-atheists (or anti-theists if you will) have significant set of dogmas that constitutes the very basis of their everyday life. They want to wipe out religious people, attack the countries with those religious beliefs, profile their people, etc”.

    Wow, really? Please enlighten us, Sir;

    1) What are the dogmas contained in that “significant set of dogmas” that you say constitute the very basis of atheists’ everyday life, apart than not believing in gods?

    2) Who are those atheists you speak of, that want to “wipe out religious people”, and “attack countries with religious beliefs”?

  • I take your point. Essentially we are disagreeing over the scope of a word, which is less important than our agreement over the nature of the underlying phenomena we are trying to characterize.

    One reason I dislike the use of the term “fundamentalist” in this context is that fundamentalists self-consciously and explicitly ally themselves with a given text or set of principles. They and self-declared “fundamentalists”. I actually think that is definitional. There are lots of groups which have implicit “fundamentals”, but to be a “fundamentaLIST”, I think, you have to explicitly identify those fundamentals and declare allegiance to them as part of your operating procedure. The explicitness is key to the idea of fundamentalism, in my mind.

    Also, I don’t make here the logical leap you criticize. I’m not saying, and do not say in the piece, that BECAUSE charges of fundamentalism are used to shut down the criticism of religion THEREFORE atheist fundamentalism does not exist. I think it is an unhelpful term for the reasons I describe prior to that section of the piece. IN ADDITION I think it is often an oppressive term which, even if it is accurate, should be avoided in contexts where it will serve to reinforce religious privilege.

  • Dave

    “In the end, calling anti-theists “fundamentalist” is just a smear tactic; one intended to pretend that such critics are no better than the people they criticise.”

    I agree.

    And before the atheist had became so passionate in stepping up to address these issues with religion.

    We had hardly ever saw all that many religious folk at all, whom were actively bothered to be concerned about the problems of religious fundamentalism

    Yet suddenly theists are busily showing how they now have such great concern, with fundamentalism.

    But their real main concern, is that they know how they are continually losing so much ground.

    If theists had honestly cared so much about the need of addressing the existence of fundamentalism .

    Then why? didnt we ever see all that many of them, caring to address it, in much earlier times

  • Dave

    “I understand too the desire of many atheists to improve the quality of discourse within our own community, so that we become more thoughtful, precise, and kind in our critiques of religion.”

    Had more theists, honestly cared to step up and actively address the issues of religious harm. Then many problems with atheist-anger, may then have been avoided

    But they never cared to bother. Obviously they didnt see it, as being of any great importance

    These people have sat around in church groups for generations, reading scripture that points-out how they will reap of that what they allowed to be sown

    For many generations,atheist were kind-enough in allowing these folk the time and space, to be able to choose for themselves to step up to the mark,so as to make changes, that have been long needed.

    To no avail

    If more-kindness, were able to fix this kind of problem. Then kindness might have also helped to change the minds of those people whom had chosen to follow Jim Jones too

    Some people wont be moved by kindness. Sometimes the only thing to help move people, is for them to start feeling somewhat uncomfortable

    Theists are now feeling slightly uncomfortable, with the horrid state of religion .

    But rather than stepping up to finally address the real issues. They far prefer suggest there is a problem of atheist fundamentalism

  • Nate

    I have to say, I think you mischaracterized the W Hunter Roberts post you linked to. I went and read it and its not about the mere fact that the other person is an atheist, which she makes clear. “I don’t believe in God” is a weird way to start off conversation at a lunch. (As a side note, I’m aware the author may be portraying the conversation differently than it happened but as I don’t have a second account I have to assume that she is at least partially accurate.) The atheist in that article has no interest in conversation, they only repeat a couple phrases which amount to atheist forum talking points. I agree that the word fundamentalist doesn’t really apply here but its essentially the same effect as religious fundamentalism. They aren’t interested in discussing definitions or what they actually mean by ‘God’ or anything. It’s just I believe X and when questioned a restatement of that belief.

  • John Davies

    “I tell you who’s as bad as those Atheist Fundamentalists – Mathematical Fundamentalists, you know, the ones who insist that one plus one equals two. How offensive and closed minded is that! Anyway, so you got two there at a dollar each, so that’s seven dollars, please 🙂 “

  • RandyW

    You’re conflating “fundamentalist” and “dogmatic.” What is fundamental to atheism? Not believing in gods. That’s it. Any other principles you cite are dogma of the individual’s device, but not fundamentals of atheism. So, unless you are arguing that “fundamentalist” should be redefined as “someone who dogmatically seeks the elimination of competing dogmas,” you have nothing upon which to hang your argument.

  • Mike

    Militant / fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians appear to be motivate by the same emotional energy, anxiety and fear. Which motivates them to desire power over others to impose structure upon other to safeguard their own prerogatives.

  • Just keep religion away from our public laws! Keep your prayers and death cult, human blood sacrifice, goat-smoking nonsense away from me.
    Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose!

    I am a fundamentalist regarding the US Constitution. If someone thinks that makes me fundamentally anti-religion that is only because they are ignorant of the anti-totalitarian nature of the constitution.

    Religion is bullying totalitarian nonsense. Keep your God stuff away from me.

  • Antonia

    It’s fine to point out “religious harm” so long as you are FAIR, and also point out the benefits of religion (as practiced in the U.S.). The regular practice of religion adds to a person’s longevity, improves their health, adds a close-knit supportive community to the person’s life (which increases both positive support such as meals and comfort when the person is ill, and also increases accountability for the decisions and choices the person makes), and even can help to prevent depression. Check out recent studies indicating that regular prayer or meditation actually thicken the cerebral cortex, providing a hedge against depression.

  • Antonia

    It’s fine to point out “religious harm” so long as you are FAIR, and also point out the benefits of religion (as practiced in the U.S.). The regular practice of religion adds to a person’s longevity, improves their health, adds a close-knit supportive community to the person’s life (which increases both positive support such as meals and comfort when the person is ill, and also increases accountability for the decisions and choices the person makes), and even can help to prevent depression. Check out recent studies indicating that regular prayer or meditation actually thicken the cerebral cortex, providing a hedge against depression.

  • Antonia

    Right, John – because there’s no such thing as “absolute truth”, right??? 😉

  • Antonia

    The regular practice of religion (in the U.S.) helps fight depression; provides a supportive community in a society which is increasingly fragmented, transient, and isolating; adds longevity and better health to a person’s life. It’s ironic that something you see as so “bullying” is in fact so life-enhancing for those who engage in it.

  • julianpenrod

    In fact, atheism and anti-theism have fundamentals. At least, if they wanted to be viewed as in any way legitimate, or “legitimate”.
    Among their most basic philosophical, or “philosophical” tenets, because they cannot be religious in nature, is, “Information sufficient for any form of analysis to derive a qualified judgment of an entirety, even a non-homogeneous entirety, is necessarily contained in only a portion of the whole”. “The Taj Mahal is not in my living room, therefore, it doesn’t exist.” In other words, if God didn’t respond to your screaming at Him to give you a Porsche, that is absolute, utter and complete proof that God is not present. There is no other reason for the Taj Mahal not to be in your living room, except that it doesn’t exist. There is no other possible explanation for God not responding to arrogant demands for something you never earned except that God is not present!
    Also fundamental to their “conclusions” is the premise, “Analyses based solely on personal and arbitrary craven whim are necessarily absolutely reliable.” In other words, “I don’t wanna be told that it’s wrong to ruin my life with drugs and steal from my mother’s purse to buy them, so I declare any belief system that says that’s necessarily wrong to be invalid!”
    They don’t mention these, but they form the basis for the system they declare the only valid system. But this is indicative of the fact that atheism and anti-theism are not legitimate systems. They declare themselves to be “scientific”, yet declare a condition as existing without having examined all that is present, even outside the immediate surrounding of this universe, to be assured what is present! Atheism and anti-theism, in fact, are backward. They are held by those who wish to deny the presence of God, then build up a complicated “system” that “justifies” it. They are not derived from first principles, going where those principles lead. They pick and choose what will “force” the desired conclusion. Just as Ayn Rand, wishing to “prove” that “greed is good”, declared as first principle, “In order to do anything, it must first satisfy you to do it, therefore, greed is at the basis of everything”. In fact, this is an incidental, like also saying that you have to drink water to make decisions, since everyone who made a decision drank water. But this is considered illegitimate in philosophy, to concoct a system to “justify” what you want to believe. But that is not known to atheism and anti- atheist target audiences of dull wits.
    Because, if they can’t see something, it doesn’t exist, atheists who really mean it also abide by such principles as that the only thing of importance is personal comfort. They claim that, because people need others to survive in the world, that automatically means they have concern for others. For self- preservation, not because they have a warm feeling of compassion for everyone in the world. But, if a method arose whereby the atheist could simultaneously butcher everyone on the planet and, by that action, assure themselves of complete comfort, they would have no atheist based principles not to do it. On the other hand, those who think religiously do tend to have compassion for others, even if it doesn’t serve them. Shills for atheism and anti-theism, which incidentally, are not the same, one expressing a personal impression, the other a universal insistence that the very idea of God cannot make sense, will invoke things like the claim that Muslims kill people who don’t convert. But even trying, by threats, to bring people to God represents a will for them to be benefited by accepting God’s presence. And, certainly, Muslims care about people who do accept their religion. And, through time, Muslims have accepted whole populations who were not Muslim. Basically, just a lie ridden hatchet job by atheists and anti-theists, aimed that their target audience of imbeciles who have no understanding of what’s around them, like another of their favorite lies, “All the wars in history have been caused by religion”, that went around before I opposed it in comments on a number of blogs.
    Like all swindles, atheism and anti-theism have two components, the leaders, who know they’re selling garbage, and the imbecilic followers, who are not motivated by sense or reason, often by little more than viciousness or spite. The kind of individuals, for example, who insist God is not present, yet, when they write His name, they use a lower case “g”, to spite Him. Spiting an individual they declare does not exist. And, no, this isn’t people referring to pantheon deities, because they don’t use articles “a” or “the”. They refer to the individual, God, when they use lowercase “g”. In this way, then, as is the case with so many “movements” that are nothing more than get rich quick schemes by hucksters, atheism and anti-theism is known more by its followers. Arrested development misfits and malcontents, sitting in the basement, picking lice off themselves, and stealing from their mothers’ purses to buy drugs.

  • @Antonia,

    “It’s ironic that something you see as so “bullying” is in fact so life-enhancing for those who engage in it.”

    Religion is an ongoing nightmare
    for all of society:

    1. The discouragement of rational, critical thought.
    2. Vilification of homosexuality, resulting in discrimination, parents disowning their children, murder, and suicide.
    3. Women treated like second-class citizens based on religious teachings.
    4. Children growing up to hate and fear science and scientists, because science disproves their parents’ religion – leading to appalling scientific illiteracy.
    5. Tens of thousands tortured and killed as witches (a practice which still continues today).
    6. People aren’t making the most of this life because of their belief in an afterlife.
    7. People dying because they believe their faith makes them immune to snake venom, or other lethal aspects of reality.
    8. People dying – and letting their children die – because their religion forbids accepting medical help.
    9. People choked, starved, poisoned, or beaten to death during exorcisms.
    10. Genital mutilation of babies endorsed by religious texts.
    11. Psychological and physiological conditions blamed on demons, preventing believers from seeking medical care for themselves and their children.
    12. People disowning family members for leaving their religion.
    13. Friendships and romances severed or never started over religious differences.
    14. “Abstinence-only” sex education, resulting in five times the amount sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies – often leading to ill-fated “emergency” marriages.
    15. Women having septic abortions—or being forced to have unwanted children they resent—because religious organizations have gotten laws passed making abortion illegal or inaccessible.
    16. Censorship (often destructive) of speech, art, books, music, films, poetry, songs and, if possible, thought.
    17. The demonization of other religions, e.g. Christianity demonizing Pagans (“They’re devil-worshipers!”)
    18. Children spending the period of their lives when the brain is most receptive to learning new information reading, rereading, and even memorizing religious texts.
    19. People who believe the world is about to end neglect their education, are not financially responsible, and in extreme cases take part in mass suicides.
    20. Long-term environmental issues ignored because of beliefs that the rapture/apocalypse or something will happen soon, so they don’t matter.
    21. Wives told they will be tortured forever if they leave their abusive husbands (and vice versa).
    22. Holy wars – followers of different faiths (or even the same faith) killing each other in the name of their (benevolent, loving and merciful) gods.
    23. The destruction of great works of art considered to be pornographic/blasphemous, and the persecution of the artists.
    24. Slavery condoned by religious texts.
    25. Children traumatized by vivid stories of eternal burning and torture to ensure that they’ll be too frightened to even question religion.
    26. Terminal patients in constant agony who would end their lives if they didn’t believe it would result in eternal torture.
    27. School boards having to spend time and money and resources on the fight to have evolution taught in the schools.
    28. Persecution of “heretics”/scientists, like Giordano Bruno (burned at the stake) and Galileo Galilei.
    29. Blue laws forcing other businesses to stay closed or limit sales, while churches can generate more revenue.
    30. Mayors, senators, and presidents voted into office not because they’re right for the job, but because of their religious beliefs.
    31. Abuse of power, authority and trust by religious leaders (for financial gain or sexual abuse of followers and even children).
    32. People accepting visual and auditory hallucinations unquestioningly as divine, sometimes with fatal results.
    33. Discrimination against atheists, such as laws stating they may not hold public office or testify in court, or in half a dozen countries around the world, laws requiring their execution
    34. Missionaries destroying/converting smaller, “heathen” religions and cultures.
    35. Hardship compounded by the guilt required to reconcile the idea of a fair god with reality (“why is God punishing me? What have I done wrong? Don’t I have enough faith?”).
    36. Human achievements—from skillful surgery to to emergency landings—attributed to gods instead of to the people actually responsible.
    37. Mother Teresa, prolonging the agony of terminal patients and denying them pain relief, so she can offer their suffering as a gift to her god.
    38. Tens of billions annually in the US alone spent to build, maintain, and staff houses of worship.
    39. Grief and horror caused by the belief that dead friends and family members are tortured as punishment for disbelief.
    40. Natural disasters and other tragedies used to claim God is displeased and present demands to avoid similar events (it’s like terrorism, but without having to plan or do anything).

    Religion is a nightmare.

    For Peace, Education and The Separation of Church and State

  • @Antonia,

    “helps fight depression; provides a supportive community in a society which is increasingly fragmented, transient, and isolating; adds longevity and better health to a person’s life.”

    Most of these things can be provided by simply joining a local book club.

    It is ridiculous to claim that religion provides benefits which can so easily be replaced by other sorts of activities. Atheists who live in countries where Atheism is more common live much longer lives and much happier lives than any religious people anywhere else in the world.

    Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, New Zealand, etc….

    All have better longevity, happiness, better equality, are more charitable, and have better incomes and lower crime than the religious countries.

    The study you sited is a false comparison.
    Atheists do much better – for one thing, they are not investing any energy on a false premise or a lie about heavenly beings.

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King and Execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Such despicable parables are depressing and evil and they bring no joy to anyone who really reads the Bible or follows the religion as instructed.
    I find it a joyous thing that there is no Hell and no god to send any one to it.

  • Atheism means : “I do not believe in a God”

    If that is ‘fundamentalism’ then you are a fundamentalist
    because you do not believe in Allah or Zeus.

    If not believing in a god means one is a fundamentalist, then Everybody is a fundamentalist including Atheists like me who say “I don’t know if a god exists but I’d be happy to learn study any evidence about it. In the meantime I don’t believe it is likely to exist.”

    To call such an open-minded approach to God a ‘fundamentalist’ notion – is ridiculous.

  • Tim

    The author is exactly right on the origin of the word “fundamentalism”. For that very reason, members of any other group besides this self-described subset of Christians has a right to object that it is an illigimate imposition to refer to them as fundamentalists. (I therefore trust the author refrains from applying it to particularly dogmatic subsets of Moslems, Hindus, Jews, and so on.) The notion that the wider definition has to include having scriptures is an arbitrary and self-serving one. It is true that atheists do not agree among themselves, but that is also true of Christian fundamentalists, etc. Nevertheless, they have created lists of principles just as Fundamentalists groups did. For example, the leading atheist organization in Britain, the National Secular Society, had a list of propositions that every member had to adhere to. I also wish the author had addressed all the violence that has been done in the name of atheism in Communist countries. If we accept that fundamentalism is the wrong word, I guess we have to just follow back on atheist fanatics.

  • @John,

    In many areas of life, accuracy should MATTER.

    I prefer fundamentalist doctors instead of the ‘liberal-minded’ ones.
    I insist on fundamentalist Penicillin instead of the ‘liberal-minded’ penicillin.
    I prefer Fundamentally accurate diagnosis to the ‘liberal-minded’ diagnosis.
    When picking a lawyer, I prefer the Fundamentalist Lawyer instead of the lawyer who tells me that details don’t matter!

    Only in the world of religion do people seem to prefer the loosey goosey answers to the Fundamentalist.

    One would think that if Religion is peaceful, its Fundamentalists would be Fundamentally peaceful.
    Instead, they are dangerous practitioners of primitive nonsense.

  • @Antonia,

    “also point out the benefits of religion…”

    Like what?
    #1 – The benefits of religion all stem from the benefits of social interaction. Going to a church is no different from going to a any other social club. The people who go tend to make friendships. Atheists in other countries have more options than Atheists in the USA so that is the drawback – but these things are easy to fix and they are changing quickly anyway.

    #2. – All of the so called benefits of church are only relevant to the ‘in-crowd’.

    The price the religious pay for this so called ‘benefit’ is increased ignorance of science and healthcare, increased racist tendencies, decreased freedoms for women, increased anxiety over relationships and sexuality and a dramatic isolation for those who are divorced.

    When you add up the pros and cons, religion is a complete loss.

    Vicarious redemption is spectacularly immoral. People who practice it are encouraged to be irresponsible.

    Pedophilia is rampant in clergy and has destroyed millions of lives.

    Donations to churches are completely wasted on the building and the expenses instead of going to the needy people who are desperate.

    Religion exacts a psychological toll on almost all participants – its effect on corrupting sexuality and destruction of marriage is a singular disaster across in American life.

    Churches ruin homes, they are a needless tax on families and
    religion ruins families by encouraging more births and discouraging all birth control.

    I can’t think of a bigger enemy against happiness in American life in the modern era than to bother with these ridiculous houses of nonsense.
    Only the lack of decent jobs is a bigger problem – and only by a small margin.

    Religion truly poisons everything.

    For Peace, Civility and the Separation of Church and State

  • Larry


    Religious people, especially Christians don’t believe in absolute anything.

    Not even their morals. Religious morality is slippery and full of opt-outs. Anything is permitted if you claim to do so in the name of God(s).

    Religious believers all believe they have a monopoly on philosophical truth and are willing to kill each other over the superficial differences between them. Absolute truth is something they claim but can never present in any reasonable or credible fashion.

  • Ben in Oakland

    One of the biggest lies or slanders perpetrated by the religionists is that ATHEISM was responsible for the slaughter of so many people in the past 100 years.

    Mao and Pol Pot were atheists, absolutely, as was Stalin, though the latter started out as a priest. But in NO CASE were the atrocities they committed in the name of atheism, to achieve atheism, to promote any precept of atheism. They committed their atrocities in the name of communism, one aspect of which was atheism.

    Hitler was not an atheist, nor was Nazi Germany Atheist. Here’s Adolf in 1922 “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might …” blah blah blah god god god.

    World War I, still considered the greatest mutual slaughter of modern times, was the product of the animosities of professed Christian nations, many of which had state churches.

    Here’s what all had in common: an allegiance to an agenda and a political platform that was inimical to peace, prosperity, health, and happiness. 2) A sociopathic insistence of one’s own importance and value of those of others. 3) A psychopathic willingness to inflict harm on innocent people in the name of one’s own self-importance, one’s own political and social agenda, one’s own advantage, and one’s own wealth. 4) A psychotic state of delusion, where in statements about the Jews, The Negroes, The Gays are defined as real, and thus are real in their consequences for the victims. This delusion is then used to justify the psychopathic willingness to inflict harm and further the sociopathic personality that believes this.

  • Meh … not the first or last time I’ve not agreed with Croft. (I don’t necessarily agree with all that Sarah Jones says.)

    Massimo Pigliucci has written well on this before, and I certainly agree with him more than with Croft, that there are atheist fundamentalists.

    If certain atheists have certain “doctrines” that are fundamental to them — or certain sociological modes of behavior that parallel religious fundamentalists, then the shoe fits.

    If certain atheists actually make their atheism into antitheism — as Hitchens willingly did, without any outsider labeling then the shoe fits.

    Don’t whine about atheists’ own behavior.

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