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Debate: Are there really ‘fundamentalist atheists’?

Some people argue that atheism is "the new fundamentalism." But are there really "fundamentalist atheists"? Two atheists weigh in.

"I'm a born-again atheist" button. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m a born-again atheist” button. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this year, a British politician called upon “militant atheists” to stop imposing “politically correct intolerance” on Christians.

He is certainly not the first to use such language. Take, for example, this Huffington Post piece asking if atheism is “the new fundamentalism.” Or Pat Robertson’s warning that “militant atheists” (alongside “militant Islamists,” naturally) “want to destroy all of the fabric of faith in our society.”

These aren’t isolated incidents. I regularly hear talk of “atheist fundamentalists” or “militant atheists”—including from some people I respect and admire. But I often wonder about the accuracy of such language.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to those who use it. I’ve seen atheists mirror the “us versus them” tribalistic tendencies they decry among the religious—whether it is atheists who claim all religious believers are stupid or categorize religious belief as a form mental illness, atheists who narrowly argue that religion is the only or primary source of the world’s problems, or atheists who condemn sexism and homophobia in religious communities while turning a blind eye to expressions of sexism and homophobia among atheists.

On the other hand, I also sympathize with those who argue that calling any atheist a fundamentalist seems to be, at best, misleading. It’s difficult to argue that hardline atheists are fundamentalists in the sense that word is most often used because it implies a strict, literalistic adherence to a set of ideas or principles—and atheism is not a set of principles. And since organized atheism is a relatively young movement, historically speaking, there’s no one calling people to return to a more traditional interpretation—to “the fundamentals.”

There are certainly people who use their atheism to designate themselves as superior, or who speak of religion in blanket terms. I have seen atheists call for an end to religion, and I’ve even seen atheists advocate for the use of force. But I’m not sure that fundamentalist (or militant, for that matter) is the best word to describe such individuals, as it implies an equation with religious fundamentalism that I’m not convinced works.

Just as there are religious people who denigrate any and all who do not share in their beliefs, or who argue that the only path forward to building a better world is the universal adoption of their worldview, there are some atheists who think we will only progress as individuals and as a species if religion is eliminated—and who express that view through an unflinching unwillingness to engage those with perspectives other than their own. But are they really fundamentalists in the same way we mean it when we refer to religious fundamentalists?

Since I see some legitimacy in both sides of the argument, I’ve invited two atheists who have previously written in this column to weigh in: Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and James Croft, a leader in training at the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

Tomorrow, Jones will defend the use of “atheist fundamentalists.” (Update: click here.) Then, on Friday, Croft will argue against it. (Update: click here.) Check back for their thoughts, and share yours in the comments.