What is a Fundamentalist Atheist?

This is based on a post which appeared on formspring.me/zbeauvais
I think the instinct—for lack of a better word—that draws people to act religiously can also affect people with no official religion. While there may be no organised creed, there is organisation in a sort of tribal way. This may be in some way related to a culture of the tribe. It’s the same thing that allows me to identify the tribes of midwestern Christians from America by their handshake, clothing, and sociolect. It’s the instinct that makes people buy into a group mentality like Apple fanboys, football supporters, and wine snobs.

I believe there to be a culture developing around Dawkins and Hitchens and others. There are events like Godless and books like An Atheist’s guide to Christmas which are somewhat organising, I suppose. Also, given the list of people who have contributed (among whom are many people I admire) I would be surprised if they don’t make compelling, interesting and probably very funny reading. But I think the compelling and funny part of the atheist culture is not part of being fundamentally against others’ beliefs, or against God or “a god”. I think the idea of “antitheism” is a far less compelling mindset. I don’t like the idea that one sets their belief and rhetoric as an antithesis.

A possibly relevant illustration would be to look at this in terms of other antithesis positions, like political rhetoric based entirely on the principle of “not being them.” It makes your position one relative to the existence, status, and nature of your opposition, which I think is at least silly and at most dangerous. If I were to consider myself to be an “antiTory,” then I am simply diametrically opposed to the ideas of a party over which I have forfeited any constructive influence. What then for instance, if they do something I agree with? Being convinced for yourself that there is no god is different from setting yourself against the whole notion as the basis of your beliefs.

I don’t think all people who disbelieve in God are “fundamentalist atheists.” I don’t equate a person’s belief and perspective with religiosity. What I do think is that people can religiously follow a group or concept. The word fundamentalist itself is difficult to work with. It’s something that is understood to be positive by people I wouldn’t always think of as fundamentally fundamentalist themselves. For some, the idea of being fundamental is to be true to an idea, and this is not a bad thing in itself. I can fundamentally believe it is best to to act selflessly, to edify others, and this would clearly not be negative.

But I think the word has been used commonly to refer to a kind of self-subsumation into the tribe, culture and ideology of a group. News reports of “fundamentalist terrorists,” which is probably unhelpful, but the word seems to convey a meaning that is useful sometimes, when talking about individuals who surrender their own perspectives to the tribe.

So, in a similar way to how I think of fundamentalist religious people, I would probably consider a “fundamentalist atheist” to be one who believes strongly that there is no god. One who believes that he is in a superior position for believing this way, and that those who believe otherwise are in some sense inferior (pagan, heathen, barbaric perhaps?). And, it would be a person for whom atheism fills a sociological need to belong to a tribe more than it fills the answer to a personal question about the meaning(s) of life.

I fully understand the desire to break free from religious thinking and teaching, and the need to feel unconstrained by a tribal group. I also understand the social desire to feel looked after, cherished and loved and affirmed by being part of something bigger than myself. These tensions are difficult to balance, and I think people find their own ways to do so. I think the balance shifting uncontrollably toward seeking the approval or support of a social group organised around a set of ideas (teaching, creed, reasoning, books and the rest) can only lead to a loss of one’s own, unique perspective. It’s a loss to the world.

5 Thoughts

  1. You've clearly thought a lot about this, and I admire the quality of your reasoning. I can only hope that when I think about this issue I can reason as clearly.

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  2. Interesting post, Zach. You've identified the main conundrum. Some of Ayn Rand's work (e.g., Atlas Shrugged) appealed to me in the past, but I now I believe her world view was flawed (or at least her semantics were flawed). She misled people who remain confused to this day about the value of serving others.Jesus wasn't divine, but he had a clue. In Bob Dylan's words, you gotta serve somebody. Otherwise, life just isn't fulfilling. The best way to serve is to tap into, develop and deliver on your deepest talents in a way that helps the community at large. The payoff is in improving the lives of others, in making a difference somehow. I'm not religious myself, but I know more religious people who lead by example than I do Randians and other atheists. Hardly a valid sample, I know… But think about how sour and cynical many prominent atheists are. When you write off billions of religious people, you've cut yourself off from the world. That was Rand's fundamental mistake.

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  3. Hi Alan, The hard part, for me, is balancing the corporate and the personal. Part of the beauty of Christianity to me, is its insistence that an individual is not at the centre of the universe. By that, I mean the continued teaching of selflessness, of giving and of forgiving. Many religious leaders from Christianity's past have been terrible at this, but it's still the fundamental doctrine of Christianity. The goal is to be less selfish, more willing to accept people from any part of society, and to—quite literally—put up with one another. (It's a command in Ephesians 😉 ).

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  4. I'm an atheist but I don't believe in a god for the same reason I don't believe in magic, fairies at the bottom of the garden, ghosts and homeopathy. It worries me that people do but assuming we're talking about adults that's their decision.I don't define my world view based on a disbelief in other people view and I don't believe many people do – remember we're all atheists I've just gone one god more than yourself and you don't define your belief in a non-belief in e.g. Zeus.Where I do align myself with a tribe – is where religion seeks to or has acquired special treatment within a society. In the UK membership of a region gives you the right to discriminate against someone's world view and their sexuality; it allows you to discriminate against children in schools and one specific religion gives you a privileged position within the legislature. I happily align myself with a tribe to try to change this.Does this make me a 'fundamentalist atheist'? No. A fundamentalist holds a belief/ adherence to a set of basic principles (independent of evidence), for me, and I suspect most atheists, our beliefs aren't defined buy our lack of belief rather by our belief in evidence, rational thought and equality, in other words the fundamentalism doesn't refer to our lack of belief in a god (any more than it does to a lack of belief in ghosts) but to a belief in the ration and evidence based decision making.

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