Atheist Fundamentalists and Extremists January 12, 2009

Atheist Fundamentalists and Extremists

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the Forums.

We know Christian fundamentalists believe in the literal truth of the Bible — the world was created in six days, God created an actual Adam and Eve, Hell exists as written in the Bible, etc.

Christian extremists (who may be a subcategory of the fundamentalists?) try to enforce that belief on others, whether through legislation or otherwise.

(I don’t know if those definitions are the ones you’d use. Feel free to correct me.)

A few questions pop up:

  • What’s the difference between a fundamentalist and an extremist?
  • Can there be atheist fundamentalists? What would that look like?
  • Can there be atheist extremists? What would that look like?

(Thanks to SarahH for the link!)

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  • Mark

    Atheists simply don’t believe in any God. They understand that there isn’t much logic in wasting time or money debating, arguing and worrying about something that doesn’t even exist. They don’t even feel the need to announce or proclaim what doesn’t exist. Thus they get on with their lives in peace.

    Fundamentalist Atheists feel the need not only to announce and proclaim the non existence of God but they also feel the need to mock others who do believe in God with using such terms as “sky pixie” and “flying spaghetti monsters”.

    Extremist Atheists seek to ban religion through legislation and/or vandalism of religious places and symbols.

  • nowoo

    The only fundamental “tenet” of atheism is the lack of a belief in a god or gods, so I guess a fundamentalist atheist LITERALLY lacks a god belief. I like to compare fundamentalist atheists to fundamentalist a-leprechaunists because the fundamentals of both are almost identical.

    You could add the category “evangelical atheist” to this question. Evangelical means spreading the “good news”, so that makes me an evangelical atheist when I tell people how happy I am that I stopped believing in a god, and recommend books by Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Stenger, Barker, etc.

  • To me: a “fundamentalist atheist” would be one who is 100 percent certain that no god exists rather than one who says “I see no evidence whatsoever and consider such an existence to be unlikely”.

    If you are open to the possibility of some grand “organizing force” that you’ve yet to see evidence for (e. g., the way that Dawkins is), then you aren’t what I would call a “fundamentalist”.

    Of course, that is an abuse of the term as atheism has no “fundamentals” per se, other than a rejection of all of the “known” gods.

    “Extremist”: those who would harm someone or disassociate from someone for believing (e. g., if I fired the single mom who did our lawn because I found out that she was Catholic and not an atheist)

  • Aj

    Fundamentalism is a movement that wants to bring back “fundamentals” derived from a book or prophet (some form of devine authority i.e. dogma) of something back from a percieved golden era. It’s reactionary, post-conservatism, a fight back against change, to revert back.

    Atheism has no fundamentals, so atheists cannot be fundamentalists. It’s a bit like suggesting a square has curves. People call atheists fundamentalists because they’re douchbags and want to present themselves as the middle of two extremes (the other being religious fundamentalists) to ingratiate themselves with religious moderates.

    Extremist refers to people who hold extreme positions compared to the average (centre) of a population. Although it’s mostly used to imply violence, and is sometimes prefixed with “violent”. Problems include: how far from the centre do you have to go to qualify, and what is the political centre.

  • SmilingAtheist

    To Mark:

    You’re entitled to your point of view but I just don’t see it as realistic. You’re basically saying that an atheist should not say a word, just get on with life and let the religious majority rule the way they want. This is very shallow thinking, even from a democratic point of view, if you believe that your government is democratic.

    There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘I don’t believe in your god’. Nor should there be anything wrong with it. There is nothing fundamentalist about this. As for the sky pixie, flying spaghetti monster, pink unicorn, tooth fairy, Zeus, Thor, so and so forth, these are nothing more than analogies. Take them as you will.

    For your extremist part, let’s just put it in a real context. Should we allow all religious symbols in public or government areas or should there be none? Does majority rule here? There is nothing wrong with legislation of equality or rights. I thought that’s what a democracy is.

    So for my take:

    Fundamentalist – A person who takes their beliefs and ideas as absolute. I’m sure there are atheist fundamentalist but I haven’t run into any. At the end of the day however being fundamental about non belief is a bit silly but to each their own.

    Extremist – A person who would push their ideas onto others by any means for the sole purpose of justifying their position. In other words, being right. Again, I’ve never met one of these people and I’m sure they exist. However I find it hard to believe that a person who is, what I’d call a ‘real’ atheist, wouldn’t do this sort of thing. Atheist tend to be people from religious background and recognize the harm it does to be and extremist.

    Just my opinion.

  • I won’t comment on the last two questions, but as for the difference between fundamentalists and extremists, I’d say there definitely is one. I took a course this past semester in Comparative Fundamentalisms, and I was continually struck by the huge difference between theological fundamentalists, whether conservative Protestant Christian or Hasidic Jews, or pre-Vatican II Catholics or whatever, and the militant religious extremists like Islamic terrorists, the IRA, abortion clinic bombers, Hindu radicals, etc. There’s a huge difference between those who use words to fight theological battles, and generally tend to be separatist and isolationist otherwise, and those who use violence to impose their religious agenda on the rest of society. In studying these groups in detail, I was struck by how unfair it was to lump groups like the Hasids or even most Christian Fundamentalists in with groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Tamil Tigers under the generalized category of “fundamentalist”. I think an important distinction needs to be made between fundamentalist religion (in a theological sense) and militant or extremist religion (in the violent sense).

  • I think anyone who is stuck in black-and-white thinking, who views situations as “us versus them,” and who has trouble understanding how anyone could hold a different viewpoint than they hold suffers from fundamentalist tendencies. I think atheists can fall into this trap just as easily as people who follow religions.

    Oh, and I agree completely with Mike C’s previous comment about the differences between fundamentalists and extremists or militants. This seems to match my personal experiences and observations as well.

  • Nodster

    Mark:

    Atheists simply don’t believe in any God. They understand that there isn’t much logic in wasting time or money debating, arguing and worrying about something that doesn’t even exist. They don’t even feel the need to announce or proclaim what doesn’t exist. Thus they get on with their lives in peace.

    If it wasn’t for atheists “wasting time or money debating, arguing and worrying about something that doesn’t even exist”, it would be absolutely impossible for atheists “to get on with their lives in peace”.

    These “fundie atheists” are the reason we aren’t forced to recite a Christian prayer every morning in PUBLIC school, or learn about Adam and Eve in our biology classes.

    They’re the only ones out there protecting the civil rights of non-believers, and the only ones giving a shit about the Separation of Church and State. There’s no chance of living in peace without ’em.

    There’s absolutely nothing “fundamentalist” about it.

    Fundamentalist Atheists feel the need not only to announce and proclaim the non existence of God but they also feel the need to mock others who do believe in God with using such terms as “sky pixie” and “flying spaghetti monsters”.

    Analogies, name calling etc. do not equal fundamentalism. If so, then what the hell isn’t fundamentalism?

  • Reading through the comments, what strikes me is how many people think that keeping an open mind is necessary in all cases. It’s this bizarre sort of reasoning that we don’t ever use outside of certain religious and political processes.

    For instance, I don’t believe phlogiston exists. If someone comes up to me with some phlogiston theory I’m not going to give them the time of day. Phlogiston is entirely discredited. It is not smart to be “open minded” about it, but a waste of time.

    So when Richard Dawkins says that there probably isn’t a god, I sorta raise my eyebrow at his, well, wimping out. The proposition that there is a god – or at least a god in any sense recognizable to actually existing religions – is so crazy out of bounds and discredited that I wonder why anyone would bother to put the “probably” in there. It’s kind of like saying light is probably made of photons to me.

  • So when Richard Dawkins says that there probably isn’t a god, I sorta raise my eyebrow at his, well, wimping out. The proposition that there is a god – or at least a god in any sense recognizable to actually existing religions – is so crazy out of bounds and discredited that I wonder why anyone would bother to put the “probably” in there. It’s kind of like saying light is probably made of photons to me.

    Dawkins might say it’s improbable, and that would be correct. He wouldn’t dare say it’s impossible because there isn’t a way for him to show that’s the case. Claiming something is impossible would require absolute certainty and Dawkins knows he doesn’t have that. What he does have, what mosts atheists have I’d imagine, is enough reasonable doubt to say, “The existence of a God is possible, but highly improbable.”
    If someone claims pigs can fly I can’t prove that’s impossible because I’m not aware of all pigs that have ever existed or will ever exist. And yet I’m not going to advocate for the installation of roofs above pig stys “just in case”, and that’s based on the observable evidence at hand. Again, possiblity vs. probability.

    The “weak atheism” page on Wiki is sorta-kinda related to this.

  • To me fundamentalist and an extremist are similar yet different, similar in the way they are both strong values, if you will, and ideology, different in the way that they give a different “feel” to those using the word.

    Both seem negative, both seem to be on the far end of a spectrum, but, to me, extremist seems like someone who is much more focused to their ideology of Atheism, effecting everyday of their life, much like a religious fundamentalist, but more motivated to proselytize and push their views onto others.

    It also is semantics, every time I searched for the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’; I was always directed to a description of religious belief, so I went with ‘fundamentalism’ and extracted part of a sentence with adjectives:

    Fundamentalism: “….rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views …..”

    As for the other word ‘extremist’ I fared no better:
    Extremist: “One who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, especially in politics”

    Both ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘extremist’ could be used to describe the same person, (idea etc), my conclusion is that is depends on in what way the words are being used (what is being describes) and by who is taking in the information given.

    p.s.
    On a side-not, I would like to thank all the religious fundamentalists and extremists who have tried to destroy public education, (which I am a survivor of), for allowing me to spend the rest of my adult life using websites like Dictionary.com, (where I got the explanations from of these words), because of a poor understanding of the English language, spawned by their desire to take tax-payer’s money from where it should go; public education, and sending it off to a religious school that will teach fundamentalists and extremist religious views.

  • Nero Null

    What’s the difference between a fundamentalist and an extremist?

    Can there be atheist fundamentalists? What would that look like?

    Can there be atheist extremists? What would that look like?

    The way I see it, a “fundamentalist” is anyone who believes that whatever set of beliefs they subscribe to should be the underlying structure of society as a whole.

    What exactly an “extremist” makes is hard to say. My initial reaction was to label an “extremist” as a fundamentalist who would seek to enforce his/her will using violent as opposed to legal or social means. Then again, what society doesn’t enforce it’s doctrine through militaristic means? Does that make us all extremists? So, having given the matter some thought, I think an extremist is anyone whose beliefs drive them to make radical lifestyle choices. Of course “radical” is a relative term, but this can be applied to modern holy warriors, Benedictine monks who take vows of silence or Jainists that wear face masks and sweep the ground before they walk so as not to kill any lifeforms that may be indigenous to ground-like places.

    So ultimately I think that “fundamentalism” and “extremism” are two very different things, that an individual can be one without being the other and that neither is universally a bad thing to be. I guess it really depends on what you stand for or -more importantly- what your intentions are.

    As for atheist “fundamentalists” and “extremists,” yeah sure. A fundamentalist atheist would be into things like censoring literature and prohibiting religious practices. An extremist would blow up churches and creationist museums. I suppose non-violent atheist extremism wouldn’t get any weirder than not involving oneself with any type of fantasy-fiction or refusing to live within n miles of any religious institution.

    Really though, and the opponents of atheism will cry all day that it isn’t true, you don’t hear a lot of this kind of stuff from the atheists. If you really looked, I’m sure you could find a few (it’s a wide, wide world and there’s one in every crowd) but statistically, the “new atheists” as some call them even though there’s nothing new about it, are pretty liberal and seldom will you hear even the hardest of them advocate anything resembling outright prohibition of any religion. Mockery perhaps but never prohibiton.

  • Lynx

    My answer would be pretty much in line with the others. A “fundamentalist atheist” would be someone who believes absolutely in the non-existence of god(s), with the same absolute faith of a fundamentalist theist. I would also add that in order to give the charged term “fundamentalist” I think they’d also have to show certain behaviours, like a frontal rejection of any holiday with religious connotations (refusing to even acknowledge Christmas to the point of taking offense at being told “Merry Christmas” for example) or any supernatural phenomena (hate of ghost stories or whatever).

    An “atheist extremist” would be a fundamentalist atheist who goes a step further, trying to FORCE others to adopt the same worldview. Mind you, I don’t mean trying to restore the Pledge to it’s original text, I mean trying to ban religion altogether, forcing their children into their worldview through indoctrination and showing overt (violent or not) hatred of the religious.

    All the above has to carry the caveat that I think the proper term would not be “fundamentalist atheist” or “atheist extremist” but “fundamentalist anti-theist” and especially “anti-theist extremist”. The term “fundamentalist atheist” could be applicable if it only describes an absolute conviction in the non-existence of god(s) but once you get into negative behaviours towards religion or the religious, you’re discussing anti-theism.

  • There can’t be atheist fundamentalists in the sense of Christian fundamentalism as there are no fundamental writings of atheism. That’s an important point, it’s not about fundamental beliefs but about writings/teachings/whatever. A rulebook to follow in some guise. One of the things about atheists is that they come in all stripes – left/right wing, peaceful, violent, drunk, sober, bigoted, tolerant. Nothing at all unties them except a lack of belief in certain fairy stories. Some may even believe in ghosts or tarot cards so they can’t even be united under a banner of lack of belief in the supernatural. Fundamentalism just can’t work in such an environment.

    Extremism is different though. As I commented in another post I don’t think atheists really tend to protest in the name of atheism. However, that’s not to say they couldn’t do so and in such a case it is possible that some would resort to extreme measures to get their point across. I think this is vanishingly unlikely as atheists tend to be pretty rational people but this is only a tendency, not a hard and fast rule.

    (These should answer the first question i.e. fundamentalism is dedication to following the fundamental writings of your religion/cause whereas extremism is using extreme measures to defend your beliefs or impose them on others)

  • Miko

    Stalin comes to mind. Not in an atheism-caused-Stalin kind of way, but in a Stalin-pushed-atheism-for-his-own-ends way (although he’s probably more accurately a nature-is-god type).

  • Aj

    Cannonball Jones,

    There can’t be atheist fundamentalists in the sense of Christian fundamentalism as there are no fundamental writings of atheism. That’s an important point, it’s not about fundamental beliefs but about writings/teachings/whatever. A rulebook to follow in some guise. One of the things about atheists is that they come in all stripes – left/right wing, peaceful, violent, drunk, sober, bigoted, tolerant. Nothing at all unties them except a lack of belief in certain fairy stories. Some may even believe in ghosts or tarot cards so they can’t even be united under a banner of lack of belief in the supernatural. Fundamentalism just can’t work in such an environment.

    This is absolutely correct, you can’t have fundamentalism without fundamentals, and for fundamentals you need sources of authority as you say “writings/teachings”. You have to give authority to something and someone, which is a component of religion. People can believe in whacky things like astrology, but without the authority or dogma placed irrationally onto something there can be no fundamentalism.

    Miko,

    Stalin comes to mind. Not in an atheism-caused-Stalin kind of way, but in a Stalin-pushed-atheism-for-his-own-ends way (although he’s probably more accurately a nature-is-god type).

    You’re right, it’s nonsensical to say that atheism caused the deaths of anyone, acts are never done in the name of atheism. Atheism, a lack of belief in gods, says nothing on how we should act, what is right, what is, or what will be.

    The motivation for Stalin to push people to atheism and discourage religion was to weaken the influence of religion in Russia, which was seen as a threat to his authority, since much of it was against him. Stalinism has the necessary components for fundamentalism, although I don’t know enough about the history of Russia to say that there were any movements wanting to get back the fundamentals of it.

  • Anony Muse

    If someone claims pigs can fly I can’t prove that’s impossible because I’m not aware of all pigs that have ever existed or will ever exist. And yet I’m not going to advocate for the installation of roofs above pig stys “just in case”, and that’s based on the observable evidence at hand. Again, possiblity vs. probability

    If I were to add a few items, and order them based upon available evidence from most-probable to least-probable, it would look something like this:

    [Most Probable]
    Pigs Don’t Fly.
    Sun comes up tomorrow.

    Sun does not come up tomorrow.
    Pigs fly.
    God Exists.
    [Least Probable]

    So if one was to classify ‘Pigs Fly’ as near-impossible, why would God-Exists be only Improbable?

    For ‘God Exists’ to be more probable, this would imply that even if the only evidence for ‘Pigs Flying’ is that one day, evolution may allow it, then there must be even more evidence for ‘God Exists’.

  • Maria

    I think anyone who is stuck in black-and-white thinking, who views situations as “us versus them,” and who has trouble understanding how anyone could hold a different viewpoint than they hold suffers from fundamentalist tendencies. I think atheists can fall into this trap just as easily as people who follow religions.

    well said! I agree

  • Pseudonym

    Just one comment. A few people have said things similar to this, but I’m using Cannonball Jones’ wording:

    There can’t be atheist fundamentalists in the sense of Christian fundamentalism as there are no fundamental writings of atheism.

    The word “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism”, historically speaking, refers to those who followed Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, a set of essays published in the early 20th century.

    Modern “fundamentalists” (and US-style evangelicals, who occasionally define themselves as “an evangelical is a nice fundamentalist”) generally don’t follow the Fundamentals, or emphasise things that the Fundamentals don’t even mention (e.g. homosexuality and Biblical literalism).

    Conversely, if you think about those you would consider “fundamentalist”, there are more than a few “fundamentals” (e.g. the Golden rule, and the Islamic prohibition on killing innocent people) which they tend not to follow.

    The point is this: Just because someone is a fundamentalist doesn’t mean they actually subscribe to or espouse the fundamentals of a religion. You can quite correctly be a “fundamentalist” without doing so and, indeed, most arguably don’t or, at least, carefully pick and choose which ones they will do.

    The last three times this topic came up, I proposed a simple thought experiment: Would a 1st century Christian would recognise modern US evangelicalism as being in any way “Christian”?

    Final point.

    A moderate or liberal religionist, who uses the term “fundamentalist” as a derogatory term, has only one reason to call some Atheist a “fundamentalist”. Clearly they don’t believe that Atheists follow some hypothetical Atheist fundamentals. After all, they don’t think that Islamic fundamentalists actually follow the fundamentals if Islam, right?

    So by the term “fundamentalist atheist”, what they mean is that the Atheist acts like a fundamentalist. Rob Knop made this point well.