Friday, April 06, 2007

Doggerel #71: "Fundamentalist Atheist"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Just about any outspoken atheist will inevitably be called a "fundamentalist atheist" as if that term meant anything. Everyone should know this by now, but atheism is a lack of belief in gods. That's it. Full stop. Excessive pointing out of the period.

Beyond that commonality, there's nothing tying atheists together as a group. There's no dogma to be fundamentalist about, much less to inspire the sorts of acts religious fundamentalists are known for: Bombings, beheadings, book burning, etcetera. Captain Awesome got accused of being equivalent to the fundamentalists he bashes, but he knew the proper, but Not Safe For Work retort.

Having a sharp tongue is nothing like putting infidels to the sword.

What's really annoying when it happens to me is that it's typically used as an appeal to motive, as if all my complaints about foolish arguments are all about hating believers. It's not. If someone says something stupid, I will usually feel compelled to point out that it's stupid, as well as the hows and whys of its stupidity. I once had a meatspace argument with someone about whether or not π is a constant, since my adversary was arguing that constant (more precise) recalculations meant it wasn't. It proceeded much the same way a lot of my online arguments did, and with the same fervor. Did pointing out that there's a difference between human-made imperfect calculations and the actual value make me a fundamentalist mathematicianist or something? (Oh, and I managed to get my point across by saying that all human calculations pretty much meant that we just waited longer and longer to round off what would be an infinite process.)

The point is that when I argue about something, I don't tolerate fallacious arguments, as should be the case in any argument about any subject. Pointing out the fallacies behind common theistic arguments is just one of my strengths.

Another annoyance is that pointing out the unlawful, unconstitutional, and/or unethical acts of religious people is often somehow "atheist fundamentalism," as if preventing a government official from coercing prayer, or endorsing a government religion is the same as coercing a different prayer or a different government religion. Welcome to Moonside!

Still another annoyance is when we insist on having science being taught in science classes, we're again so branded. First, science is science. Teaching everything we know about evolution, geology, etcetera thanks to the scientific method is not fundamentalism anymore than teaching "1 + 1 = 2" is. If you want to argue that any of that is wrong, use the scientific method to do so, not favored buzz phrases. Second, science is separate from atheism. It's entirely possible to believe in both evolution and theism. I even pulled it off for a while, though I was going against Occam's Razor at the time. I can also imagine there are some atheists out there who don't believe in evolution. After all, there are some religions out there that happen to be atheistic.

Now we move to one of the favorite tyrants the doggerel-users like to bring up (No, not Hitler. That's a different doggerel, for some other day): Joseph Stalin, a guy who did quite a lot of nasty things to unify the Soviet Union under atheism. Of course, I will say, without equivocation, that Stalin was evil, and used evil means towards that end. The problem with using Stalin as an example of fundamentalist atheism is that he had a particular dogma that only happened to include atheism, but went anti-science in many cases. In short, Stalin is nothing like the typical accused atheist. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he'd call for my execution.


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Dikkii said...

I've also heard the term, "born-again atheist".

I know what it is that users of this term, and "fundamentalist atheist" are trying to convey. It doesn't make the terms any less loathsome.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit more tolerant of the term "born-again atheist" than I am the term "fundie atheist;" I have a friend who, in order to poke fun at his having been a born-again christian, refers to himself as a "born again atheist."

IMHO, the term "fundie atheist" reflects the pure desperation of the theist viewpoint; I tend to think it's probably used as a denial/justification mechanism by theists to justify or hide from themselves the flaws they are beginning to see in their own POV.

Randy Kirk said...

This does raise an interesting point which I think needs more digging. What must an atheist believe at minimum. Not just that there is no God. It goes beyond that to at least no heaven, no Jesus as Christ, no spiritual componant of man or life, etc. Then there are a few things that might be included by the vast majority, but don't have to be, like naturalistic origins and no miracles.

That seems to me to be true of fundamentalist anythings. But I could be wrong.

Bronze Dog said...

Yup, it's possible to be an atheist and still believe in the supernatural, the afterlife, etcetera (though they're probably different from the theistic versions).

I've got a D&D campaign setting where all of the latter exists independently. The gods are just tacked-on 50+ Hit Dice creatures that aren't really important to the fabric of that fictional universe.

It is, however, a fairly rare situation to find such an atheist, at least in my experience.

My personal recommendation: If you find some really nasty atheist who proposes all sorts of immoral actions, I'd suggest calling them a (insert political position) fundamentalist, if anything.

Kristjan Wager said...

One of the Discovery Institute fellows had a whole opinion piece in the Seattle Times dedicated to explaining how "new atheism" is a new religion. Basicly he used all the stupid arguments about atheism being a fundamentalist religion, with Dawkins and Harris as prophets, as he could fit in, including appeals to Stalin.

My take on it can be found here. Not my best effort, since it was written after I had been studying for my upcoming exam all day.

Randy Kirk said...

OK, but back to my point. Wouldn't it be fair to say that there are some pretty basic things that almost all atheists believe, and then they would be broken down from there into differing doctrinal groups, such as objectivists, Shermerites : ), and others.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Stalin wasn't really an atheist in many important respects. In fact, Communism as it was/is practised in most countries (the ones run by Communists) merely replaces God with the State - or the Beloved Leader. Look at all the worship directed at the Leaders, the placards and slogans and party rituals. These people are religious - they're just not Christians. (I'd also like to point out that at no time was it illegal to belong to the Orthodox Church under even Stalin.)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Also, the only thing necessary to be an atheist is that you know (or strongly suspect) that there is no such thing as god - any god. So of course no heaven (where god lives) or Jesus as god - because, hello, no god. But many atheists have some sort of "spiritual" component to their lives (whatever that slippery word means); Sam Harris certainly does, and I suspect many others do. As Carl Sagan said in The Demon-Haunted World:

Spirit comes from the Latin word "to breathe". What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't consider an athiest to be a "fundamentalist athiest" unless he or she was spouting bile about raising a child to believe in a deity was child abuse and that all theists of every stripe need to be rounded up and interred/shot/something else nasty.

I have only seen a few examples, and I'm never quite sure if it's real when I do.

Anonymous said...

I suppose atheist doctrine is possible, but it hardly seems worth enduring the slings and arrows of the godbotherers if you're just going to subjugate your rationality anyway. Agreeing with Shermer or anyone else is well and good, but why would one want to be a "Shermerite"?

For example, I tend to regard Sagan as a fine fellow, but I'm not particularly impressed with his quoted remark on "spirituality". How is it that he determines that his feelings about science are "surely spiritual"? I find the word much too vague for reasonable use, though others seem to find it a handy feel-good catchall. If you wish to address an audience of mixed faiths, just talk about spirituality and let them fill in the blank with whatever irrationalities they find especially noble. I can't recall spirituality being used in any well-defined way when it wasn't about either religion or some other superstition involving spirits.

On a tangent, that dispute about pi just shows what happens when you don't have proper definitions. It could take some work to explain the concept of a limit, but after that we should have a fairly clear definition of pi. It isn't trivial for a general audience, though. (Since I don't have a deep understanding of geometry, the geometric and other interesting properties of pi are left to the reader.)

I was thinking that a proper definition of "constant" would also clarify, but I think I'm coming to agree with the wikipedia article that there isn't a good way to make the term rigorous in general. Still, I don't expect to see other values of pi any sooner than other ways of knowing.

xiangtao said...

Speaking only for myself here (although I'm sure that plenty of others will agree,) the reason that I am an atheist is that I do not believe in things for which there is no evidence. With this thought guiding my belief structure, I likewise do not believe in magic, fairies, unicorns, telepathy, or any number of other things that have never been shown to be real.

I think most of us have this particular trait in common. It's not that we have any doctrine saying "Thou shalt not believe in x" it's merely that we expect evidence of things before we believe in them. In this, we do not put god on any special pedestal of disbeilief, it is just one more thing for which there is no evidence.