Monday, July 16, 2007


Dictionary Fundamentals

Well, the "fundamentalist atheist" meme has broken out again and, with my tendency to allow my interest in a question to overpower my good sense, I have a few thoughts on it ...

First of all, while I flirted with the term some time ago (particularly in connection with certain supremely smug inhabitants of alt.atheism), I personally have come to the conclusion that its only present use is to end conversations and turn them into shouting matches ... as you can see going on at the above sites.

Still, for those who might be interested in examining why the term gets used, one thing to be kept in mind is that no one should be confusing the usage ... or attempted usage ... "fundamentalist atheist" with capital "F" Fundamentalism. The latter is a historic movement, mostly made up Protestant Christians, in reaction against "Modernism," particularly in the form of Higher Criticism of the Bible. But words are changeable things and small "f" fundamentalism may have taken on a quite different meaning since Fundamentalism was founded. As the American Heritage dictionary defines it, "f"undamentalism is:

A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.
I won't get into the whole "atheism is not a religion" business (or even the more problematical "atheism is not theology" discussion), but that does not seem to be a barrier to cross-over usage for atheists anyway, since it is only "usually" used in reference to a religious movement. Similarly, "opposition to secularism" would not appear to be considered essential. In any event, let's consider the following:

"Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way." Fundamentalists of all stripes live by this venerable motto, and must therefore wield their unsleeping swords in constant mental fight against contrary opinions of apostates and opponents (who usually make up a sizable majority -- for, as Jesus also noted, "Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction"). The favored fate for the nonelect varies, according to the temperament and power of true believers, from the kindness of simple pity to the refiner's fire of extirpation. But the basic ideological weapon of fundamentalism rarely departs much from the tried and true techniques of anathematization.
That was written by no less a literary stylist than Stephen Jay Gould about how he felt he had been used by ├╝ber-secularist Daniel Dennett in connection with the thoroughly non-religious topic of evolutionary theory. Specifically, Gould was complaining of "Darwinian Fundamentalism."

Unfortunately, at least for the ideals of intellectual discourse, anathematization rarely follows the dictates of logic or evidence, and nearly always scores distressingly high in heat/light ratio. Anathema also requires an anathemee -- and I seem to have been elected. (Whatever my professional contributions to proper Darwinian pluralism, I stand convicted, I suggest, primarily for my efforts to bring the full scope of technical debate, with all its complexities and messiness, but without loss of substance, to general readers.)
So, at the very least, there is pretty good precedent for using small "f" fundamentalism and its cognates in connection with completely secular, non-religious thinking. Given that, let's see if we know any atheists who might be characterized as a "fundamentalist atheist," if not completely accurately, at least with enough justification to take the term within the realm of fair, though barbed, comment. Is there anyone who rigidly adheres to fundamental principles of his or her atheism and is prone to intolerance of other views or even to the use of anathematization of others?

Hmmm ... maybe I can call up the Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists and see if they can think of anybody.

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