Friday, January 1, 2010

Atheism is the new fundamentalism?

Intelligence Squared hosts a debate over an increasingly-made equivocation. Arguing for the motion were Richard Harries and Charles Moore, arguing against it were Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling.

Good points were raised by both sides, but I think when it comes to the actual debate question, the distinctions raised by Dawkins and Grayling are pertinent ones.


23 comments:

Malcolm+ said...

Where Dawkins and Grayling and many of the contemporary atheists go astray, it seems to be, is in their assertion that theirs is not, at the end of the day, a position of faith (in the broadest sense) as well. They can no more disprove the existence of God than a religious person can prove the existence.

When push comes to shove, Dawkins and Grayling and all atheists are accepting a particular understanding of the transcendent (in their case, that it doesn't exist) by means of a leap of faith no less Kierkegaardian in it's proportions than any religious believer.

Since atheism is, in this sense, a religious belief, I see no reason to think it would be any less prone to fundamentalism than any other arbitrary orthodoxy.

For a person of mature faith, that acknowledgement (that, at the end of the day, God - or a particular understanding of God - cannot be proven) leads to religious expression which is tolerant. mature and constructive. Fundamentalism srises from those who assert that their own understanding of the divine - and ONLY theirs - is correct. It MAY be accompanied by a belief that any dissent is to be crushed by any means necessary.

In general (with the arguable acceptance of some Communist regimes) atheists have been less inclined towards inquisition, auto da fe and jihad than a particular subset of religious believers. However, most religious fundamentalists never get to that point either.

Zach Bell said...

Right, and the nonexistence of Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and Unicorns are matters of faith as well. Just because it's almost absolutely certain that these things don't exist doesn't mean they don't right? Shucks, I'm a heck of a faith driven fellah!

Of course it's easy to say that Unicorns are derived of fairy tales and so it's silly to call that a matter of faith but this is a non-theist's point regarding religion. Appealing to authority and pointing out that people have believed these fairy tales as fact for eons does not make the fairy tales true.

A matter of faith is far different than a matter of logical consistency. I have faith in my children for the fact that I know them and know they are capable of great things. I know for certain that they exist because I can hug them and speak to them. There is no need to get the two ideas mixed up and to do so is an attempt at obfuscation.

Deflecting with such ridiculous illogic is insulting to the mind.

Audrey II said...

Malcolm,

I think that social and historical inertia tends encourage consideration of matters like these to occur through a theistic-tinted lens. We tend to accept theism as a status quo that somehow requires a religious substitute in its absence when that isn't the case with other beleifs. We don't generally consider those who do not believe in George Lucas' "The Force" to have a religious conviction, yet somehow when it comes to the Abrahamic deity, many peoples' assumptions change. I know of very few people who believe in "The Force" that the Jedi/Sith purportedly draw power from, and yet at the same time, the overwhelming absence of that belief in this metaphysical aspect of reality isn't generally treated itself as a "religious belief", much less one that can be "fundamentalist" in nature.

The same could be said for any construct that one could create in their imagination. Does the virtually unlimited number of things that one can imagine somehow create virtually unlimited religious beliefs for everyone else who does not believe in those things?

Proof of existence and inability to disprove existence are not two equal sides of the same coin, hence the notion of burden of proof being on the active assertion, and not on the default absence of it. Nothing at all can be definitively "disproven", but that doesn't put the belief in X and a lack of belief in X in the same category with respect to their conceptual roots. You're correct that the rules of logic mean that the existence of god cannot be disproven. But the same holds true of Cthulu, the FSM, Zeus, and The Force. A different burden exists for those who would assert that any of the above exists due to the nature of logic, not because of an equality between a belief in their existence and the absence of belief in their existence but because of the differences between belief and a lack of belief. The notion that atheism is a religious belief involves a number of theistic-centered assumptions that I think are unwarranted.

Your thoughts?

Malcolm+ said...

You responded to my points with logic - and with respect.

Zach responded with ridicule and namecalling.

By my earlier example, that would make you a mature atheist and Zach an atheist fundamentalist.

After all, the matter at hand was the concept of atheist fundamentalism which (as Zach so clearly demonstrates) exists.

Zach Bell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zach Bell said...

I saw no need to name call and so I didn't. I understand why you took offence however because I have very little respect for your belief system though all the respect in the world for your right to engage in it.

Malcolm, I'm sorry but you believe in fairy tales which have been given immense intellectual authority and in some cases, even authority of law. That's offensive.

Malcolm+ said...

There is a strong intellectual case for atheism. If you care to make that case, Zach, I'll happily take you seriously. Since all you can manage is snide and belittling comments, I'll conclude instead that you don't have the intellectual confidence of your position and must therefore resort to childish insults.

Neither the existence nor the non-existence of God (regardless of the understanding of God) can be proven, therefore your claim that there is no God has no more intellectual merit than my belief that there is one.

You then commit the logical error of conflating all religious believers into one gang of authoritarians, imposing their own religious view. I think that, were you to think on this issue instead of merely flinging insults, you might notice that there are a range of religious views on such matters as the use of secular authority to enforce religious belief. In fact, if you approached the issue with any honesty at all, you might notice that most religious folk (at least in the last 100 years or so) would actually have issues with the broad imposition of religious dogma by the secular authority.

I don't ask you to respect my beliefs, Zach. I do, however, expect you to respect my right to hold them. You claim to do so, but your deliberately offensive comments rather put the lie to that.

Audrey II said...

I take your point, Malcolm, regarding maturity, tact, respect, and consideration knowing no particular creed or lack of one.

That said, I'm not sure using "fundamentalism" as a euphemism for the absence of those things is accurate. It seems to me that the term has meaning beyond that.

It is unfortunate that this thread went south so quickly, as (given your background) I consider your opinions on such things to be of value.

Zach Bell said...

Ok Malcolm, here's the deal. My post is over 9,000 characters and Audry's blog allows only 4,096 characters per post. Rather than gum up the works here, I'll post this on my own blog. Feel free to respond at length there either via the comments or your own blog. Whatever will suit you best. I'm going to format this for my own blog now.

Taa!

Zach Bell said...

Rrg...I keep spelling Audrey's name wrong.

Malcolm+ said...

While atheism is a faith perspective - insofar as it comes down to a choice to accept an unprovable assertion as fact - the language used in describing religious phenomena is likely to apply a little differently.

I think the use of the word fundamentalist to describe a certain segment of atheists is a useful if imperfect application insofar as the conduct of that subset mirrors much of the conduct of religious fundamentalists.

I'm referring here to things like treating other belief systems with contempt and ridicule rather than honest engagement - in particular the perverse conviction that treating other people's beliefs with contempt and ridicule is likely to persuade them to abandon their present beliefs in favour of the proffered alternative. More concisely, it's a bit daft to think that "believing in sky-fairies is stupid; come be an atheist" is going to be persuasive.

Another way in which the conduct of that subset of atheists mirrors the conduct of religious fundamentalists is the tendency to lump all those who believe differently into one amorphous mass and then attempt to make (for example) all believers of a particular creed accountable for the excesses of some (often minor) subset. An example here is Zach's reference to the use of secular power to enforce particular dogmae as though that were the norm for all believers in all religions. It is comparable to claiming that all atheists support the violent oppression of religious believers because Stalin violently oppressed religious believers.

Granted there will be differences between atheist fundamentalism and, say, Christian fundamentalism, just as there are differences between Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism or between Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalism.

Zach Bell said...

An example here is Zach's reference to the use of secular power to enforce particular dogmae as though that were the norm for all believers in all religions.

Actually I dealt specifically with that. At no time did I say that this was the norm. In fact, I just recently pointed out that this was not the case. What I said is that religion has been given the force of law in the past and that such a thing is offensive. It doesn't need to be the norm to be exceptionally damaging to the world and when something happens for no other reason than generally accepted delusional thinking as a justification from some nut job, that's terrible.

Malcolm+ said...

Atheism has also been given the force of law in several jurisdictions in the recent past. The results weren't much better.

Perhaps the secular authorities simply shouldn't try to give any religious perspective - including atheism - a legally privileged position.

Audrey II said...

"While atheism is a faith perspective - insofar as it comes down to a choice to accept an unprovable assertion as fact "

Except that we accept a goodly lot of negative assumptions as fact on a regular basis without classifying them as "religious faiths". We assume, in the absence of compelling contravening evidence, the non-existence of as many things as our imaginations can construct, yet in practice, no one that I'm aware of classifies these absences of belief in existence as faiths or religious perspectives in and of themselves. Why is the Abrahamic god different?

"I think the use of the word fundamentalist to describe a certain segment of atheists is a useful if imperfect application insofar as the conduct of that subset mirrors much of the conduct of religious fundamentalists."

Correlation, causation, and all that jazz. ;) It's true that almost all people who exhibit anger also breath, but it's debatable that breathing is an intrinsic characteristic of anger.

"I'm referring here to things like treating other belief systems with contempt and ridicule..."

To which I wholeheartedly agree. I would suggest that the relevant question then, however, isn't whether or not whether others can exhibit the same closemindedness, immaturity, lack of respect, unwarranted assumption of outgroup homogeneity, or absence of tact that fundamentalists do (clearly that is true), but rather one of whether those characteristics are sufficient cause for the construct of "fundamentalist" to apply. If we are to believe that "fundamentalist" simply means nothing more than those things, then it surely follows. I again stress that I think that the construct carries more meaning than a simple euphemism.

"Granted there will be differences between atheist fundamentalism..."

That's question begging, as it assumes the the very thing that's being debated.

"Perhaps the secular authorities simply shouldn't try to give any religious perspective - including atheism..."

See above. Clearly that's a premise that's being disputed. Perhaps instead of simply pushing it through, we might explore it more, or at least agree that conclusions drawn from it fail to address the criticisms raised of it?

Malcolm+ said...

Since no one is advocating a) that unicorns are real or b) that the existence or non-existence of unicorns matters a damn, the comparison is irrelevant.

The term fundamentalism comes out of a specifically Christian context (an American evangelical movement which affirmed a series of doctrinal points which were referred to as "the Fundamentals). In the strictest sense, the use of the term to refer to anyone else is analogy. However, I've not heard anyone make an objection to the use of the word to describe comparable subsets among Muslims, Hindus or Jews. Why its use to describe a particular intolerant subset of atheists should raise such angst strikes me as a trifle odd. (FWIW, I have also used the term to describe rigid ideologues within political parties - ie, the so-called Socialist Caucus within the NDP.)

So the correlation is not as irrelevant as they all breathe," but rather that they demonstrate reasonably consistent behavioural traits which distinguish them from those who are not fundamentalist.

The fact that many atheists (and not only those to whom the label seems to be applied) have gotten their knickers in such a twist over this analogy is actually somewhat amusing.

Rather than begging questions, I was merely pointing out that different "families" of fundamentalist (ie, Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish) have their particular traits, and that it would be no different with atheists. You're truncated quote makes it seem as though my distinction was between atheist fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists generally, which it clearly was not.

Sure there are those who would like to see their particular religious views imposed on the wider culture. Some of those are (particular sects of) Christians or Muslims or Jews. It also includes (though less commonly) some atheists - and we've seen that that turns out no better.

Which is why there should be (as the US Constitution puts it) no religious test for holding public office or participating in the public sphere. And no religious test means they don't have to be atheists either. The fact that the Yanks have managed to screw this up completely doesn't invalidate the concept.

This is distinct from the absolute right of communities or individuals to speak in the public square about how their belief system impacts their political views. As a Saskatchewan social democrat, I'm rather glad that Tommy Douglas was able to apply his faith perspective to the issues of the day. I'm also glad that he did that by persuading the province to support those initiatives on their merit, not based on some sort of "God said so" fiat.

Audrey II said...

"Since no one is advocating a) that unicorns are real or b) that the existence or non-existence of unicorns matters a damn, the comparison is irrelevant."

Unicorns, perhaps not. Demons, Zen energy, and a goodly lot of other claims about the nature of reality, yes. Is your personal disbelief in body thetans a religious faith in and of itself? You're dismissing a quite relevant question about why non-belief in the Abrahamic god is being parcelled with a goodly lot of baggage that non-belief in a wide array of other things is not. I'm not asking this as a matter of proving or disproving existence of a deity, but rather to address the notion of atheism being a religious faith.

"However, I've not heard anyone make an objection to the use of the word to describe comparable subsets among Muslims, Hindus or Jews. Why its use to describe a particular intolerant subset of atheists should raise such angst strikes me as a trifle odd."

My guess is that many reject the very equivocation that's being discussed here. You're again proceeding from the assumption of Atheism being a religious faith. That seems to me to be something that most Atheists would reject, and not just merely as a matter of offense, but as one of accuracy.

"The fact that many atheists (and not only those to whom the label seems to be applied) have gotten their knickers in such a twist over this analogy is actually somewhat amusing."

My intention wasn't to amuse you, but to unravel the points on which we find agreement and to express a counterargument on those we do not. I wholeheartedly agree with you that Atheists can be intolerant, inconsiderate, immature, rude, and make unwarranted assumptions of homogeneity. The disagreement that I have isn't one on a conceptual level, but rather on a communicative one, as I consider the term fundamentalist to carry connotations regarding active belief (as I would agree it appropriately does in your other examples) that does not exist with atheism. The larger problem that arises is that you've made your use of the term not merely a euphemism, but also contingent on the claim that atheism is a religious belief. That adds an completely new level of argumentation, and one in which I find more than simple opposition to vernacular choice. I'd like to understand why (and, if warranted, offer a counter argument to) the notion that athieism is just another side to the religious die enjoys such widespread subscription amongst believers when in practice, non-belief in so many other things does not, but I'm not finding a lot of progress in having this point addressed. You've assumed the categorization in many of your replies above, but I seem to be missing your response to my criticism of it.

I may not be able to change your mind on the matter (nor you mine), but I'd at least like to be able to glean a better understanding as to why so many believers are quick to advance and sometimes attack a characterization of atheism that so many atheists (even non-fundamentalist ones :)) vehemently reject.

Malcolm+ said...

Here's the thing. Unlike agnosticism, which usually expresses itself, as it were, as pragmatic atheism (ie, the agnostic functions on the assumption that there is no god but does not actually hold to that as an article of belief), the atheist has taken this as a defintive position. Therefore, atheism is not (as Zach tries to describe it on his blog) an utter lack of interest in the issue, but rather a determined belief which, for some, even seems to carry an "evangelical" imperative.

Audrey II said...

But (ironically), very few self-professed atheists hold to an absolutist position that a god-figure in all certainty does not exist (contrast this to the percentage of theists that maintain an active belief that a god-figure most certainly does exist). Most atheists are quite aware of the limits of knowledge and logic, and will quite willingly acknowledge the limits of completely "disproving" any proposed construct / claim regarding supernatural concepts. By the definitions that you're using, most atheists would fall under the categorization of strong agnostic. Even the so-called "new atheists" like Dawkins acknowledge this facet of their positions. It seems to me that you're projecting the very belief you want to claim onto a group where it doesn't exist with any sort of homogeneity.

Even if one cedes to all of the terms and definitions as you have employed them (I still take exception with a number of of them), you're talking about a very,very small subsection of self-described atheists, not atheism as a whole. Surely you're not holding the entire group hostage to the actions of a relative few? Wouldn't that be... fundamentalist? ;)

The notion of "evangelizing" being an apt descriptor to a resistance to evangelizing seems to me to be another up-is-the-new-down effort much like characterizing secularism as an affront to freedom of religion or condemnation of racism as "intolerance". The concern more often than not isn't the personal holding of a belief, but rather the imposition of that belief on others. I don't see a lot of atheists going out there and asking people out of the blue if they've been "saved". More often than not, this atheistic "evangelism" that you refer to is actually a response to some real or perceived effort to establish or impose religious belief outside of ones own personal actions.

If the question is "Do some atheists act in a manner that mirrors the actions of some fundamentalists?", I think you'd find little disagreement with an affirmative case, although one would be remiss in pointing out how small and unrepresentative of the the broader whole that group might be. But that's not nearly the same question as the one posed in the topic line or in the linked debate, and it's more than a bit of a non-sequitur to go from the former to the latter (IMHO).

Malcolm+ said...

I don't recall ever claiming that such fundamentalism was a trait of all - or even most - atheists. Just as it is not a trait of all - or even most - theists. Insofar as the conduct of a particular subset of atheists reflects the same characteristics of those religious subsets normally described as fundamentalist, I believe the label applies as appropriately to them. That does not imply, even for a second, that the particular subset of atheists is any more representative of atheism than Fred Phelps is representative of Christianity or Usama bin Laden of Islam.

One of the odd things about this is how contemptuous language is dealt with, though. If a fundamentalist Christian were to post something about Islam that revealed the same level of contempt that Zach's post did of theists generally, it would be held up by most progressives as an example of the horrors of Christian fundamentalism (and justly so).

Audrey II said...

"Insofar as the conduct of a particular subset of atheists reflects the same characteristics of those religious subsets normally described as fundamentalist, I believe the label applies as appropriately to them."

And my objection to that isn't rooted in the mere criticism of potentially similar action (that's something I think we both can agree on, even if we disagree about specific terms employed), but rather the additional equivocation regarding religious faith that the term denotes, and which you've advanced several times in this thread. As such, the discussion here has come to encompass something more than merely whether or not atheists can (or do) 'behave badly'.

"If a fundamentalist Christian were to post something about Islam that revealed the same level of contempt that Zach's post did of theists generally, it would be held up by most progressives as an example of the horrors of Christian fundamentalism (and justly so)."

You're still proceeding from the assumption of the very premise that's being criticized, namely the characterization of atheism as a religious belief. Most progressives (I think) understand there to be a relevant difference between Boykin-esque "My god is bigger than their god" claims and criticisms (even ones that people might find offensive) that were never meant to apply exclusively or homogeneously to single religious faiths. Most liberals grasp the difference between the condemnation that racial supremacists make regarding other races and a condemnation of racial supremacy. As the absence of and/or rejection of racial supremacy isn't a supremacist position itself.

Malcolm+ said...

Given that the existence / non-existence of God cannot be proven either way, those who choose to accept either position as a definite matter of belief are taking a position "on faith." I really just don't get why this simple proposition gets so many atheists' knickers so badly twisted. On the matter of religion, they have taken a definitive position.

If one decides not to support any existing political party, does that not constitute a political position? Indeed, even the choice to reject political activity at any level is a political choice.

Audrey II said...

"I really just don't get why this simple proposition gets so many atheists' knickers so badly twisted."

Probably because it's premised on what they feel is a grossly inaccurate characterization of their position. That kind of thing does tend to set people off. Scroll up for an example if you'd like one. ;)

"On the matter of religion, they have taken a definitive position."

Again, is your disbelief in "the force" one that would be accurately summarized as a "religious faith"? Would it be accurate to suggest that the mere proposition of "the force" creates a faith for everyone else who doesn't believe in it? The only reason I keep raising this is that I've yet to see any compelling reason why one particular proposition has such vastly differing baggage than most others. It seems at face value to be premised on some very theist-centric assumptions that most atheists would find unwarranted.

"If one decides not to support any existing political party..."

But that decision rarely occurs in the context of a dispute over the existence of those political parties. You're right that a non-support of parties that one acknowledges exists could rightly be characterized as a political position. But my lack of support for either the Qwerty party or the HSDFSDF party shouldn't be. For someone to suggest that, through my non-support for either than I'm taking a "political position" is almost a backdoor way of pushing an unwarranted assumption regarding the existence of those parties.

"Indeed, even the choice to reject political activity at any level is a political choice."

But no one disputes the existence of politics, much less the various political parties. As such, the premise of politics existence isn't an issue in that analogy.

Malcolm+ said...

No one disputes the existence of religion either. Atheists acknowledge that religion exists. It's the object of religion (God) which they deny exists.

Post a Comment