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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Russell Blackford

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

October 11, 2010

What is fundamentalism? What is wrong with fundamentalism, anyway? Is there such a thing as a fundamentalist atheist? What would such a creature be like?

A lot of the debates that I find myself reading in the blogosphere or elsewhere on the net involve somebody accusing somebody else of something called “fundamentalism.” This is not a useful way to advance most debates.

What is fundamentalism?

The best definition I can give of fundamentalism is belief in the literal and inerrant truth of the Bible (or, by extension some other holy book, or something that is treated as one).

But that definition is not straightforward. In fact, it’s very difficult to nail down in a precise way what a “literal” interpretation of the Bible actually is. The Bible is a work, or rather a literary collection, that is obviously wide open to interpretation, and many passages are not given a literal interpretation by anyone. The doctrines discovered in its pages by real-life Christian fundamentalists - people in the tradition of those who consciously adopted that label for themselves - may well be ahistorical to some extent.

booksHowever, we needn’t get too deeply into what a rigorous literalism would really be like or whether it is a coherent idea when tested to the limit. It’s quite possible to obtain an adequate idea of Christian fundamentalism without any of that. Fundamentalists are, for example, the folks who believe that the Earth is only about six thousand years old or a little bit more with some fudging ... some say more like 10,000 years. They typically believe that something like the myth of Eden and the Fall actually took place 6000-or-whatever-odd years ago, somewhere in the Middle East (and complete with magic trees, rib-woman, and talking snake). They claim that Jesus really was born of a virgin, really did die as a blood sacrifice for our sins, really was resurrected bodily, and really will return to Earth from Heaven in judgment of the living and the dead. A lot of them believe in a doctrine of the Rapture - that the saved will be taken up to Heaven when Jesus returns, and the rest of us will be left behind in the resulting destruction and chaos.

Et cetera. You have the idea. Not only is the Bible inerrant; there is a strong tendency to read it, wherever possible, as an accurate and literal account of historical events.

The problems with fundamentalism

One problem with Christian fundamentalism is that it collides with the outcomes of rational inquiry into the mechanisms of the natural world whenever this fails to confirm the “literal” biblical account. Thus, we often see fundamentalists arguing that (for example) radiometric dating is dramatically unreliable, that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s flood, that human beings and dinosaurs existed contemporaneously, that Leviathan and Behemoth (in the Book of Job) were in fact dinosaurs of different species, and even that God made billions-of-years old rocks - i.e., rocks already, in some sense, billions of years old when they came into existence less than ten thousand years ago. The madness that some fundamentalists feel obliged to defend seems to know no bounds.

Christian fundamentalists refuse to accommodate scientific findings that contradict their supposedly literal reading of the Bible. Perhaps worse in some ways, they are also unwilling to accommodate modern ideas of morality and justice, and to read biblical moral pronouncements in any cultural context that requires reinterpretation or any understanding more nuanced than the medieval ones.

At this point, we could delve into many interesting issues about how the Bible is best interpreted or understood, whether from a Christian viewpoint or from a more sceptical or uncommitted one. I don’t claim to be especially expert on such matters, though of course I’m well aware that there are stong traditions of biblical interpretation that rely on cultural context, symbolic meaning, the reconstruction of original intentions, and so on. There’s a wealth of scholarship of various levels of credibility. The main point to establish at this stage, though, is just that there is something - a real social phenomenon - that can be recognised as Christian fundamentalism.

This kind of inflexible, literalist Christianity is not all that common in Australia, thank Zeus and Poseidon, but it is very common indeed in the USA, almost a dominant social and political force. Its essential weakness is its inflexibility: its adherents’ inability to depart far from the actual words of ancient texts. This leads true fundamentalists into conflict with knowledge gained through rational inquiry, and also with much secular morality. It can sometimes make them almost impossible to reason with, and sometimes it can lead them to a degree of unscrupulousness in carrying out their deity’s plan.

However, not all religious conservatism is truly fundamentalist. For example, conservative Roman Catholicism cannot meaningfully be called “fundamentalist”, since it does not rely on the literal inerrancy of a holy book. Yet, it operates with certain traditions, sometimes interpreted with little flexibility, that can bring it, too, into sharp conflict with secular reasoning about morality and justice, and sometimes other things.

Are there fundamentalist atheists? (Not really)

I get annoyed when I see people like Richard Dawkins criticised for being “fundamentalist atheists”. This is a misuse of words and only creates confusion. If Dawkins has faults, like everyone else, fundamentalism is not among them: there is no inflexible clinging to the words of a holy book, considered inerrant and interpreted in a literal-minded way. Nor is there anything analogous. Dawkins is willing to follow science where it leads, though like all leading scientists he does have his own opinions on important scientific controversies - opinions that he is willing to defend against rival ones until powerful evidence comes along.

Importantly, the word “fundamentalist” does not mean merely “passionate” or “forthright” or “outspoken”, even something like “confident” or “hard-nosed” or “stubborn”. Dawkins may be some of those things, but he is not a fundamentalist atheist, and it is difficult to identify any significant public figure who meets such a description. There may (by extension or analogy) be fundamentalist Marxists or fundamentalist Randians: people who cling to the literal words of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, and who treat those authors’ books as if they were inerrant holy texts. However, I cannot think of any significant figure who could meaningfully be described as a “fundamentalist atheist”.

But there’s something a bit like fundamentalist atheism

I would have left the issue at that, but I’m becoming concerned that - despite all the above - there is something at least a bit like fundamentalist atheism in the world. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Michel Onfray, Daniel Dennett, and so on are not examples of it, but you can see what I’m referring to if you look further down the food chain.

I do see people - usually pseudonymous - who appear to have swallowed down a quite precise body of inflexible atheistic doctrine, wherever they got it from. Never, their doctrine insists, call yourself “agnostic”, or anything else that sounds softer than “atheist”; always accept that the word “atheist” has only one possible meaning (usually, mere lack of belief in any deities ... I’m happy with this definition, but other definitions do exist). Treat all religious folks as liars or fools (of course, some are ... but many are far from it). Don’t just satirise religion and (as I like to do) question its right to special respect; feel free to treat even moderate religious folks offensively. Of course, some people will take offense if you condemn or satirise their ideas, but you should go beyond that: make sure you attack them personally if they try to engage with you, even in a reasonable and honest way.

Probably, “fundamentalism” isn’t the correct name for this. It’s not that these people have a holy book - as far as I know. But the phenomenon is out there, whatever we call it, and it can be ugly to watch.

Forging coalitions

Here’s how I see things: strangely enough, genuinely moderate religious people are not my enemies. They are usually good people, they are often on the same political side as me, and they are not stupid or dishonest. They may or may not have a view of the world that I find untenable. Many of them are more like deists or pantheists than believers in any traditional kind of providential theism, which means they have views that I consider a bit more plausible; some are not even deists, in that their “God” is more a metaphor than anything else. They may not agree with me on all moral issues, since they may have absorbed certain traditions, values, and culturally-transmitted intuitions that I treat with suspicion; yet, by and large, they are good people to socialise and work with.

In short, genuinely moderate religious people may make good comrades and allies on many issues. On others, we can agree to disagree with them. They won’t think of us as sinners, or imagine that we will burn in hell fire.

A fortiori, there are various kinds of non-religious people who fall short of the most hardline atheism but likewise make good allies. Conversely - and this is important - there are atheists who make lousy allies on many issues. Some are in thrall to what can loosely be called secular religions, such as the cruder kinds of Marxism and Randian Objectivism. I don’t feel that I have more in common with them than with moderate, deistically-oriented Christians, for example, or moderate Jews, Muslims, or whatever other brand of religion may be relevant with particular individuals. The religions may be worth attacking, but certainly not these sorts of individuals.

A book such as The God Delusion is of value in offering a perspective to current debates that has been heard all too seldom until recently - that of an individual who argues that religion is false tout court, and should be rejected. That is a legitimate view, and I am prepared to subscribe to it over the long haul. Kudos to Dawkins for breaking the taboo against expressing such a viewpoint. I’m on the record in numerous places defending him and the value of this particular book.

But there are other viewpoints that are also of value in public debate, and we need to be able to form coalitions with people who have a wide range of those viewpoints - from those who might be almost as hard on religion as Dawkins, but have reasons to prefer the word “agnostic” to describe themselves, through to those who are liberal and supportive of secularism, though working and thinking within a religious tradition.

We need to forge political coalitions. We should reserve our right to express our true beliefs and to use such means as humour and satire (I am not in favour of slanting our ideas so as to hide their real implications, and so make them more acceptable to people who don’t share them). But if we insist that no one can be a friend or an ally unless she agrees with some precise set of doctrines, then we’re not much better than the true fundamentalists whose views we rightly scorn.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.


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