Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Fundamentalist atheism? Does it exist?

My previous post has triggered a Twitter exchange on the concept of fundamentalist atheism, and whether it really exists. Given that Twitter is not a medium for detailed comments, I've elected to do this here. Certainly, given that atheism is simply a lack of belief in a supernatural being, there is no atheist scripture which is read in a stark, literal manner by 'atheist fundamentalists', or atheist dogma which 'atheist fundamentalists' believe represent the true, original basis of atheism and has been ignored or watered down by 'liberal atheists'. If we maintain the original sense of fundamentalism, then the term 'atheist fundamentalist' is meaningless. However, language is not static, and for better or for worse, the term fundamentalism has acquired a broader semantic range, one which allows its meaningful use when applied to some atheists.

When we speak of fundamentalists, the image that immediately comes to mind is that of a religious believer who interprets the scriptures of his faith in a literal, inflexible manner. Furthermore, it is a reaction against the perception that the religious tradition to which the fundamentalists belong has compromised its original doctrinal purity, as well as a general reaction against a broader society which the fundamentalists regard as corrupt. If there is a word which one could use to summarise the fundamentalist mindset, it is reactionary.

Christian fundamentalism is of course a subject of direct relevance to me as it is the literal interpretation of the creation narratives to which Christian fundamentalists adhere that drives young earth creationism. Disabusing believers of the perception that fundamentalist exegesis of the creation narratives is the only interpretive option on the table is one of the main goals of this website. However, it is fascinating to realise that none of the original Christian fundamentalists were YEC, with some of them either accommodating evolution, or openly espousing an evolutionary approach to creation.

The term 'fundamentalist' derives from The Fundamentals, a series of articles written around a century ago in order to defend classic Protestant theology against historical criticism and liberal theological trends. However, on origins at least, contemporary fundamentalism differs considerably from the original fundamentalists. As historian Michael Keas notes:
In this same essay, [Science and Christian Faith] Orr dismantled the Draper-White warfare thesis of science and Christianity by means of the overall harmony that is evident in the history of science and Christianity. Historians of science, particularly since World War II, have resoundingly discredited the warfare thesis along similar lines (but to little effect as the warfare image still has popular currency). Furthermore, Orr displays a remarkably accurate grasp of the limited extent to which conflict has appeared in the history of science and Christianity, namely when either nature or Scripture was misinterpreted. For example, Orr—echoing Augustine, Calvin, Galileo, and many others—observes that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but is written using the common language of how things appear from earth. Admittedly, “Galileo was imprisoned by the church,” but “truth prevailed, and it was soon perceived that the Bible, using the language of appearances, was no more committed to the literal moving of the sun round the earth than are our modern almanacs, which employ the same forms of speech [e.g., ‘sunrise’].” Similarly, Orr argues that the “great divine ‘week’ of work” is itself part of the “symbolic setting of the picture” in Genesis 1, and not intended to teach creation in six solar days. In fact, none of the essays in The Fundamentals advocated a young earth. Orr also concluded that Noah’s flood was anthropologically universal, but geographically local. Many of the errors of fundamentalism became pervasive only later in the history of the movement, after the influence of giants like Orr had faded. [1]  (Bold emphasis mine)
Orr went even further by admitting some form of evolution, though to be honest, his view of evolution was not the same as what we know today, if only because he appeared to exempt humans from the evolutionary process.
In his “Science and Christian Faith” essay, Orr also proposed a resolution to the apparent conflict between biological evolution and the Bible. Significant evidence points to “some form of evolutionary origin of species—that is some genetic connection of higher with lower forms,” but he thought that this change was limited (without specifying how limited).  He also argued that God directs the mechanisms of evolution toward purposeful ends. “Evolution,” he concludes, “is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation’ …” Orr also asserts that the origin of life is inexplicable by “purely mechanical and chemical agencies” and that the origin of traits such as consciousness and morality similarly require the operation of “spiritual powers” or a “special act of the Creator.” [2] (Emphasis mine)
Any attempt to read the authors of The Fundamentals as pre-realised evolutionary creationists is wrong. However, in their approach to defending their theology, they were markedly different from contemporary Christian fundamentalists. While the original fundamentalists share with modern fundamentalists the desire to protect classic (Protestant) Christian doctrine from attack, the scholarly approach with which they defended those classic doctrines stands in marked contrast to contemporary fundamentalists, whose apologetic approaches are fideistic and at times nakedly anti-intellectual. Nowhere can this be seen more openly than in the Answers in Genesis statement of faith:
By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information. [3]
While AiG and the contributors to The Fundamentals may be united to a first approximation by their commitment to classical Protestant theology, their approaches in defending their faith are markedly divergent. The term 'fundamentalist' arguably applies just as much to a mindset and a way of defending a belief, as to that belief system itself. The question of whether that mindset applies to some atheists lies at the heart of the question of whether fundamentalist atheist is oxymoronic, or whether a diachronic analysis of the term 'fundamentalist' allows this usage.

From my experience, when fundamentalist Christians deconvert, it is not uncommon for them to take their fundamentalist mindset with them, and use it both to attack Christianity and to promote atheism. Examples of this include:
  • Dismissing the Bible because of the existence of contradictions emerging from a literal reading, or interpreting metaphors literally and rejecting the patently absurd implication (ie: literally eating the body and blood of Christ). [4]
  • Closely related to the first part of point one is dismissing the Bible because of the belief that a literal interpretation of the creation narratives is the only possible exegetical option, coupled with their new-found recognition of the scientific absurdity of YEC. This is the inverse of the AiG statement of faith, and is arguably pathognomic of the 'fundamentalist atheist' mindset.
  • An uncritical approach to fringe ideas such as Jesus Mythicism which are perceived as a 'magic bullet' against belief. The parallel to the creation evangelist mindset which aggressively pursues an equally marginal belief in a young Earth because of the perception that it is a 'magic bullet' against unbelief is quite clear. New Testament scholar James McGrath puts it well when he argues "[a] significant number of Jesus mythicists appear to be former conservative Christians who have become atheists. Perhaps having been trained early on to think in all-or-nothing terms, they are now inclined to deny that the Bible was right about anything. Others may find it is far easier to view Jesus as a fabrication than to enter into the tumultuous waters of historical investigation." [5] 
  • Uncritically peddling tired memes [6] and factually inaccurate statements such as "religion poisons everything" [7] or "the Bible was written by ignorant bronze-age goat-herders" despite the fact that the former smacks of the absolutism that characterises religious fundamentalists while the latter ignores the fact that the Bible was first written by a late Iron Age II  urban elite. [8]
The unifying theme here is a rigid, simplistic approach to a complex problem, coupled with a fervent adherence to a cause [9] and given the overlap between ex-fundamentalists and this group, as McGrath (on the post from which I sourced his meme in my last post) notes:
This is a perfect example, I think, of a phenomenon I have talked about before: switching sides in a debate, but not changing one’s mindset at a more fundamental (pun intended) level. [10]
This is a workable definition of a fundamentalist atheist, someone with a fundamentalist mindset whose attacks on Christianity and promotion of atheism as a cause reflect that worldview. It has nothing to do with atheism per se, as atheism by definition is not something that can be qualified, but rather the worldview of some who call themselves atheists.

Using this criterion, one would immediately rule out describing prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne as fundamentalist atheists. While their attacks on religion have been criticised by non-theists such as Michael Ruse, [11] and the latter's flirtation with mythicism reflects a failure of critical thinking on this subject, [12] what we see here are poor arguments, rather than a fundamentalist mindset. Reflexively using the term 'fundamentalist atheist' as a means of branding poor atheist arguments rather than critiquing them is unhelpful at best. One should critique intelligently, rather than label and criticise.


I can appreciate why many atheists find the term 'fundamentalist atheist' oxymoronic and unhelpful, and I would share their concerns at it being used reflexively and indiscriminately as both a slur and a substitute for reasoned argument. When I use it, I am referring to 'non-theists whose arguments are rooted in their former fundamentalist worldview'. If only for reasons of conciseness, fundamentalist atheist is easier to use.


1. Keas M.N. "Darwinism, Fundamentalism, and R. A. Torrey" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62:25-51
2. ibid, p 37
3. Statement of Faith - Answers in Genesis
4. This does not mean that all contradictions are simply a function of applying a flat literal reading uniformly. The problem is deeper than that, and demands a serious apologetic response. However, the failure of some ex-Christians to differentiate between contradictions arising from a failure to account for genre when interpreting, and contradictions that persist when one accounts for genre does reflect the persistence of the fundamentalist mindset in these ex-Christians.
5. McGrath J "Fringe view: The world of Jesus mythicism" The Christian Century Nov 7 20122
6. Atheist blogger Ed Brayton has made a point of calling out some of the more ludicrous atheist memes on his blog Dispatches from the Culture Wars
7. I must stress that fundamentalist atheist is not a synonym for anti-theist. While some fundamentalist atheists, particularly the recent ex-Christians do have the classic reformed smoker's zeal which spills over into overt anti-theism, it is simply false to equate the two groups. In my experience, most anti-theists are motivated by their disgust at the harm that has been inflicted by organised religion, and believe that humanity would be better off without organised religion. While I would disagree with them, I can understand why they are motivated to take an anti-theist stance.
8. van der Toorm, K Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (2009: Harvard University Press)
9. Once again, atheism per se is simply a lack of belief in a deity, whereas promoting atheism and anti-theism most definitely is a cause if not a belief system.
10. McGrath J "Mythicist Defenders of Christian Orthodoxy" Exploring Our Matrix Jan 31 2016
11. Ruse M "Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute" The Guardian 2 Nov 2009
12. McGrath J "Does Christianity Disprove Mythicism?" Exploring Our Matrix Sep 6 2014