Monday, February 26, 2007

"Fundamentalist" Atheists

Oh please, not more of this sillyness:
"Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

"You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths - and, indeed, thinking atheists - in the other corner." says Slee [the Dean of Southwark].

The people who bandy about these insults never seem to bother addressing Dawkins' standard response (HT B&W):
"Fundamentalist" usually means, "goes by the book." And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, "nothing can change." Of course, that's not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I'm not a fundamentalist in that sense.

Similarly for accusations of "dogmatism". Almost any atheist will grant that their non-belief is provisional, and open to change if contrary evidence were to appear. Sadly, too many reporters and religious commentators seem incapable of distinguishing dogmatism from confident (but evidence-responsive) belief.

Note that one might have a very high degree of belief in some proposition, without thereby being at all dogmatic. I'm extremely confident that unicorns do not exist. But I'm not an "no-unicorns dogmatist", because new evidence could always change my mind. That's how rationality works. You align your degree of belief with your assessment of the evidence. The evidence (that I'm aware of) is stacked against gods and unicorns, so I don't believe in either. If my evidence changes, then so will my beliefs. Simple.

Probably what the critics are really meaning to get at is the idea that some atheists are outspoken and "evangelical", and hope to persuade others to their point of view. But isn't free inquiry and public debate a good thing? (Of course there are some contexts where criticising others' views would be inappropriate. But not all. There is a place for robust theological, no less than political, public debate.)

It's entirely possible for reasonable, "thinking atheists" to be strongly opposed to religion. Some may be opposed to religion because they think it is socially pernicious, propping up morally unjustifiable positions (e.g. anti-gay bigotry). Others may be principled evidentialists, and hold that one ought to believe what the evidence supports. They then oppose religion for the same reason they do astrology -- it's unsupported nonsense, and people are being unreasonable when they believe that stuff. Either basis for hostility seems perfectly reasonable to me.

At the end of the day, people who denounce "militant atheists" are promoting a double-standard, insulating religious beliefs from criticism when no-one would dream of offering other beliefs such protection. Over to Dawkins:
The world is made safe for people like [the 'God Hates Fags' crowd] and Osama Bin Laden because we've all been brainwashed to respect religious faith and not to criticize it with the same vigor we criticize political and other sorts of opinions that we disagree with.

If you can say, "such and such a view is part of my religion," everybody tiptoes away with great respect. "Oh, it's part of your religion," then of course, you must go ahead. In a way, we've been asking for trouble by moderate people persuading us to give to all religion a respect, which it has never done anything to deserve.


  1. That last quote by Dawkins is the biggest load of crap I've ever heard. Who exactly (seriously ... name somebody) refrains from criticizing people like Bin Laden or the God hates fags people just because they are "religious?" Who respects them?

  2. True, that part of his claim does seem way off. But the general complaint about double standards remains. And there are plenty of less extreme but still harmful attitudes that get shielded by religion (e.g. opposition to gay families). It's now common to hear calls for a religiously based "right" to be intolerant.

  3. I really don't see the "great respect" that Dawkins is talking about. For the most part, religious people are told to keep their religious beliefs "private" and if they don't they are open to criticism. This is pretty much what happens, too. Religion will often times get criticized even when it isn't brought into the public square (e.g., issues like abortion and stem cell research).

    As some of the commenters said in the post you linked to, there may be some good reasons to be cautious about putting government restrictions on religious practices (Blar, for example). And I tend to think that how we view religion today is, in part, based on past religious discrimination. And the government quite often does treat different organizations and groups in different ways (e.g., businesses vs. not-for-profit groups).

    Besides the real reason to denounce "militant" atheists is because their arguments are horrible and they refuse to even engage with religious ideas (e.g., the "Courtier's Reply").

  4. When someone tells me, an atheist, that I have as much faith as they do I just say" "I'm faithless. How can I, a faithless person, have faith?" (doesn't compute, right?)

    I saw Dawkins on C-SPAN2 Booktv talking to a bunch of Liberty University (Jerry Falwell's school) students. He was impressively charming and polite. But he is right on target; religious faith is a problem no matter what its 'good' intentions.

  5. The reason I call people like Dawkins fundamentalist atheists is that, despite their claims to skepticism, they are deeply wedded to a particular set of core beliefs. So wedded that, at this point, I don't think any "evidence" would sway them. This is evidenced, among other things, by their strong polarization of religious thought (either atheist or fundamentalist, with non-fundamentalist religious folks having to do "mental gymnastics" to overcome the inconsistencies in their belief, for example).

    Furthermore, they're clear dogmatists. They accept evidentialism (and in a strong form!) without ever having considered its implications.

  6. non-fundamentalist religious folks

    like little-bit-pregnant folks?

  7. Dawkins final quote is certainly correct in my experience. For instance, Dawkins himself is constantly critisized very strongly for daring to oppose religious belief. He's constantly slurred for "deliberately trying to cause offence", and similar statements. No-one would tell me off for deliberately causing offence if I say that homophobes are idiots, so why is Dawkins told off for weaker statements when the targets are religious beliefs?

    Macht, I can't follow at all when you give the examples of abortion and stem cell research as cases where religion is critisized for attitudes that don't affect the public square. These debates affect more than half of the world's population and religion has (a malign) influence on them.

    Finally, Chris, what do you mean by evidentialism? The view that we ought to endorse beliefs to the extent that they are probably true?


  8. Alex,

    My point is that one can make reasoned defenses against things like abortion and embryonic stem cell research without appealing to religion, yet even when one does it will often be met with the response of "You just believe that because of your religion" or something like that.

    And why are you comparing "homophobes" to religious beliefs? And how is "delusional" a weaker statement than "idiot."


    Don't forget that people like Dawkins are as big of Biblical literalists as the YECers and the Falwells and the Robertsons. Dawkins' and Harris' literalism just serves a different purpose.

  9. You deny that many people hold moral beliefs on the basis on their religion? I've certainly come across religious people with whom moral debate is pointless since they'll happily admit that their confidence in the bible is greater than their confidence in any possible argument - no matter how strong - that I could put forward.

    I'm comparing homophobic attitudes to religious beliefs because I believe that they're both false, and both have a malign influence. Are you seriously going to vindicate Dawkin's point by suggesting that religious opposition to homosexuality is somehow inherently more respectable than secular opposition?

    Further, "Delusional" is weaker than "idiot" because it presupposes that the believer is misinformed rather than stupid. I'd certainly rather be the former than the latter.


  10. No, I don't deny that many people hold beliefs based on their religion. That isn't anything close to what I said.

    And I'm not sure where you got the idea that I suggested that "religious opposition to homosexuality is somehow inherently more respectable than secular opposition." I was just pointing out that homophobic attitudes and religious belief are not comparable and that is the reason nobody cares when somebody tells off a homophobe but people do care when Dawkins does the same thing to religious belief.

  11. I'm a little puzzled at the claim that fundamentalist usually means "goes by the book". No real-life usage of the term I can think of makes any sense on such an interpretation of the term. Even fundamentalists who are proud of the label don't use it that way. And the claim that fundamentalisms say 'nothing can change' seems to be simple ignorance of actual research into fundamentalisms. Further, I think it's naive to assume that fundamentalists won't grant that they would change their views if contrary evidence were to appear; I've known plenty of fundamentalists who would say exactly that. One of the things that marks them out as fundamentalist in their thinking, however, is that things are conveniently arranged so that the evidence never will appear: the arguments of others are often analyzed in terms of alleged psychological facts rather than the actual reasons given; when reasons are addressed, they are caricatured to the point of being easily dismissed; there is a general assumption that no research is necessary into their opponent's positions because the burden of proof is on those who hold them (but the burden of proof can never be met because the argument is caricatured or avoided by psychologizing); they conflate things that should be distinguished; they will make claims up without quite realizing they are making them up, because they fit so well with their worldview that they must be true, and rumors they hear that fit with their view also must be true, or at least those who reject them must have the burden of proof (and here we start recognizing a pattern). It would be silly to take a fundamentalist's own promise of being rational for evidence that he really is; intelligent fundamentalists are always certain that they are being rational and their opponents are the ones being irrational; they are always certain that they are the ones who are considering the evidence rationally and their opponents are dodging the evidence. That's part of what inclines us to call them fundamentalist. It's not that they aren't considering evidence, arguments, etc.; it's that the whole rational landscape is rigged from the get-go, so all their protestations of rationality (or the irrationality of their opponents) are irrelevant to the question of whether they are being rational or not.

    When people accuse Dawkins of being a fundamentalist atheist, it is this sort of rigging they have in mind: that in the particular arena of criticism of religion he thinks in a way analogous to this. And they point to evidence, e.g., that he feels confident making sweeping claims of having refuted arguments he's clearly not researched well; that he conflates issues that can be called religious when a reasonable person would distinguish them; that his conclusions regularly outrun the strength of his arguments; that he seems on occasion simply to make up historical claims without regard for the actual evidence; that he caricatures even fellow atheists if he doesn't think they are zealous enough; and so forth. If even half these charges are true, then it would make perfect sense to extend the term 'fundamentalist' to him as a sort of metonymy.

    In other words, Dawkins's response to the charge is so utterly inadequate as to be easily dismissed. (And it's rather tiresome how yet again he, like some of the less rational ID activists, throws in his being a scientist as if that meant he were immune from being irrational in every field of thought.) The way to defend oneself from the charge of being an atheistic equivalent of a fundamentalist is not to make up things about how a word is used, but point out actual evidence that one's particular activism is not reactive and absolutistic but constructive and nuanced.

  12. Dawkins, whose books I've read for 25 years (including The God Delusion), who I've seen in his Q&A with "fundamentalist" students of Liberty University on C-SPAN Booktv, is nothing like a characterization of "reactive and absolutistic."

    Maybe someone is that, but it ain't he.

  13. Brandon,

    Could you provide some evidence of Dawkins acting in the way that you suggest? I've only read The God Delusion, and whilst he obviously makes mistakes (have you ever read a book where the author doesn't?), and popularises somewhat (which is, to be fair, the aim) I didn't see anything like the degree of ignorance that you're suggesting.

  14. Phil, please remember that the discussion will be more productive if you support your claims. Brute assertions of disagreement and snide shots at other commenters aren't helpful.

  15. alex gregory is right, richard

    What is the evidence that Dawkins is acting as an 'absolutist'? (the "atheist equivalent of a fundamentalist")

    Shouldn't those that make that claim have the burden of proof, not on others to prove the negative?

  16. When Dawkins is referred to as a dogmatist or fundamentalist it is usually in response to statements such as:

    "even if there were no actual evidence in favor of Darwinian theory . . . we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories." (Dawkins, The Blind Watch Maker, p. 287.)

    I was at a lecture last week given by Dr. Niall Shanks last week, whose book God, the Devil, and Darwin has a foward written by Dawkins, and even he referred to Dawkins as an evangelical atheist.

    Dawkins has a tendency to oversimplify the philosophical arguments, such as with his "who designed the designer" argument. All you have to do to see this is read The God Delusion or watch his recent documentary that came on the BBC.

  17. While I've not read enough of Dawkins to state much there, I'd second Brandon's comments about what makes a fundamentalist. It seems to me that it is incorrect to say they don't change their beliefs, aren't open to argument and so forth. However the grounds for argument are very much rigged, and rigged in a fashion måost of us just can't accept.

    Now certainly the way Dawkins is often portrayed (and I don't mean by the religious) he comes across as dogmatic and fundamentalist in the fashion Brandon mentions. I can't speak to whether this is accurate or not. I'm quite cautious about attributing to major intellectual figures the beliefs some fans ascribe to them. Figures I'm familiar with (say Derrida) end up very distorted when one considers how they are read or used.

    I'd also disagree with the idea that somehow in the social arena religion is somehow beyond debate. Maybe it's just because I come from a minority religion, but I hear my religion's beliefs debated publicly (and often not very nicely or accurately) quite often. If Dawkins honestly believes religion is never open for debate then he's simply wrong. Religious debate has been part and parcel of the west. Especially in the United States. That's just an odd comment to make. Most Americans may disagree with Atheists but that's quite a different issue from whether religion is up for debate.

    Indeed I'd say that in the university society religion has long been the target of attack - often unfair attack. It is Dawkins' who is in the safe seat there even if the tables are reversed when one considers society in general.

  18. My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory that is in principle capable of explaining certain aspects of life. If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory (there is, of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories. The Blind Watchmaker

    To me, this is just Quine 101.

    A pretty simple, noncontroversial statement, unless one considers "theories" that make reference to things outside of science. But anyone is free to do that.

  19. A better example would be his statement in a review of Blueprints in 1989:

    "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

  20. Clark,

    I'd also disagree with the idea that somehow in the social arena religion is somehow beyond debate. Maybe it's just because I come from a minority religion, but I hear my religion's beliefs debated publicly (and often not very nicely or accurately) quite often.

    I disagree. As a member of what might be America's most hated law-abiding minority (atheists), I find that Americans are very provincial, and that public criticism of religion is alien to them. You may be right if you refer to the public's tolerance for minority religions, but there's very little acceptance of criticism of faith itself.

    That's really the great achievement of Dawkins and Harris. They are socially legitimizing criticism of religion and dogma as a whole.

    Dawkins' philosophical arguments are weak in places, but they're far stronger than the kind of BS people are fed in church services, on TV or in casual conversation.

    When I lived in the UK, I found criticism of religion quite commonplace (even Monty Python did it, albeit in a boxing ring). Yet, here in the US, I have only seen one PBS TV show (The Question of God) that ever brought the question up. So the fact that Dawkins and Harris bring the question center stage makes a huge practical difference in the debate. I'm sure a lot of folks reject atheist arguments only on the grounds that being an atheist is socially unacceptable.

  21. Bryan - that's more a reflection of the overwhelming evidence for evolution than Dawkins' character. (Because there is sufficient evidence to believe in evolution, it follows that those who don't are either unaware ["ignorant"] of this evidence, or they suffer some mental defect that prevents them from appreciating the evidence for what it is.)

    Phil - anyone who makes a claim should support it. Alex's and my comments are thus not in opposition.

  22. You may be right if you refer to the public's tolerance for minority religions, but there's very little acceptance of criticism of faith itself.

    I've sure not found that. Maybe it's just the folks I attract?

  23. Alex,

    I'm not interested in either defending or attacking Dawkins here. My point was simply that the charge itself is neither silly nor unprincipled, and that Dawkins's response is simply not a serious response to it. There are specific reasons why people are inclined to call Dawkins a 'fundamentalist atheist'; and if even some of those reasons are legitimate ones, the label is a well-founded one. (And even if they aren't well-founded of Dawkins, they would be well-founded of any atheist who fits the profile.)

  24. Richard,

    What you are saying seems to me to be far from conclusive for a few reasons.

    One, it involves the presupposition that everyone who does not believe conclusions that have the most scientific evidence is ignorant. When Galileo presented the idea of a heleo-centric universe the evidence still stacked up better for Ptolemy's system. Ptolemy's system could explain phenomena such as retrograde motion much better than Galileo's model. If ignorance is simply not believing that which has the most evidence, then maybe ignorance is not so bad. As Polkinghorne describes it, our epistemology determines our ontology in science. But should this model be valid?

    Second, the fundamental difference in empirical and origin sciences is not acknowledged in stating that evidence stacks up for evolution. Empirical (operation) science can work because there is a regularly recurring pattern of events against which our views can be tested. Origin science is a past singularity. All origin science is speculative reconstruction, not empirically testable hypotheses. So the nature of the evidence is non-testable and therefore much more prone to doubt.

    Furthermore, there are many non-ignorant individuals who don't believe in evolution. It seems to me that it is dogmatic to say everyone that doesn't agree is ignorant; thus you would be committing the same error you are saying Dawkins does not commit.

  25. Bryan, it really just depends on how conclusive the actual evidence is. I assume you'll agree that there's nothing objectionably "dogmatic" about noting that anyone who still believes the Earth is flat must be ignorant or irrational. So the mere form of Dawkins' claim does not count against him. Your objection holds only if the evidence is not so clear-cut as he takes it to be. But this thread is not the place to assess biological evidence, so I'll leave it at that.

  26. I'll agree with that, but whether the earth is flat or not can be empirically tested, origins cannot. This is where I think Dawkin's is being dogmatic by asserting that others are ignorant.

  27. Clark Goble said that the immunity from criticism for religious belief is not present in the university sector.

    It is not clear exactly what Clark means to conclude from this. Of what significance is it for the university sector not to have the same careful respect for religious belief as the wider community, or even to deliberately attack religion?

    Are these two opposed double standards (in the unis and in the wider community) supposed to cancel each other out, leaving a fair debate overall, and Dawkins' point about tiptoeing around religion wrong? Surely not.

    I see that the quote in question (in the original post) is one that says ‘everybody tiptoes away with great respect’. That everybody does this is plainly false, and disproved by Dawkins himself. However, I think that a little rhetoric was being used, and in the context of the book it is fair to say that Dawkins thinks that ‘many’ people do this. A point that remains true even if the university sector is an exception.

    I think that since the existence of God is a widely held belief that is probably wrong, Dawkins is right to go on the offensive (as is any other member of the ‘university sector’). And if people think that he is being unfair to the deluded believers, than that is sufficient for his point about there being too much respect for religion. Let’s all not make too much of his use of words like ‘everybody’ and ‘all’.

  28. Yet, here in the US, I have only seen one PBS TV show (The Question of God) that ever brought the question up.

    In the US, The Daily Show's "This Week In God" does a good job, but Stephen Colbert's faux-religion facade may be even better.

    I would like to I think Friedrich Nietzsche would have laughed at these shows. Did he ever laugh? Anyway, I do.

  29. It's worrying that Bryan's quote of Dawkin's fundamentalism is shown to be taken out of context by Phil. As Phil states, when the full sentence is quoted it's far from beyond the bounds of reasonable debate.

    Brandon, I apologise for slightly misreading you. I thought you were attacking Dawkins, not merely arguing that one could in principle be a fundamentalist atheist.

    Finally, "origins" clearly are suspceptible to evidence. When you state that "all" scientists can do is speculative reconstruction, this is what large amounts of science is. For instance, if I recall correclty, no-one has ever seen a proton. We merely infer their existence from their observable effects. Similarly, things like the existence of evil and the existence of chance and heridity can inform us of our origins.

  30. I apologize for taking the quote out of context. I don't have good excuse. The second quote clarified what I was looking to illustrate.

    I agree origins are susceptible to evidence, but they are still on the large part speculative reconstruction. Observation requires interpretation and in origin sciences you are interpreting a past singularity, not a repeatable hypothesis. I completely agree that everything observed can inform us of our past such as the existence of evil and also the existence of consciouness and language.

  31. "It is not clear exactly what Clark means to conclude from this."

    Just that it is widely discussed. Given that most of us go to college it means we're almost certainly exposed to rhetoric critical of religion. It seems hard to imagine going to a non-religious university and not encountering it.

    I don't think this means forces "cancel out" just that the discussions are much more pervasive than some suggest.

    Note that I'm not suggesting Dawkins not defend his ideas. I'm very much for the arena of ideas all competing. The more the merrier. I do think from his public comments I've read that he puts on the martyr image a bit too much. Of course so do many fundamentalists. It's kind of silly in my opinion (on all sides)

    I'd second those who bring up The Daily Show, although I'd note that Stephen Colbert is himself religious. Religious people can poke fun at religion. (I do it for instance even though I consider myself religious)

    A better example is Penn Juliet who has a popular radio show and is an outspoken Atheist and Libertarian. I enjoy listening to his show and I'm sure many others do as well.

    I honestly don't think you need look far to see discussions of religion in a critical fashion in the public sphere. Is it the dominate discussion? Of course not - but that's probably because most people are religious.

  32. Does the Daily Show criticize faith itself? I've been watching it a long time, and I hadn't noticed. It criticises religious radicalism and transparent scams, but I don't recall seeing it challenge religion in general.

    Besides, I think there's a difference between a challenge to faith presented in a discussion, documentary or news program versus in a comedy show. Comedians broadly challenge reality. It's all good for a laugh, but I don't feel like, say, polygamy is validated as socially acceptable because comics have poked fun at monogamy.

  33. I once spent a fair amount of time hanging on an atheist discussion board. These people often expressed wishes that there were a theist they could argue with.

    Whenever a theist did appear, they ganged up on him in an abusive way rarely seen in cyberspace. They did not care about evidence or good aargument; they were waging an ideological battle. When their arguments and abuse did not get rid of me, they banned me on a pretext. That is where I learned that atheists can be fundies and demagogues, absolutely.

  34. It's a sign of the times when passionate belief is taken as dogmatism and strength of commitment is interpreted as intolerance.

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  36. "Almost any atheist will grant that their non-belief is provisional, and open to change if contrary evidence were to appear."

    But isn't a belief in the overwhelming probative value of evidence itself a dogmatic belief? How is "We will believe whatever the evidence tells us" any less dogmatic than "We will believe whatever the Bible tells us"? It seems absurd to me to think that one could attempt to establish the existence or nonexistence of God on the basis of empirical evidence. Faith is by its nature prior to evidence, and the interpretation of that evidence depends on articles of faith, of which the existence or nonexistence of God is one.

  37. knzn,

    What do you mean by "evidence" other than "reliable indicator of truth"? If "faith" were a reliable indicator of truth, it too would be subsumed under the label "evidence".


    It's a *good* sign of the times when ignorance of your own potential ignorance is accepted as dogmatism, and when *over*-commitment is accepted as intolerance. Perhaps you'd like to offers something more a sound-bite?

  38. As I see it, there are Trutharians and Fallibilists. The fallibilists are not about to abuse anyone because whatever they believe, they believe humbly, with a grain of salt. The trutharians are right, period, and don't hesitate to abuse others for the cause. After all, everyone else is wrong...

  39. Alex, can anything ever be established as a reliable indicator of truth, except by reference to something else that is accepted on faith or on intuition?

  40. Yes. A coherentist theory of justification allows you to avoid precisely that kind of charge, by saying that there doesn't need to be some use of unquestionable faith/intuition to back up everything you believe.

  41. But if coherentism contradicts my intuition, then I have to reject it. I submit that coherentism itself is ultimately justified only by intuition. (And if you try to say that X justifies coherentism, and Y justifies X, I will say that Y is justified only by intuition, etc.)

  42. Coherentists will presumably insist that their belief in coherentism is justified in virtue of how well this belief coheres with the rest of their belief system.

    It would certainly be unfortunate if a theory of justification wasn't justified by its own lights! E.g. the claim that "it all comes down to intuition" is not at all intuitive to me ;-)

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  45. I don't think we get the deepest understanding of religion possible when we approach it from a normative perspective -- but on the other hand, in order to make normative judgments about religions, one has first to study it as a natural phenomenon (are we so confident, for instance, that it is the social equivalent of an illness?)!


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