Friday, March 23, 2007

Atheistic “fundamentalism”

At Subversive Christianity, the Deacon asks about Atheistic Fundamentalism, and offers a possible explanation. I don't think he gets it at all correct.

I was surprised at Hunsberger and Altemeyer's findings in Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers that atheists score high on their "DOGmatism" scale. And then I actually read the questions: Any person—as the authors explicitly note—who is convinced of the truth of some proposition will score high on this scale.

What separates dogmatism and fundamentalism from ordinary conviction as to the truth is not the confidence with which the belief is held, but the rational justification for that belief.

When investigating specifically religious belief, the authors go to considerable length to examine the rational basis of those beliefs. But because of the practical limitations on the Atheists study, only a single question—considerably flawed—addresses the rational basis of atheism. (The question and its analysis are lengthy and beyond the scope of this essay.)

Fundamentalism in actual theistic religion has gained considerable notoriety precisely because it is preposterous to believe any religion is actually true. There may be good reasons for doing so, but religion is really nothing but lies and bullshit believers tell themselves to make themselves feel better—Atheist Eve is spot-on when she likens prayer to masturbation. There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with (mental) masturbation per se, but it's not the truth.

When one is talking about ordinary matters of prosaic truth, there is not much room for ambiguity or difference of opinion. The Earth really is round. Rocks really do fall from the sky. Humans and chimpanzees really do share a common ancestor. Human beings really are making the Earth get warmer. HIV really does cause AIDS and can be passed through semen. These statements are true If you disagree with any of these statements, you're wrong.

Without actually looking at the rational basis for one's belief, any person convinced of some ordinary, prosaic truth will look just as "dogmatic" or "fundamentalist" as any Bible-thumper—because he too believes in the truth of what the Bible says.

That's what true means: That there's a right answer, and all the other answers are wrong. And it is the case that no small few atheists, notably Dawkins and Harris, and I myself, do believe that atheism is in fact the truth.

Of course atheists look like they're dogmatic; just as—if you consider evolution mere opinion—evolutionary biologists seem dogmatic; just as—if you consider global warming mere opinion—Al Gore seems dogmatic; just as—if you consider medicine mere opinion—Physicians seem dogmatic about pushing condoms.

The bottom line is that atheists seem dogmatic and fundamentalist because we really are convinced that atheism is true. What separates us from the dogmatic and fundamentalist religious is that we actually do have the philosophical and empirical arguments to back up our positions; All the religious have is epistemic nihilism; in plain English: Lies and bullshit.

I will invoke Ingersoll:
We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your mouldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a this year's fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity. Your miracles are too ancient. The witnesses have been dead for nearly two thousand years.

Show me that one fact: If then I still retain my conviction, you may with justice call me a dogmatist and fundamentalist.


  1. Maybe I'm a fundamentalist when I question Platonism in its various guises. I don't mind looking for truth, but looking for Truth is a lost cause.

  2. One does not need to espouse The Truth to be considered "dogmatic", even prosaic truths will have the same effect.

    My examples were chosen for a reason: biologists, climatologists and doctors have actually been accused of "dogmatism" for promoting inconvenient or oft-denied small-tee truths.

    If there were no small-tee truth at all, then everyone who opens his or her mouth—even to exhort tolerance or ask for the salt—would be "dogmatic".

  3. Most religionists don't make a distinction between prosaic truth and religious truth. For them, they exist on the same level.

    Remember, it takes a lot of faith to not believe in a mystical sky god with super-duper magical powers. /sarcasm

  4. it takes a lot of faith to not believe in a mystical sky god with super-duper magical powers

    Maybe there is something to that.

    Mathematician Paul Erdős called such a "being" the "Supreme Fascist", or just SF for short. since it made him keep losing things like his glasses, etc.

  5. Erdős was quite the character. A hell of a mathematician, no doubt, but a little on the weird side, personally.

  6. What is a "little fact"?

    You guys pride yourself on your reason, but then you come up with stuff like this and one just has to shake their head.

    A fact is a fact is a fact.

    Per argumento, what if you got a little fact? What would you *DO*? How would you respond? Would you become some wild Bible thumping fundamentalist fanatic?

  7. Amicus: Show me the fact, and we'll talk about it.

  8. I think "little fact" was used in the same fashion by which questions of metaphysics are referred to as "the big (or fundamental) questions" and their so-called answers are hailed as "big truths".

    Since I don't use the term myself I'm just engaging in conjecture, but I'd imagine "little" in this fashion is a euphemism for "empirically verified and universally accepted."

  9. Show you the fact?

    What is I said that the reason you are caught in a "fact-trap" is that you don't think through to what it would imply if you had the facts that you seek. If you did, perhaps you'd have an answer to why they are not provided in quite the way that you pre-suppose they ought to be.

    After that, what if I said that the facts are all around you, yet you choose not to see them as such?

    And after that, what if I said, man cannot live by fact alone?

  10. Show you the fact?

    Yes, please.

    what if I said... And after that, what if I said...

    Good grief. Just say it. Do you have even an ounce of intellectual integrity and courage?

    Quit beating around the bush and making insulting and baseless insinuations.

    Put up or shut up.

  11. Keep in mind that the phrase "little fact" was used by Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899). It's probably not possible to determine his precise intention in using this particular construction since he is at present unavailable to offer a detailed explanation.

  12. Good grief. Just say it.

    Well, from my perspective that attitude toward engaging in thought appears to make you not much unlike an ... an ... atheistic *fundamentalist*, right? Afraid of argument, of nuance, you just want "the facts", the literalisms.

    Truly, the premise of ethical thinking, of many/much of the precepts that we get from "religion" is based on or geared toward showing that people have a choice, choices on how to live their lives and how to orient themselves to the circumstances around them.

    Now, if you introduce "facts" into that equation, quite the way in which you demand them - which isn't immediately clear, then that prejudges the very purpose of thinking.

  13. You can bring up arguments too.

    It's you who's prejudging me. You're making assumptions about how I would react to arguments or "nuance", without offering an actual argument for me to genuinely react to.

    I promise you this: Offer me any argument on any basis, and I'll address the merits of the argument itself.

    I don't really know why you're bringing ethics into the matter. This particular post is about the existence of God(s). I have a number of essays directly addressing ethics on the blog.

    To an extent, yes, I prejudge ways of thinking. So what? We all prejudge illogical, incoherent thinking; we insist on rational arguments. I'll tell you right now: If you or anyone else offers me an illogical argument, I will not be persuaded by it.

    So yet again, I tell you: I think it's prejudicial and poisoning the well to talk about how I might react to an argument not yet made. Far better, I think, to make your argument; you can then observe my reaction and know how I react.

    Also, the more I disagree with you, the more likely your argument is to end up on the front page of the blog, the maximum exposure I can offer.

  14. Amicus asks what if you got a little fact? What would you *DO*? How would you respond?

    It really does depend on the fact.

    Here is a fact: Kerosene is highly flammable.

    I know this is a fact. I can readily get some kerosene, set it on fire, and see it burn. In fact, I have done so many times.

    How do I respond to this fact? I am very careful when handling kerosene.

    So, Amicus, what fact do you have to show us?


  15. After that, what if I said that the facts are all around you, yet you choose not to see them as such?

    The Pathology Problem in action. Watch and see...

  16. hey big guy,

    First, I don't want the maximum exposure on the front page!

    I simply read your post and reacted with two observations.

    I didn't prejudge you or tell you how you would respond, but asked a few questions about how you might do, if presented with such facts.

    When you chose not to engage on that topic, I suggested that your dodge/refusal looked sort-of similar to what I get from theistic fundamentalists.

    That's all. I'm not trying to "trash" anyone, really. I just offered up some observations, in case you get too comfortable preaching/writing to the already converted.

    How do I respond to this fact? I am very careful when handling kerosene.
    Well, this isn't the only response, which is part of the reason that I asked the question I did. Another response could be that you rush out and invent Molitov cocktails. Still another that you worship fire (assuming an imaginery set of circumstances in which this is the first combustion of its type that you/mankind ever experienced). I can think of a long list of responses (you decide to become an arsonist, ...).

    Similarly, one could give a "little fact", and the response could be to dismiss it, right? It could be anomoly, right?

    Such considerations just put a little pressure on the sometimes presupposed dichotomy that either there is no God or there is a fact-set such as a God is irrefutable.

    All that is even *before* we get to the other point.

  17. Amicus: I can't tell you how I would react to any fact until I know what the fact is. How could I? The whole point of having a fact-based epistemology is that I can't predict my reaction to any fact; If I could, I wouldn't actually need the fact.

    Would I become a raving dogmatic fundamentalist? Perhaps: I'm definitely a raving "dogmatic fundamentalist" about well-established scientific truth—or so I appear—because I am actually convinced of the truth.

    I'm not just preaching to the converted, I'm preaching to the intelligent. Given that you (a) appear to have completely missed the point of my essay, (b) show no understanding whatsoever of scientific epistemology and (c) persist in snarky prejudicial meta-talk without any substantive referent, I'm not yet convinced you're in my target audience.

    Make your case. Introduce your facts—however you conceive them to be. Only then can you tell if we will dismiss them, or what changes we'll make to our beliefs on the basis of those facts.

  18. Amicus says Similarly, one could give a "little fact", and the response could be to dismiss it, right? It could be anomoly, right?

    It depends on the fact. If you have serious evidence, then the answer will obviously be "No, it could not be an anomaly".

    For example, I have a GPS receiver. Both Einstein's relativity theory and quantum mechanics must be correct for it to work at all. It works. What does that tell me?

    On the other hand, if your fact is that somebody thinks he saw the face of the Virgin Mary in a taco shell, then I'm not impressed.

    The Barefoot Bum says Make your case. Introduce your facts—however you conceive them to be.

    I think if he had any relevant facts, you would have heard of them by now.

  19. Anon: I think you're correct; I don't think Amicus has any actual facts to introduce.

    I want to mention that there's no shortage of facts and arguments on the atheist side.

    I've written myself on Problem of Evil. There are any number of arguments discussed in detail at the Nontheism section of the Secular Web Library

    The existential notion of "God" is preposterous. The immanent notion of God is (with all due respect to A Deacon by the grace of God) meaningless bullshit—a position I'm prepared to argue.

  20. Never been here before this - it's kinda cool.

    I bridle these days at the misuse of the term "fundamental". The correct appellation in most cases should be "evangelical". Fundamental means "basic" or "foundational".

    I am an atheist. All that means is that I don't believe in deity. I also don't try to convince anyone else that there isn't a g*d. The first two sentences are fundamentalist. The third indicates I'm not "militant".

    I do believe in absolute separation of religious faith and secular government, as do a lot of religious folks.

    Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist. He's also an asshole.

    Frankly, I'm not real interested in being right as much as I am in being helpful. If you tell me you're lonely, I'm not going ask if you believe in g*d. I'm gonna ax yuh if you'd like some coffee and conversation. I won't tell you that my dogma will rip your dogma's throat out.

    Amicus - if you want to make observations and effective arguments, refrain from stuff like, "You guys pride yourself on your reason, but then you come up with stuff like this and one just has to shake their head." It's ad hominem, does constitute "trashing", and generally causes offense and stimulates retaliation.

    Be at peace.

  21. Atheists amuse me. They claim to be in possession of the truth concerning a fairy tale.

    Interesting position to take.

    Makes one wonder if atheism would exist if religions didn't ...

  22. Theists amuse me: They claim that a fairy tale is true.

    Of course atheism wouldn't exist without religion, just as law enforcement wouldn't exist without crime.


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