About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, October 08, 2007


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.

However, 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 - 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.

Etcetera. 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 a few weeks ago, 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.


Blake Stacey said...

Very nicely said.

I'd be inclined to call the attitude which is "a bit like fundamentalist atheism" adolescent atheism, because it reminds me of how I was as a teenager. Well, actually, I was more of a fundamentalist NOMA devotee, which shows you how ironic life can get, but I think the personality traits are much the same. (I probably still come across as an adolescent something-or-other on my grumpier days, but I try to think once, maybe even twice, before clicking "Post".)

Steelman said...

I'm very much in agreement with what you've written. The God Delusion, good; coalitions with non-atheists, also good.

I've been put off a time or two by some of the attitudes I've encountered in the comments on Dawkins' site: the stance of "Give up your faeries, then we'll talk," doesn't sound like the best way to achieve secular or scientific progress to me. Even Dawkins has said he's friends with the local vicar, for goodness sake.

I think it can be emotionally uncomfortable to join in common cause with those with whom we disagree on certain basic issues. I feel this myself. Then I remind myself that those who I'd band together with for secular, political reasons are, in my view, making metaphysical, but not necessarily moral, mistakes. It doesn't diminish my personal integrity as an agnostic/atheist/secular humanist to promote science education in the public schools, for instance, alongside like minded Christians.

Blake Stacey said...

A couple additional thoughts:

I expect that in just about every measure, the variation among blog posts, comments on blogs and remarks on discussion forums is greater than the variation among statements made in everyday life. The more visible side of this is the increased rudeness which can make online discussions so off-putting, but the flipside of that is the greater ease of making careful, scholarly statements. I can revise what I say before I say it much more easily online than in a face-to-face conversation, and on the Internet, I can hyperlink to my sources (a trick which is noticeably difficult in real life, I've found). Barriers in both directions are removed, so the edges of the bell curve will expand.

So, I wouldn't be surprised if the increasing availability of diverse viewpoints is allowing some people to form more nuanced positions than they could a few years ago. Of course, this doesn't negate the problem of people being dogmatic in asserting their godlessness, but I think we should watch for it, because if it's happening, it would be a positive development.

While I was making lunch, I was thinking a little more about the behavior I'd called "adolescent atheism". Often, it seems to me, disputes in this area spiral around the words we "should" be using. Self-identified atheists quarrel with self-labeled agnostics about whether the agnostics are "really" atheists; vast amounts of hot air are generated over whether or not certain claims are "natural" or "supernatural". This reminds me of linguistic prescriptivism. After a while, asserting that "the word 'atheist' has only one possible meaning" begins to resemble the demand that sentences never end with a preposition, or that the passive voice is evil and must be expunged.

Maybe we should be talking about prescriptivist atheism. Since multiple factions in a debate can exhibit the same personality while espousing different ideas, we should make room for prescriptivist agnosticism as well.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, steelman, I agree.

I do think "The God Delusion good", but of course Dawkins is explicitly attacking quite crude concepts of God. Just why he is sometimes criticised for this I'm not sure when he is up-front about it.

He doesn't believe in any sophisticated sort of God, either, and he'd deny, for example, that deism is a good solution to the fine-tuning problem. But it's also clear that if the world were populated by gentle Anglican vicars with sophisticated belief systems and a propensity for doing kindly deeds, or by passionate philosophical deists like Tom Paine, Dawkins wouldn't have written his book.

Looking at some of the flack that Sam Harris has copped lately for suggesting that the word "atheism" is unhelpful, I wonder how Dawkins himself would fare if he made some public statements emphasising the more moderate side of his views, or if he simply posted his full views pseudonymously. I don't really agree with the ideas that Harris expressed the other week, but he made a considered comment in his usual clear way, and was entitled to respectful engagement.

He got some of that, of course, but also a lot complaints that (in effect) he had deserted the One True Cause. Well, there is no One True Cause, at least not if it's narrowly defined. Even the New Atheism thing is a bit of a journalistic beat-up. There are people who broadly support reason and science ... and in my case freedom in some sense (freedom from theocratic tendencies in government, for example). But you can have many religious or metaphysical views while favouring those sorts of things.

In the end, I'd rather be friends with someone like Selby Spong than with some gun-toting, climate-change-denying Randian atheist.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I don't think that Dawkins and Harris are quite off the hook here. When Dawkins rather strategically uses the acronym PAP (for "permanent agnosticism in principle") to denote what would be called agnosticism in the philosophical sense, it isn't surprising that lesser lights run with that and get more obviously hostile towards agnostics. When Harris claims that moderate believers enable extremists, it is hardly surprising moderates are treated with the same scorn as the fundies.

PZ Myers said...

"Adolescent atheism" is unkind to adolescents. Many of them are smarter than that. My mental shorthand is "kneejerk atheism". There is a fair amount of that. "Randian atheist" is pretty good, too, but it only applies to some of them.

In my fantasy world, what we'd really have is a freethought coalition, where atheists, agnostics, pantheists, even those timid deists would be working together to bring down religion. Silly me. I was disillusioned of that when I first heard all the other non-religious factions start whining that those dang prominent atheists were "hurting the cause."

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell, good post.

A question about epistemology. If you believe something without any corroborating evidence, or worse in spite of contrary evidence, doesn't that make you dishonest? If that is the case, wouldn't I be dishonest if I didn't say your beliefs are dishonest?

That answer I get to that question changes and sometimes if it's yes, that a certain belief set is dishonest I may act like a kneejerk atheist as PZ put it. These days however I've lost a lot of the urge to engage theists, and generally ignore fundametalists, but am quite happy to listen and learn from gentler believers from time to time. But it does seem hopeless.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

I think my question was really about ethics.....Whoops.

Blake Stacey said...


Point taken. "Kneejerk atheism" is better (though maybe a better word is still lurking out there in wordspace).

Russell Blackford said...

Blake, was it you I lifted the "rib-woman and talking snake" formula from? Whoever first used it, it's good, so let me acknowledge the debt ... but I'm too lazy to track down who it was.

Blake Stacey said...

I wish I could claim that one, but it's the 22nd definition of Christianity in Urban Dictionary. I don't know if that's the original source, but it might well be.

Russell Blackford said...

"Kneejerk atheism" is good, and yeah they're not all Randians.

Anonymous said...

I was just asking because you stated a lot of christians are honest. It would seem dishonest unless they had some good evidence (not a feeling or need) for believing in god, jebus, etc. Would also seem dishonest in not point that out if they said they were honest types. Was hoping to get your view on that.
Still we all lie from time to time.

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, I think the world genuinely does seem different for some people. They just do start out with different "piors", to use Bayesian terminology. I'm not sure I can explain this properly without writing a book. Indeed, I'm not sure I entirely understand it. However, I've known many nice Christian people, some of them thoughtful about these issues, and I don't consider them dishonest; I was one of those people at a certain important stage of my life.

Some of them probably read this blog and they are welcome to respond here without getting their heads bitten off - this blog is not a Christian-bashing zone, though it is a zone for bashing the current Vatican leadership and its global network of apparatchiki (for example).

Russell Blackford said...

er, I mean "priors".

Anonymous said...

Thanks Russell. I have no idea about Bayesian beliefs. So I guess a christian could come in and wax lyrical about such an idea and I'd have to say uhm.....
That sort of bothers me about religion. It claims many facts about the world. Like, this happened or this exists or this loves you. But when pressed to demonstrate, religion creeps into shadows, hides behind long winded ideas or generally changes the subject. If it were so worthy and believable, why the smoke screen? I mean, doesn't god want people to believe in him? Does god want people like me to go to his hell because he made me so dodgy that I can't believe him without evidence...... Sorry, just having a bit of a rant :-)

Russell Blackford said...

Brian, I can see that I need to write a book to try to sort out some of my thinking on this (after I write my book on human enhancement technologies, my more general book on transhumanism, my book on moral scepticism, and all the others that are crying out for attention).

Forget Bayesian stuff, though. The general idea I had in mind is just this:

Different people start with different explicit or tacit premises. For some people, a particular idea may seem very comfortable; for different people, the same idea may seem bizarre or absurd. Both may reason in the same way - and without any dishonesty or mental derangement - but the sorts of premises they are inclined to reason from, the sorts of outcomes they will view as grounding reductio ad absurdum arguments, and so on, may be quite different.

Getting people to second-guess their own intuitions, or feelings of comfort/discomfort with certain propositions, is very difficult, and people who won't or can't do it (the majority?) may just be human, not dishonest. Indeed, those of us who are prepared to try to do it may thereby put ourselves at a disadvantage in the cut and thrust of debate (though it might make us better philosophers). We can try to remind ourselves that many of our intuitions about such things as moral and metaphysical beliefs may be the result of culture-specific or family-specific training, unlike beliefs about some other things, which seem inescapable no matter what culture or family you're born into.

Most people are comfortable with the idea that you can't walk on water or through a brick wall, not matter their cultural or family backgrounds. Most people can be trained to accept much the same scientific paradigms, no matter their cultural and family backgrounds - they can be taught to see how scientific claims are supported by convergent chains of inference that can be traced back to reasonably uncontroversial observations. But the same does not apply to religious beliefs. They seem more "given" ... and less like a body of hardwon inferences drawn by a credible profession of scientists. It can be very difficult for someone to whom a religious belief seems "given" to step outside of it and doubt it.

Does that help at all? Maybe you can think of examples, yourself. Or maybe someone else can pitch in at this point to try to say it more clearly. Or to tell me I have it all wrong.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that Russell. I do understand what your saying (or I think so). But it seems to me we wave the hand a bit easily and say because it's given or faith it's ok to ignore any evidence to the contrary. I'm not saying this is an error you make, just the way it's taken as not dishonest in society to ignore contrary evidence because it's a matter of "faith".
For example, if you demonstrate the logical incoherency of the trinity to a believer in the same, if they keep believing in it after, specifically continued belief that it is logical, then I think that's dishonest. Unless they can show it isn't incoherent, without presupposing other unproven things (like a god outside the laws of identity). It doesn't seem to me that we have a right to hang onto beliefs unless we can justify them to some reasonable, evidential standard. Obviously we'll all have inconsistent beliefs, but one's that contradict the world as we understand it should be very well supported by evidence if honestly held.....

Russell Blackford said...

And, Brian, I should say that in some moods I can be as impatient with religion and its apologists as most ... and certainly with the more mysterious doctrines and the ones that flagrantly deny rationally corroborated findings (e.g., with the hogwash of young earth creationists, and with Christian funamentalism in general). It's just that I've also grown tired of these kneejerk atheists that we're talking about.

Lippard said...

Brian: "A question about epistemology. If you believe something without any corroborating evidence, or worse in spite of contrary evidence, doesn't that make you dishonest? If that is the case, wouldn't I be dishonest if I didn't say your beliefs are dishonest?"


"I think my question was really about ethics.....Whoops."

There are a few classic works on ethics of belief--you might want to check out William K. Clifford's classic essay "The Ethics of Belief" (and the alternative position in William James' "The Will to Believe").

I don't think that either case you describe is necessarily dishonest--we all believe some things without sufficient supporting evidence to provide justification, and we all believe things that contradict or cast doubt on other things we believe (often without recognizing it, because we haven't reasoned through the set of inferences required to generate an explicit p&~p contradiction). This is probably more common where we believe things relatively weakly due to uncertainty and a recognition of some contrary evidence.

What's dishonest is when we pretend to certainty that we lack, fail to qualify the lack of certainty or acknowledge contrary evidence, and thereby mislead others or ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim, I have read Clifford's work, and am quite sympathetic to his views. I read James' "will to believe" but probably brought too much of my own preconceptions to the reading to think he made a good case.
I think my point is that once it's been shown that your position isn't as clear cut as you think and that you are holding a position that contradicts a major part of our understanding of the world, you can't just say that continued belief is honest.
If I held a naive belief that water doesn't freeze below 0 degrees celsius because I'd always lived in the tropics and had never seen water freeze let alone a day of 10 degrees then my belief would be honest as nothing in my understanding challenges it. If some belief wrecker comes along with his fridge and thermometer and demonstrates my belief is contradicted via the magic of PiƱa colada, continued belief would be contrary to evidence and in some way dishonest.
The same would seem to hold for many other things that believers take for granted. I guess that's my point, that once shown that a belief is false in any reasonable sense, you either need to offer counter evidence and arguments that show your belief reasonable or accept your belief is untenable and holding it is dishonest. Putting your hands in the air and saying the "Lord works in mysterious ways" is dishonest too it would seem.
Thanks Jim and Russell.

Anonymous said...

No thoughts on my last post? Bummer.

Russell Blackford said...

Sorry, Brian. There are probably quite a few comments on the blog that deserve serious responses from me. They always take me quite a lot of thought.

Like some of the other comments, your latest raises tricky issues. I'm sympathetic to what you say, yet it reminded me of some material I wrote a few years ago in an article about Raimond Gaita, where I touched briefly on the concept of "the unthinkable". How, exactly, do we shake the confidence of someone whose bedrock presuppositions (or presuppositions that seem to be very close to bedrock) are not the same as ours? What could shake my confidence in things whose denial I find unthinkable?

In particular, is there any practical way to shake the confidence of someone for whom the thought that, say, "There is no God" is unthinkable? For such a person, any deductively valid argument that entails this proposition will stand as a reductio of at least one of the premises, rather than as a reason to doubt the existence of God. It may not be possible (for you or I) to imagine such a mentality, but I'm sure that there are people who do find the existence of God (and perhaps many other propositions that would seem highly dubious to you or me) so obvious that to deny it is unthinkable. No argument will ever be successful in convincing that person.

At most, depending on the person's other intellectual commitments, he or she may end up in some strange intellectual places.

I'm not sure how someone becomes such a person, and I'm not sure how to deal with them, but I'm sure such people do exist.

In some cases, the answer may be that the proposition is not actually unthinkable, but just very difficult to think. Perhaps a short chain of strong inferential steps from undeniable observations could in fact shake such a person's faith. But of course, in any actual case, and provided we are with someone who is essentially sane, there are good reasons to expect that no arguments like that will be at hand. Otherwise, the idea concerned would not have lasted long - since an argument that powerful would convince all but the most die-hard believers in the idea.

As an exercise, how did the Copernican/Galilean picture of the world, in which the Earth moves (literally, not poetically and erotically) become thinkable, even though it was wildly counterintuitive for Europeans in the 16th and early 17th centuries?

More recently, how did some of the moral propositions that most shock (some) people in our culture become thinkable to a lot of us? E.g. the idea that infanticide may not wrong the baby, even if it is morally impermissible for other reasons? Gaita claims that such a proposition was unthinkable a few decades ago, and perhaps it really was in at least some circles (I find it hard to believe it was unthinkable through the whole of Western culture).

Those are two examples where it looks as if it was possible to find arguments with premises so likely or at least plausible and chains of inference so compelling that many people were able to think the previously unthinkable. They abandoned acting as if certain specific unthinkable thoughts stood as a reductio for any set of propositions entailing one of them.

Exercise for you all: how does this sort of shift happen? How, or in what circumstances, can arguments, combined with observations or other evidence, make the hitherto unthinkable thinkable ... at least for some people?

Sorry for such an oblique response.

Roko said...

"Don't just satirise religion and (as I like to do) question its right to special respect"

So, whilst trying not to be a "fundamentalist atheist" myself, I'd like to take issue with that one point. I think that it is perfectly legitimate to question the special respect that religion gets, and I don't think that there's anything "fundamentalist" about doing so.

Do you think that we should not even question the special allowances that religion gets?

Russell Blackford said...

roko, I think you misread what I wrote. Have another look at that sentence: I actually said that I like to question religion's right to special respect. Hey, that's one of the main things that I do on this here blog (and elsewhere).

We're in agreement. Nothing in your comment puts you in the "kneejerk atheist" category that we're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Great answer Russell. I think it showed to me that I really have two issues there. First, how to shake the unshakeable belief, and second, is that belief dishonest to an observer, whether shaken or not.
I'd like to think that a belief is skakeable, no matter how strongly I like that belief.
But if I don't move on that belief, even in face of overwheliming evidence, I would hope that you respect me enough to call me dishonest (intellectually at least.) I think that we should call those who say belief in evolution is equivalent to belief in creation as dishonest, providing we've directed them to resources that demonstrate the vast chains of evidence that corroborate evolutionary theory. The same with my personal favorite, this incoherency of the Trinity...
Thanks Russell. It's one of those hoary questions that my limited understanding of philosophy, ethics (not to mention brain power) hasn't found a satisfactory rule of thumb for....

J. J. Ramsey said...

It occurs to me that "atheist partisan" or even "hack-partisan atheist" would be more on the mark than "kneejerk atheist." It would certainly capture what such atheists do have in common with the more rabid fundamentalists to which they are compared, namely the strong tendency to see things in black-and-white opposition, to caricature one's opponents, to be uncritical of those one sees on one's side, and so on.

Anna said...

“somebody accusing somebody else of something called "fundamentalism". This is not a useful way to advance most debates.”

Excuse me for chipping in my 2 cents so late in this discussion. It strikes me that the term is useful to distinguish between moderate theists and fundamentalist religionists who, whatever their Abrahamic affiliations, are appropriately viewed as more problematic.

I think that your objection, Russell, probably related to the fact that “fundamentalism” really does not apply to atheism per se

I think of those atheists who are indiscriminately rude to all theists as “troll atheists”. I suspect that they would probably be “troll religionists” if their belief system included the supernatural.

Obviously, I’m implying that personality factors are more contributory to such kneejerk atheism than is naturalism/scepticism.

I would be interested to hear everyone’s views on the position of “blaming” even moderate theists for the rampant problems with fundamentalist religionists. Surely this attack-all-theism attitude is contributing to the kneejerk atheists' rudeness?

Russell Blackford said...

I'm away from home at the moment so I'll just poke my nose in briefly, while I await any other responses to JJ and salient.

I said "most" (not "all") debates because I had in mind that there really are people who meet a quite narrow definition of fundamentalism - though maybe salient's point goes beyond those people.

Anna said...

I wasn't at all clear. There are two parts to the question, I think. First is the question of what constitutes "fundamentalism" as distinct from attention to the fundamentals of a topic. Second is the question of who is debating whom, and in what setting.

I think that it is useful to debate that atheists generally, and appropriately, differentiate between moderate theists and fundamentalist zealots. On the other hand, many of the theist arguments that I have read on the Internet employ fallacious tu quoque accusations that Dawkins, for example, is ("also" implied) a "fundamentalist". Hitchens' latest remarks certainly put him in the running for accusations of "fundamentalist atheist". "Moderate versus fundamentalist" differentiation makes debate clearer and more balanced, whereas inappropriate labelling derails arguments.

In general, I do see your point about Internet atheists who rudely vent their spleen indiscriminately against any utterance made by any theist.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you when you say that Dawkins, Hichens, Harris and Dennet aren't fundamentalists, but I think that atheists have to go a heck of a lot further (to the point of personally insulting the moderately religious) to be considered fundamentalist. And I would argue that those are just idiots. But I do have quite a conservative atheist site, If anyone's curious, at: