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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 04, 2010

Re-post: "Fundamentalism"

I wrote this analysis a few years ago and it was well received at the time. I still think it's about right, and it's perhaps timely to raise this issue again. What is fundamentalism? What is wrong with fundamentalism, anyway? Is there such a thing as a fundamentalist atheist? What would such a creature be like?


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

What is fundamentalism?

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

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

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.


DEEN said...

Nice article, thanks for reposting it. I wasn't following you back then yet.

I do feel I need to add something to this particular quote:
"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)."

The problem with the other definitions, is that in general they are not the definitions atheists themselves use, but definitions that are used by a biased majority. I'm talking about definitions like "Atheism is the dogmatic assertion that there are no gods". I don't think that protesting the use of such definitions makes one a "fundamentalist-like" atheist.

James Sweet said...

I recently came to a similar conclusion about the existence of folks "lower on the food chain" who might be described as 'fundamentalist atheist.' The big figures in the Gnu Atheist movement have none of these problems, but there are dicks amongst us, and we would be well-served to occasionally reflect on that, so that a) we spot true dick-ishness when it occurs, and b) we don't become those things ourselves.

In other words, many of the criticisms made of the Gnu Atheist movement I think are invalid only in that they do not apply to the bulk of those who are usually associated with the Gnu Atheism -- but they are valid cautions nonetheless.

Oedipus said...

Re: 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.

I consider that a kind of anti-intellectualism. There will always be a subset of individuals who are in it for the emotional kickbacks. They are not interested in the content of their arguments except insofar as the conclusion is "You suck, we rule."

There has to foolish atheists somewhere! The distribution of the level of argumentation across atheists is something like a Bell curve, and there's always going to be a tail end of that curve tending toward foolish.

In that sense it does mirror fundamentalism, but really the opposite is true. The distribution of atheism has an anti-intellectual tail end, while majority is generally solid thinking. But fundamentalism is all foolishness, though it may have an intellectual tail end (though I've yet to find it).

Friend of Icelos said...

Comment by DEEN:

"The problem with the other definitions, is that in general they are not the definitions atheists themselves use, but definitions that are used by a biased majority."

While I certainly agree that many or most religious people have a biased perception of atheists, the term "atheist" was in use long before there were any self-described atheists, and the definitions of words are ultimately determined by the people who use them. While it may be admirable to seek to change the general understanding of "atheist", it is also useful to consider how someone will likely understand the word before you use it, since efficient communication depends on a mutual understanding of the message. Additionally, not even all atheists are in complete agreement over the definition, as I've read some commenters on other websites suggest that "atheism" should necessarily entail rationalism and materialism as well. I prefer a simple "disbelief in deities" type of definition myself, but I can't fault someone for not assuming my definition beforehand when I know other definitions are in use.

There is a similar problem with "fundamentalist". Formally, it refers to certain religious movements that follow a strict literal interpretation of the appropriate sacred texts, but frequently it seems to be used to imply a general close-minded aggression. We ultimately object to the label "atheist fundamentalist", not because it may be wrong in the formal sense, but because of its negative connotations of a dogmatic approach. While I personally doubt the charge of dogmatism really applies to the public atheists it's used against, I suspect there are atheists who do take a dogmatic approach to relevant issues, as Russell suggested, and in their case the sentiment of "atheist fundamentalist" may not be too off the mark, though "fundamentalist" is still a poor way to express it. Again, I doubt this honestly applies to most public atheists.

Robert N Stephenson said...

There are fundamentalists in all spheres of life, and I find the simplification of the process given misses the whole issue of how fundamentalism starts and is perpetrated within populations.

Fundamentalism is not a religious based concept - to be honest it is way older and even predates agriculture and moderate dwelling building.

Atheists can and I have witness being, fundamentalists - so too can the Ford owners club and the Collingwood cheer squad.

Fundamentalism is where you no longer consider anything outside your small speher of understanding - you no longer have the ability to accept and adjust thinking in occordance with a changing environment or social situation.

It is just too convenient to apply the tag to religions - actually to apply it to religions but exclude yourself can highlight the mindset I just suggested. It is everyone else but not me...

As I have said many times before, atheists have yet to grow forward and in fact, unlike many contemporary Christians, are stuck in the past and ancient understanding of faith, belief and even religion. To be some rigid in belief, though not an indicator, can be misrepresented asd the start of fundamentalist ideas.

The Gnu Atheist is a standing that can be summed up like this : "If you do not agree that I am right, then you are wrong or misguided or being mislead."

Yes, a simplification but quite an honest one given how discussions run within atheist circles.

There are fewer fundamentalist atheists than Fundo Christians and there are fewer fundo Christians than Muslims but there are vertually no fundo buhdists, where there are millions of fundamentalist communists.

So Russell, even though I do see logic, reason and even merit in what you have presented, I also see the words being designed in such a fashion to make an argument you may have now or in the duture work or hold up under scrutiny.

Dawkins is not quite a fundamentalist, but he does show the tendencies associated with it. The Pope is actually an Atheist, though you would rweally have to have a mighty deep understanding of catholicism to see how that works. It is a relic of ancient laws and has nothing to do with religion or even faith: These are the same laws handed down from the Romans. Long story that one.

There is now us and them in fundamentalism, there is only the ignorance and oppression it applies to others.

Russell Blackford said...

Rob, do you know the origin of the term? Just wondering. It has quite a specific origin and meaning.

Robert N Stephenson said...

By making an argument based on the origin of a word is not in the spirit of any discussion.

Examine all word origins Russell and you may even find connections between philosophy and religion at one time (not Christianity)

So - the judgement that clears Atheism fro being Fundamentalists is based on the origin of the term. Interesting view Russell -- this is creating something thta actuall suit the argument rather than making a proper argument--

perhaps you may like to view the origins of magician -- it in itself is a dealing with the unprovable and the acceptance of magic is it not?

From the instigation of the term the meaning and use has evolved - evolved beyond the stident uses of Atheists to even include atheists, which naturally atheists don't like.

The concept and emotional development was well before somebody formed a word and then attached it to something to help them define an action or series of actions.

This is a bit like saying Cancer did not exist until someone thought of the words after discovering it.

Fundamentalism exists across all walks of life, all creeds, religions and beliefs - the atheist is not an eexcluded entity or individual. Or are you now saying Atheists are close to be gods in their perfection?

Owen said...

Rob, do you know the origin of the term? Just wondering. It has quite a specific origin and meaning.

Hmmm. I've seen variations on this comment in a few places (twice by you now, Russell), and I've never really felt comfortable with it.

We know that the meanings assigned to words change over time, and different groups will at the same time hold different meanings for the same word. Heck, it's even possible for the same person to use different meanings depending on the context.

So why would the origin of a word be in any way important?

Interesting, yes. Informative, absolutely. But important for determining meaning? Not so much. Usage surely trumps etymology for meaning, doesn't it?

(Granted, this is a bit of a tangent to your main point, which I otherwise support. Bit of a hobby-horse of mine.)

Russell Blackford said...

Rob, words have histories, contexts, and meanings. As a writer and editor, you should know that as well as anyone. Yes, of course they can ultimately depart from their ancient etymologies, but the word "fundamentalism" is of recent origin and has a quite specific meaning.

It means adhering as closely as possible to the literal meaning of the Bible, which is treated as inerrant. As a result, certain doctrines are held dogmatically even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

When I, and others like me, criticise such and such a person or organisation for being "fundamentalist", that is the meaning we intend. If the word is to be extended beyond Christianity - to Islam, Marxism, or anything else - it does not just mean "confident" or "dogmatic" or even "extreme" (all good words with their own meanings); for the same point to be made, the word must mean something closely analogous or the point is lost.

It's no use you or others replying that someone else is "fundamentalist" in some other sense that you've decided to use. If anything that is evading the original point and twisting words to suit your argument. That tactic is unfair and exasperating, and if you still don't understand why, even after all this careful explanation, then I can't help you further.

More generally, I'm trying very hard to be patient with you, but from my point of view, your attitude and behaviour are very strange. I implore you to try to focus on the arguments that I am making and particularly to resist the temptation to say things like "this is creating something thta actuall suit the argument rather than making a proper argument--" The latter is an accusation of bad faith, and I would be within my rights not even to publish comments that accuse me of bad faith. I assure you very seriously that I do not develop and analyse arguments in bad faith. If you think I do, you are basically fooling yourself.

Russell Blackford said...

Owen, I've covered you point in my answer to Rob, but I'll add this. It's a good word with a specific meaning that does in fact come from its history. If we didn't have the word, we'd need another word to make the precise criticism that is made by using the word "fundamentalist". But we have the word and its a perfectly good one.

Atheists typically complain about fundamentalism, meaning something quite specific. If we used some other term such as "inerranty" we would again mean something quite specific. It wouldn't be fair argument, after I've criticised someone for being "inerranty" for someone else to reply, "You are the inerranty ones!" while meaning something different. That's twisting words and cheating in argument.

And Owen, this is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine. I'm interested in people playing fair in argument and using arguments that at least show an attempt to be cogent. Using the same term in a different sense is not a cogent argument or a fair one.

Really, this isn't a claim that etymology sets meaning forever. Of course it doesn't, and I didn't say anything of the kind. It's a very basic point about fair and logical argument.

Owen said...

Russell, I quite agree with almost all you say here, so perhaps I've over-reacted. But I think we disagree less than you think. I'm not making the same point as Rob (or at least, I'm not attempting to).

I'm not saying it's okay for people to re-define words at a whim (as some are doing for "fundamentalist"). I'm saying the origin of the word isn't the reason for the objection -- the current general usage is enough for that.

"It's a good word with a specific meaning that does in fact come from its history."

It's a good word with a specific meaning, yes. I just don't think its history matters (other than for historical interest). If people tried now to use the word "sinister" as an insult for left-handed people, they could point to its derivation for justification. But their argument would (should) be dismissed because "sinister" doesn't currently have that meaning. The origin is interesting, but not especially relevant.

Eamon Knight said...

....the word must mean something closely analogous or the point is lost.

Exactly. And unless the speaker can show some good analogy to the original Protestant movement called "fundamentalist" (I think eg. that Wahabism qualifies), their usage should be deemed an epithet of dismissal, itself dismissed. Eg: one local-to-me twit who maunders about "secular fundamentalists" by which she means "people who think my reactionary Christianity should be ignored in public policy".

James Sweet: nice post, and damn you I've now got yet another sub in my RSS feed. No wonder I never get anything done....

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, Owen, and I'm not sure we are actually disagreeing at all, but a good way to explain the current usage is to point people to the history. That, I take it, is why etymologies get wheeled out.

Obviously I agree that words can change meaning over time. Perhaps one day "fundamentalist" will just mean extreme, but that would be a pity because a useful bit of precision would have been lost.

Owen said...

That, I take it, is why etymologies get wheeled out.

Well, that might be why you do it (a good thing), but I've seen several efforts to persuade people that current meaning is wrong because of historical meanings. And not even historical meanings all that recent.

So, when you mentioned "origin and meaning", it triggered a false alarm. Sorry!