Strident Atheists and Militant Christians are Fundamentally the Same

Over the past few years I’ve met quite a few people, both theists and atheists,  who have some very definite ideas about God yet they are open to discussion and respect the opinions of others. Then there are those who are quite combative and almost shrill. I’ve noticed that although most of those in the second group fall into either one of two diametrically opposing camps, they share a common characteristic; fundamentalism.

It’s become trendy to label vocally strident atheists (Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens etc.) as “Fundamentalists” prompting considerable effort on their part to denounce this definition as inaccurate. And, fundamentally speaking, these atheist are correct. But many people of faith have pointed out that those who are called religious fundamentalists are rarely fundamental themselves. For example, Christian Fundamentalism is a fairly recent phenomenon that stresses a rigidly literal interpretation of scriptures as being essential to the Christian faith. This view was principally developed in response to the perceived threat that secular humanism presented to Christianity, in the wake of the Enlightenment and especially after the advent of Darwinism.

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It is in regards to Biblical literalism that many members of these two extremely different schools of thought end up becoming strange bedfellows. They both agree that authentic Christianity assumes a rigidly literal interpretation of the Bible. Both agree that the in order to be Christian one must accept that the Earth is very young, that Adam and Eve were real, that all the world’s animals fit on Noah’s ark and that the flood covered the Himalayas. And as we discussed in an earlier thread, both groups assume that the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species are irreconcilable. Because the atheist sees this narrow view of the Bible as being inconsistent with the world of scientific evidence they easily dismiss all of scripture as absurd mythology and superstition. Meanwhile the Christian Fundamentalist says that those who do not understand the Bible in the way that they do are either lacking in spiritual discernment or even worse, acting under the influence of Satan. Both groups will readily cite individual scriptures removed from context to make their points.

Neither group sees any merit in a more open and intuitive reading of scriptures, no matter how well it is presented. I have been party to conversations where both the atheist and the fundamentalist will strongly agree that the moderate or progressive believer has no right to call himself a Christian and that in reality he is a relativist who picks and chooses what he finds most agreeable. Both the Atheist Fundamentalist and the Christian Fundamentalist think that they alone look at the world, including the Bible, through very pragmatic and logical lenses. Both groups are very much a product of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on empirical evidence, mathematical formulas and the rule of law. Christian Fundamentalists will often rise to the atheist’s bait and present very far-fetched historical scenarios in attempts to defend what they call Creation Science. And the Atheist Fundamentalist, when up against the mathematical improbability that makes abiogenesis (the spontaneous presence of life) essentially impossible, will fall back on the speculative fiction of intergalactic life-seeding aliens, multiple universes and those mysteries that may reside within black holes, at times presenting them as if they were essentially fact and not fancy.

Both types of fundamentalist are very uncomfortable with the idea that perhaps we just cannot say everything with certainty, nor may we ever. This insecurity can verge upon panic as they stridently defend their positions by personally attacking those who disagree with them. The Christian Fundamentalist sees Satan at work behind the atheistic scene and the Atheist Fundamentalist tends to blame religion for all the worlds ills.

The Atheist Fundamentalist does not believe in sin but that man’s depravity is the result of primitive superstitious conditioning – once religion has passed away the world will be that much closer to the natural Utopian end product of progressive evolution. The Christian Fundamentalist, on the other hand, sees sin as akin to a disease that infects man as the result of Adam’s rebellion against God and that someday Jesus will return to the Earth and pronounce yet another type of Utopia. Neither group is willing to see that sin is something that is intrinsic to the nature of a creature that is no longer animal, but has the unique ability to choose wrong over right, and often does so.

To suggest that the Bible is often metaphorical threatens both of these world views. If Evolution does not refute scriptures then for the Atheists there remains a possibility that God does exist and there may be vitally important truths that they may be ignoring. As for the Christian Fundamentalists, if Evolution is part of God’s plan, then some of their cherished doctrines (like Original Sin and Sacrificial Atonement) are threatened.

I am no longer surprised at how many overzealous atheists claim to have escaped rigid church traditions. So few seem to have backgrounds with the more moderate and progressive Christian denominations. Conversely, so many extreme Christian Fundamentalists seem to have recently converted from either atheism or agnosticism. This would aptly describe my situation of just a few years ago, as I converted from atheism to Christian fundamentalism. Fortunately, for me, my troubles with Fundamentalism did not sour me on the faith.

(For a couple of interesting takes on this topic check out these Salon interviews with Chris Hedges and Karen Armstrong.)

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  1. #1 by Mike (FVThinker) Burns on February 19, 2009 - 12:58 pm

    I don’t know that it will be productive to keep this up. If nothing else, we should agree that evil is perpetrated by evil people. Even in the absence of religion, we would have good people doing good things and bad people doing bad things. I contend that, absent religion, we would have one less reason for good people to do bad things.

    Am I to take your response re: Stalin killing believers to be acknowledgment that non-belief was NOT the cause of that regime’s evil deeds?

    In leaving; I have to observe that you defend your faith with the ‘No True Scotsman’ argument. In short…”You can criticize THEM because they aren’t real Christians, but you can’t criticize me because I am a REAL Christian.”
    ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman )

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on February 19, 2009 - 1:52 pm

    Did you really think that either one of us would changer our minds as the result of this conversation? 😯 But it is good to talk.

    Stalin killing believers to be acknowledgment that non-belief was NOT the cause of that regime’s evil deeds?

    Right. But non-belief contributed. Just as religion is never the cause of theistic evil, just an enabling agent. In all cases the true instigator is “Satan”, the mythical literary personification of the self-absorbed ego. And Satan uses whatever tool is available to him.

    Well, Mike, I hate to see you go. Please come back and jump in at any time. As far as the Scotsman analogy goes, I guess it would make more sense to you if, as I am agreeing with your assessment of religious fundamentalism, I would also bow down to your persuasive powers of reasoning and admit that I am wrong as well? Right. 8) Anyway, I am fully aware how that argument is used by Christians all the time to explain away the evil acts committed by Christians. But this only works when talking about individuals, it does not work when trying to defend the systemic evil perpetrated by the Church. Besides, what we were originally talking about here are the similarities among those people who exhibit close minded, hyper defensive and belligerent behavior, resorting to angry invective, insult and ridicule, and how you can find them in both theistic and atheistic camps.

    The prevailing atheist spin on this might be that you CAN’T criticize ANY atheists for their behavior because we are ALL correct. 😉

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