Fundamentalists and atheists: Birds of a feather?
As much as they claim to hate each other, right wing fundamentalist Christians and militant atheists actually have a lot in common. Bottom line: both groups lack all sense of nuance in their respective views of religion. And both generally view fundamentalist Christianity as the only true Christian faith.
Fundamentalism, according to a dictionary definition, is “characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.” Suffice it to say that extreme fundamentalists can be one tight-assed bunch.
Since fundamentalists reject as complete heresy any version of religious faith other than their own, they tend be intellectually incurious about other denominations.
(Not all fundamentalists meet this description, but the leaders of right wing fundamentalist churches generally do.)
Militant atheists can be equally dogmatic, wearing their disbelief as a badge of honor. Outspoken atheists often know very little about religion. As part of this general pattern of ignorance, they tend to assume that all religion follows the example of extreme fundamentalism.
Atheism is a perfectly honorable and appropriate life view. And most atheists don’t fall under my definition of militant atheism, which refers to those who becomes aggressively antireligious.
BartCop (whose website I still like in many other ways), for example, is an atheist who often ridicules religion. Here is something he said on the subject in a recent post attacking me (the comments I had made he was responding to, curiously enough, had little to do with religion as such):
First, all religions are money-grubbing crutches that are used by the weak and the stupid
to feel safe from the Devil that doesn’t even exist. The purpose of church is to steal money from the sick, the old, the dying and mostly, the stupid.
“Give me your money or the invisible, non-existent Devil will get you.”
Holy Mother of Koresh, who could fall for that horseshit con game except the extremely stupid?
There is no Devil so he’s not coming to get you.
To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what Bart was going for here: What he ended up accomplishing, however, was to make himself look like an ignoramus. It is, of course, possible to make an intelligent argument in favor of atheism, as recent bestselling books prove. But angry, militant atheists, like Bart, generally fall far short of that standard.
Many Christian denominations don’t come close to fitting Bart’s description. You can attend church every Sunday for a year in many liberal churches without once hearing a reference to the devil. Fire and brimstone is available, certainly. You can find it in fundamentalist churches stretching from coast-to-coast, but that no more represents the whole of Christianity than the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space represents the universe of science fiction.
And as for money-grubbing, all I can say is that as the son of a former United Church of Christ minister, I grew up under very modest circumstances economically. Whatever you think of organized religion, for every Jimmy Baker there are at least 20 members of the clergy who are living modest lifestyles. And it’s an indisputable fact that churches provide desperately needed charitable support to millions of people in need.
I’m not particularly religious myself: but I try to be respectful towards those who are. I think that’s the way of democracy.
The great glue that joins so many right wing fundamentalists together with so many militant atheists is the refusal to see things that way: although the two groups have dramatically different views on religion, they share a fundamental lack of respect for those who see a light different from the ones they see.
That isn’t liberal and it isn’t conservative: it’s just ugly and counterproductive.
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March 25th, 2008 at 12:49 pm
I like Bartcop but don’t visit much anymore. Bart’s rants on religion have been over the top since I started reading him. I ignored those parts when I used to read him almost every day. I quit reading because I support neither Obama or Clinton, and his fanatical religious fervor for his candidate, a fanatical religious fervor that is far to visible on both sides of the Democratic Party, are as distasteful to me as a Free Republic Rant.
I am not anti-religion. My children go to Chabad Hebrew Academy. The Lubavitchers are about as right wing and conservative as a Jewish Congregation can get, short of the group that stones women without wigs and cars driving through their neighborhoods on Shabbat (Saturday). I ignore most everything they say and tell my boys that I disagree when they repeat say something they were told that is too extreme, or factually incorrect, in my opinion. It is a very good school, and I can forgive their excesses as long as they don’t expect me to dress for the Russian Winter and worship as they do.
I support neither Obama or Clinton, I voted for Edwards in the Primary and will vote for the Democrat in November. I limit my time at sites where Democrats fight Holy wars for their soul of their party. I hope that the war doesn’t rip the party in two and give Bush his permanent Republican majority by default.
March 25th, 2008 at 4:11 pm
Since I’m firmly & fundamentally anti-fundamentalist, I would like to point out out that Einstein was not a math fundamentalist either. He had to search around and find another math that allowed him to show E=mc2d (I think it was an Italian mathematician, who was also not a mathematical fundamental,) and we would still be worshiping stone goddess images if we had remained fundamental in our views. Also, if the “founding fathers” (women had a lot more say than we read about,) had been politically fundamental in their views, we would be living under a kingship. (Which I guess we sort of are with this elected dictatorship we have now.) It’s not so much the fundamentalism per se that is so bad, but the rigidity of it. And I’m firmly & fundamentally opposed to that.
March 25th, 2008 at 7:00 pm
As an atheist — all due respect, I think you’re falling into the False Generalization fallacy that our pal, Ol’ Bart, falls for as well.
In fact, I’ve had my own run-ins with the “Bartster,” primarily because of his (as you note) fanatical and inflexible support of Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, the flare-ups between me and him occurred at least two years ago, when he was basically arguing that HIllary had a “right” to be as nasty and underhanded as the ‘Rethuglicans’ have been the past tweny years. He did not take kindly to my assertion that, if democrates were going to succumb to the “anything to win” mentality, we may as well all be republicans to begin with.
In any case, my larger point here is that, son of a pastor or not, you seem to rather misunderstand atheists, at least the way I understand my own anti-theistic group. My experience is that they/we tend to know a lot MORE about biblical studies and history, comparative religion, and so forth, that typical relgious believers.
To put it simply: that’s WHY we’re atheists. (And to a lesser extent, why we tend to be liberall and progressive.)
And so I tend to rejet your assumptions here, but even if I’m misreading you, at least I plead with you, do not consider Bartcop the “typical” atheist.
From Steve: Celine, thanks for your comment. I respect your point, but I do think you’re missing mine when I emphasized in the post that I was only speaking about “militant atheists,” a group I defined to include people who are militantly antireligious. Most atheists do not fall into this category.
One other point: a lot of people (I gather not including you) make the mistake, in my opinion, of viewing opposition to religion as being synonymous with the promotion of the Separation of Church and State, when the truth is that liberal religious leaders tend to be strong advocates of separation. Turning this fight into a pro-religion vs. an anti-religion contest, if nothing else, represents bad politics by throwing away potential allies.
Let me be clear: when I stated in the post that atheism is a perfectly honorable philosophical position, I wasn’t just saying “some of my best friends are atheists.” I really believe it. There is nothing inherently superior about religious belief as opposed to humanism; I just don’t think they’re so incompatible that disrespect on either side is called for.
March 25th, 2008 at 7:22 pm
I am an aethiest and I don’t hate all religions. Shinto is OK. I find the slave morality of the Jew and it’s 2 little inbred children highly offensive and I wish it would die. I am damn proud of it, and would wager I know more about Christianity than any of you. My mother has a master’s degree in theology and she taught me everything she knew for 20 years. So I would pose this… Christian Fundamentalists and Moral Relativist Tolerance Worshippers: Birds of the same feather?
From Steve: Thanks for the comment. Please see my response to Celine’s comment.
March 25th, 2008 at 7:57 pm
Having debated both sides of that divide, I am struck at just how Christian so many activist Atheists are. Mostly I think that it is all to easy to be defined by what you oppose rather than what you favor, as many progressives are finding to our horror. It is easy to oppose Bush and the Gang Of Pirates. They draw a bright line around themselves and yell “Traitor!” at anyone not on the inside.
But when it comes to taxes, health care, guns, even Impeachment and RICO prosecution of the Gang Of Pirates starting with Bush, suddenly our own ranks are all over the map
Like the GOP that they are a part ofextreamist Taliban style Christians seek to impose a litany of horrors by steeple jacking normal churches, and painting just such a bright line.
High on the list of their demands is that the Bible be taken as an encyclopedia, claiming all within as fact, and totally ignoring any heart. The vast majority of Christians are not like this and many are fighting to take their Churches back, but many also have simply confronted the encyclopedia claim and found it ridiculous and self-contradictory.
Whatever encyclopedia intent there ever was, it is a few thousand years out of date, but that was not the main intent or value. A great many religions have no “god” concept, and of those who do only the Judaic variants have any of the universal intrusive God that is the Judaic style.
It is natural therefore for many Atheists to react against what they regard as the fake encyclopedia but there is a wide variety of opinions beyond that point, and just as there is a wide range of depth of Christians, there is an equal range for every other sort. Even Atheists. Even Confucian, and Zen Atheists.
From Steve: I agree there is a wide range of within all groupings of beliefs: I hope I didn’t imply otherwise.
March 26th, 2008 at 12:48 am
As a child, I was brought up in the American Baptist Church, not by my parents,(my father was agnostic, my mother a Methodist, who no longer went to church), but by my best friends parents. Our pastor, Reverend Pavy, was a very nice man. I remember he mostly had sermons about the saving love of Jesus and a lot about forgiveness. During my college years, I seldom attended church. At age 35, I decided to become a member of the Catholic Church, guided by another dear friend of mine. I was one of the last people in our Parish to have individual instruction from a Priest. I have remained a member of St. Luke Parish for 27 years. I was very active in Parish life for many of those years. However, when it became apparent that many of the American Bishops were supporting Bush, I stopped attending Mass. I do not believe in single issue voting. I do not consider the life of an unborn fetus as more sacred than that of an Iraqi child. I am a firm believer in separation of Church and State and think religious leaders should stay out of politics and teach peace and compassion, charitable giving and ministering to those in need. Instead, we have churches building 12 million dollar additions, sparing themselves no luxury. My own Parish is not so extravagant, but they are building a new gym that they do not need, and I am not donating one dime to it. Religion, as a whole, has failed to bring peace to this earth. Often, it brings conflict and suffering. When any religion insists it has all the answers, my response is that it has not even asked the right questions. I find my God in the wildflowers, the winding creeks, the green meadows, a deer and her fawn, the face of a child. When preachers preach hate, intolerance, damnation and stereotypes, they have lost the point of their ministry and their very existence. They are drowning themselves and their flock in negatives and ultimately, negative outcomes. It is better to be an Atheist, and be a force for good, than a person of any religion, who is destructive and rigid.
March 26th, 2008 at 1:43 am
O.W. Holmes Jr wrote: “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.” Same for Pluto and God.
Incidentally, even though he is one of the “Four Horsemen” of atheism, Christopher Hitchens sucks. I don’t think Sam Harris is so great anymore either. But I quite like the other two, “Enthusiastic Brights” Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
March 26th, 2008 at 2:53 am
great post, Steve - and great comments!
at least he notices you
ok, ok, that really sounds a little un-considered - the average stupidity/intelligence is independent of race or region while religion is nearly omnipresent on Earth…
sorry, but i would be more careful/doubtful - thinkings and philosophies depend on much more than just one or two “excesses” - those are only the extremes arising from a network of thoughts and ideas
but if a network of thoughts and ideas is able to create extremes like “stoning women without wigs and cars driving through their neighborhoods on Shabbat” or “expecting you to dress for the Russian Winter” there is some ugly little illness in the thoughts - like women/car drivers/all humans are to be controlled and punished like children, animals, whatever…
after all, the network of thoughts and ideas is the foundation of each and every decision a brain does…
OTH - a school is a place to learn - to accept ideas, thinkings, knowledge
are you sure, you don’t sacrifice your children to a network of ideas you would never want to rule your world? Imagine everyone around you thinking of women/car drivers/all humans as to be controlled and punished like children, animals, whatever… - without any right to decide for themselves?
wholeheartedly agree to your whole post - without curiosity, nothing new would ever be invented/found
“There are three ingredients to the good life; learning, earning, and yearning.” - Christopher Morley
thank you - thank you so much!
OH YES! We got our brain to think on our own…
as Celine said: “tend to know a lot MORE about biblical studies and history”
“One is responsible for this immaturity and dependence, if its cause is not a lack of intelligence or education, but a lack of determination and courage to think without the direction of another. Sapere aude” - Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”
know the story about the “Gnostic Bible”? At least about how the ideas of those Christians were declared as “wrong” and therefore “released for prosecution”? Fundamentalism is not an invention of our times - and if you don’t have enemies to hunt, take your brothers and sisters!!
but i bet, fundamentalism is older than religion: basically it is about “us” and “them” and that is known not only about children, but about chimps, actually nearly each and every animal species, too…
yes, it takes more than just an “enemy” to decide about things - it takes goals. Goals - the basic law of information processing, just because of the simple fact of feasibility - so much reality, so few resources!!
and that is exactly the point, where social considerations enter the stage - united we stand! Think of the first cell - a team of sub-cells, think of our body - a team of billions of cells, think of our families and friends
then you see that individuals have much to win in working together - but no win without a price (basically simple physics: conservation of energy, remember?)
so if you want to live in a human society, strong and decent - and SURVIVABLE - you have to pay taxes and health care, have take care of justice (tit for tat) and have to take care of peace - even it that means that you yourself cannot have and do everything you want
btw: read that?
Money might buy happiness—when you spend on others
March 26th, 2008 at 3:12 am
Following up on the point that a couple of commenters have made that most atheists know more about what the Bible says than most Christians do: I have never met a single Christian who knew that Jesus refused to heal a sick little girl who was a Gentile rather than a Jew (until the girl’s Gentile mother insisted and submissively compared her kind to “dogs under the table”)! Mark 7:24-30. Apparently that includes Michael Moore, who, apparently not knowing that in Mark 7:27 Jesus sets out his health care policy as “Let the children [Jews] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles]“, named one of the special features on his SiCKO DVD “Who Would Jesus Deny?” (which, incidentally, is a very good video and can be seen online at http://bravenewfilms.org/blog/17658-sicko-dvd-extra-preview-who-would-jesus-deny ). I see online that there are religious rationalizations of that passage. But no Christian I have asked about it in person was even aware of it at all.
March 26th, 2008 at 3:18 am
I don’t agree that atheists know little of religion. I find that they have usually studied it quite a bit and then reject it. I am not an atheist , but I do believe that ALL religions are simply mythology. I don’t think one has to pick some religion or other to believe in God. I use God the way Joseph Campbell described it. A word we use for something that is beyond words.
March 26th, 2008 at 8:27 am
Some really great posts here. I couldn’t add much that hasn’t already been expressed better.
I agree with Larkrise that there is much religion in the little things. The joy of anticipation I feel when it’s time for the hummingbirds to return, the daffodils poking their beautiful bright yellow heads out on a cold, gray morning, my three-year-old niece when she sings and dances with complete abandon!
I believe in God.
and once again what Larkrise said: (I’m glad she’s back)
“When any religion insists it has all the answers, my response is that it has not even asked the right questions.”
March 26th, 2008 at 2:24 pm
Perhaps a more appropriate title for your article would have been ‘Fundamentalists and Militant Atheists: Birds of a Feather?’. As an atheist, I was a bit put-off by the correlation of religious fundamentalism and and atheism as the title suggests.
By the way, it has been my observation that atheists, indeed, have more religious knowledge than most of the sanctified.
If you are really curious and want to find out the true roots of ALL religions, read the scholarly book entitled ‘Mythologies Last Gods; Jesus and Yahweh’ written by William Harwood - this book has so much depth, that if you were not an atheist before reading it you probably will be an atheist after reading it.
March 27th, 2008 at 4:05 am
My point was not so much that there is a wide variety of all but that much Hyperbole on the Atheists part (and by extension Bart) is reaction to a specific and scary version of Christianity. With only the side point that there are many Atheist Religions with much to teach all of us.
Religion as Encyclopedia is old among people of small learning or intelligence, but usually was not so among those who thought deeply on the subject. This “speaking in two voices” is key in Greek and Roman theology, and the basis in a twisted way for Leo Strauss and the Neocons. Having a clumsy world view and instinctive group differences is as old as social animals of any sort. And yes I am familiar with the many “Gospels”, pseudocriptica, and other Biblical variants and other religions that were woven into the Council of NIceene Bible, and the many that were left on the cutting room floor.
March 27th, 2008 at 12:28 pm
I generally like the writing on this site, but I have a few issues with Fundamentalists and Atheists: Birds of a Feather?.
I would strongly disagree with the assertion that outspoken atheists often know little about religion. It has been my experience that most outspoken atheists know more about the religions that they critique, than than the majority of the people claiming to be members of those religions.
Please see the writings/speeches of Christopher Hitchens of you doubt that atheists have done their homework:
BartCop’s choice of words obviously shows the frustration that comes from seeing people get hoodwinked by charlatans.
Most of the atheists or agnostics that I know, while disagreeing with the dogma and mysticism of fundamentalist christianity, have great respect for those who truly conduct their lives in accordance with Christ’s teachings. Unfortunately, that seems to be only a fraction of those who profess to identify as “Christian”. The teachings of Jesus focused on loving and caring for one another, and decidedly not on a powerful centralized church authority, who would claim the power of mystic works in exchange for money.