Sunday, July 01, 2007


In a message I sent to a list a couple of days ago, I mentioned that I had begun to grow about as weary of atheist fundamentalists as I have of religious fundamentalists. One person sent me this perplexed or incredulous-sounding question in response: "How can an atheist be a fundamentalist?"

I didn't think about it too much, but this is what I wrote and sent in a matter of minutes:

Bad arguments, emotional, knee-jerk reactions, blaming religion for all the problems in the world (and ignoring both positive religious manifestations and secular atrocities), and most importantly, making the serious philosophical mistake of incorrect epistomological leaps to ontological assertions, such as "science demonstrates that there is no God."

I am really referring to a specific group of people when I say atheist fundamentalists, not all atheists. I mean those who call belief in any kind of God or spiritual reality a "delusion" and insist that everyone think like them (you know who I'm talking about),

[ahem, ahem]

rather than those who say "I don't believe there is a God" or "I don't hold a particular belief in God" (or the position I like more, "I don't know if there is a God or not").

It's really easy to tell fundamentalism when you see it. It lacks any appreciation of the depth of an issue, any nuance in position. It insists on a few fundamental axiomatic things that form the basis of a single necessary worldview, and has evangelists to try to impose that single necessary view on others. It has its own thought police, and instigates inquisitions to make sure no one is straying from the path, or to ostracize and castigate those who are believed to be doing so. So fundamentalism can really be found in any kind of human program, whether it be religion, or politics, or secular philosophy.

It was that last paragraph that I really liked the most, of what I had written. You could say it without talking about what specific kind of system or point of view you're talking about, and still recognize fundamentalism as fundamentalism--even though many people would only consider fundamentalism to apply to religion. I'm no religious apologist, either. I've been agnostic to varying degrees since I left the last fundamentalist religion I will ever be associated with. In fact, many of the critics of the "New Atheists" (the all-star roster of familiar writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Vic Stenger, etc.--you know, the abrasive, evangelical ones) have been agnostics (look up the reviews of any of their books and I think you'll be able to confirm that). The thing about them is that they have an ideology to promote; they fervently hold it, and they fervently promote it, like any firebrand preacher. It goes well beyond religion, too; many of these kinds of thinkers would like to do away with any and every thing that is not in accordance with a certain strictly positivistic view, from the phenomenalism and metaphysics of Continental philosophers (atheists such as Sartre included) to radical politics to Dadaism to Postmodernism to any scientifically-explored area on the fringes of what is currently accepted by the mainstream.

What the ideology or point of view all boils down to is what is known as eliminative materialism, which is the view that matter and energy in spacetime, described as a formal system from which there is no deviance, is all there is or ever was, and every single other thing is reducible to that and eliminated as a thing of its own (i.e., the universe is like a computer program, all describable as a series of 1's and 0's). Hence, everything else, and all human things (including minds, consciousness, love, friendship, good, evil, art, beauty, spirituality, all metaphysics, you, etc.), are only complex but mindless patterns of these 1's and 0's that happen to have emerged in this formal system. (also, the formal system is self-existent and requires no explanation itself).

This eliminative materialism is a certain philosophical view (it is often called "metaphysical naturalism", a term which I don't like--see comment*) among many philosophical views about the universe or existence that are pondered, held, discussed, and debated with good arguments for and against almost any one of them that involve things like ways of knowing, logical paradoxes, interpretations of quantum physics, etc. What really sets off certain of the proponents of the eliminative materialists' view as fundamentalists, though, is the rhetorical strong-arming that characterizes their prounouncements. When any of these thinkers say that God is a scientific hypothesis that has failed, or that evolution proves that the universe and all life in it are meaningless, or that consciousness is an illusion, or that we are robots programmed by our genes, or that anything considered paranormal is a priori logically impossible, these are things that are said as if they are intended to be accepted as the Objective Truth in academia, in education, and in the public sphere, and to be made the basis of public policy. And things that seem at least provisionally or speculatively reasonable to me, or part of useful dialogue on an issue, are to these proclamists entirely unreasonable and the result of awful mushy-headed irrationalism. What is the most worrying is that this has also begun to be associated with a kind of New Inquisition throughout science and academia, in which those who disagree with any of these views are either ignored or subjected to more rhetorical strong-arming, with the intent that they are either reformed or silenced or purged from the dialogue. I think it should go without saying that this is not a good environment for discussion, and it demonstrates a situation in which many, even dictators of the program, are so certain that their views are the absolute and only way to think about what is true that there is little room for discussion or further searching anyway.

And in all this, where do I stand? What do I really think is true?

The truth is, I don’t know what's true (much less what’s True). In fact, I go back and forth so frequently, I think the best thing to do would be to not take a position, to remain agnostic to so many of these questions. Maybe, in actuality, it would be best if I went in the great tradition of American Pragmatism: "forget 'Truth'; it's all about what works, and especially about what works for human beings." (I don't know where exactly that tradition went, although some of it exists in Postmodernism now).

The big problem with eliminative materialist/neo-Darwinist fundamentalists is that I don't think they can know any better than I can know (and all I know is that I don't!--and I'm quite familiar with matters of theory and data). Yet they are so sure of themselves, it is almost as if the measure of Truth to them is how closely you think like them and hold their view as the Absolute. Hence the source of rhetorical strong-arming. And what's more, this rhetoric makes it such that that is the case; they make themselves the standard of truth in their own cultures and societies. It becomes the culturally imbedded mindset, the only way to think about the world and hence the only and absolute truth, just as the Church's dogma was for the Medeival world. (No wonder there are some postmoderns talking about the "social construction of truth" and "social construction of reality").

But if it all doesn't satisfy you, if you think there is more to it than that or even that there just may be, even if for good reason, if you're a dissident or discontent, I almost want to say, "you're in a sorry way, partner." I say that because you're walking a path--and will walk it from now until you die--of attack from all sides and from all kinds of fundamentalist absolutism, and of frequent marginalization. If you are too thick into it, you're walking that road with little refuge for peace but your own mind--if you even have that refuge (as, to quote Sally Kempton, "It's hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head").

But at least you can know it's better to never give in to that which you can't accept with any conviction, to at least try to stand in awe of that which isn't known and perhaps can't be known, but is still worth wondering about and may still be true, if just because the human mind can ponder it. As Robert Anton Wilson wrote, "That is my heresy; that is why I cannot buy into fundamentalism. I wonder a bit."


Blogger Joey said...

*Why I don't like naturalism as a term:

It seems the main benefit of calling yourself a naturalist is being able to call your opponent a supernaturalist, whether he or she would accept that label or not. Almost anyone's view of the universe is the way they think it naturally is--in fact, there is a specific branch of theology known as natural theology--but most self-described naturalists actually mean only the way they believe the universe naturally is, which is the way I described above.

Hence, metaphysical naturalism refers either to eliminative materialism specifically or to any number of different and conflicting philosophies, both theist and atheist, material and non-material, mystic and non-mystic. In the first case, the latter term should be used (as it is less loaded and more descriptive), and in the second case, the term doesn't really refer to anything in particular, and hence is not that useful anyway.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Lincoln Cannon said...

. . . beautiful post, Joey. If you have not read William James, I recommend him to you.

5:19 PM  
Blogger greenfrog said...

Nice framing of the discussions between fundamentalists and whatever the label is of non-fundamentalists.

But a quibble: Daniel Dennett as a fundamentalist?

The only book I've read of his was Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which didn't strike me as the least bit fundamentalist. Did I miss something in there or do you have some other work of his in mind?

3:36 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

I would agree that Daniel Dennett is much more tactful and less beligerent (and even expressed regret over the title of Dawkins' book and its tone). I think Neo-Darwinist fundamentalism comes through strongly in the idea that, for example, if religion should have evolutionarily traceable origins, then it (and all content of religious thought) is necessarily reduced to those origins. Philosophy of mind, also, is one of my primary interests, and it is there that I encounter Dennett primarily (and where he is an eliminativist not only in eliminating consciousness, but also in trying to eliminate the problem and the dialogue on it. As a perfectly tactful gentleman, of course).

10:57 PM  
Blogger greenfrog said...

Thanks for the elaboration. Can you suggest some of Dennett's stuff on consciousness? That is a subject that interests me.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

You can look up "Daniel Dennett" on Amazon to see all his books. The two concerning consciousness I'm most familiar with are "Elbow Room," in which he tries to explain his compatibilist theory of free will, and "Consciousness Explained," in which he puts forth his multiple drafts theory of consciousness. The title is a misnomer.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Jim Blynt said...

Atheists are often fundamentalists. The main characteristic of fundamentalism is a literal reading of myth. Fundamentalist believers read the myths and mistake them for the literal truth. Many atheists read the myths literally and conclude that they are not the literal truth, and therefore are false. Of course, the myths (scripture, etc.) are mostly meant to be read as metaphor. Their truths are not literal, though they are truths nonetheless. Perhaps the greatest failing of the modern world is the inability to appreciate metaphor, and there are plenty of offenders among both theists and atheists.

11:22 AM  

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