Do fundamentalist theists have their atheist counterparts? Alistair McGrath, a Christian theologian, used the word fundamentalist to describe certain kinds of atheists. A fundamentalist is a person who is committed to a set of basic beliefs or doctrines with dogmatic and inflexible loyalty.
The word originally applied to Protestant fundamentalists who interpreted the Bible literally and would brook no criticism of it. Their beliefs included the inerrancy of Scripture, belief in the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection, and the eternal salvation of those who believe in him. The word was subsequently applied to so-called Islamic fundamentalists, who are so committed to the Qur’an that they tolerate no deviation from their understanding of it. They are all too willing to use violence to impose its commandments on others. Fundamentalists typically loathe doubters or dissenters. Witness the intolerant Protestant-Catholic wars of the early modern period. It is worth noting that despite their often-harsh rhetoric, the Christian fundamentalists of today no longer display this level of intense hatred.
In any belief system, a fundamentalist is one so overcome by zeal that he or she will never bend: that is, “a true believer.” We have seen extreme illustrations of this in the Puritan heresy trials, inquisitions, witch hunts, and various fierce campaigns against sin. Practices like these no longer occur in Christian countries, though “the virtue police” are regrettably still active in many Muslim societies.
We need to ask: are there fundamentalist “true unbelievers”? Many secular-atheists in twentieth-century totalitarian societies were indeed fundamentalists in the sense that they sought to impose a strict ideological code and willingly used state power and brutal violence against anyone who dissented. Stalinism is the best example of the readiness to punish deviation in the name of “the holy secular doctrine,” which the commissars in the gulags used to enforce obedience. Fortunately, the extremes of this form of doctrinal terror have declined with the end of the cold war.
Nonetheless, there still lingers among some true unbelievers an unflinching conviction toward atheism—God does not exist, period; they are convinced of that! This kind of dogmatic attitude holds that this and only this is true and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool. This insults a great number of reflective believers.
John Dewey, the noted American philosopher, observed that
The aggressive atheist seems to have something in common with traditional superstition…. The exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism is with man in isolation from nature. [A Common Faith]
This form of militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded. It does not appreciate the cosmic setting of the human species in the nature of things. It lacks any “natural piety,” said Dewey, and it is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism.
The New Atheists, in my view, have made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination—for religion often was considered immune to criticism. Moreover, most atheists that I know are decent and compassionate folk. What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.
Eric Hoffer used the term true believer to refer to religious fanatics. There is an analogous “true unbeliever” syndrome among some atheists who, I submit, are intolerant of those who hold differing views.
Science writer Nicholas Wade pointed this out in his New York Times review (October 11, 2009) of Richard Dawkins’s excellent new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (excerpted in this issue):
This brings me to the intellectual flaw…in Dawkins’ otherwise eloquent paean to evolution: he has let himself slip into being as dogmatic as his opponents…condemning the doubters of evolution as “history deniers” who are “worse than ignorant” and “deluded to the point of perversity!” This is not the language of science or civility.
I think that Wade has overstated his case. After all, atheism has not had a fair hearing in contemporary society, where believers have dominated the public square. Dawkins and the other New Atheists are to be congratulated for their efforts to redress this imbalance. Yet Wade’s point needs to be appreciated: one should exercise restraint in attacking one’s opponents. Atheism, like agnosticism and skepticism, can be a dignified posture when it is based on careful reflection and civilly expressed. It should not be mean-spirited. Many of us prefer a kinder and gentler form of secular humanism.