In Defense of Unbelief: Are There Fundamentalist Atheists?

Paul Kurtz

In my brief editorial, “The ‘True Unbeliever,’” I pointed out that fundamentalist theists have their “atheist counterparts.” Are there such persons, or is this a figment of my imagination? The term unbeliever refers to those who reject the claims of theistic religion;but these may include atheists, agnostics, skeptics, nontheists, igtheists, or those who are simply indifferent to religion. The issue at hand is whether “fundamentalist atheists”exist. This is an empirical question.

I defined a fundamentalist as one “who is committed to a set of beliefs or doctrines with dogmatic and inflexible loyalty.” The question at hand is whether fundamentalist atheists have in fact existed in the past and still exist today. In my editorial, I made it abundantly clear that I was referring primarily to the “many secular-atheists in twentieth-century totalitarian societies.” These atheist fundamentalists “sought to impose a strict ideological code and willingly used state power against anyone who dissented.” Stalinists punished deviation in the name of “a holy secular doctrine.” Here the “old-time atheism” was allied with communism; this had a devastating effect in turning so many people in the Western world against atheism.

My experience with atheism in the Soviet Union began when I invited two leaders of the Institute for Scientific Atheism to attend an International Humanist and Ethical UnionWorld Humanist CongressinAmherst, New York, in 1988. The Russians reciprocated by inviting a team of twelve humanists to visit them in Moscow. This was the time when Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated glasnost and peristroika. As a result, we helped organize the first Atheist/HumanistDialogue in Moscow. Being an unbeliever myself, I was particularly sensitive to the attacks on atheism around the world that we all had experienced. The humanists at those dialogues were shocked to learn the extent of the massive assault on religion in the Soviet Union and the tens of thousands of churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques that had been closed or destroyed—and the great number of clergy who had been persecuted, even during the Khrushchev period. Similarly for other communist regimes in Eastern Europe (though on a far lesser scale);the People’s Republic of China; North Korea; and most recently, by the forced marches imposed by the regime of Pol Pot, who wished to destroy religion and commerce and killed millions of people in Cambodia. As secular humanists, we believed in freedom of conscience for both believers and nonbelievers and were stunned by the consequences of tyrannical opposition to religion. (For more information about this and other dialogues, please see my articles “Humanism and the Open Society: Dialogues with Marxists and Roman Catholics,”Chapter 15; “Militant Atheism vs. Freedom of Conscience: Reflections on the Moscow Atheist/Humanist Dialogue,” Chapter 16; and “Humanism and Atheism: Exploring Similarities and Differences” in Toward a New Enlightenment: The Philosophy of Paul Kurtz, edited by Vern Bullough and Timothy Madigan, Transaction Publishers, 1994.)

Does Gary J. Whittenberger’s decision not to discuss these issues reflect his abysmal ignorance of the history of atheism in recent times and his failure to understand what I was saying or both?I should point out that I do not ally myself in any sense with right-wing propagandists, but am simply stating the facts that contributed to the animosity against atheists worldwide for so long.

I should also state unequivocally that heinous crimes against humanity have been inflicted throughout the ages by theists in the name of God. Moral virtue is not a monopoly of either secularism or theology.

Are There Still ‘True Believers’ Today?

My answer to this is, unfortunately, yes, but surely nothing to compare with the espousal of atheism by totalitarian states. Today most atheists are decent folk. But some have become “true unbelievers.” Mr. Whittenberger states that most atheists he knows “are scientific about God’s existence” and that “if shown plentiful unequivocal evidence that God exists, they would abandon atheism.” Well, in the first place, very few people use scientific methods to establish their beliefs. Perhaps the fact that an estimated 60 percent of scientists today are atheists (or agnostics)is some evidence for that claim. But it does not necessarily apply to the bulk of atheists. France, for example, has a large percentage of atheists, but as far as I am aware, only a small number base their atheism on science. Most become indifferent to religion, I submit, because of the allure of the secular consumer culture and the fact that social institutions provide social services that lessen the fear of disease or want—which apparently caused many people in the past to place their faith in a deity.

Regrettably,there is considerable evidence that fundamentalist attitudes still persist among some atheists today. Was Madalyn Murray O’Hair a “True Unbeliever”? She was strongly committed to her cause. She was considered to be the “most hated woman in America” and reveled in that label. No doubt she was provoked by her opponents; it should be noted that she was brutally murdered with two members of her family fifteen years ago. Her attitude tended to be so harsh that it actually helped to develop public hostility toward atheism. If one reads many “movement” blogs today, one can find similar angry atheist attitudes on constant display. I think that this is unfortunate. Atheism can be a positive philosophical and scientific viewpoint. I would urge a change in strategy in order to persuade people of the merits of the case againstGod, and that is one reason those who I criticized I view as“True Unbelievers.”

When I delivered an address at the recent American Atheist Convention In Newark, New Jersey, defending a “kinder and gentler atheism,” I received warm support from most of the atheists assembled, as did activist and philanthropist Todd Stiefel, who argued similarly. Most atheists that I know are decent and compassionate folk. We should not let those who are militant turn the public against our position.

Two last points: I did not intend my editorial to be viewed as an attack on the New Atheists. I explicitly stated that they have “made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination.” My main quarrel with atheism is that it is truncated. It is in one sense a one-issue movement. It is one thing to present the case against God. But should not atheists also make it clear that they are committed to a series of ethical principles: that they believe in truth, honesty, clarity, and the demand for evidence?I would hope that they would also defend the civic virtues of democracy, among which I would emphasize tolerance, the willingness to negotiate differences and to reach compromises. Last but not least, I hope that today’s atheists will express an appreciation for humanistic ethical values, derived not from God but from human experience.

I thus consider Mr. Whittenberger’s arguments against my thesis largely non sequiturs. I would urge him to read my books The Transcendental Temptation (1986), Forbidden Fruit (1988), and The New Skepticism (1992), which present a detailed case against theism, to gain a broader perspective of what I have attempted to do.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In my brief editorial, “The ‘True Unbeliever,’” I pointed out that fundamentalist theists have their “atheist counterparts.” Are there such persons, or is this a figment of my imagination? The term unbeliever refers to those who reject the claims of theistic religion;but these may include atheists, agnostics, skeptics, nontheists, igtheists, or those who are simply …

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