Atheists, Fundamentalists and Missers of the Point

A post at unreasonable faith deals with the accusation that [many of the most vocal] atheists have the same view of the bible as fundamentalists. A view that is just as naive and worthy of derision.

The post attempts to define this approach in two parts.

1. The acceptance that the bible is authoritative. The foundational, or fundamental authority, perhaps.

2. That the bible should be read according to its most obvious meaning (not its literal meaning, always, but its common sense reading).

Vorjack (the author) states that these atheists are not treating the bible the same ways a fundamentalists because, while they agree on point 2, they obviously disagree with point 1. The atheist does not believe the bible is authoritative.

This is an interesting point, but one that misses the point. Hard.

The point of the comparison (a comparison I’ve made before), is that the atheists in question do believe in 1: they do believe that the bible should be authoritative. Not over their own beliefs, of course, but over the beliefs of Christians. They claim, loudly and frequently, that this is the right way for a Christian to approach the bible, and that not approaching the bible this way is be using it wrong, or doing Christianity wrong. And that is why the comparison matters.

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27 responses to “Atheists, Fundamentalists and Missers of the Point

  1. I agree that it is reasonable for the atheist to take the Bible to be authoritative for the Christian. However, I see a problem with point 2.

    It is not my reading of the Bible that is authoritative for the Christian. Rather, it is that Christian’s own reading of the Bible that is to be taken as authoritative. And there is a lot of variation in how Christian’s read the Bible.

    In particular, I see it as a problem when an atheist takes a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, and holds that to be authoritative for a progressive Christian. It isn’t.

  2. TWF

    I think you nailed it, Ian.

    To Neil‘s point, though, while he’s got some validity, I am not in agreement with him. In my eyes, taking a “fundamentalist reading” of the Bible is nothing more than taking the Bible at its word; its fundamentals. Not even all people labeled Fundamentalists do that.

    The progressive Christian often veers away from what the Bible says; pruning it down into the likeable bits and broadly disregarding the bulk of the text for what they feel is the message or essence of that text. I think that it is valid for an atheist to challenge progressive Christians in how much they vary from what is written, which comes back to the Bible’s fundamentals.

  3. Who are they and what did they say? Because I must have missed their loud and clear statements.

  4. Ian

    Mark, you may want to have a look at the previous post on this: http://irrco.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/how-fundamentalists-won-the-war-and-so-killed-christianity/. You might also want to try the experiment of choosing a random prominent atheist blog and post a comment to the effect of “I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe the bible is authoritative.” and see the responses.

  5. Ian

    TWF, thanks, but your last sentence seems to disagree with me.

    “I think that it is valid for an atheist to challenge progressive Christians in how much they vary from what is written”

    Why is it valid to challenge departure from what is written for a Christian who doesn’t base their faith on what is written?

  6. TWF

    Ian, I apologize but I misunderstood your angle on your post here. Doh! I’m a fool once again.

    What you ask me is a good and fair question. Here is why I think that there is validity:

    It’s been my experience that, at the heart of it, even progressives to base their faith on what is written. If you go to any progressive Christian church, I would be willing to bet high wagers that they will use the Bible. They will read passages from the Bible. They will build sermons around Biblical anecdotes. They will quote “Jesus said…” So they do base their faith on what is written. On one hand, they may opening recognize that the Bible is not 100% infallible and divinely inspired, but on the other hand they base their teaching of the faith from the same book.

    That’s why I think an atheist is (or at least can be) valid in challenging progressive Christians from a fundamental point of view. However, doing so requires the atheist to build a much more robust case to show, for example, how a progressive point of view contradicts a central theme in the text.

    Do you think that is a fair sentiment?

  7. Ian

    I understand it, but I think that theological standpoints are far not so easily pigeon-holed.

    Fundamentalism and its interpretation is a recent phenomenon. For more Christians through history, authority was contained in the teaching of the church. A church which certainly used the bible to express its doctrines, but was neither limited nor constrained by it. To them the bible alone was explicitly not authoritative.

    On the other hand among modern progressive Christians, authority is found in the lived experience of faith. If God is real, then the encounter with God is prime. The bible is merely a record of the experience of those who have found God before. So why care, for example, that a major theme in the bible doesn’t match the lived experience of their faith? To them the bible is explicitly not authoritative.

    For both sets (and others), the bible may be more or less personally important, as inspiration, as a liturgical text, for prooftexting. But the presumption that it does, or should be authoritative, derives from a particular branch of protestantism, and in its “most obvious meaning” hermeneutic, from C20 american fundamentalism. A sub-group of a sub-group who, by virtue of their political importance in the US, have managed to convince most atheists that theirs is the true form of religion. Hence why interpretation of the bible among many atheists is often indistinguishable from right wing fundamentalism.

    [Normal caveats with these discussions, there are plenty of atheists who know better, but their voices are less often heard, in my experience].

  8. TWF

    I apologize, Ian, but I’ve been using the term fundamentalism a little more loosely than what is defined by the C20 Americans. :-) I vehemently disagree with much of what they consider to be the “most obvious meaning,” especially when it comes to OT prophesy.

    As I understand the church history, indeed most of church history supplemented the Bible with the word of the pope. In my opinion, Martin Luther may very well have been the first prominent fundamentalist in modern church history, rejecting papal decrees in favor of what the Bible actually said.

    In defense of your point, you’ve asked “So why care, for example, that a major theme in the bible doesn’t match the lived experience of their faith?

    That is an excellent question to consider, but I think that its validity is highly variable based on the particular believer you are talking about. Some, maybe even most, may not care. However, given that we know how easy it is to fool ourselves as human in general, I would argue that they should care. They should want some external verification to say that they have it right. Of course, if they feel they have that verification from Jesus Himself, then you’re right.

    The problem is that when you get to that point, there is essentially no room for discussion. You can’t reason with someone that one plus one equals two when they know in their heart of hearts that God has told them that the sum is instead three. Either you return to some form of connection with the text, and thereby hold it as some type of authority, even if not the exclusive authority, or else the conversation is pointless.

    At least that is how I see it Ian. Am I being short sighted here? Do you know of a way to navigate to a meaningful dialog with a purely relativistic, subjective approach to which at least some progressives cling?

  9. So you’re relying only on blog comments to support your claim. Can you at least say some atheists don’t agree with 1? Because Vorjack, Chris H. and I don’t agree with 1. We’re atheists.

    That’s the minimum, but if you want to say many of the most vocal atheists agree with 1, then please list at least a few examples.

  10. Ian

    “So you’re relying only on blog comments to support your claim” You do have an odd way of talking sometimes – I wasn’t supporting my claim, I was talking about a pattern of discussion I’ve had online many times.

    I’m an atheist and I don’t agree with 1 either.

    I’m not sure what honour you feel like you’re defending, but I suggest it is misplaced, particularly in light of the post I’m responding to here.

  11. Ian

    TWF

    “The problem is that when you get to that point, there is essentially no room for discussion. You can’t reason with someone that one plus one equals two when they know in their heart of hearts that God has told them that the sum is instead three”

    I think this is spot on. The reason to want Christianity to be fundamentalist at core, is that it is much harder (if not impossible) to argue against progressive Christians. It makes our lives as atheists easier to pretend that those Christians are doing it wrong, so we only have to engage with the fundamentalists. Put in that way, however, I think it is clear that this is a function of atheistic projection, not of reality.

    As for “can we have meaningful dialogue with progressive Christians”. In my experience, we can, though not at the level of “I know the truth, and I’ll prove it to you”.

    I know a lot of progressive Christians, and most of them believe largely the same things about God as I do (God is a human construct, a mythologised expression of fundamental human concerns, there is no supernatural, etc), but differ primarily in their response.

  12. First, am I mistaken? Did you misstate Vorjack’s second point. Vorjack said:

    The intended meaning of the author is the appropriate level of meaning, so none of that “multiple interpretations” crap.

    Whereas Ian said, “obvious meaning”, “literal meaning”.

    That changes the argument a great deal. All three are different hermeneutics:
    (1) Intended (requires hard research with tentative conclusions)
    (2) Obvious (wide open)
    (3) Literal (the approach of the fundies we all love to hate)

    Looking at the assumption that the Bible should be “authoritative” is interesting. Most of my Christian friends may think this as a sentence in their head, but in their hearts they don’t think that way at all. And I am thankful. But, like Ian, I don’t think that doesn’t make them Christian (of course — like many Atheists do).

    Most of my Christian friends don’t have any hermeneutical method at all.

    But I agree with Vorjack that Liberal’s approach the Bible with a “God is loving” assumption and will do anything to the text to make it work, so in a sense they can keep the Bible as authoritative in value.

    Again, all this stuff is definitions.

    I think the biggest point is that being a prescriptionist Atheist and telling folks what a real Christian or a real Atheist is, is silly and sadly common.

    But seeking authoritative security blankets, no matter how open-minded one likes to think they are, is another sad common condition of us all: be their fundies, liberal Christians, atheist (looking to current science as dogma – Scientism).

  13. Ian

    Yes, I deliberately corrected Vorjack’s hermeneutic, because I didn’t think that was the point he was trying to make. The fundamentalist hermeneutic is not ‘authorial intent’. Vorjack might want to argue that, but given that wasn’t the point of his post, I just corrected it, because the point of my post was elsewhere. I can make that more explicit if it would be helpful.

    I think fundies are in category 2 in your list not 3. But I’ve just deleted five paragraphs of explanation why, which I’ll put in another post :)

    —-

    ” so in a sense they can keep the Bible as authoritative in value.”

    This is the bit I don’t get – why do you see this as an attempt to keep the Bible as authoritative? They certainly want to find a loving God in the bible, given that the bible is the scripture of their chosen religion, but it what way is that making the bible authoritative? I know progressive Christians who unthinkingly use bible-authority language from time to time – “we should XXX, because the bible teaches it.” But those who are genuinely and thoughtfully willing to say “Paul was just plain wrong about women”, would surely agree that, in a disagreement between their bible and their knowledge of the world / knowledge of right and wrong, the bible loses.

  14. TWF

    OK, Ian, I think I was misunderstanding what you were referring to by “progressive Christian.” Yeah, I would not try to argue with someone who believes that “God is a human construct, a mythologised expression of fundamental human concerns, there is no supernatural, etc” and still considers themselves a Christian. At the risk of succumbing to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, I would have a hard time calling such Christians.

    Now, if someone was born and raised in Scotland, lives in Scotland, and was brought up by Scottish parents, we would consider him Scottish. But what if he has it in his head that he is American; always has been, always will be. And why? Because he feels that he has the American spirit within him. He feels that it is right.

    Am I then just pretending that he is wrong when I consider him to be Scottish instead of American, and explain why that is? Would that be considered projecting my values or belief onto him?

    I think the argument you are making is that there is a supremacy in individual relativism. While hardly anything is black and white, and while there are normally many truths as opposed to one truth, I would suggest that there are at least some boundary conditions which should be relevant in discerning what is possible and what is just flat out wrong.

    But that’s just me. I do prefer my pigeon holes to be at least somewhat finite in the size of their orifices. :-) Thanks for the discussion! I hope it hasn’t been too tiresome.

  15. Ian

    Its all good stuff TWF, discussion is why I blog :)

    I wasn’t intending to suggest that all progressive Christians are like that, just that I know many who are, so what “productive dialog” means can be quite diverse. As a consequence, it is better to find out what someone actually believes, I think, rather than assume based on the label they adopt.

    “I would have a hard time calling such Christians.”

    That reminded me of a conversation with a conservative older person about why we should call a transwoman “she”, not “he”. Ultimately words mean whatever you want them to mean. If you define “Christian” a different way to some who call themselves “Christian”, then that’s cool. We can mentally adjust as we talk. It is only a problem if your definition dictates what you will allow the other to say.

    I’m not suggesting you’re like this. Just trying to illustrate why I am so laissez fair about terminology.

  16. DVD Bach

    The difference between atheism and fundamentalism is that (in general) an atheist will change his or her point of view if and when new evidence becomes available. A fundamentalist holds onto his or her viewpoint regardless of evidence.

  17. Ian

    There are many differences, but only one was the point of this post. Were you paying attention there, or did you just drive by to dump another cliche on the world? Because drive-by OT cliches are a big speciality of fundies who come here too.

  18. DVD Bach

    I know that wasn’t directed at me…

  19. LOL. Next you’ll be telling me you don’t have to believe in Jeebus to be one. Nice one. You reminded me of a misc. demotivator:

    “THE ONE PERCENT: Of 100 men, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian.” — Anon

    >Ultimately words mean whatever you want them to mean.
    What solipsist shyte. Leave the semantic/word games to the theists, thankyouverymuch.

    It’s pretty clear (as you’ve all but made my eyes bleed) that you’re purposely overlooking the fact their “faith”, in this case, Christianity, includes the /whole/ of their ideologies… the /entirety/ of their big book of Bronze Age BS. Own all of it, or own none of it, but don’t tell me you’re worthy of being heard ’cause you’d rather just pick out & parrot the fluffy parts.

    Cafeteria Christianity. Look it up.

    “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” — I. Asimov

  20. @self
    s/”the other 99 will read the Christian.”/”the other 99 will be Christian.”

    Whoops! ;-)

  21. Ian

    >>Ultimately words mean whatever you want them to mean.
    >What solipsist shyte.

    So words should mean exactly what you think they mean, and if someone disagrees with you they are just plain wrong. I’ve had lots of conversations with folks who insist that words mean something very specific and immutable. Without exception such people have been intellectually immature. Your opening gambit on the topic suggests you’re not going to buck that trend.

    Paticularly as the next passage then just insists on the same point *again* by fiat with not actually new reasoning. Kindof as if you hadn’t grasped the point, but love the sound of your own voice…

    And then the lovely denouement where you seem to have confused me for some kind of Christian. Which again is quite common among people who’s mouth is much bigger than their brain.

    So far you’re scoring 3 for 3 on idiot tells.

  22. Sure sweetie. /I’m/ the idiot because I like to, intentional or otherwise, make excuses for dogmatic cherry picking. Of course, I’m /such/ a moron, the concept of context is simply beyond me. It needn’t be said I’m /so/ slow, I couldn’t possibly understand how words can have multiple definitions. I mean, there’s just /no/ way I could grasp the need to articulate the exact meaning of said appropriate word if there’s even a suspicion of confusion. I must be /utterly/ dense, as it is /just so/ non-critical for effective discourse. Did you know “lexicon” almost means “dictionary”? ‘Cause I shure dunna.

    >And then the lovely denouement where you seem to have confused me for some kind of Christian.
    Hence my “Leave the semantic/word games to the theists […]” you’ve also overlooked. We sure do know how to pay attention, don’t we?

    >Paticularly as the next passage then just insists on the same point *again* by fiat with not actually new reasoning.
    I post with the understanding theists /also/ visit these pages. If I was looking to have a private conversation, I’d simply request you e-mail me. Vanity much?

    >Kindof as if you hadn’t grasped the point, but love the sound of your own voice…
    *sigh* … & building on my aforementioned point (as I not confident you’ll deduce such), it seems you’ve had very different experiences when point out the asininity of theism/deism/pantheism… ’cause you’ve /never/ had to rephrase your position to ensure your point is understood, right?

    >Which again is quite common among people who’s mouth is much bigger than their brain.
    As the kids say: LAWL.

    Which only applies if one overlooks the fact your perspective is posted in the public sphere. Hey, this /is/ your blog I’m looking @, correct? Your vapid “insight” behind this article demands you be called out, yet you act as if it’s somehow my fault. Are you sure you’re not a Christian? You seem to be oblivious to the definition of “absurdity”.

    Don’t blame me for this sample of your blazing insipidness.

  23. Ian

    Miaow, nice. I hoped you come back at me. Keep it coming big-boy.

    “‘And then the lovely denouement where you seem to have confused me for some kind of Christian.’ Hence my “Leave the semantic/word games to the theist”

    Wallop, touché. Missed that.

    “Paticularly as the next passage then just insists on the same point *again* by fiat with not actually new reasoning. — I post with the understanding theists /also/ visit these pages”

    I don’t get that at all, you were avoiding making a constructive point because you thought theists might read your comment?

    So your response is a lot of fun, but I am genuinely puzzled, because I can’t read your original post as anything but a restatement of the canard, without justification, new argument, or counter-argument.

    Many theists claim the bible is not authoritative over their belief and practice, so accusing them of cherry picking, and telling them they must ‘own all of it’ is idiotic, surely.

    There are plenty of comment threads on here where Christians have turned up to tell me what I must believe because I’m an atheist too. How is your comment not as laughable?

    You said “Christianity, includes the /whole/ of their ideologies… the /entirety/ of their big book of Bronze Age BS. Own all of it, or own none of it, but don’t tell me you’re worthy of being heard ’cause you’d rather just pick out & parrot the fluffy parts.” in response to the original post, where I said that atheists like you are indistinguishable from fundamentalists in believing that the bible should be authoritative over Christian belief and practice. How is that not just a proof of my point?

    Perhaps you’d like to mount some argument for why a Christian who does not believe the bible is authoritative *should* do. Or how, perhaps, a Christian who thinks they don’t ascribe authority to the bible actually does. Both, at least, would engage with and further the conversation. As it is, it still reads as bluster…

  24. Teh blockquote tag works! Kindly delete my last response; I’ll repost using better formatting.

    [Edit by Ian: There were three comments, I hope I got the right one below.]

  25. Keep it coming big-boy.

    You act as if you’re able to parry. How precious.

    Before responding to this reply, I’d like you to show me you understand the reference to solipsism. By your latest reply, I think it currently beyond you. I’d also appreciate you using a block paragraph standard, quoting via “>” (as you’ve done in your first response to me); your last comment was ‘jumbled’, IMO. TIA. You may want to consider introducing a feature to allow better formatting/quoting

    (eg: the blockquote tag).

    I don’t get that at all, you were avoiding making a constructive point because you thought theists might read your comment?

    I’ll own the point I may have been unclear by not overtly prefixing something to the effect of “@Theists:” I believe there’s a programming concept known as “flow control”. Kindly excuse my assumption that you could discern asynchronous communication. It seems I also erred in your ability to understand “rephrasing” & “repetition”.

    How is your comment not as laughable?

    Every comment I’ve made is meant to be laughable; how else would I engage a self professed “atheist” that goes out of their way to act the apologist?

    where I said that atheists like you

    You take that back! I, my good sir, am an antitheist, not one of you spineless atheists. Did my alias not assist you in deducing such? Shall I too mark & tally “idiot tells”?

    Now, to the metaphorical “heart” of the matter:

    are indistinguishable from fundamentalists in believing that the bible should be authoritative over Christian belief and practice.

    […] Or how, perhaps, a Christian who thinks they don’t ascribe authority to the bible actually does.

    You must simply love to parade your deeply flawed hypothesis. I’d like you to reflect on the preposterousness of your propositions. Can you tell the difference between a theist, deist & a dogmatic cherry picker? Neither can I.

    [somewhat off topic]

    Q: Daddy, wut does “Cafeteria Christian” mean?
    A: You can ask the priest when your mother drags us to that damn yearly service on Christmas.

    [/topic]

    As it is, it still reads as bluster…

    Child, as you’ve titled your blog, in that same vein I post these retorts to you. It shames us both I must point this out.

    Perhaps you’d like to mount some argument for why a Christian who does not believe the bible is authoritative *should* do.

    Perhaps you’d like to mount some argument how Christianity can sustain itself without it’s scriptures. Come, little one, show me how a bumbling widdle apheist can single-handedly redefine & evolve the mythos of a zombie god on a stick.

    I await with bated breath.
    edit: typos & italics, bold tag test.

  26. Ian

    I’d like you to show me you understand the reference to solipsism.

    I thought it a bit of a delicious irony, actually, since you were clearly using ‘solipsism’ in a way that is unlike its regular meaning. Using it to mean something like “entirely subjective” rather than “I am the only mind that exists” – the latter of course being the exact opposite of the kind of Wittgensteinian notion of meaning that I was advocating, where meaning is a function of the language game. So perhaps it might be worth following your own advice and making sure you figure out what big words mean before you use them.

    You must simply love to parade your deeply flawed hypothesis.

    But the more you respond that way without actually giving an answer, the more you look like a fundie who claims they have proof of God’s existence but just isn’t willing to share it with people so obviously beneath them. I’m afraid most of your last comment raised nothing more than a shrug.

    Perhaps you’d like to mount some argument how Christainity can sustain itself /without/ it’s scriptures.

    All religions sustain themselves on the basis of a feedback network among the followers of that religion. So the community (the church, the most prominent tele-evangelists, the pope and bishops, their elders, whatever the influence group is) says what is important, what politics to follow, what beliefs should be held, what is morally verboten, etc.

    Some groups may then quote-mine the bible for some kind of justification, but the degree to which they do that depends on their theology (fundies — who have a theology of biblical authority — do so more than, say unitarians, but both got their theology of the bible from other people, just like their other beliefs). It is the community of believers who decides what God wants, who he hates, what it takes to get into heaven. As the attitudes of the community of believers changes over time, so does their view of the will of God. So God used to be big into slave owning, now not so much.

    The bible is far too diverse to say anything coherent on just about any topic: you can read whatever you like into it. It was wielded above the heads of pro-slavery and anti-slavery preachers, as it is now trotted out by anti-gay and pro-gay Christians. Nobody isolated from any other Christian would pick up a bible and come to an idea of Christianity that was remotely like any extant form of the religion. Remember many of the doctrines and attitudes of the church were codified before the NT became scripture. How did that happen? In exactly the same way: through the dynamics of the group of believers.

    Exactly the same happens in any religion, even those without any closed set of scripture. “Progressive” Christianity is no different in that regard than, say, Buddhism. The difference between progressive and fundie christianity is not in how it actually works, but how the believers think it works.

    You can see this process at work in the rate of theological diversification in isolated religious groups. Once a breakaway group severs its ties (and hence the inertia of its influence) with its parent group, it tends to very rapidly change theology. Which is to say that the smaller sub-population you sample, the higher the likelihood their mean is further from the population mean. This is also a feature of tensions within a group. If your beliefs are a long way from the mean beliefs of your group, then you are more likely to schism or join a schism with a closer mean. This is the history of Christianity all over. The only reason that there weren’t more schisms before the reformation is that the church combined political as well as doctrinal power.

  27. That’s is a fantastic response & much for me to digest. When I get a spot of time, I’ll swing back. Cheers.

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