Is Dawkins a Fundamentalist?

Peter Higgs — proposer of the Higgs boson and, following its discovery this year, good bet for the Nobel prize — recently called Richard Dawkins a Fundamentalist. Well, what he actually said was “I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.”

Those predisposed to dislike Dawkins, predictably, used the opportunity to push the ‘fundamentalist’ label with gusto. Those who ally themselves with Dawkins brand of scientific atheism, predictably, rounded on the term with scathing criticism. Plus ca change…

Higgs went on to say some things that show he probably isn’t a keen follower of “New Atheism”[1] and its debates, internal and external. And, to be fair, many of the responses I read on New Atheist blogs were as much about those other misunderstandings as about his use of the F-word.

But was he right with his rather qualified assertion?

What struck me immediately was the obvious fact that this is purely an argument about what words should or do mean. I didn’t read (on this specific point) much disagreement about what New Atheism actually promotes.

My experience with communities of New Atheists (and in fact often scientists in general) is that they are sometimes astoundingly naive about the basic mechanics of language, making the kind of mistakes that Liberal Arts professors wearily correct in freshman essay after freshman essay. I think partly because in science there is very good reason to try to close down and pin down meanings, so there is less need to break oneself of the habit of thinking about meaning prescriptively.

So, the question should be: what do we mean by fundamentalism?

1, Fundamentalism is an insult, meaning ‘extremist’ with regard to some religious position. So, is New Atheism extremist? We can do the same dance with defining extremism, and get different answers, of course. But insults operate on the level of gut feeling more than definition. Extremist often is just used for “a religious position that is outside the range I think is reasonable”. So for an atheist with a sympathetic view of religion, New Atheism could easily be Extremist, and Dawkins therefore a Fundamentalist. A corollary of this observation is that just about nobody ever thinks they are a religious extremist. Because they think their views reasonable. The guys who flew the planes on 9/11 didn’t think they were extremists, they thought their views perfectly reasonable. I point this out because the it renders the obvious response “I’m not an extremist” rather comical in its inevitability. — So Fundamentalism scores 1. Dawkins is a fundie.

2, Fundamentalism is the Christian movement who’s beliefs are expressed in Dixon and Torey’s Fundamentals. This is the historical definition of fundamentalism – a movement in Christianity deliberately aimed at cross-cutting denominational lines and transcending the term ‘evangelical’ (which had some PR problems). Under this definition, which is what I usually mean on this blog by the term ‘fundamentalist’, New Atheism is the very opposite of Fundamentalism. So score 1 for Dawkins the non-fundie. The problem with this definition, is that it also excludes other forms of religion regularly called ‘fundamentalism’, such as ‘fundamentalist Islam’. I try not to use the term that way, but I certainly have slipped into it at times.

3, Fundamentalism is the belief that one should not compromise with ‘alternative sources of truth’. Here we’re getting underneath the skin of the Fundamentalism movement in Christianity. Why was fundamentalism born, and why was it so named? Because Christians objected to historical and scientific criticism of the bible and doctrine. The claim at the heart of Fundamentalism is that the ‘Revelation of God’ is the only reliable way to know anything for certain: when other techniques, such as science, lead to conclusions that conflict with revelation, they should be rejected without hesitation. On this definition, we have a choice: is it important that ‘revelation’ be the overriding principle; or is any epistemology — when held as the only ultimate authority — as good for the definition? I tend to think the latter (the former I’ll come back to below). So, as someone for whom empiricism is the only ultimate authority on truth, I am therefore proudly a fundamentalist on this definition. As are New Atheists. Score another 1 for Dawkins the fundie.

4, Fundamentalism is the unwillingness to change one’s mind, no matter the evidence. This is Dawkins own model, I think. At least, I’ve seen a quoted response of his to the accusation of fundamentalism along these lines. In this way, again, science and empiricism is the very opposite of fundamentalism, since it privileges evidence over authority, feeling, revelation and any other source of information, real or imagined. This is really just definition four again, but where the ultimate-authority-on-truth can be anything other than empiricism. Thus it grants an exemption for New Atheists, and a different result for Dawkins: 1 more point for being a non-fundie.

So which is the one ‘right’ definition?

There isn’t one. The second definition is the one I use formally, and the one that should probably be used in an academic essay, for example. The Associated Press guide for journalists echoes this with its advice that fundamentalist should only be used as a term for groups who self-apply it. The first definition is the one that I get the sense is used most commonly. A lot of my friends, religious and not, rail against fundamentalism in that sense (and, yes, some include New Atheism in that camp). Dawkins himself seems to prefer the fourth definition, and if we agree on the third, I’d proudly call myself a fundamentalist.

Here is a fifth definition, a special purpose one: 5, A Fundamentalist is someone who argues against tolerance and accommodation.[2] It is a minor modification of definition three, where New Atheists remain fundies, but I am now off the hook. As such, I think it is just about perfect.

[Edit 2013-1-2: Vorjack at Unreasonable Faith also posts on this topic today. He expresses his own preferred nuance on definitions 3/4 where Fundamentalism is a rejection of modernism, which is also a great definition. I also want to point out that my ‘I think it is just about perfect’ comment above is intentionally facetious, just in case I’m taken as really suggesting #5!]


[1] I’m going to use New Atheism to refer to modern scientific atheism in the Dawkins, Harris, Coyne pattern. I recognize the term is awful, and highly misleading. But the alternatives such as Gnu Atheism also jar. And other than playful scoring at the end of each definition, I don’t want to make this about Dawkins, it concerns a large and growing atheist subculture.

[2] One interesting feature of fundamentalists, under this definition, is their tendency to recast others who disagree as being inferior or ‘not real’ members of the group. So Fundamentalist Christians have and do routinely dismiss non-fundamentalists as being not real Christians, or as being reprobate, heretics, anti-Christian or atheists. And likewise, I’ve been told several times on this blog and others, that I am not a ‘real Atheist’, or that I am a coward or a ‘wannabe theist’. Though I don’t think it defines ‘fundamentalism’, that attitude is a good marker, in my mind, of a kind of intolerant ideological tribalism which is independent of actual belief: the place where a certain kind of atheism is politically indistinguishable from a certain kind of Christianity.

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10 responses to “Is Dawkins a Fundamentalist?

  1. Love this analysis !

    Had to look this up: Plus ca change…

    Concerning the nuances of #1:

    Many people use “Fundamentalists” to mean an extreme position which is harmful to others and prescriptive. THAT is why thing this it is ‘unreasonable’.
    Atheism in general (not New Atheism) is felt by many Christians to be harmful (hell-bounding) to others and extreme simply because believing in some god is common sense to them. So even with my qualified definition Atheism is hit as fundamentalist. But by the definition I set for this nuance, I don’t see a difference for the New Atheism.

    Concerning #2 — I did not know of that sense (though I should). Thanx. But then that further illustrates why the word should be avoided when striving for real dialogue and not just demagoguery, eh?

    Hmmmm, I didn’t know the Journalist rule either — interesting.

    As for #5, and this is important, I think: You’d have to tell us why you think New Atheist are not tolerant or accommodating. I must say, I have not read them but only seen some videos, but do they stop their children from playing with Christian Children or believers children, do they want to constitutionally limit believers from office or public jobs, do they …. It comes down to what tolerant and accommodating mean? My community of believers is intolerant — I have to try and stay secret but I don’t often and our family has had many practical consequences from it — many. I think England is far more tolerant since religiousity is in a minority there, no?

    If you are using non-accommodating in a soft sense like saying: “You are an idiot if you believe that.” I think we best call that non-sympathetic. For like you, and unlike many other atheists, I don’t think people are automatically idiots for believing religious notions at all. Nor do I think them evil or stupid for practicing them. Whereas, many Christians in my town do feel that about us Atheists. I just heard a good friend voice the same at a party — she forgot I was standing near her as she expressed her dismay at one of my other friends (42 years old) who came out to her about being atheist– “And we have been sending our Children to him for coaching for 5 years now!” (He coaches a drama team that my son in on — I coached her daughter for 2 years on a similar team — but I never discussed my beliefs with her — I let her alone –well, until that night. Interestingly, our Hindu friends came to her aid. They both believe that believing in some god is common sense and otherwise is just fundamentalist and stupid). I wish you’d have been there.

    We go tonight to a New Years Party with many of the same folks tonight — our heathen children will play with their holy ones — for now, they still tolerate that. We have had several families stop invites because of the religion issue — the kids don’t play now.

    So, “Fundamentalist” — yeah, silly arguments — we need to define terms as you have done so well. But people who are attacking don’t want to define terms, it takes the punch out of them and they are there to punch.

  2. Ian

    Awesome comment, thanks Sabio.

    Its hard to get into the mindset of being a under-tolerated atheist. Here I received more intolerance as a Christian than I do now. I would have been steaming at the party you mentioned. I get in trouble with my (baptist minister) sister when she says stuff that is just unthinkingly intolerant (on reflection she always adjusts to her conscious commitment to tolerance), and I struggle to keep my temper :/

    Being non-religious is so overwhelmingly common here, and those who are religious are overwhelmingly nominal, I can’t imagine my son being excluded based on his mum going to church. I feel for you.

    The whole of #5 was an attempt at cuteness, anyway, because of the pejorative force of the term, nobody wants to be called that, so #5 was my attempt to wheedle out of the term while self-righteously imposing it on others. So I wasn’t too fussed what ‘intolerant’ meant, as long as it didn’t apply to me. I hoped it would be a transparently self-serving definition. Maybe I should have signalled that better!

    I do agree, though, that religious intolerance is and always has been, of a degree unmatched by most atheists.

  3. Yeah, whether arguing about suicide, violence or theism, the tone of our stances and the stances themselves are very dependent on our experiences far more than any objective discussion.

    I didn’t remember that your sister is a minister. And since blogging on atheism and visiting Europe again, I realize how different the USA’s theism is — we are sort of like Africa and South America’s theisms.

    I just watched a thunderfoot video (my second) where he made fun of PC feminism and the idea that “intolerant” meant “as long as it didn’t apply to me.

    Happy New Year again.

    Yoi OToshi o (Japanese)

  4. Ian

    Re thunderfoot – I watched the whole secular movement self-destruct this summer with complete shock. The video, though not entirely unfair, is obviously painting a picture to make a point. There were plenty of really nasty and disproportionate things being aimed at the people being called out in this video. So the thing spiralled in slow, deathly coils, the rhetoric of both sides ratcheted up, the tactics got more extreme, it got very, very nasty. The people in that video were subject to some seriously unpleasant hate campaigning, and responded with tactics that ceded the moral high ground for openness and free expression. All in all it made me very glad I’m not associated with the whole thing. Though, I have to say, my natural sympathy was for some of the women featured, who I think were treated abysmally.

    “I didn’t remember that your sister is a minister” – you wouldn’t, its a relatively new thing. She’s a trainee minister, strictly.

  5. Ahhhh, interesting about your sis.
    Yeah, I figured there were two sides to the story.
    I think sexism is huge and difficult. But the hypocrisy is silly. Yes, I never felt any need to belong to an “Atheist community” — the phrase makes no sense to me. We have nothing in common by any definition.

  6. Personally, I am not a big fan of Dawkins’ style. But that does not make him a fundamentalist in any way that I would use the term.

    The strongest statements that Dawkins makes against religion are still very mild compared to what is said every day about atheism by religious speakers. So count me as on the side of free speech.

  7. Pingback: What is a Fundamentalist?

  8. Ian, besides Higgs, I’ve come across others, mostly Biblical scholars, who don’t like New Atheists and refer to them as “fundamentalist atheists.” A year ago I was not aware that there was a group known as New Atheists, and then for a little while I thought I was one, and mocked people who used the term “fundamentalist atheist,” and suggested to New Atheists that we adopt the intended insult with pride, like punk rockers and Gothic cathedrals. (As far as I know the suggestion hasn’t caught on.) A little later than that I no longer liked the New Atheists (I still think Dawkins’ work in biology is exemplary. On religion? Not so much.) and saw that one point of the application of the fundamentalist atheist label by those Biblical scholars was accurate: namely, many New Atheists are former believers, often former fundamentalists, and have carried some bad mental habits from their time of belief over into their current critiques of religion. For example, a mistrust of those who seem to hold opinions contrary to their own, and an over-hastiness to judge: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to correct a New Atheist’s statements on an historical subject, pointing out to them, for example, that the Bible was not altered at Nicea in 325, nor were certain books pronounced to be a part of the canon there and then, nor was the Pope present, only to be immediately accused of being a proselytizing Christian. (For some reason misconceptions about Nicea are especially popular among New Atheists. Is this entirely Dan Brown’s fault?)

    By this definition, Richard Dawkins is not a fundamentalist atheist, although very many of his fans seem to be. Or perhaps there’s just a fundamentalist-atheist ghetto among the readers posting comments in the Huffington Post’s Religion section.

  9. Ian

    You’re braver than I venturing in the comments on HuffPo :) But your description entirely chimes with mine. I’ve left several New Atheist blogs because the commenters made it clear that anti-religious claims should never be challenged, that disagreement was a sign of theism, and further protestations of atheism was a sign of repressed theism or the mark of a fifth columnist.

    I’ve not met the Nicaea issue, that is interesting. I haven’t read Da Vinci Code (I gave up after 2 chapters), so I don’t know…

  10. arcseconds

    You may think #5 is self-serving, but I think it’s the heart of the matter.

    My main question, when wanting to know about someone’s ideology, is ‘can I live with you?’.

    I can live with you having beliefs that are different from mine. In fact, I can love you under that circumstance, too.

    I can’t live with you if there’s actually no room in the world for people with different beleifs from you. Even if I actually agree with you on all factual matters, if you ultimately require the elimination of all beliefs that aren’t yours, you’ll be after people I love, and I can’t live with that.

    The problem I have with fundamentalists of the second kind is not that their beliefs are wacky, but that they ultimately won’t accept anything less than complete capitulation from everyone else.

    Also, I’m not entirely sure that Dawkins is off the hook with regard to definition 4. The way he often talks about religion seems little better than a crude characature. He often characterizes it as a hidebound, lifeless doctrine, but he knows people personally for whom it is not like this. His biblical interpretations are also not the best. So at minimum he’s guilty of both selective use of the evidence, and laziness of some kind when it comes to gathering it.

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