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” 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. 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!]
 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.
 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.