Over on my youtube channel, I posted a video called Atheist Fundamentalists. Here is the script I wrote for it. It was meant to be read aloud (I wrote it for how I speak), but if you bear that in mind I believe it’s quite readable. The video has some illustrative graphics, but they’re not critical. Or you can just go to my youtube channel and watch the video. 🙂
Today we’re going to talk about Fundamentalist Atheists. At the end of my video about the rhetoric of defining atheism as a lack of belief in God, I said that many lack-of-belief atheists seem just like fundamentalists. I got a request for clarification on that point, which I’m going to do a whole video about because it’s an interesting—and fairly large—subject.
To explain what an atheist fundamentalist is, we must first ask the question, what is a Christian Fundamentalist? In theory they are people who stick to the “fundamentals” of Christianity, but to other Christians, and especially to Christians with a valid apostolic succession (mostly the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox), they don’t seem to know much about Christianity and are obsessed with things that aren’t at all fundamental.
They are probably best known for their supposedly literal interpretation of the bible and their young-earth creationism, but I think that these are red herrings. Epiphenomena, more properly. The bible is not in fact an idol that they worship, or more properly it literally is an idol which they worship exactly in the way that ancient pagans used to worship their idols. There has arisen a very strange idea that the primary relationship of ancient peoples to their gods was roughly the same as that of a bad scientist to his pet theory. That’s quite wrong. In fact it is doubtful whether explaining the actions of the physical world had anything at all to do with how ancient people related to their gods. The Romans are a particularly good example of this, because they had such a large number of gods. They had gods of everything. They had gods of doorways and of beds, of hearths and of wine. No one needed an explanation of these natural phenomena because they weren’t natural phenomena. There was a good chance that the Romans knew, personally, who built the particular ones they used. They did not have a god of wine because they didn’t know where wine came from.
The primary relationship which pagans had with their gods was one of control. The gods offered a way to control the natural world. You made sacrifices so things would turn out the way you wanted. The pagan gods needed these sacrifices, or at least they really wanted them, and so human beings had a bargaining chip with nature. But even more than this, since the gods were capricious and often didn’t do what you asked, it offered a way to organize society, and this part actually worked. Everyone took part in the public ceremonies, and the games, and the plays. By being dedicated to something more than the people, the people could work together and become great. The Romans did not worship the emperor as a god because they thought the emperor explained the rain or the wind or the rocks. They worshipped him because every Roman citizen worshipping the emperor made them one people.
And if you look at Christian fundamentalists, you’ll see something very similar. They insist that the bible is the literal word of God, but they don’t seem to mean by that, that it’s true. They don’t even seem to read very much of it. Something that happened to me a few years ago is aboth an amusing story and illustrates the point quite well. A fundamentalist I ran into was explaining his theory that the second creation story in the book of genesis is really just the first story told backwards—he didn’t explain in what sense this is a literal interpretation—and when he was done, instead of addressing this weird idea, I pointed out that if you’re going to take everything in the bible literally, then you have to conclude that God repented. His response was, “where does it say that?”
For those of you who’ve never read the book of Genesis, it says that in chapter seven. It’s right before the flood, before God called Noah, it says that God repented of having made man, for man’s works were evil from morning till night.
And it’s trivially easy to come up with other examples that fundamentalists don’t take literally. When Jesus said, of the eucharist, “this is my body,” of course for some reason the literal meaning of those words aren’t the literal meaning of those words. When Jesus said that unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you will have no life in you, that’s purely symbolic… in some sort of literal sense. Examples abound; former fundamentalists are very fond of citing Leviticus, I believe.
And at this point a question which comes up, fairly frequently, from Atheists, I’ve found, is, “how do you know which parts not to take literally?” I even had one fellow ask for a list of non-literal passages, and he never really understood when I tried to explain that no such list exists because only a fundamentalist could ever think it useful. I tried to explain that orthodox Christians read the bible to learn, so whether a given book or passage is to be taken literally is something that would come up in commentary on that passage. A list of non-literal passages would be about as useful as a list of special effects in movies which defy physics. What would you do with that list? Go watch only those scenes? Would you keep this list handy when watching a movie to check every time you see a special effect?
Anyway, the answer to the question of how do we know what to not interpret literally is, first and foremost, the living interpretive tradition of how we are supposed to interpret the scriptures. This predates the apostles, of course. The Jews had a living interpretive tradition of what we now call the old testament, which was taken up by the Apostles since they were all Jews. But for simplicity’s sake I’m going to stick with just the new testament. In the four gospels, we see clear accounts that Jesus selected a group of men who he asked to follow him, which they did. Literally. They left their trades and ordinary lives and spent pretty much the next three years going with Jesus everywhere he went. He talked with them, all the time, and taught them things which he didn’t teach more generally. If you think of the apostles as being in an apprenticeship program, you won’t go too far off. And these apostles went on to become the first bishops, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And all bishops since have been successors to one of the apostles. They are men who were trained, formed, and selected by their predecessors to carry on the living tradition of the apostles. And this was how the church was organized: around the apostles, and later around their successors. Because these are the people who studied, in depth, what the faith means. The ending to the gospel of John summarizes it very succinctly: “There were many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not be able to hold all the books which would have to be written.”
It is also the case that we have no record of Jesus having ever written anything down. That’s not quite true, as there is one story which mentions he was writing in the sand when people spoke to him, but there’s no mention of what he was writing. Jesus didn’t write the bible, he founded the Church. The Church wrote the bible. And it also passed on how to understand it.
And if you don’t understand why it is that Jesus would train the apostles rather than write the gospels, ask anyone who has studied martial arts how effective it would be to learn martial arts from a manual, with no teacher. There’s a reason why basic training in the military is not a study-at-home course.
Now, all of this is rejected by fundamentalists, who literally pretend that you can learn everything you need to know about how to live well by reading the bible on your own with no context, or training. With nobody around who has any idea of how any of this is supposed to work in practice. Or what the people who wrote it, actually meant by the words they wrote down. In a letter to some monks who were arguing about free will versus grace, Saint Augustine, who was a bishop, mentioned a useful interpretive strategy: if your interpretation contradicts most of the bible or makes it really, really stupid, this is a bad interpretation. The particular case he was talking about was the denial of free will: because denying free will means that every time God said anything to man, this was pointless and stupid. Since God is not an idiot who engages in completely futile actions, determinism is, therefore, bad theology. But if you actually talk to fundamentalists, you’ll find they violate this common sense principle all the time. They will take a passage, or a verse, or a quarter of a verse, and will with rocklike certainty conclude they know exactly what it means and that this meaning does not need to be reconciled with any other verses, not even with the rest of the sentence from which they drew it.
This is not the action of somebody who believes that the bible contains truth. And this is just one example, if you spend any time with fundamentalists you will rapidly conclude they don’t want people to think that the bible is true. At least, not in the literal sense of those words. What they want is for everyone to worship the bible. It is true that part of that worship is to say that the bible is literally true, but like with sacrifices to the emperor, the point is for everyone to do it, not to believe it.
Having finally said what a Christian fundamentalist is, we can now look at what an atheist fundamentalist is. They are people who do the exact same thing, but with a different idol. The idol is often science, but it can also be political theories like Objectivism, Marxism, Feminism, Environmentalism, and so on. Of course there isn’t just one science book, or one objectivist book, or one marxist book, etc, so they can’t worship just one book. On the other hand, the bible is properly a small library of books, so in that sense Christian fundamentalists don’t worship just one book either.
And just as Christian fundamentalists don’t seem all that interested in what Christianity actually is, atheist fundamentalists are often shockingly ignorant of real science. And I don’t just mean science’s sins, like the flaws in the peer review system, the problem with publish-or-perish, the infrequency of trying to reproduce results, and so on. Nor do I mean science’s self imposed limitation to what is measurable and quantifiable. No, I mean that they’re often quite ignorant of science’s virtues, like interesting experimental results or what scientific theories actually are. It’s quite perplexing until you realize that they’re not interested in science as something true, but in science as an idol that everyone can worship to unify society. And you can see the same elsewhere, with environmentalists who know nothing about the environment but recycle religiously, or marxists who know next to nothing about actual marxism but always vote for democrats and have a Che Guevara poster on their wall.
And it is not uncommon for an atheist fundamentalist to have a few favorite scientific “facts” which mirror the favorite bible verses of the Christian fundamentalist. “Atoms are made of mostly empty space”, though that’s actually an outdated model of the atom. “Nothing happens in Quantum Mechanics until an observer looks at it”, but observer doesn’t actually mean a person in quantum mechanics. Evolution means that animals get smarter and faster and stronger over time—survival of the fittest—though the theory of evolution actually refers only to the change in allele frequency in a population over time, and as in blind cave fish, might mean animals get weaker or smaller or dumber if the environment favors that.
And perhaps the most notable characteristic of fundamentalists, whether christian or atheist, is their fierce tribalism. Being primarily concerned with group unity, they (rightly) view outsiders as a threat to the group. This leads them to be insular, but it also leads them to be hostile to outsiders. Christian fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is damned and will burn in hell; atheist fundamentalists talk about how everyone else is irrational and should be locked up in lunatic asylums. Richard Dawkins has said that teaching one’s children religion should be considered child abuse.
It is not really surprising that those who value people over truth should not have much truth, but they very often have little in the way of people, either. Fundamentalists are notorious for driving people away. Truth is a jealous God; if you love truth more than people you may well end up with both, but if you love people more than truth, you will usually end up with neither.