We had a very warm and low-key New Year's Eve that included some low-key discussion of religion at a friend's place. When I got home I read some of this piece from The Edge, which included submissions by atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (although Dawkins, in particular, is no longer the "visionary thinker" some of the other contributors are.)
Later I had an interesting dream about fundamentalist atheism, which the dictates of the subconscious tell me I'll continue to combat in 2007. Here's my bottom line: We need to study the impact of organized religion on human life without assuming we know the answer. And we need to respect the wonder and variety of human experience that religion reflects.
I'll note - as I have before - that I have no problem with atheism per se, and think it's disgraceful that atheists are excluded from U.S. politics. I was raised by a non-religious person (my mother), although I also received religious training and spent time with religious relatives.
Mom, for her part, gently corrected me when I described her as an "atheist." She prefers "nonbeliever," on the fair and simple premise that she just doesn't buy what any religionists are selling. As a non-fundamentalist who doesn't assume she can dictate for others, she fits that description perfectly.
My argument is with fundamentalists of all varieties, but it's with fundamentalists only. Many nonbelievers who vocally support these atheist advocates would be disturbed if they looked more closely.
Why 'Fundamentalist Atheism' Is the Right Term
The fundamentalist atheists are an active and highly vocal subset of atheists who object to a great many things, not the least of which is being described as 'fundamentalist atheists.' But here's why I still think it's the right term:
They're dogmatic. Their movement is based on a piece of dogma which can't be challenged without enraging them. It's sociological and historical in nature, not theological, and can be summed up as follows:
"Humans would be better off if religion in all forms was eradicated."
Are they right? Nobody knows. My suspicion is that we would be better off without organized religion, without religious hierarchies, and certainly without fundamentalism. But I'm not willing to advocate radical social change (like the elimination of religion) on opinion alone. Not on mine, and not on theirs.
Which leads my to my next point: For people who advocate reason and the primacy of hard data, they're surprisingly dismissive of both when it comes to religion.
I'd like to see some research into the issue of religion and human conflict, perhaps by an interdisciplinary social sciences group. I'd like to know more, so that I can make an informed decision.
Fundamentalist atheists think they already know, without study. In our only personal encounter, Sam Harris pointedly refused to consider reviewing the work of the Fundamentalism Project or any other scholars who have studied the impact of religion on society.
Only Dennett proposes any real research - and he's the least popular of the lot. The others are already sure the world would be better off without religion, and they throw gentle and passive forms of theism like Quakerism into the burn pile along with the more organized and militant forms.
Another pet belief of theirs is that our society doesn't permit criticism of religion. They hold this belief so strongly that they've written several best-selling books about it. The fact that this might be a contradiction doesn't seem to have occurred to them.
It's a brave new world; "tolerance" is bad and "intolerance" is good.
Tolerance for the belief of others is a primary target of atheist fundamentalism. Why? Because, according to the fundamentalists, tolerating even the benevolent forms of religion enables the wicked kind to flourish. (If you're wondering about evidence for this belief, there is none. See 'dogma,' above.)
They want religion to be subjected to the rigorous "reasoned" debate they believe will eradicate it. Again, this belief in the power of "reason" (as they define it) isn't based on evidence or research. In fact, people make life decisions using other instrumentalities besides "reason." In other contexts, that's considered healthy.
Should we use rationality to make decisions about love? Altruism? Aesthetics? Stay tuned.
They're elitist. Like religious fundamentalists, they appear to identify with no human experiences but their own. Theirs is an elitism born of academic insularity and economic privilege. They appear to have never spent time among lower-income evangelicals, or Middle Eastern Muslims, or Indian Hindus, and seen how their lives can be enriched by the religious experience.
They believe (falsely, as it turns out) that they're smarter than others. Some of them have even chosen a term for themselves: 'brights.' Get it? They're 'brighter' than people who believe in any form of God.
They chose this name even though one of the leading figures of the atheist 'skeptic' movement wrote a piece called "Why Smart People Believe Weird Things." The author, Michael Schermer, cites a study which demonstrates that people of faith are just as smart on average as atheists.
(It's only Schermer's opinion that what these smart people believe is "weird," of course, but he writes an interesting and provocative piece. His central thesis is that smart people can hold illogical ideas because they're effective at defending ideas they arrived at non-intellectually. That's a valid point, and it certainly helps explain fundamentalist atheism.)
So calling themselves "brights" doesn't just suggest poor rhetorical skills - "Listen, stupids, I'd like you to change your thinking." It's also another example of some fundamentalists' inability to absorb data like Schermer's and respond accordingly.
Like the Falwells and Robertsons, the fundamentalist atheists are authoritarians. Their authority isn't the Bible. It's scientific method. They consider scientific methodology applicable to all field of endeavor, despite the fact that many (if not most) other scientists don't agree (see Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, etc.)
I had a brief dialog with one atheist commenter - a pretty reasonable guy - who signed his emails as follows: "If it is not quantifiable, verifiable and repeatable then it is NOT." So, let's see ... Love is "not." Inspiration is "not." Poetry is "not."
Science can't answer every human question.
They lack a sense of the mysterious and beautiful. Today's fundamentalist atheists lack the poetry or vision of a Carl Sagan, a John Lennon, or other great atheists of the past. They use scientific thought in much the same was as religious fundamentalists use sacred texts - as the source for unquestionable and rigid truths that can't be challenged.
Both types of fundamentalist hold an accountant's-eye view of the universe, one which neglects its mystery and wonder.
So, what's next? Oh, yeah, the dream ...
My New Year's Eve Dream About Fundamentalist Atheism
The first part: My wife and I are driving in the countryside at night, and get the idea to sleep out in an open field under the full moon. We carry our sleeping bags out into the center of an inviting meadow bathed in moonlight. We settle down for the night, but cars keep stopping. People keep getting out and shining flashlights into the tall grass.
I don't know who these people are or what they want. When I'm in the wild in real life, the most frightening thing I can face at night is another human being. In the dream, these people are more disturbing than frightening. My primary feeling is that they're disrupting the placid beauty of the meadow, the stars, and the night.
The second part: I'm in a weapons factory of some kind. It's a big open space with a high ceiling. Engineers in cubicles are building ray guns that look like they're made out of toaster oven parts. The guns emit some kind of particle beam that can interrupt the flow of electrons in a light bulb and make it go out. They can also stimulate a light bulb that isn't switched on, so that it lights up.
The engineers and I have a lot of fun using the ray guns to turn the overhead lights in the factory on and off. We also discover that when one beam crosses another's path, they are both neutralized. That leads to some good-natured horseplay.
The third part: I'm in an apartment holding a friendly debate with some fundamentalist atheists. Suddenly the universe changes. In this new dream universe, anything that cannot be proved empirically ceases to exist.
What makes 'envelopes' and 'folders' different from other forms of packaging? We don't know. The host's letters and files all come apart and his papers fall all over the floor. What is a 'table'? (I had read William Carlos Williams' poem on that subject earlier in the night.) We don't know, and the table disappears.
Someone locks the front door, throwing one brass safety bolt after another, but there's no resisting the inexorable force that is sweeping us aside. One by one, everything in the apartment disappears. Will we, the people in the dream, be the next things to disappear from existence forever?
That's when I woke up. Yes, I really had this dream. Say what you will. Analyze the hell out of me. I can take it.
Me, I don't know what to make of it except to remember the words of William Blake: "If the sun and moon should doubt, they'd immediately go out." And those of Leonard Cohen, writer/musician and Zen Buddhist monk.
Out in that meadow at night, Cohen's words seem to vibrate in the still air. "God is alive," he wrote. "Magic is afoot."