Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Well, You're Just Another Kind of Fundamentalist!

"Wow, I've never heard that before," we atheists say when we hear or read this. "What an original and devastating insight!"

Talk about cliche. In particularly, when I'm reading book reviews, sometimes I wonder if any of these people a) actually read the book or b) ever thought to Google other reviews to see what's already been said. Irrespective of whether I agree with the review, it's just a poor work ethic.

The characterization of strident atheists as fundamentalists by the religious (especially moderates) shows a patterning like psychological projection. The faithful insist that there must be certain parallels to their own social organization and the cognitive trade-offs that underlie them. There is the frequent accusation that organized atheists must just be forming another kind of church. Apparently any time like-minded people get together, it's necessarily a religion (no wonder Star Trek conventions are so intense.) It's kind of like saying that if you don't watch the Superbowl, it must be because you're out playing soccer. Religious people also twist themselves into knots trying to explain away well-behaved atheists. Typical "arguments" are that we're just imitating the Godly, or we're secretly influenced by the Bible, or it's just by chance that we've led a virtuous life and we're in danger of going off the rails at any minute (and, for example, doing meth with a gay masseur in a Colorado hotel room).

I ask only this: find me any fundamentalism that deems its own knowledge to be provisional and falsifiable and open to correction by anyone, regardless of whether they're even part of the "movement". An example of organ saltationism found by a Wahabi Muslim who could reproduce his results would undermine Darwinian evolution just as seriously as if it were found by an atheist. Would bin Laden welcome me as an atheist correcting what appear to be factual inaccuracies in the Qu'ran?

The fullness of my complaint with this trite one-liner is that it just plain annoys the hell out of me. But if you hear it enough, you're being just as lazy as the book reviewers if you're not rhetorically prepared next time. So here's one approach, when you hear this as is usually the case from a religious moderate revolted by fundamentalists from his or her own faith, but nonetheless not wanting to abide the uppity atheists speaking their minds. Ask the moderate if s/he is an anti-tooth fairy fundamentalist. This, of course, is a trick; they most likely are, even if they don't like to use the word. Of course they'll say "Don't be ridiculous. That's different." They might even argue that your inability to see this difference is exactly what makes you a fundamentalist (wrong; their ability to see it is called doublethink, and it's how they can be religious and still function in modern life, i.e. moderate.)

The next step: admit that perhaps your inability to understand is in fact what makes you a fundamentalist, and ask them to help you. Ask them to explain exactly what the difference is between anti-tooth fairy fundamentalism and atheism.

In reality, the difference is 1) that even moderates partly believe their religion and 2) that lots of other people believe it too. As Orwell told us, the majority is always sane. Of course, if your new friend explicitly recognizes either of these reasons for his or her own tolerance of nonsense, they'll have trouble taking their own convictions seriously. #2 is the one that allows (for example) a moderate Christian to defend a Muslim against "fundamentalist" atheists. Incredibly, believing in mutually exclusive doctrines doesn't stop the religious from defending each other from your atheist "fundamentalism" - but since there are lots of Muslims, that makes you a fundamentalist if you take a hard line against the truth of the faith, or at least don't show it respect. Even if they insist that the 9/11 hijackers aren't true Muslims, there are millions of women being raped, stoned and mutilated RIGHT NOW because of what it directly says in the Qu'ran. Who are the true Muslims then? It's hard to tell. And are we still unreasonable fundamentalists for opposing stoning and honor killing?

There are a couple "outs" that moderates can take that don't drag their own convictions out into the cognitive sunlight. The easiest one is "I can't explain the difference, but I just know there is." If (as I always advise) this discussion is the beginning of a conversation, rather than the end, you'll have other chances to ask them about it; but in the meantime, the burden's on them to figure out why. If they walk away thinking about it, you did some good.

Better than even odds, the discussion doesn't get past their insistence that there's some difference between atheist fundamentalism, and anti-tooth fairy fundamentalism, without deigning to say what it is. So you say, fine. You're right; that's a frivolous example. And then you freely admit to being a truth fundamentalist. That's a hard one to be against. So is their religion true? They might try the old poor-man's Derrida, which sounds something like "there's no right and wrong", "everyone's truth is different", or "none of us really knows for sure". That's when (if you're talking to a political conservative) you can pull out "You don't want to be one of these wishy-washy hippie holding-hands everyone-can-be-right liberals, do you?" And "two minutes ago you seemed to know so certainly that you were telling me how to live; are you changing your tune?"

Common back-pedalling positions are "it's rude or bad for society if people argue about this stuff". Weak. Does that make it true or false? Is avoiding rudeness more important than knowing the truth and making up your own mind? American newspapers must have thought so when they censored the Mohammed cartoons. (There's another one that works well for certain political demographics - the "liberal media" with its political correctness has made it a crime to hurt anybody's feelings.)

What it invariably comes back to is that religious moderates are put off by what they see as the rudeness of the new atheism, and they confound that with truth and falsehood. As Dan Dennett observed, there's just no way through this other than head-on. Atheists are tired of listening to nonsense that threatens human health and life, regardless of how rude it seems to object, regardless of how many people believe it. Once enough people listen to that nonsense, laws start getting passed that force the rest of us to go along with the game. Atheists are tired of that too. There are greater consequences to silence than increased blood pressure.

And finally - fundamentalists are invariably the first to break off the conversation. That's worth working in so it's in their ear before they walk away - as often, unfortunately, happens.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Mike, you leave poor Jacques out of this!

A concern I have about your proposed line of argumentation is that it still appeals to an "us v. them" duality.

Best case scenario: Fundamentalist walks away angry and confused and you get a laugh.

Worst case scenario:
Small-minded, vocal fundamentalist is floored by your argument and becomes a small-minded, vocal atheist who has a poor grip of critical thinking. Now you've got a low-quality ally to babysit.

Some examples are better off as negative examples.