Contemporary “Confidence Atheism” and the Jaw-Jutting Fundamentalist Style

I think, as a practical matter, if the purpose of atheism is to win debates with, or score points against, theists, then it makes sense to resist phrases like “fundamentalist atheist.” But as an existential concern, this kind of semantic jostling seems to me close to pointless. Every person must look at the world whole, and ask herself what worldview, as a whole, makes the most sense. Both atheist and theistic worldviews—however elaborate or reserved in their claims—require more than rhetoric or positioning from their honest adherents. All worldviews require metaphysical, epistemic, and evidentiary justifications. In matters of truth nobody gets the presumption of innocence, or gets to leave certain of her assumptions unstated and simply “given.” As the Royal Society of London’s famed and hundreds of years old motto has it: Nullis in verba (”Take nobody’s word for it”).

I think, therefore, that fundamentalism in all its stylistic forms should be resisted—and that includes its secular manifestations. To my mind, a fundamentalist is someone who tends to:

  1. show impatience for nuance;
  2. lacks irony with regard to his/her own positions;
  3. has an excess identification with a group (or groups) led by jut-jawed confidence men (charismatic leaders);
  4. demonizes out-groups and attributes to opponents malign motives, evil, or stupidity;
  5. treats texts or certain authorities with excessive deference;
  6. does not look too closely at his/her own metaphysical/epistemic premises;
  7. dreams of a mono-cultural world in which the views of his/her small group become the universal sensibilities of all humanity;
  8. is inherently incurious and impatient towards books, ideas, or points of view different from those of his/her group;
  9. tends to learn a “lingo” that marks her off as a member of the group;
  10. absorbs and memorizes knee-jerk thought-terminating cliches as “answers” to questions about the movement

I think of a small secular cult like the followers of Ayn Rand as having these traits, and I think it is undoubtedly true that Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers etc. attract a fair amount of people who are stylistically cultic and dogmatic, and who have character traits that would fit in real comfy with religious fundamentalists (if they were religious adherents).

Frankly, there are people who see a “market” in “confidence atheism” and are happy to exploit it. There are people, in short, who are drawn to confidence men with outsized personas. Cults of personality—whatever you call them—are dangerous. And I think that is what people are responding to when they compare contemporary neo-atheists to fundamentalists. They’re trying to get a handle on that Ayn Rand personality cult and hyper-certainty phenomenon that seems to be lurking about the neo-atheist movement.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Contemporary “Confidence Atheism” and the Jaw-Jutting Fundamentalist Style

  1. Veronica Abbass says:

    Santi

    One way to avoid the his/her form is to use the plural

    “To my mind, fundamentalist[s] [are those] who [tend] to:”

    – – –

    “Cults of personality—whatever you call them—are dangerous.”

    What about your excessive (on this blog) admiration for Obama, who interprets his responsibilities as commenting on the false arrest of one person:

    “Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive — as opposed to negative — understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.”

    No, it isn’t part of his “portfolio.” Top on his agenda should be, as he admits in the article below, health care.

    http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/07/24/obama-calls-officer-speaks-out-on-gates-arrest?icid=sphere_wpcom_inline

  2. John W says:

    Ayn Rand was NOT a militant atheist and very many religious people find her novels, especially ‘Anthem,’ ‘We the Living,’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ to be tremendously inspirational, see for example, her letter to a Catholic priest quoted in ‘The Letters of Ayn Rand’ by M.Berliner-

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for your letter. No, I have no desire to “tear it up in disgust” nor to “have a good laugh at an enemy.” I found it profoundly interesting and I sincerely appreciate it.
    Yes. I was “startled at a clergyman talking like that,” but I cannot say that I would have considered it impossible. I have often thought that since religion has been the only field seriously concerned with morality, a religious philosopher should or could be interested in the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged. Rather than regard you as an “enemy,” I would like to think of you as an honorable adversary…

    No, I have no desire to “replace the sign of the cross with the sign of the dollar.” The sign of the dollar is a symbol introduced by me in fiction to symbolize the cause of the particular group of men in my story. It would be improper to introduce a symbol for philosophy in real life, though it is quite appropriate in fiction. Philosophy does not deal in symbols and does not require them.
    Perhaps I should add that I am an intransigent atheist, but not a militant one. This means that I am an uncompromising advocate of reason and that I am fighting for reason, not against religion. I must also mention that I do respect religion in its philosophical aspects, in the sense that it represents an early form of philosophy.
    I have the impression that you are a follower of Thomas Aquinas, whose position, in essence, is that since reason is a gift of God, man must use it. I regard this as the best of all the attempts to reconcile reason and religion—but it is only an attempt, which cannot succeed. It may work in a limited way in a given individual’s life, but it cannot be validated philosophically. However, I regard Aquinas as the greatest philosopher next to Aristotle, in the purely philosophical, not theological, aspects of his work. If you are a Thomist, we may have a great deal in common, but we would still have an irreconcilable basic conflict which is, primarily, an epistemological conflict.

    [He answered on April 1, 1965, with a long, friendly letter.]

  3. Hugo says:

    Note that what Ayn Rand was, and what some of her followers were (or are), are two distinct concerns. I’ve come across fundamentalist-like cult-minded Ayn Ran fans, one I’m thinking of in particular was quite absurd. For one, despite living in South Africa himself (so he should know better), he felt Africa’s “backward nature” is only their own fault. After all, they could have gone to the effort to invent the wheel and all the other technology Europeans invented, purely because they were more hard working. “They deserve what they’ve got”…

    That was just an example, I’m not sure how closely you can tie that to the worldview she described. Santi talked only about her followers, not about her. And talks about the people that are drawn to the “neo-atheism”, rather than pointing fingers at leaders.

    Much like talking about what people do these days in Jesus’ name, rather than what Jesus taught (or was said to have taught, irrespective of historicity *sigh* – I’ve had enough fights with people that seem to deny the historical method much like creationists deny science. 😉 )

    I much appreciate the effort to try and understand the meaning of such comparisons, I’ve also grappled with it a lot in my mind.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Veronica:

    I certainly agree that I often bring little irony to my Obama worship. I agree it’s a problem.

    I want him to succeed. It’s a passion for me. I’m too invested emotionally to be as clear headed as I should be about him.

    Ah, love. I just think he’s great. Sorry.

    —Santi

  5. santitafarella says:

    John W:

    I’m happy to be corrected concerning Rand’s militancy with regard to her atheism. I like her civility in the letter you present. Would that more atheists could talk with respect and calm to those who disagree with them.

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Hugo:

    Thanks for making the distinction between followers or Rand and Rand herself. I think that the followers of strong personalities tend too often to be pale and sorry reflections of the originators (Jesus and his disciples and Dawkins and his blog groupies come to mind).

    —Santi

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