I was a bit disappointed to hear lovable atheist Jeremy Hardy, on last week’s News Quiz call Richard Dawkins a “fundamentalist atheist”. Admittedly, he then called him a “Jehova’s I never saw nothing”, so he wasn’t so much making a point as setting up a joke.
But ‘fundamentalist atheist’ is a common term, and it’s one that atheist bloggers complain about. So why do they complain? What, after all, does ‘fundamentalist’ mean? Probably the most obvious interpretation—the meaning you would most likely infer if you didn’t know the word—is that a fundamentalist is someone who adheres strictly to a set of fundamental principles. Now, inasmuch as those people described as fundamentalist atheists tend to adhere pretty strictly to the principle that reason and evidence are the best way to understand the world, then I suppose they are fundamentalists. But then anyone with strict principles is a fundamentalist. Is that really what people mean, or understand by the term?
I don’t think so. There’s something else. There’s a connotation to fundamentalism beyond simply strict adherence: people tend to understand it to mean strict adherence to dogmatic principles even in the face of reason, evidence, and (what the speaker holds to be) more basic moral principles. So it would be fundamentalist to believe, having been shown scientific evidence to the contrary, that the wine drunk in mass had actually turned into blood. It would be fundamentalist to kill someone for being an apostate. But it wouldn’t really be fundamentalist to expect the sun to rise yet again tomorrow, even if you were pretty dogmatic about it.
So what does Richard Dawkins believe dogmatically that is counter to reason and evidence? It’s not clear that there’s anything much, at least not related to atheism. I can imagine a dogmatic atheist, who fundamentally believed that there was no god because that’s what they’d been told; this would be not so much in the face of reason and evidence as without reference to them. But Richard Dawkins has a whole book published to show that he’s not one of those. It’s not even as if he claims to know absolutely for certain that there’s no god; he’s just pretty close to sure. Perhaps what people mean by “fundamentalist atheist” is that evidence and reason lead so overwhelmingly to belief in god that anyone who doesn’t believe is simply clinging to dogma.
That’s possible, but then every atheist in a position to look at the evidence is a fundamentalist, and that includes Jeremy Hardy himself! So what did he mean, if he didn’t just mean it as a joke (which, admittedly, is quite possible)? I think there’s been a shift in meaning of the word ‘fundamentalist’, whose origins are understandable. I think what a lot of people mean by fundamentalist, if they mean anything very much, is ‘a person who belongs to a particular religion and goes on about it all the time, quite loudly’. Now, Richard Dawkins doesn’t really belong to any religion, but that’s kind of the point people are making; he bangs on about religion an awful lot for someone who hasn’t got one.
I suppose there’s a further parallel. Pastors who bellow from the pulpits (and outside it) presumably believe sincerely that they are saving people from being tortured for eternity. If you really believed that, wouldn’t you try to convert them? In a somewhat similar way, except that this isn’t about places that might not exist, Richard Dawkins is aware of the damage that religion has done to knowledge and learning, and the horrors it has inflicted on humanity (on this topic, the recent Intelligence Squared debate on the Catholic Church is worth watching). In which case, can you really blame him from going on about it a lot?