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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's always nice to have the validation, I guess...

Some folks (whom I shall not name), reacting to Richard Dawkins and company, have taken to opining that we are now witnessing the rise of "Fundamentalist Atheism". In short, since many of the new atheists are highly vocal and somewhat combative, they are said to resemble the fiery and vitriolic behavior of actual fundamentalists. This analogy amuses me for several reasons. First, it's funny because the people who tend to advance it are those who are attempting to defend religion from the new atheists. And it's just intrinsically funny when someone defends their position by arguing that their opponents suck just as hard as they do. Second, it amuses me because atheists are not- by and large- a violent crew.* Even Dawkins, who is not a typical atheist, only pushes his point with words and arguments, whereas religious fundamentalists have this distressing tendency to kill law-abiding doctors they disagree with or fly planes into buildings. And this doesn't even touch the loving Christian vandalism of atheist-supportive advertising we've seen recently. Finally, this analogy amuses me because it just isn't convincing.

I refer, of course, to the recent Intelligence Squared debate over the proposition, "Is atheism the new fundamentalism?" I don't want to give it away but the side answering "Yes" didn't do so well...

For the first time, this Intelligence Squared debate was live-streamed over the internet, allowing people to watch, and participate, from anywhere in the world. The online audience's vote is included below.

Initial Vote: For 333, Against 675, Undecided 389

Final Vote: For 363, Against 1070, Undecided 85

Final Online Vote: For 37, Against 889, Undecided 12

The motion proposes that "atheism is the new fundamentalism", i.e., atheism has replaced religion as the new faith of the secular age, exploring the notion that modern atheism is itself guilty of the very dogma and belief in its own infallibility which it scorns in the religious community.

Speaking for the motion are Richard Harries and Charles Moore.

Richard Harries outlines the features and the history of fundamentalism, arguing that many of the criteria required for it are in fact apparent in today's atheists. He portrays a set of people with narrow views, arguing against a specific view of God, who forget that some of the greatest philosophy, art, poetry and music has been inspired and supported by Christianity – the very belief system that is accused of restricting the creative process by its refusal to allow for ‘the grand perhaps’ (Browning).

Charles Moore insists that his opponents cannot see the true complexity of the argument, and that they emphasise the physical and the scientific aspect of humanity at the cost of any spiritual understanding. He criticises Richard Dawkins for embodying this crude and narrow pursuit of literal truth above all else.

Opposing the motion are A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins.

Professor Grayling maintains that since 9/11, the nature of the debate on religious commitment has become far more serious. He distinguishes between atheism, secularism and humanism. He refutes Moore's suggestion that atheists cannot fully understand the complexity of the religious experience, insisting that many atheists understand it all too well, having been brought up in a religious family or community.

Richard Dawkins defines fundamentalism as the following: blind obedience to scripture regardless of evidence, allied to extremism. He argues that far from being entrenched fundamentalists, atheists have a commitment to exploring evidence, and a readiness to embrace change, and that we should not mistake the passion of their arguments or their refusal to remain silent for fundamentalism.

I find it significant that the pro side (i.e. "Atheism is the new fundamentalism") not only lost among the studio audience but among the online audience as well. And not just by a little bit- by a whole lot. Does this settle the issue? Oh, hell no. Really, public debates like this are a terrible way to settle a complex argument and, frankly, truth value should not be determined by voting. And I'm sure any theists reading this are likely in agreement at this point. Given that assumption, we should probably also reject the logic that since so many people believe in god, there must be something to it. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, after all.

Debating is good, democracy is good, but on this one I think I'm going to require reason and evidence. But, then again, that's why I'm an atheist.

* I'm not going to engage with the tired argument that the Soviet Union was Communist and it killed a lot of people. It killed a lot of people because it was a totalitarian state and I like to think that we can all agree that such states are- generally speaking- not so good.

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