Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Richard Dawkins and the rise of Fundamental Atheism

Sam Schulman had it right. The new Atheists are angry. Why? Buried in the debates about Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is his call to return to modernity. Old school Modernity fuels his brand of fundamentalism. He says we should use our reason, do science, and believe in progress. All part of the modernism project as is the siren call to liberate man from the shackles of superstition. It is the foundation of his argument against Religion.

In 2000, Karen Armstrong published The Battle for God, which looked at the rise of fundamentalism in the three major Abrahamic faiths. She limited to these faiths while noting the phenomena of fundamentalism in other faith traditions. What I want to do is look at is the rise of fundamentalism in Atheism in light Armstrong's work. At the start I want to make it clear and say like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, not all Atheists are fundamentalistic in their thinking. I believe that actually most Atheists and people of faith are not fundamentalistic thinkers. I do think Dawkins, and many new Atheists are fundamentalists. Before I go on, it is best to give a quick list of distinctions that I will use.

Fundamentalism- a strict adherence to a set of simple propositions in reaction to perceived threat arising from the world at large. It is by nature a call to return to the past, when those set of propositions were pure. It views any opposing system of thinking as dangerous, and which should be fought against.

Modernity- a historic period from 1637 (Descartes Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Searching for Truth in the Sciences) to 1918 (The end of WWI). The modern project was characterized by a belief in progress, rationality, science, and the power of the human mind to free itself from the chains of the past. Modernity collapsed by the combined weight of disasters of the early twentieth century and the challenges by Wittgenstein (Language, Reason and Logic are useless in themselves to understand the world), Godel (Mathematics will always be incomplete), and Modern Physics (The lack of a unified field theory).

Post-modernity- The age that followed modernity down to one we are living in. It is not so much a movement, but what happened after the collapse of Modernity. It can be characterized by a search for certainty features include the fragmentation of authority, and the commoditization of knowledge.

For Armstrong, fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity. The three faiths she looks at are reacting to a perceived threat from the modern secular world. She makes the point its thinking uses modernity as a basis, truth has to be literal. Here, I would quibble her work, as I think that it is a reaction not to modernity, but to post-modernity. It is an attempt to find the objective in a world that seems to subjective. Of all the fundamentalistic movements, only the Christian could be said to have started in modern period, and even then it at the tail end. Most of the fundamentalists from the turn of the twentieth century share little with the ones today.I think a case can be made that it too came as a reaction to post-modernity. It is a claim absolute knowledge in the face of uncertainty.

For the new Atheists, 911 and its aftermath becomes the rallying point. It becomes evidence of Religion's inherent evil. Followed by other terrorist attacks in London and Spain, the attempts to get Creationism into science courses in Kansas and the Religious Right gain in political power, the world look far more frightening to a large group of people. The time became ripe for a new generation of atheists to revive the modernist critique of religion. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens led this new movement under the banner of reason, science, and freedom. They hope to storm the bastille of ignorance of the Abrahamic religions. Yet, since at the movements source is fear; it has shown the same fundamental tendencies that it says it stand against.
Parents who teach their children religion are not just mistaken; they are child abusers.
Christianity is defined by the most horrible actions of people who call themselves Christian. Any action by a Christian that is deem good is dismissed having as having an another source.
Sam Harris claims that the Christians who supported Slavery were the ones with the correct biblical theology. A claim that flies in the face historical evidence. (Most apologist for Slavery did try to use Biblical sources to justify Slavery, though they also used the science of their day. They use those sciences more than they did the Bible to justify Slavery. Slaveholders were afraid of the Bible, as the Exodus story is dangerous to tell a slave. Most sociologists see Slavery caused by economic factors and not religious ones. One thing historically certain is that the main push for first the Abolition of the Slave trade and then of Slavery itself was a predominately Christian affair.)

Agree with simple propositions. Manichean view of good guys (Atheists) and bad guys (Theists). Aprior rejection of positions other than the party line. When Antony Flew converted to a type pantheism, Dawkins attacked him, and attacked as if Flew was a heretic. So much for free thinking among the new Atheists. The irony is that Flew converted to a similar position that Einstein held, which Dawkins declared as Atheism. Dawkins reaction was fundamenalistic thinking tour du force.

Is it any wonder as Sam Schulman pointed in his piece for the Wall Street Journal (January 5 2007) that the new atheists were angry. Anger is the flip side of fear. Fear and a call to return to modernity fuel the New Atheist. So what is wrong with a return to Modernity? More on that later.

I will take a break to write a piece on the Holy Spirit as part CCBlogs network.


J-sun said...

"One thing historically certain is that the main push for first the Abolishion of the Slave trade and then of Slavery itself was a predominately Christian affair.)"

Can you provide your sources for thi claim? I was unaware of this.....

J-sun said...

"One thing historically certain is that the main push for first the Abolishion of the Slave trade and then of Slavery itself was a predominately Christian affair.)"

Could you provide your sources for this claim?

Tito Tinajero said...

J-sun, Thanks for your comment. While I don't like quoting wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wilberforce under Abolition of the slave trade section. The abolitionist movement in this country was fueled early by the Quaker movement and then by the Second Great Awakening starting in 1790, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Great_Awakening

Paul F.C. Barkley said...

I don't follow how you get to Fundamental Atheism from where you started. Specifically, you define Fundamentalism and Modernism and then you go on to say that someone who is fundamentally modernist is a Fundamental Atheist. At most that would be a Fundamental Modernist so I'm not sure how you got to Fundamental Atheist from those beginnings.

It seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is and what the motives of the so-called "New Atheists" are. Their actions, whether you want to call them fundamentalist or not, do not stem from their atheism. Atheism is the absence of belief in god. Their actions stem from their antitheism.

They believe that religion causes harm. This belief is what has led them to undertake the actions you described as a "call to return to modernity". This belief is rightly categorized as antitheism, not atheism.

I'll end with this, atheism is descriptive not prescriptive. Atheism has no tenants, it has no beliefs, it has no dogma to which to cling. It is the absence of belief in god. Any actions taken by a self-professed atheist cannot be a result of their atheism, their atheism is just another result of whatever beliefs led them to the actions they undertake.

Tito Tinajero said...

Thank you Paul for your comment.

On your post, I would agree with you that "Fundamentalism" atheism does not define all atheism. Your definition of Atheism would hold for most atheists, but the "Gnu" atheism does not hold to your definitions. As proof see PZ Myer's rage against what he calls dicionary atheists. The reality is the Gnu Atheist see themselves as in a crusade of sorts, and that they see the world from older modernistic categories. They see they world as if Wittgenstein, Godel, and modern physics never occurred.

Christina said...

This is cool!