On Misusing the Stigma of Fundamentalism

American Atheists has received a good amount of attention for their recent string of billboards. They caused a stir with their ‘Who needs Christ at Christmas? Nobody.’ billboard.  More recently, they’ve ruffled feathers because of a billboard they ran outside the stadium during the Super Bowl.

This latest billboard has prompted responses from John Shore and Benjamin Corey (two bloggers in the Progressive-Christian portal at Patheos). Both, in short, are unimpressed with the billboard. Shore calls it “obnoxious” as well as “cheap, easy, and childish.” Corey derides it for maintaining the cycle of antagonism with conservative Christian voices.

I’m not here to comment on the merits of the billboards. First, Dave Silverman can speak for his organization, himself. Second, let’s face it, how often do I focus on the main issue at hand instead of some minor detail? Rarely.

Why All the Fundamentalism?

The issue I have with Shore’s and Corey’s posts is that they call the actions of American Atheists a form of atheist ‘fundamentalism’. Both connect the tone and actions to the combativeness of conservative, Christian fundamentalists. However, in so doing, both seem to completely abuse the meaning of the word “fundamentalism”. As a result, they harm their critiques.

Shore titles his post: “Atheist fundamentalists fighting fire with fire.” He writes, “[American Atheists] are—or certainly seem to be, anyway—the fundamentalists of atheism.” Corey is stronger in his calling American Atheists’s actions a form of fundamentalism. Of the billboard, he writes, “It is no different than Christian fundamentalism.” He finishes his post by writing: “I’m telling my Kirk Camerons to stop, and I hope [atheists] will send the same message to theirs.”

What is Fundamentalism?

In his post on the Super Bowl billboard, Corey links to a previous post in which he discusses fundamentalism. He points out that we are all at risk of fundamentalist ways of thinking. In discussing this thinking, Corey emphasizes the “black vs white” and “us vs them” nature of fundamentalism. This is alright as commentary on fundamentalism, but it is not sufficient as a definition.

Here’s a definition: A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

Let’s break this up and remove the religious context. Fundamentalism is a movement or point of view characterized by:

(1) a return to fundamental principles
(2) rigid adherence to those principles
(3) often intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism [or tolerance]

You’ll note, Corey’s definition covers characteristics 2 and 3, with an emphasis on 3.

American Atheists as Fundamentalists

Considering the definition of fundamentalism, it is hard to call American Atheists and their billboards a form of atheist fundamentalism. Of the three characteristics in the definition, American Atheists can only be criticized for part of number 3: intolerance of other views. People may debate whether or not AA is truly ‘intolerant’ of others’ views, but the link is reasonable.

Beyond that, the actions and views of American Atheists do not resemble that of a fundamentalism. In fact, AA is specifically in support of secularism, which puts the organization in opposition to fundamentalism. Of course, when it comes down to it, linking the actions of atheist organizations with that of religious organizations is a political/rhetorical move.

Lazy Rhetoric

Among us progressive, liberal-minded folks, fundamentalism is a bad word. We equate it with close-mindedness, intolerance, and socially regressive ideas. It is a label meant to stigmatize.

Going further, when you read the definitions at the link above, you’ll see a common refrain of something like “conservative movement within 20th-century American Protestantism.” When Shore and Corey label American Atheists as “fundamentalist”, it serves to call the group illiberal and anti-progressive. Likewise, it aims to call the group the atheist equivalent of the Christian right. Shore likens the actions of American Atheists to that of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Corey calls them the atheist Kirk Cameron.

This is nothing more than lazy rhetoric on the part of Shore and Corey. Was the billboard offensive and disrespectful? Write about it. Does it continue a loop of antagonism? Criticize that. Does it work against the actualization of AA’s goal of secularism? Point that out.

Calling American Atheists the atheist version of Christian fundamentalism suggests that your critique lacks actual substance. It reduces actual criticism and commentary to bogey words. American Atheists are fundamentalists. In other words, to us progressive-minded folks, they’re bad guys.

It is disappointing to read this kind of rhetoric from Shore and Corey. When it comes down to it, both wrote posts worth considering. They made points of genuine critique that I think AA should consider. However, the ‘atheist fundamentalist’ canard risks reducing the potential sting of their critiques to the kind of cheap shots they are criticizing. Most importantly, it suggests that one shouldn’t try to understand the motives behind AA’s actions. We can already know they’re not worth considering. American Atheists are the atheist versions of fundamentalists, and we already know we don’t like fundamentalists.

Of Assholes and Fundamentalists

It very well may be the case that American Atheists is intolerant of religious belief. However, fundamentalism does not equal intolerance. It may be characterized by intolerance, yet intolerant actions and expressions are not, by definition, a sign of fundamentalism.

Can their be atheist fundamentalists? I’m not sure. I don’t think there has been a set of ‘atheistic principles’ that have progressed to a point where a segment of atheists would seek to return to some fundamental understanding of these principles. I’m open to suggestions, and I certainly could see it happening with time – especially as the movement cements itself. However, currently, I’m not sure there can be atheist fundamentalists.

More to the point, intolerant atheists may share a characteristic with fundamentalists: intolerance. That intolerance is, presumably, equally worthy of criticism. That doesn’t make the atheists fundamentalist. It very well may be the case that Dave Silverman is a complete asshole. Similarly, Glenn Beck may very well be a complete asshole.  However, of Silverman and Beck, only one of them is a fundamentalist.

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