“Fundamentalist” Atheists and Squabbling About Language

I’ve been getting into a debate in Julia Sweeney’s forum — and it’s been so ironic it’s making me laugh out loud.

It’s over the phrase “fundamentalist atheist.” And the irony is that I’m taking the exact opposite of the position I usually take about language. Normally, I fall very far on the descriptivist side of the descriptivist/prescriptivist spectrum. I tend to think that language changes; that language should change; that words mean what people understand them to mean; and that arguing “X doesn’t mean Y, it really means Z” is like arguing that the tides shouldn’t change or species shouldn’t evolve.

But in this case, I’m arguing the other side. Very uncharacteristically for me, I’m arguing that the word “fundamentalism” means something quite specific; that this original meaning is useful; and by gum, that’s how people should use it.

And since it’s a question that’s come up in this blog, I thought I’d gas on about it here.


Yes, I’m normally a descriptivist, or a usagist. But there are changes in language that I’ll argue against — not because I resist the general idea of the language changing, but because I have a specific objection to a specific change. The best example is the changing meaning of “literally” to mean “very.” My problem isn’t that “literally” doesn’t really mean “very.” My problem is that the original meaning of “literally” is extremely useful  and we don’t have another word to replace it.

And I feel the same way about the word “fundamentalist.”

“Fundamentalist” has a pretty specific meaning, and I think it’s a useful one. Let’s take a look at the dictionary, and see what it is. According to Merriam Webster Online, fundamentalism is:

1 a (often capitalized): a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b: the beliefs of this movement c: adherence to such beliefs
2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles

It’s this second meaning that I assume people are getting at when they talk about “fundamentalist atheists.”

And in my experience, it’s flat-out not true.

I have never known — or read — any atheist who has strictly and literally adhered to a set of basic atheist principles. Heck, one of the whole points of atheism is that there is no set of basic principles — no Bible, no Koran, no Book of Mormon — to which one could strictly and literally adhere. One of the whole points of atheism (and the passionate respect for science that typically comes with atheism) is that beliefs about the world should be adaptable, and taken in context, and open to question.

There are atheists who are intolerant. There are atheists who are pig-headed. There are atheists who are contemptuous of people who don’t agree with them. There are atheists who are, in a word, assholes. Not as many as people sometimes think — as I’ve written before, atheists get called intolerant and contemptuous of religion for saying things like “I don’t agree with you,” “I think you’re mistaken,” or “What evidence do you have to support that?” — but there are some.

But I have known not a single atheist who believed in a set of basic atheist principles to which they felt they should strictly and literally adhere. And I mean none. Literally zero.

So why does this “fundamentalist atheist” thing bug me so much?

Because I think it’s unjust. It’s part of the larger picture of myths, misunderstandings, and deliberate misrepresentations of atheists in our culture. It bugs me for the same reason that comments like “oh, science is just your religion” bug me — it shows a basic misunderstanding of both fundamentalism and atheism, in the same way that “science is your religion” shows a basic misunderstanding of both religion and science.

Here’s an analogy I drew over in the debate on Julia Sweeney’s forum:

What if I were to go around talking about, say, “religious Nazis” or “Christian Nazis.” (Sorry to use the N-word — I generally try to avoid it in online discussions, but I can’t think of another that means what I’m trying to get at.) You would probably respond — and rightly so — that the word “Nazi” means something very specific, and that however terrible the beliefs and actions of intolerant religious believers are, the word “Nazi” does not even come close to accurately describing them.

And if I replied, “Well, that’s just how I define ‘Nazi,'” you’d probably get very angry. You’d probably reply something like, “You can’t just make up your own meaning of a word — especially such an emotionally loaded word.” And again, you’d be right to do so.

That’s how I feel (although obviously not on the same level) about the phrase “fundamentalist atheists.” It’s not that it says something about atheists that’s critical. It’s that it says something about atheists that’s completely untrue and unjust.


Okay. Regular readers of my blog may be getting puzzled right about now by how adamant I am on this topic  given my previous rants on both sexual identity and the atheist/agnostic debates, and why it’s so important to let people use whatever language they like (within reason) to define themselves.

But there’s a difference — and it lies in the word “themselves.” There is a HUGE difference between mutating the language to define yourself  and mutating it to define other people. The former is about identity, and thus about freedom; the latter is about labeling, and thus not so much about the freedom.

Now, if you want to argue that the colloquial meaning of “fundamentalist” is changing — that it no longer means “strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles,” that it now means something like “intolerant, rigid, pig-headed jerk” — well, that’s an argument that may be worth making. It’s an argument I’ve made many times myself, about other words. (Although interestingly, that’s a far more pejorative definition than the “strict and literal adherence” one )

The problem is that the “strict and literal adherence” definition is an extremely useful one — and we don’t have another word with that meaning.

And until we do, the word “fundamentalist” will, at the very least, carry both colloquial meanings — the “strict and literal adherence” meaning, and the “intolerant jerk” meaning. And while the latter certainly does describe some atheists, the former really and truly doesn’t.

“Fundamentalist” Atheists and Squabbling About Language

18 thoughts on ““Fundamentalist” Atheists and Squabbling About Language

  1. 1

    Hi – yeah, I so agree with you. People use the term to mean intolerant, uptight, conservative, racist. But that’s a mistake.
    Now I HAVE used it (with a wink) to describe some goddess-worshippers who seem to *literally* “believe”! I mean, people who don’t realize that gods and goddesses are metaphors. Important metaphors, to be sure. Valuable metaphors, perhaps. They just seem so literal-minded that the word fundamentalist does come to mind.
    But when it comes to atheism, what we’re really talking about, sometimes, is the “preachy” atheist. And that’s not really the same deal.

  2. 2

    Greta, I completely agree with you. I think ‘fundamentalist’ is inaccurate when paired with a concept like atheism, which is, as you pointed out, more of a rejection of adherence to a set of beliefs. How about ‘evangelical atheist?’ Webster’s fifth definition of evangelical is: ‘marked by militant or crusading zeal.’
    Tracy, your post makes it sound like you are a bit of an ‘evangelical pagan.’ Did you mean to denigrate people who believe in the Goddess as an actual entity?

  3. 3

    “How about ‘evangelical atheist?’ Webster’s fifth definition of evangelical is: ‘marked by militant or crusading zeal.'”
    Hm. That’s better. But of course, by that definition, almost anyone who’s passionately trying to convince other people to change their minds — about anything — is “evangelical.”
    So in a way, I think it’s actually not negative enough. You can be a zealous crusader for your cause without being close-minded to other ideas, or contemptuous of people who disagree with you.
    At the moment, I’m going with “asshole.” But it does have its downsides, and I’m keeping my options open.

  4. 4

    Perhaps it’s not a set of principles but simply one. The belief that there is no god. Which is as much of a belief as there is a god. Not perfect, but the closest I can come to that definition.
    Even with Christianity, the word doesn’t have the exact dictionary definition.
    The word Fundamentalist is largely confined to the first meaning anyways. And even a subset of the first meaning because there are an incredible amount of dietary and other laws explicitly set out in the Old Testament that aren’t followed literally by Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are selective in what is fundamental to Christianity.

  5. 5

    I agree. “Fundamentalist atheist” is an oxymoron. Isn’t the literal translation of the word “atheism” WITHOUT THEISM, meaning without theistic beliefs? So how could such a person be a fundamentalist?
    PS – Just wondering if there is some reason Penn Jillette’s photo is next to the paragraph about intolerant assholes. . .

  6. 6

    “Perhaps it’s not a set of principles but simply one. The belief that there is no god. Which is as much of a belief as there is a god.”
    Actually, Chris, “the belief that there is no God” is not necessarily what it means to be an atheist. In fact, I suspect it’s not what it means for most atheists.
    Being an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean being 100% positive that there is no God. It can also mean thinking that, while the existence of God is theoretically possible, it’s extremely improbable — improbable enough that it can be discounted as a hypothesis.
    That’s what being an atheist means to me. And I’m far from alone in this. Even Richard Dawkins, often cited as the world’s most famous atheist (and often targeted with the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) isn’t a “100% sure of God’s non-existence” atheist — but a “possible in theory, extraordinarily unlikely in practice” atheist.
    And that really isn’t a belief in the same sense that believing in God is.
    (BTW, for those who are interested, there’s a more detailed discussion of the belief/non-belief spectrum in my post “Atheist or Agnostic?” at http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/01/atheist_or_agno.html )

  7. 7

    “Isn’t the literal translation of the word “atheism” WITHOUT THEISM, meaning without theistic beliefs? So how could such a person be a fundamentalist?”
    By the first, religious definition, no. But it’s the second, colloquial definition that I’m talking about.
    “Just wondering if there is some reason Penn Jillette’s photo is next to the paragraph about intolerant assholes…”

  8. 8

    “Just wondering if there is some reason Penn Jillette’s photo is next to the paragraph about intolerant assholes…”
    Is it perhaps because he does things like use his TV show to mock people who are foolish enough to believe that second hand smoke is harmful and global warming is a big problem and then uses people like Richard Pombo to back him up on mocking those foolish, naive folks? Or is for some other reason?

  9. 9

    I was in a political group in the 90s in London that struggled with defining “fundamentalism.” Women Against Fundamentalism (http://waf.gn.apc.org/) distinguished between “orthodox” and “fundamentalist.” Orthodoxy is a personal matter of belief and observance. Fundamentalism is when a religious group is trying to win political or social power in order to impose their agenda on others. We didn’t attack religious people; we opposed religious organizations that sought to grip everyone’s throat and stuff it with their agenda (which inevitably started with the control of women and of reproduction.) It’s not (only) a Christian thing: all major organized religions have their (un)fair share of fundamentalists. Our group included Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Sikhists and others – many of whom were, as adults, atheists and commie pinkos.

  10. 10

    I agree with you about usage of the word “fundamentalism” – there has to be some set of positive “fundamentals” to be fundamentalist about if the term is to have any meaning. Its certainly possible to be a non-theist fundamentalist – there are certainly subsets of Marxists, feminists, deep ecologists, etc. where the term applies very well. But these are cases where a specific ideology has essentially taken the role of a religion. But atheism? Certainly there are ideologies that are atheistic, but is atheism in and of itself an ideology? I’m not so sure.

  11. 11

    Hi, Jane. Erm… “denigrate”? All I meant to do was post the first comment. Surely, my rather mild-mannered reference to metaphor is not denigrating. (I mean, one has to have SOME opinions in this medium.) As it happens, I’m a fan of religion. I think the value of religion is its metaphors. And its social hubbishness. And its connection to things like commerce. Its role as a conversational ice-breaker at dinner parties.
    People who are too literal in their beliefs seem to cut themselves off from others, making their religion less accessible and less functional. (Well, it’s a theory, I’m not sure I can prove it…)
    Greta, I think evangelical atheism is as good a term as any. It’s the term I used on my blog (Jan 27) when I ranted about the nouveau non-believers. I suggested that atheists ought to lighten up. However, my atheist friends disagree! They tell me “we should be MORE evangelical.” I’m like, “Noooo, noooo, we don’t wanna go there. Don’t you see what a cultural disaster this is?” People comfortable with their atheism are not *shrill*… If you need to be shrill about your (non) beliefs, you need to go inside and figure out what’s up — BEFORE you start in on the larger society.
    Also, I feel that religion can be a source of gentle humor — not the crudeness of those infamous cartoons. Informed and friendly humor. But lately, non-believers seem to be lacking any sense of that.
    Where is the levity?

  12. 12

    Personally, I’m an agnostic who leans towards the idea that the existence of god, gods, goddess, or goddesses, etc is highly improbable (so improbable that I generally think that the god question can lead to fascinating discussions but really isn’t that important for day-to-day life).
    However, when I was younger, I was what I now call a “recovering dogmatic agnostic.”
    Not only was I agnostic, I also figured that everyone else was really agnostic but they were just not honest enough to admit it to themselves and others. And I would openly say that to others.
    As I grew older, I figured it was better to say what I thought as an “I” statement and let others think and speak for themselves.
    Perhaps we should say “dogmatic atheist” instead of “fundamentalist atheist”?

  13. 13

    Steve, the problem with the phrase “dogmatic atheist” is that, in theology, “dogma” has a formal definition: “an article of faith that is to be accepted without proof.” Most atheists, including the vocal ones being discussed, would be terribly insulted at the implication.
    “Evangelical” is much more appropriate – proselytizing or spreading the faith.
    And yes, I agree that atheism’s most vigorous advocacy is rooted in the zeal of the convert. People who have had to reject the religion of their upbringing have something to react against. Heather Mallick’s column “Atheists don’t get it” is a good example of a more laid-back atheist’s position.

  14. 14

    Thank you for taking the time to write this out. This misuse of the word has bothered me for some time, but I have been unable to express why as eloquently as you have.

  15. Bob

    I think you need to refresh your knowledge about Godwin’s Law.
    Mere mention of the word ‘Nazi’ isn’t enough to invoke Goodwin. It depends how it’s used.

  16. 17

    I frequently argue with fundamentalist atheists.
    These people absolutely do have a set of rigid beliefs that are completely non-negotiable, written down in books which they regard as unquestionable and inerrant (the works of Dawkins or Hitchens, usually).
    Sometimes they will admit this and proudly proclaim themselves fundamentalist atheists. See http://www.google.com/search?&q=%22i+am+a+fundamentalist+atheist%22 for some examples.
    Their dogma is this – and I’m using all caps because that’s exactly the level of belief that they have, they will literally scream and shout at you if you make a logical argument they cannot refute:
    1) THERE IS NO GOD. Not any god, not anywhere, any time. Any evidence to the contrary has been faked; presenting such evidence proves only that the presenter is a liar or a fool.
    2) ONLY MY DEFINITIONS OF GOD COUNT. If you define your God in such a way that your God proveably exists, you are wrong and most likely an evil, hate-mongering troll. Argument is over because you eat babies.
    3) IF ALL ELSE FAILS THE OTHER PERSON IS AN ATHEIST TOO. When perfectly reasonable faiths such as the pantheism of Spinoza, Einstein, and Kneeland are pointed out, those people are re-defined as atheists, no matter how many times they publicly disavowed atheism and explained their theistic views. See commandment #2.
    Atheism and (especially) agnosticism can be reasonable belief systems. So can theism. But fundamentalism is never reasonable, it’s all rigidly faith-based.
    So; could you possibly change your mind? Or is your view… fundamentally rigid… regardless of any conflicting information received after your view was originally formed? 😉
    It’s bad form to accuse a person of being a fundy if they are not. But if you’ve never met a fundamentalist atheist, you are very lucky. They are just as annoying and prone to bad policy as all the other fundies.

  17. 18

    I’m pretty sure I’m neither dogmatic nor fundamentalist. That does not mean that I will not literally scream and shout, even at something you may be quite certain is an irrefutable logical argument. Which is to say, screaming and shouting is not evidence of a dogmatic mindset. Being passionate about ones beliefs is not the same as being fundamentalist or dogmatic.
    1) Are you suggesting that there exists credible evidence for the existence of God? Could you provide some of it?
    2) One problem with God is that, in my experience, the word invariably gets equivocated. One starts with a God which is indistinguishable from nature and is therefor easy to substantiate but later starts attributing features to that God which have not been demonstrated. So, who is this God of yours which has both supernatural powers and credible evidence?
    3) I don’t think any faith is perfectly reasonable to the extent it promotes belief without evidence. While I wouldn’t argue that Spinoza was an atheist, I would argue that Einstein was. That said, I do not think either is an unreasonable conclusion for a person to reach.
    Your unnumbered point that atheism is a belief system is simply mistaken. Atheists may have belief systems, but atheism is not it.
    Karl Popper probably best described my current belief system, the set of mental tools by which I judge the truth value of various propositions. If better tools come along I’ll adopt them.

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