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 usefulâŠ 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 topicâŠ 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 yourselfâŠ 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” oneâŠ)
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.