Atheism And Fanaticism:
Are They Mutually Exclusive?
I would like to ask some questions regarding some issues that have arisen lately in debates with theists:
Beliefs are sometimes held fanatically and there are many examples of absurd beliefs, including religious ones, that lead to harmful consequences. Some people have argued that beliefs that are based on evidence are less likely to be held fanatically than beliefs based on limited or no evidence. In other words, the less evidence, the stronger the belief. Is this true?
Also, is it possible for someone who has no belief (e.g. an atheist, or agnostic or sceptic or a secularist) to be fanatical? >
How does one respond to the charge that atheism was an important factor in Russian communist fanaticism and its repression of religious freedom? The implication being that atheistic (secular?) fanaticism is no different in principle to theistic fanaticism.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "Ed Infidel"
Subject: Re: Fanaticism
Date: August 27, 2001 7:26 PM
1. I would say that the less evidence there is for a position, the stronger one must hold it in order to get excited about it (support it amidst opposition, etc.). This is because a position that is discovered through reason naturally tends to be permanent, needing nothing extra to keep it up. Positions that are not discovered through reason often require the individual to keep exposing oneself to that position (through weekly church services or Twelve-Step meetings).
But this does not absolve any viewpoint from fanaticism. All viewpoints have the potential of enjoying fanatical support. This is because not everybody who holds a viewpoint came to that view through reason. Some believe perfectly reasoned viewpoints simply because they were told to believe this way, though the individual in question did no thinking.
A good example of this would be America's continued anti-Communist stance, beginning with the McCarthy Era and continuing up through the Reagan Era and beyond. I would agree that Communism and the threat of the Cold War were bona fide dangers. I suggest that reason would likely have come to this conclusion back then. However, many of us got our opinions from places like Reader's Digest rather than through reason. Their opinions were the same opinions that I held, but they held those opinions differently from how I did.
Reason told me that Communism and the threat of Cold War were dangers, but reason did not tell me that Communism was "evil, wicked, mean, and nasty," like the John Birch Society told my friends' parents. Surprise! The Birchers were a religious group! My friends' Bircher parents were obsessed, to the point of giving us first-graders anti-Communist balloons to blow up! My Mother, as afraid of Communism as anybody was back then, shook her head more at the Birchers than she did at the Communists!
2. What does one say to the fact that Senator Joseph McCarthy started the whole Cold War mentality by positing this as a war between Christianity and Atheism?
And what does one say to the fact that the Americans, for the most part, swallowed McCarthyism hook, line, and sinker?
Of course the Communists responded glowingly to this situation, because in their minds, Christianity was about as stupid as it gets. They'd publicly trash the Christian deity every chance they got. My favorite example was when the Soviet Cosmonauts would blast off into space and announce to the world, in English, "I don't see any god up here!"
All the Americans could say in response was, "Just open up that capsule door and you'll see Him almost immediately!" We really didn't have anything to say about these guys coming on our news programs and trashing our National Deity, because the Soviets were, at the time, winning the so-called Space Race. All we could do in response was to buckle down and beef up our science education. I'm glad I started school about this time, because we benefitted greatly from that response.
The truth is, anybody's atheism is but a small part of their overall outlook. Outside of this work, I do not spend much time at all delving into atheism. I have quite a life going for myself. My atheism is not my identity. I don't have an atheistic tattoo, and have only a few atheistic T-shirts. I wouldn't have an atheistic bumper sticker even if I did drive a car.
When I first started this web site about six years ago, I posed the question, "Is your atheism the result of your outlook, or is your outlook the result of your atheism?"
I did this because I knew how I answered this question: My atheism is primarily the result of my outlook, which is the result of my thinking and my experience. Only in a smaller sense is my outlook shaped by my atheism. For example, I now have even more dignity toward other people because I realize that this is our only chance to ever exist.
Only when someone credits their theism do we have justification for saying that their theism inspired their behavior. Thus we could blame his Christianity for his actions when Adolf Hitler declared, "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." You could say the same thing about the Communists atrocities if they held up their atheism as the primary motive for committing those atrocities. So far, I haven't come across any such statements. Their atheism was to them what my atheism is to me: a small component of one's overall outlook.
Atheism is not like theism in this respect, because theism is a positive belief in gods, whereas atheism is a negative belief -- the absence of a belief in gods. It is not two sides to the same coin. A Christian apologist does well to portray it as such, to see our atheism as a positive disdain for religion (rather, a positive, deliberate disdain for God), but this is just not the case.
If you can come up with some distinct statements -- as clear as the Hitler statement -- where the Communists admit that it was their atheism which prompted them to commit what atrocities they did commit, then my speculation is wrong. However, I don't see them using atheism to justify very much of what Stalin and the others did. Rather, I see atheism as the justification for those good things we find in what they did, and I see their atrocities as having been committed in spite of their atheism -- in spite of the fact that this is a person's only chance to live.
In fact, I see the elements usually found in dogmatic theism being incorporated into Communism as being Communism's biggest downfall. Although Communism gave lip service to the notion that no gods exist, that there is no supernatural, and all the other elements that make up an atheist's position statement, atheism, to me, is more than a simple position statement. To me, atheism is a way of thinking in addition to simply the ideas that one thinks and the position one takes on certain ideas. My atheism rejects the faith-based style of thinking along with the objects of faith.
Faith wants me to take things on blind trust, at the word of an authority figure, without really thinking about it. Faith does not have much room for dissent. Science, on the other hand, is based entirely upon dissent and is designed to actually promote dissent where it is needed. The Communists held the correct positions but did not hold them scientifically. They did not promote free speech and dissent. They acted just like I would have expected a theocratic tyranny to act -- their approach to civil life was straight out of the Book of Exodus.
So the second part of my original question applies here: Are there ways in which atheists act like theists?
Yes. A classic example would be Communism giving lip-service to the rejection of gods, but refusing to replace religious faith with the basic ethical tenets of liberal scientific method.
This summarizes the main focus of our web site: we are not opposed to theism, per se, as much as we oppose fundamentalism. And we oppose fundamentalism wherever we see it, especially among atheists.
We really don't have much to say to theists. We will point out theism's shortcomings as best we can, but we are not saying this to theists: we are saying it to atheists. Sure, we don't want to see atheist fall back into the various traps of theism, but even more, we don't want atheists to unwittingly act like theists, thereby acting as one would expect a theist to act.
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[Portions of this response have been revised for possible inclusion in our print magazine.]
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