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December,1999

Atheism & Fundamentalism
by Cliff Walker

The definition for the word "atheism" continues to come under fire, which is a good thing. This magazine holds that an atheist lacks a god belief for whatever reason -- but we are willing change this view, if given sufficient reason. George H. Smith calls this the traditional view, and argues that "a-theism" means no theism.

Some speak of "weak atheism" (lacking a god belief) and "strong atheism" (no gods exist). In his new book "How We Believe," Michael Shermer rejects this inclusionary distinction. To him, an atheist says "there is no God" whereas a nontheist has "no belief in God" (p. 257-8). He elsewhere suggests that we abandon the label "atheist," as a means of possibly overcoming the stigma attached to this pejorative word. If anyone can pull this off, it's Michael Shermer.

Meanwhile, Shermer's suggestion has another problem: it seems to relegate all of atheism to the realm of fundamentalism. A dogmatic thinker might say, "There are no gods," but I say, "I have yet to hear a valid god-claim." I'd rather see the word "atheism" divorced from any connotation portraying atheism as innately dogmatic.

I'm not saying fundamentalist atheists don't exist. Unfortunately, such thinking abounds within atheism (no viewpoint is unaffected by it). Fundamentalist thinkers in my own camp are hard to detect. Their views resemble mine, but those views are held differently. Atheism itself is a settled question, no longer subject to their own (or anyone else's) scrutiny.

Though entitled to their views, I often find myself apologizing for such atheists.

Fundamentalist thinking impacts how some defend atheism. The leaders of two groups were challenged to respond to the charge, "We see many religious charities, but no atheistic charities." Comparing the two responses can reveal much.

One wrote that atheist groups will never rally support from the public. Also, some religious "charities" get funding from the State. The church-owned hospitals are businesses, not charities. His opponent's objection is valid on the surface, but the argument falls apart under closer scrutiny.

The other leader simply listed several ways their group gives to the community. Unfortunately for the cause of atheism, the list ranged from the dubious to the patently false. Having heard this person's defense of atheism, I was not surprised.

If atheism itself is above reproach, there can be little room for an atheism that could fail in lesser respects. All that's left is to fudge atheism's record or to blame certain people. Atheism itself remains blameless. This is the fundamentalist thinking style.

All knowledge, including my atheism, is subject to change. Jonathan Rauch, in "Kindly Inquisitors," says: "In a liberal scientific society, to claim you are above error is the height of irresponsibility" (p. 51). Only those who are willing to submit their views to public scrutiny and willing to abide by the results of that scrutiny are allowed to have their views respected by the rest of us. This is the scientific method.

Atheism, as I see it, accepts that you cannot prove a negative claim, including, "There is no God." Claims that gods exist must be proven, or we need not believe.

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    • Notes:

    • See also: Response from Michael Shermer
    • See also: Concerning Christian Charity by Dr. Tim Gorski
    • See also: The Use of Falsehood to Propagate Atheism? (Report)
    • See also: Defining Atheism by George H. Smith

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Copyright ©1999 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon