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Jeff Nall Comparative Studies, Florida Atlantic University

A new breed of atheism has emerged which seeks to obliterate religion: fundamentalist atheism. Differing from more mainstream atheism, fundamentalist atheism has been fueled by a rise in the power of the Religious Right in the United States, codified with the election of George Bush and his subsequent support for various government sponsored religious initiatives and the proliferation of violent organizations which often identify with a particular religious sect. In addition to seeking to bolster secularism, particularly principles of separation of church and state, appreciation of scientific truth, and respect for fundamental human rights, fundamentalist atheists have grown to perceive religion as a fundamental threat to civilization. In this paper I document fundamentalist atheisms salient characteristics, specifically its tendency to narrowly define and stereotype religion in order to bolster its claim that religion is civilizations greatest threat. I make the argument that, because its apocalyptical view of religion is based on faulty reasoning, fundamentalist atheism, although a response to fundamentalist religion, constitutes a dangerous intellectual failure within the ranks of atheism. Indeed, fundamentalist atheism results in an illogically-founded fanaticism that pits itself against pluralism and tolerance.


As an atheist I have participated in and observed secular criticism of religious fundamentalism, be it the Christian fundamentalism here in the United States or Islamic fundamentalism abroad; however, I have become increasingly alarmed with the fanaticism emanating from the secular/free-thought/atheist community. As I argue in this work, fundamentalism is not a phenomenon limited to religious communities. Indeed, just as fundamentalists exist in Christianity and Islam, a fundamentalist doctrine is developing among a segment of the atheist population. As both an advocate of peace and liberal-pluralism, fundamentalist atheism is particularly troubling in that it advocates intolerance for religious
HUMANITY & SOCIETY, 2008, VOL. 32 (August: 263-280)


belief and has even gone so far as to support immoral, aggressive military intervention against Muslims. Ironically, while atheist fundamentalists revere the Enlightenment legacy of love of reason and critical thought, they have forsaken the Enlightenments call to disdain blind-prejudice and fanaticism. n recent years, a new breed of atheism has emerged which seeks to obliterate religion. It differs, however, from more mainstream atheism. The development of this particular strain of atheism has been fueled by a rise in the power of the Religious Right in the United States, codified with the election of George Bush and his subsequent support for various government sponsored religious initiatives and the proliferation of violent organizations that often identify with a particular religious sect. In addition to bolstering secularism, particularly principles of separation of church and state, appreciation of scientific truth, and respect for fundamental human rights, some atheists perceive religion as a fundamental threat to civilization.1 This kind of atheism can be described as fundamentalist atheism. Fundamentalist atheism is crystallized in the best-selling works of biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2006), writer Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything 2007), and philosopher Sam Harris (The End of Faith 2004). In this paper I document fundamentalist atheisms salient characteristics, specifically its tendency to narrowly define and stereotype religion to bolster its claim that religion is civilizations greatest threat. Furthermore, I argue that, because its apocalyptical view of religion is based on faulty reasoning, fundamentalist atheism, although a response to fundamentalist religion, constitutes a dangerous intellectual failure within the ranks of atheism. Indeed, fundamentalist atheism results in an illogical fanaticism that pits itself against pluralism and tolerance. Atheism by definition is not related to any particular ideology or belief. According to George Smiths The Case Against God, atheism is not a positive assertion of belief but rather is merely the absence of theistic belief (1980:7). If we understand theism as belief in God, we should understand atheism as no-belief-in-God (Smith 1980:8). He contends that atheism must be distinguished from the positive beliefs atheists tend to develop. The atheist qua atheist does not believe anything requiring demonstration; the designation of atheist tells us, not what he believes to be true, but what he does not believe to be true (Smith 1980:16). When we examine atheism in its social context as well as its implementation in popular discourse we discover the concepts definitional objectivity is seriously compromised. In fact, in the hands of fundamentalists, atheism takes on a distinct likeness to fundamentalist Christianity, specifically its tendency to


force facts to conform to their hypotheses despite obvious incongruities. While Smith (1980) argues that atheism, in the purest sense of the term, is merely the lack of belief in theism, atheism in contemporary use is often identified with an ideology that attempts only to disprove the validity of theism but to eradicate all of its forms. Despite his effort to paint atheism as purely objective and nonideological, even Smith sees it as a world-saving vaccination. In doing so, he presents some of the ideological underpinnings that have given birth to modern fundamentalist atheism: When used to eradicate superstition and its detrimental effects, atheism is a benevolent, constructive approach. It clears the air, as it were, leaving the door open for positive principles and philosophies based, not on the supernatural, but on mans ability to think and comprehendReligion has had the disastrous effect on placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to mans mind and knowledge (Smith 1980:26).


Again, these statements betray attempts to distill atheism to mere objective, scientific rejection of the supposed reality of God. Indeed, atheism shows itself here as a fundamental reaction against supernatural theism and its perceived detrimental affects on society. Popular atheism as a social movement has gone beyond understanding atheism as only the non-belief in God. The most popular and ubiquitous value popular atheism is beholden to is the First Amendments demand for the separation of church and state. Both the American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have been built on the ideal of the strict division between religion and government. We might call such atheists Separationist Atheists. This ideal, which dates back to at least John Lockeironically a progressive Christianis the fulcrum of the freethought movement. The evolution of the militant, fundamentalist wing of the movement can be attributed to the successful growth and political and cultural influence of the Religious Right. The entire movement has grown frustrated and fearful with President George W. Bushs eight years in office. In those years atheists watched as millions of federal tax dollars were funneled into religious programs. In particular, the movement has sought to counter the Religious Rights influence on civil liberties (attempts to ban gay marriage and eliminate abortion), public education (demand for abstinence-only education, discrediting theory of evolution, and the teaching of intelligent design) and history (the assertion that the United States is a Christian nation). Fundamentalist atheism then is a form of explicit atheism that defines religion as necessarily anti-science, a motivator of violence, and averse to progress. Thus it fuels the apocalyptic belief that religion is one, if not the greatest, threat to

civilization, and, consequently, it must be eradicated. Fundamentalist atheism marks a turning point in the history of the atheist movement because it seeks to go beyond actively rejecting belief in God. Fundamentalist atheism seeks to eradicate religion and anoint atheism as the only respectable position on the question of religion for three reasons. First, the emerging crusade is built upon an intellectual failure to accurately examine religious belief and a tunnel vision assessment that sees religion as the principal impetus for violence in the world. Fundamentalist atheism stereotypes religion as inherently violent, and averse to critical debate, scientific development, tolerance, and social advancement. Secondly, having treated the most extreme, dogmatic, regressive, and fundamentalist forms of religion as the ideal and/or eventual manifestation of all religious belief, fundamentalist atheists developed the apocalyptical belief that world peace cannot occur so long as religion, the root of human evil in this view, is not first eradicated. Finally, fundamentalist atheists prescribe intellectual intolerance toward religious thought and belief. Indeed, some fundamentalist atheists have called for an actual war on Islam and, more specifically, an attack on Iran. These claims, however, are based on a narrow analysis of the variety of religious beliefs and history of religious violence. Despite the incredible diversity of religious thought, even within individual religions, fundamentalist atheists have undertaken a kind of fallacious intellectual carpet-bombing of religion. Ignoring or dismissing countercurrents, they base their definition of religion on the behavior and beliefs of a limited number of believers who fit their stereotype-ridden model. As if trapped in a time warp, they actively stereotype modern religious belief as if it had undergone no change over the last 200 years. One objection fundamentalist atheists have to religion is what they view as its eclipse of critical reasoning, which they blame for causing so much global strife and retarding social and scientific progress. This general attitude has allowed fundamentalist atheists to comfortably assault religion with broad, inexact critiques which are dismissive of the diversity found in various religious traditions. Not long after becoming chair of Brooklyn Colleges Department of Sociology, Dr. Timothy Shortell fueled the ire of religionists when he unleashed a barrage of ugly stereotypes in his online article entitled Religion and Morality: A Contradiction Explained. The Christian news service Agape Press examined the article and reported that the atheist professor had therein described religious people as moral retards and said, Christians claim theirs is a faith based on love, but theyll just as soon kill you (Brown 2005). Indeed, the piece was a tirade of irrational generalizations brimming with fodder for religious fundamentalists. One quote in particular stands out:


Shortells stigmatization of all religion makes no attempt to differentiate churches such as the United Church of Christ, which has made very public efforts to open its doors to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, or other Christian groups that have disavowed intolerance and hatred. He also ignores a long list of model examples of civil rights and peace and justice activists including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former United States President Jimmy Carter, to name only two. What makes Shortells comments so problematic is the generality of the language he uses. A more credible condemnation would have specified a particular religious group that fit his characterization. For instance, few would argue the validity of applying Shortells characterization to someone like Pat Robertson, who once called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, or to the now deceased Jerry Falwell, who famously blamed gays and feminists for the September 11 attack. Instead, Shortell offers a broad, inexact condemnation of all Christians. Just as religious fundamentalists assume one cannot both be an atheist and ethical, in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Christopher Hitchens makes the flawed argument that one cannot be both Christian and ethical. The irony, of course, is that atheists have successfully shown that one does not need to be religious to be ethical. According to Hitchens, one cannot legitimately lay claim to being a Christian if one behaves in a just, equitable manner. Upon discovering virtuous religious persons who do not fit the straightjacket of fundamentalist religiosity, Hitchens discounts their religious character. He does so specifically with Martin Luther King, Jr. While some have made the case that King is an example of a modern Christian humanistthat is a Christian who was mostly interested with improving human life in the here and nowHitchens attempts to deprive King of his Christian character and brand him exclusively as a humanist. Hitchens tells us that King never hinted that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity.... In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian (2007:176).

On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoyinglike bad taste. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot (Shortell 2005).


King was a humanist and explicitly interested in the wellbeing of those in the here and now. The idea that he was not a Christian, however, borders on the absurd. At the very least we know he strongly identified with Christianity and participated in, indeed was tremendously influential on, Christian culture. Moreover, King was a Baptist minister from a long line of Baptist ministers. Nevertheless, Hitchens writes when Dr. King took a stand on the steps of Mr. Lincolns memorial and changed history, he too adopted a position that had effectively been forced upon him. But he did so as a profound humanist and nobody could ever use his name to justify oppression or cruelty (2007:180).


Hitchens assumption is that if one lacks a desire to oppress or act cruelly, one cannot be a Christian. Such reasoning rigs the game in favor of the fundamentalist atheists position from the start. If one is good, one is a secularhumanist. If one is bad, one is likely religious in some way. According to humanist columnist Wendy Kaminer, Hitchens suggestion that humanismis responsible for all the good that men and women do, while religion, poisoning everything, is responsible for evil seems a bit unfair (2007:43). She points out the atheists claim that humanism is responsible for all of the good in the world complements the tendency of believers to credit true religion for virtue, while blaming false religions, or no religion for vice (Kaminer 2007:43). While Kaminers generalization about believers, includes a category so vast it is almost meaningless, her point is well taken. Hitchens definition of a Christian as one who necessarily longs for revenge or punishment sides with a very specific interpretation of Christian theology. Another significant assertion made by fundamentalist atheists is that religion intrinsically seeks to eradicate all contrary perspectives. In Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Sam Harris gives support to the condemnation of all religion by concluding Christianity is predisposed to foment violence and intolerance. Marrying the violent attitudes of his detractors to their faith, he contends that those who are murderously, intolerant of criticism are products of their religion. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse (Harris 2006:vii). Harris reasoning demands further examination. Is the ability to philosophize and make excuses for immoral behavior proof that immorality necessarily draws support from philosophy? Even if the answer is yes, does this mean we should eliminate philosophy? The same question could be asked of science. Most importantly, the notion that religion inherently seeks power in this world is, again, based on a specific interpretation of Christianity. Many Christians do not

believe in the literal second coming of Jesus. Additionally, other Christians have a more humanistic belief that discounts the supernatural or at the least the hegemonic ambitions of the sects Hitchens and Harris address. Hitchens concludes that religion looks forward to the destruction of the world (Hitchens 2007:56). In an attempt to psychoanalyze this motive, Hitchens argues: One of the very many connections between religious belief and the sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species is the repressed desire to see everything smashed up and ruined and brought to naught (Hitchens 2007:57). We should not be surprised that Hitchens has embarked on a crusade to cure society of religion since he contends that it is: a truth that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one (2007:17).


Here we witness fundamentalist atheisms creation of religion as a straw man. Hitchens has not proved that religion has a death wish; he has merely identified it with its most extreme attitudes, most irrational positions, and discounted openminded, freethinking believers as non-religious. While it may be true that some religious individuals, or even perhaps entire sects, do demand that the world conform to their ideals, to describe all religious beings as such is absurd. Beyond their belief that religion necessarily sponsors violent behavior and intolerance, fundamentalist atheists criticize religion for fostering the notion of true religion, biblical literalism and dogmatic faith over critical thought. Harris and Hitchens make no distinctions among different religious groups, sects within particular religions, nor differences among individual religious thinkers. Time and time again, Harris hones in on true religion and its incompatibility with tolerance for divergent religious perspectives (2004:15). He says that the idea that any one of our religions represents the infallible word of the One True God requires an encyclopedic ignorance of history, mythology, and art. (2004:16). Harris would find plenty of religious people to agree with him. In the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Lifes recent study, 70 percent of Americans who identify with a religious tradition believe many religions can lead to eternal life; and more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions.2 In an interview originally published in 2007 Reverend Robert Chase, communication director for the United Church of Christ (UCC), called the act of claiming ones own as the true religion one of the greatest idolatries in the world today. He also believes that it leads to some of the unbelievable violence and chaos that were currently experiencing (Chase

2008:174). But to Harris, not even the plurality of thought within various religions debunks his understanding of religions violent impulse. The moderation we see among nonfundamentalists is not some sign that faith itself has evolved, writes Harris, it is, rather, the product of the many hammer blows of modernity that have exposed certain tenets of faith to doubt (2004:19). Here we witness the meeting of fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheisms narratives of absolutism, which justify their contentions. By conceiving of religions such as Islam and Christianity as static entities which possess and continue to possess an absolute, fixed, essential character, both groups feel justified in contending that either the fundamentalist interpretation of religion is true or fundamentalist atheism is true; there is no middle way. Harris contends that religious moderation is the result of scriptural ignorance (2004:21), appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to Gods law; and that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally (2004:21). This oversimplification based on a grand assumption about religions true character permits fundamentalist atheists to contend that all religious paths lead eventually lead to religious extremism. Fundamentalist atheism also fails to recognize that religion is not monolithically averse to critical debate. Richard Dawkins argues that religion has a propensity to develop into dangerous ideologies which take hold over [p]atriotic love of country or ethnic group, because religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation, which usually seems to trump all others. Religion inherently discourages questioning (Dawkins 2006:306). In contrast, Hitchens main objections to religious faith include its combination of the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism as well as it being grounded on wish-thinking (2007:4). According to Harris, The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism (2004:20). Yet there exists a great deal of evidence to the contrary. While there may be those who adhere to strict, literal interpretations of religious scripture, Harris obfuscates the complexity of religious belief by failing to address the many examples that contradict his characterization. According to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, such criticism tends to befuddle more than challenge many Christians. When believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, we may feel as we turn the pages: This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, its not actually what I believe in (Quoted in Associated Press 2007). Williams further critiqued atheists for not realizing that Christians do support a religion based on reflection and inquiry.


JEFF NALL 271 The religious believer says that moral integrity, selfintrospection, honesty and trust are styles of living that connect with the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency most religions call God. Agree or disagree, but I would say to critics, at least grasp that that is being talked about. Often the atheist seems to be talking about something else (Quoted in Associated Press 2007).

Reverend James Rowe Adams, founder of The Center for Progressive Christianity (and former reverend at St. Marks Episcopal Church, in Washington, DC) echoes Williams sentiment. He contends that at least a minority of Christians, from the beginning have opposed exclusive dogma that limits the search for truth and free inquiry (Adams 2008:181). Indeed there is a great deal of debate among Christians about how to read the Bible. I think the biggest split in the Christian church today, thats capital C across all denominations, is the split of Biblical literalism as opposed to a contextual understanding of Scripture. Once you start getting a literal interpretation, I mean you could get crazy about thistheres symbolic languageWhat we believe is that God speaks to each individual in the context of his or her own life (Chase 2008:174).

According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Chase potentially speaks for 5,700 UCC congregations around the United States and over a million members. Indeed, UCC grew by more than 200 percent between the 1990 ARIS and the 2001 ARIS reports. Fundamentalist atheism has been particularly silent on the incredible changes religion has undergone since the sixteenth century. Religion and disbelief in heaven and hell are no longer mutually exclusive. Recent studies of religious belief in the United States show that while one may describe ones self as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, or Jewish, a plethora of beliefs and disbeliefs exist within each group. For instance, many may be surprised to learn that not all within various belief traditions believe in Heaven. Those who do believe in Heaven include 85 percent of Muslims, 84 percent of Protestants, 82 percent of Catholics, 51 percent of Hindus, and 38 percent of Jews. Fewer believe in Hell: Protestant (73 percent), Catholic (60 percent), Jewish (22 percent), Muslim (80 percent), Buddhist (26 percent), Hindu (35 percent). One of the key characteristics of fundamentalist atheisms intellectual failure is its blindness to the evolution of religion (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2008:11). When one reads Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins, one might believe humans ideas about God, heaven, hell, and even how we understand religion had

remained in stasis since the sixteenth century. Fundamentalist atheism, in short, relies on an anachronistic understanding of religious beliefs. Fundamentalist atheists complaint about religion fails to sensibly connect with a large segment of the religious population. At times their critique, which purports to take aim at the entirety of religion, is flatly contradicted by the fact that many believers exhibit doubt and critical thinking, reject Biblical literalism, support pluralism and tolerance, and actively support projects to bolster peace and pluralism on Earth. Moreover, not all religious believers desire spiritual hegemony, nor do all Christians believe in the literal second coming of Christ. While these stereotypes do, in fact, fit many fundamentalists, they leave a large portion of the religious community untouched. They do not even attempt to contemplate the existence of religious atheists.


Fundamentalist atheism concentrates on the most extreme forms of beliefs and behavior, exalting fundamentalist religion as the pinnacle of true belief. This is done to fit the facts to a grossly simplified thesis: that religion is the root of human evil and atheism is humanitys only viable savior. This conclusion is the basis for fundamentalist atheisms argument that the long-standing principle of liberal tolerance of religious belief must be renounced. In doing so, fundamentalist atheism exhibits an apocalyptic vision that we normally associate with religious fundamentalism. Like many ordinary atheists, fundamentalist atheists believe people are naturally good, a nod to (optimistic) Lockean social theory as opposed to a (pessimistic) Freudian or Hobbesian view of civilization destined for torment. The corrupting force is ignorance, principally in the form of religion. Without religion the world would be a kind of utopia where dogma would be a matter of history and violence would be replaced by rationality. Here one begins to discern an apocalyptical ideology closely akin to religious millenarianism. Since religion is the root of all human horrors, argues the fundamentalist atheist, it must be destroyed to transform the world from one of blood to one of peace. For the millenarian, perfect peace on Earth will not occur until Jesus returns and either converts or punishes nonbelievers. For the fundamentalist atheist, the savior of peace and goodwill will not greet the world until God and religion have been evicted from its domain. This apocalyptic vision or ideology is indicative of the fundamentalist nature of this brand of atheism. Just as some fundamentalist Christians believe perfect Earthly harmony will not occur until Jesus returns to reward believers and punish nonbelievers, Freedom from Religion Foundation co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, believes that peace on Earth will not reign until religion has been totally dethroned. In her


view, religion is the source of the greatest violence in the world; and that [m]ore people have been killed in the world for religion over any other reason (Quoted in Dan Harris and Paul Beban 2007). While this statement ignores the complex impetus for the worlds many conflicts, Gaylor clearly believes that religion stands in the way of world peace. According to Kelly OConnor, also known as Kelly M, co-organizer of the atheist group, Rational Response Squad, her group shares Richard Dawkinss and Christopher Hitchenss mission: [T]he fact is that we all want to end religion. So that's what we really want to get together with these people to do (Humanist Network News Audio Podcast 2007). Echoing Gaylors belief that religion is at the root of violence in the world, Harris blames religion for being the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years, in numerous global conflicts (2004:26). According to Dawkins those who wish to save human life should focus more on the maniacal nature of religion than on commonly discussed diseases. It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, mad cow disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the worlds greatest evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate. Harris argues that religion is the principal destabilizing factor in the IndiaPakistan conflict over nuclear weapons. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan seems almost inevitable, given what most Indians and Pakistanis believe about the afterlifeOne might argue that no group of people can quite be trusted with the bomb, but to ignore the destabilizing role that religion plays on the subcontinent is both reckless and disingenuous (2004:28).


Harris maintains that Muslims are mandated to loathe the west. It is clear, however, that Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hatred (2004:31). Moreover, he views Muslims as thoroughly other: Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century (Harris 2004:145). Having supposedly established the irrevocable and necessarily destructive impulse that characterizes the entirety of religion, fundamentalist atheism moves to bring an end to tolerance itself. In his New York Times bestseller, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris arrives at the significant conclusion that belief is not a private matter, it has never been merely private (2004:44). He argues Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene (2004:46). Viewing the abuse of what are believed to be absurd religious ideas, atheist writers and activists have

decided that bashing of beliefs is necessary to further secularist goals for a more enlightened society. In the preface of his book, Atheism: A Reader, Joshi writes: Even ridicule of religion is an entirely valid enterprise (2000:19). Joshi is not alone in this opinion. In an article on the American Atheist website, Tabash defends the right to bash other religions: Establishing the social acceptability of ridiculing (emphasis mine) the absurdities of religious claims is an integral part of gaining acceptance for secular humanism. In 2005, the Atheists of Florida had among their stated purposes: To promote the concept that believers of any faith, are the deluded (my emphasis) victims of unfounded dogmas toward whom sympathy and under-standing should be extended. This tenet has since been removed from the organizations website. In An Atheist Manifesto, Harris suggested the incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries. Harris further declares interfaith dialogue and mutual tolerance futile. The only way to banish religious warfare, he writes, is to eradicate the dogma of faith. In A Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris acknowledges that he and Christian fundamentalists agree about one thing: if one of us is right, the other is wrong(2006:4). In nothing short of an apocalyptical tone, Harris writes: The Bible is either the word of God, or it isnt. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so. If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, I have persuaded others, many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish in eternal fire (Matthew 25:41). If the basic doctrine of Christianity is correct, I have misused my life in the worst conceivable way. (2006:4).


Harris continues, offering the dissenting perspective articulated by liberal and moderate Christians who reject such a dogmatic definition of true Christian belief but then summarily dismisses them. Addressing the theoretical Christian fundamentalist reader he writes: So let us be honest with ourselvesin the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose (2006:5). As if to preempt complaints about the vastly incomplete depiction of the religious, Harris and Dawkins are quick to acknowledge moderates exist, but argue that they help breed religious extremists. These fundamentalist atheists attempt to mop up messy generalizations and artificial treatment of the Christian religion by saying that religious moderation is the slippery slope that wets the rock that extremism slips on.

Dawkins bolsters Harris argument. As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombersThe teachings of moderate religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism (2006:306). This assumption is taken on face value. For Dawkins and Harris, the world is divided into black and white, religious and secular, winners and losers. These dichotomies, however, rely on willful ignorance of the way belief has evolved. Another problematic feature of fundamentalist atheism is that it too narrowly confines its criticism to religious doctrine and institutions. Atheist and academic Robert Jensen contends that the concentrated criticism on the church connotes a failure to equally scrutinize other institutions of power and that religion is not alone in failing to fully articulate principles of justice, equality, and dignity. [T]o my mind, every major institution we live in comes up short. Certainly the organized church comes up woefully short. The nation state, especially the United States that at this moment is the imperial power, comes up short. The corporation and capitalism comes up short. More systems like patriarchy and white supremacy, which aren't the same as capitalism and the nation state but are the structuring systems of our consciousness and many of our institutions, they come up short obviously. So I think principled people should apply the same scrutiny to all of the systems they live in (Jensen 2008:198).

I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faith. Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world (Harris 2006:ix).


While fundamentalist atheists ring the alarm about the danger posed by religion, others see issues such as poverty as the underlying cause of much of the worlds violence.3 Most significantly, fundamentalist atheisms thesis that religion is at the root of global strife ignores history. Not religion, but a political and secular ideological struggle motivated both World War I and World War II. If the Christian world must live down the early Catholic Church, the atheist world must live down the Soviet Union. One can state with certainly that horrific acts of violence have been committed with and without religious justification.

Indeed, many acts of violence have been committed in the name of justice, itself. For it appears that neither the religious nor the secular world has its hands entirely clean. The most disturbing example of fundamentalist atheisms intellectual failure and an extension of its apocalyptic tone can be seen in its interpretation of Islam. Fundamentalist atheists offer biased and hypocritical readings of Islamic motives for their recourse to violence. This is most sharply pronounced in fundamentalist atheisms adoption of the September 11, 2001 attack in the United States as its new rallying-point. While many argue that religion is only part of the complex problem of terrorism, fundamentalist atheism sees terrorism as a consequence of religions inherently destructive impetus. In Humanism for Parents: Parenting without Religion, atheist writer, Sean P. Curley writes: The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center have re-shown us just how dangerous true faith can be. The attackers were just following the instructions in their holy book and truly believed they would go to heaven and be welcomed as heroes; really it is hard to blame them if they truly believe (2007:7).


For Hitchens, September 11 and the subsequent war in Iraq are and have been about defeating religious extremism. Harris has argued that the United States was wrong to declare war on terrorism, and sees it as akin to declaring war on war. Instead he argues that the war is better understood as a conflict against Islam itself (2004:28). Similarly, Dawkins contends that the July 2005 London bombings were motivated solely by religious faith because Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people (Dawkins 2006:303-304). At the bottom of fundamentalist atheisms apocalyptical assessment of Islams destructive agenda is the shallow notion that terrorist bombings perpetuated by Islamists have nothing to do with politics and are purely religiously motivated events. Atheist fundamentalism also distorts more complex contemplation of Islamic terrorists motives by conflating their reward with their objective, assuming the two are always the same. Fundamentalist atheisms apocalyptical view of the world has resulted in a recommendation of genocidal war on Islam. During the 2007 Freedom From Religion Foundations (FFRF) convention, Hitchens shocked many in the audience when he recommended carpet bombing Muslims. Responding to Hitchens comments a conference-goer asked, How exactly does bombing and killing Muslims lessen their numbers or limit their fervor? Rather than clarifying that he did not wish to merely indiscriminately murder Muslims but rather desired to attack strategic targets, he mocked the questioner. Im just wondering if I should draw you a picture. You mean how does killing them lessen their number? He went on to state: The numbers of those bombed will

decline. He also described the hunting and killing of al Qaida not only as a duty, but a pleasure (Hitchens 2007). Fundamentalist atheisms apocalyptical analysis and violent recommendations have been rejected by some prominent atheists. Atheist biologist and associate professor, P.Z. Myers, who attended the 2007 Freedom from Religion Foundation convention, criticizes Hitchens analysis as simplistic us-vs-them thinking at its worst and labels Hitchens recommendation of genocide as insane (Myers 2007). Myers was not alone in his disgust. I could tell that he did not have the sympathy of most of the audience at this point. There were a scattered few who applauded wildly at every mention of bombing the Iranians, but the majority were stunned into silence. People were leavingI heard one woman sing a few bars of Onward, Christian soldiers" as she left to mock his strategy. The questions were all angry or disputative, and were all dismissed with comments about the audience's intelligence. The answers were always, War, war, war, and that we weren't good atheists if we didn't agree with murder as the answer. He seemed unable to comprehend that people could despise and oppose all religion, Christian, Moslem, or otherwise, yet have no desire to triumph by causing physical harm to the believers. I've noticed the same intellectual blindness in many Christians, actually. Later that evening, someone in the FFRF was handing out an open letter to the freethought community, one that protested the inclusion of Hitchens and opposing any future speakers of his sort.


Fundamentalist atheisms analysis of religion is colored by an ideological fanaticism often identified with religious fundamentalism. This tunnel-vision analysis of religion distorts the diversity of belief found among religious believers. Fundamentalist atheists have developed a deeply flawed characterization of religion and its believers as inherently irrational, anti-science, violent, and averse to progress, which, they believe, mandate a strident response free of intellectual tolerance. Their critique of religion is based on a series of generalizations and assumptions that neglect both the diversity and complexity of religious belief, as well as fundamental sociological considerations. Thinkers such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens create a religion that amounts to a monstrous straw-man which they then burn at the stake. They do not, however, provide sufficient evidence to believe that religion is the root of societys ills. Fundamentalist atheists adoption of a dangerously apocalyptical mindset, wherein they believe peace will not prevail in the world until religion has been


annihilated by reason, is based on a definition of religion that illogically relies on the most fanatical and fundamentalist examples available. In doing so they have violated a basic tenet of rational discourse, that guilt by vague association is not enough to convict; or that just because two subjects correlateshare a religion does not mean that one (non-extremist believer) necessarily results in the other (violent extremist). One cannot define a mass of human beings based on a handful of others who share similarities. While it is true that violent behavior sometimes correlates with religious belief, fundamentalist atheism has not sufficiently demonstrated that religion is always the root cause of violent behavior on the part of a believer. From what we know now, violent extremist believers are the exception to the norm, not the norm. If fundamentalist Christians have charged secularism and atheism with responsibility for causing catastrophes and evil, fundamentalist atheists have conceived of religion as the root of all evil in our civilization. This ideological perspective has inspired fundamentalist atheists to proffer the most simplistic interpretation of the facts. To confirm their belief that religion is the root cause of violence in the world and thus deserves to be intellectually eradicated and no longer tolerated they craft a simplistic, stereotype-ridden and generalized understanding of religion as a whole, lending it to easy demonization. The result of this faulty logic is the fundamentalist atheists conclusion that democraticliberalisms basic tenet of pluralism and tolerance dating back to Enlightenment philosophies, is no longer tenable. So much for reason.



example, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2008 reported that 77 percent of atheists agree religion causes more problems in society than it solves compared to 62 percent of all Americans who do not agree (2008:15). 2Pew Forum on Religion & Public, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Summary of Key Findings, 3-4. 3According to the World Health Organization, poverty is the worlds greatest killer (Paul Farmer 2004:50). For a reminder of this, consider how in Mexico, the Zapatistas struggle to receive basic assistance to save thousands of lives. In Chiapas, Mexico 14,500 people die annually from curable diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, and measles (Farmer 2004:15). Moreover, 500,000 women die annually in childbirth; 99.8 per of these deaths occur in developing countries and are suffered by the poor as of 1995 (Farmer 2004:44).


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