Anonymous fundamentalism

I can never quite work out whether the Grauniad is trolling for advertising clicks, a bit like those people who publish those “Linux sux, Microsoft rulez” articles in the hope of being picked up by Slashdot. The Dawkins blog linked to this piece on religion and secularism recently. One particularly choice quote:

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England.”

I mean, what? Writing a book or being rude about religion is apparently in some way equivalent to blowing up commuters. One of the Drink-soaked Trots has already delivered an excellent rebuttal (don’t miss the discussion of what HL Mencken really said about religion). Dawkins also addresses the question of whether he deserves to be called a fundamentalist in The God Delusion. Unsurprisingly, he concludes that he doesn’t, but his reasoning is that a fundamentalist is not merely someone who’s a passionate advocate of a particular idea, but rather, someone who clings to that idea come what may. I’m not a fundamentalist, says Dawkins, because I’m very clear about what would change my mind (fossil rabbits in the precambrian, presumably). A fundamentalist is someone who will not change their mind and cannot change the subject.

But wait, there’s more, this time from Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London:

“If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow.”

Stuart Jeffries’s article says that the goal of secularists is the exclusion of religion and religious people from the public sphere. That’s not the feeling I get from reading the latest slew of books cheering for atheism. Rather, I think secularists are tired of seeing the statements of the religious taken with more weight simply because they are religious. Or, as Bishop Chartres (and Azzim Tamimi, also quoted) remind us, because of what the religious might do if they don’t get their way.

Another way of spotting the true fundamentalists is that they really don’t like humour, as one particular privilege that fundamentalist religion likes to claim for itself is the right never to be offended. If any of you happen to be alumni of Clare College, and, having had a nice phone call from a current student, you are donating to the college via a standing order or similar, I urge you to cancel the order, and tell them why.

Edited: added the link to the rebuttal.

8 Comments on "Anonymous fundamentalism"


  1. Writing a book or being rude about religion is apparently in some way equivalent to blowing up commuters.

    As are anti-gay Anglicans, apparently, which makes about as little sense.

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  2. his reasoning is that a fundamentalist is not merely someone who’s a passionate advocate of a particular idea, but rather, someone who clings to that idea come what may.

    I read an interesting statement, as part of another discussion, from a gentleman identifying himself as a “fundamentalist” Muslim in that he followed the fundamentals of Islam; this he distinguished from “extremism”. I found this quite acceptable. The term “fundamentalism” does seem to have been hijacked to indicate extremism, bigotry and jingoism in the name of a faith, rather than simply adhering to its fundamentals. In the same vein, “conservative” now seems to denote a rather narrow, right-wing version of a philosophy, rather than one that conserves particular elements of that thought.
    I think Dawkins could be a fundamentalist without being an intolerant bigot or incapable of accepting other ideas – if the thoughts outlined in his books are fundamental to his philosophy, then that’s what he is. It’s a sad reflection on usage and misusage that the term doesn’t seem to be so palatable anymore.

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    1. Ah, but isn’t an unswerving devotion to the fundamentals likely to lead to extremism and bigotry? It depends on what those fundamentals are, but Christianity and Islam both fundamentally believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. Dawkins and Harris (I’ve not actually read Dennett, the third member of the Atheist Trinity, yet) argue that one explanation for religious violence is that the people who commit it really believe what they say they believe.

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      1. If we accept this, it’s surely still the unswerving devotion rather than the fundamentals that are at fault. It is true to say that Islam believes in no god but Allah, but it’s a fair leap from that fundamental to extremes of terrorism and hate crime. I think there’s no easy explanation for why people commit religious violence. Anecdotally, a number of persons involved in recent cases have seemed to be recent converts rather than those brought up within a tradition – perhaps one could draw a useful distinction between the philosophies preached to (and appealing to) angry young men in the West, and the philosophies which are a central tenet of life for communities that have held them by long-standing tradition.

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          1. I don’t think that really has any bearing on the issue. Certain philosophies are geared (engineered, manipulated, made-up) to appeal to certain constituencies of people. The invocation of the name of a religious philosophy in the service of a campaign of violence, hatred and intolerance has little to do with the “fundamentals” of the religion invoked, but somehow groups of people involved in such campaigns have come to be termed “fundamentalist”. What I am saying is that I think it is perfectly possible to be brought up in a tradition that holds certain fundamentals dear without being an extremist nut. Extremist nuts, by extension, seem not to appeal to persons brought up with a respect for both a particular religious tradition and for humanity in general, but to people outside both that tradition and that respect. At some point, the preachers themselves were “converts” to the extremist cause, if not to the name they give it.

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            1. You said:

              Anecdotally, a number of persons involved in recent cases have seemed to be recent converts rather than those brought up within a tradition
              Implying that the problem was that these people were new converts, not people ‘brought up within a tradition’. So what I said has every bearing. It is not enough to say that these people are recent converts because it is not only recent converts involved in this religious act.

              he invocation of the name of a religious philosophy in the service of a campaign of violence, hatred and intolerance has little to do with the “fundamentals” of the religion invoked
              Unless that religion confers a pay off that would make acts such as being a suicide bomber seem attractive. An atheist might blow themselves up for a cause just as a theist might, but the payoff for an atheist is ceasing to exist whereas for a believer it can be simply transitioning to a new and even better life. To take a group that is not generally considered to be as extreme as the people in question, at my CU people would often say they were looking forward to death because it meant things would be even better for them. If you think you’re going to be rewarded in paradise by virgins and so on as well as doing a morally good thing for your God you’re much more likely to do such an extreme thing than a person who did not believe such things.

              What I am saying is that I think it is perfectly possible to be brought up in a tradition that holds certain fundamentals dear without being an extremist nut.
              Of course it is. The problem though is when those fundamental beliefs cannot be changed when subjected to the light of modern day evidence. Even then most beliefs are harmless, if someone believes in Pixies it doesn’t matter a great deal. If they believe they will go to heaven if the blow up some people, that love between two gay people is terribly wrong and should be outlawed, or that using condoms in a country with rampant AIDs is a crime against God then we do have a problem. In these cases the religious views are a cause of great evil in the world.

              There are many fluffy religious beliefs that I have no problem with, if it makes people happier and more able to cope with their life, fine. Not all religious beliefs are like this though.

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              1. Although I appreciate the general point you are making about fervour, I’d have to say that to me, the examples you give are not “fundamental” beliefs – they’re much disputed within and between religious sects as well as maligned outside. To me, a fundamental belief is of the order of “Jesus is the Son of God and he dies for our sins, through Jesus we can reach the Father”, or “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his servant”. This is not idle hair-splitting to be a pain – this is something I conseider central to the usage of “fundamental” I’ve been referring to. Sects, groupings and individual churches may disagree about matters of detail, but in the fundamentals they are all consistent.

                What makes somebody blow up a busload of people, I’m not sure reaonsable people can ever say or understand. I am personally of the view that people like suicide bombers are not in truth motivated by God or promises of a joyful afterlife – I think the motviations are much more mundane. But as I say, I don’t think anyone outside the mindset can ever really know.

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