Why Are (Some) Atheists So Fundamentalist?

(Feel free to go straight to the video, or read on for some background and detail on the ideas in the video. It’s a fairly short post.)

In second grade, we did a science project on how different parts of the tongue taste different things: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. Now, it turns out this was false, as this article explains, but it made for a fun project. In any case, we tasted different things in the experiment, including cold, black coffee for the “bitter” segment. Traumatized, I vowed never to drink coffee again. The experiment convinced me that “coffee” was awful. Fast forward 20 years, and I discovered that there were ways to drink coffee other than cold and black. In fact, I found coffee, with the right additions, to be quite wonderful. I’m now an enthusiastic coffee addict.

Many experiences follow a similar pattern. We experience X (where X = something not inherently harmful) early in our lives, X seems awful, and we spend the rest of our lives avoiding X. If we are very lucky, someone introduces us to new variety of X, like X*, and we discover that we could actually enjoy X*. The unlucky never touch X again.

Is “True” Christianity Fundamentalist?

Religion sometimes works this way. We experience church and the Christian faith early in life, we find it oppressive, boring, and fragile, and so we walk away. Often, we never darken the doorway of another church, because we assume that all “true” churches are like the church of our youth and all “true” teaching on Christianity will be identical to what we heard as young people. This is the fundamentalist bit.


The ironic thing is this: if someone comes along and says, “Here’s another variety of Christianity that isn’t oppressive, boring, and fragile” we dismiss them, because any version of Christianity that differs from our childhood experience is not “true” Christianity! In other words, we stand convinced that the fundamentalist view is the only “real” version. Why do we think this? Because that is what the fundamentalists taught us! So, we both accept and reject their teaching.

Christians Do It Too

Not all atheists fall into this way of thinking, of course. But I hear this a lot. Similarly, I often hear Christians who are “late converts” (like me) doing the same thing! They instantly launch an assault against everything they did and thought prior to conversion. They caricature non-religious people as having no morals and no purpose in life. And often they have bought into a “package deal” that includes not only Christianity, but nationalism and conservative politics as well.

Both Christians and atheists (and anyone who believes strongly about something), need to realize that there are versions of the “other” worldview that are reasonable and helpful. You can believe that someone is mistaken without also assuming they are stupid and evil. And if you’re going to critique their view, don’t attack a straw man (e.g., the fundamentalist version). Critique the best possible version of their view (steel man).

straw man, logic, fallacy

So What?

Avoiding straw men and finding the best version of your opposition’s view has several benefits–here are two: First, it will help promote respectful conversations with those on the “other side.” Second, you may very well find yourself thinking, “I rejected that view (X) because it said Y and Z, but it turns out that X* doesn’t say Y and Z. Maybe it makes sense after all.” I’ve been very impressed with several atheists and how they live out their worldview, and I’d be a liar if I said it doesn’t raise the plausibility of atheism for me. But stripping away fallacious reasoning doesn’t automatically lead to a change of mind. It may very well help you see, even more clearly, that your current beliefs are true.

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