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.

3 thoughts on “Why Are (Some) Atheists So Fundamentalist?

  1. Necroing this thread with a long post, sorry. I think I was having some computer issues when I first tried to reply.

    First off, woof, sorry to hear about the Parkinson’s, man.

    Hm. The conversation took a different turn that what I was expecting from the headline, but I think I can roll with it.

    As a (non-fundamentalist) Methodist turned atheist, I have been interested in the conversion process. My conclusion is that conversion is a social process, not a logical or epistemic one. If how we choose a religion was logical and epistemic, then you might think the process would go something like this: “Okay, I believe that God exists. Here’s the ways I think He makes His will known to the world. Here’s the denominations that agree with me about those ways we can know God’s will. These are the conclusions they came to. Option 1) I agree with these conclusions, on the whole, so sign me up. Option 2) I don’t agree with these conclusions, and/or I have some disagreements with how they came to these conclusions. There’s no existing denomination that sufficiently agrees with me on these issues, so I’m going to start my own sect.”

    In the real world, the conversion process is much more social. You start hanging out with some friends who believe some crazy things. After a while, those crazy things stop sounding so crazy. Eventually, those things that used to seem crazy to you now seem self-evident. So you formally sign up with the religious sect that your friends belong to.

    I think my own experience is somewhat atypical, but even in my case, I think the process by which I converted to agnosticism and then to atheism was also social, or at least parasocial. I was, at least in part, following a path of “free thinking” laid out for me by various science fiction writers.

    How would you describe your own conversion process?

    The kind of “fundamentalist atheist” you’re talking about is something of a flipside to that social conversion process. They aren’t so much rejecting a system of beliefs as they are rejecting a social group – not merely leaving that social group they used to belong to, but declaring themselves the enemies of that group. (Or, believing that the group has declared them to be an enemy and an outcast, accepting that war has already been declared.) They are also rejecting the belief system that the group adheres to, but that’s almost a side issue. And, in some cases, since God is the figurehead of the social group, they might declare war on God as well.

    Trying to work out a “separate peace” with these folks, on the basis that you’re not one of “those” Christians, might be a bit difficult. As a philosopher, I would be disappointed with atheists who fall into the strawman trap. But I’m not sure that encouraging them to engage with Mere Christianity would be any better – they would be just as motivated to attack those core beliefs as those more outlying ones.

    It might be better to go on the offensive, rather than attempting to defend your own position. Here’s a rule of thumb I’ve found to be true: Fanaticism (as opposed to fundamentalism) is not the result of an oversupply of faith, but of an undersupply of faith. As a result, I think the way to handle fanatics isn’t to convert them to your faith, but to convert them to their own faith.

    Some “atheists” are too angry at God to be true atheists. You can’t be that angry at something you don’t think exists. It’s not so much that they believe God doesn’t exist, as they do believe God exists, and are punishing God with their disbelief. This kind of “Hollywood Atheist” is not as common as Hollywood would have you believe, but they do exist. And, since fanatacism is a product of an undersupply of faith, they do tend to be quite Loud.

    A guy at work falls into that category. He played me a rap song, “The Ill Mind of Hopsin 7,” that he felt expressed his position. In response, I eventually asked him two questions: 1) If you could ask God twenty questions, what would they be? 2) What answers to these questions would you accept from God? He seemed intrigued by this “assignment,” but so far, the only question he’s come up with is a bit obscene but humorous. I suppose you could categorize it as a special case of the Problem of Evil.

    Some true atheists are also quite Loud. So, you might try to win them to taking atheism on faith, which will tend to calm them down. “Imagine that I handed you rock-solid proof that God exists. How would that make you feel?” Then take the conversation from there. “Why would it make you feel that way? Are there any alternatives to this proposition that wouldn’t be cause for despair?” Etc.

    1. Hey “Eddie.” My WordPress dashboard doesn’t always tell me when I get a new comment. I think you’re definitely on to something here. Come to Como and let’s discuss over beverages! But for now, your quote, “Fanaticism (as opposed to fundamentalism) is not the result of an oversupply of faith, but of an undersupply of faith,” sounds right on. I would seriously like to process this idea more. Wanna do a podcast with me?

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