Home > Humanism/Atheism, Music, Religion > Fundamentalist Moderates, Insecure Fundamentalists

Fundamentalist Moderates, Insecure Fundamentalists

As I sat in Old St. Paul’s Church on Saturday night, listening to an excellent performance of Fauré’s Requiem by the St. Andrew Camerata (it’s not just comedy at the Fringe, you know), some thoughts sprang into my mind. The first thought was, sadly, ‘I really don’t like it when they replace the soprano solo in the famous Pie Jesu movement with a boy soprano. Sure he’s cute, but can he emotionally inflect the music? Thought not’. But this isn’t a music review. Somewhat naturally given the setting, my thoughts wandered to matters of religion, and the current arguments which have rent our atheist movement asunder about how we, as skeptical secular humanists, should approach religious people.

What are these arguments? One of the major ones going on in the blogosphere at the moment was sparked by the new book titled Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection, which amongst other things chastises atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. These ‘New Atheists’, assert Mooney and Kirshenbaum, are turning the public off science with their strident, in-your-face criticisms of religious belief. Their tactics, claim M&K, are not working, and are having a detrimental effect on the public understanding of science. I’ve often discussed this sort of issue with members of the Humanist Society at my university, some of whom are of the opinion that being forthright about atheistic views can be a bad idea. But, as Prof. Jerry Coyne deftly points out in his review of Unscientific America, there’s really very little evidence for this view. How do we know that being nice and ‘accomodationist’¹ to religious people will change their opinions or make them more skeptical? Well, we don’t. It’s just an opinion, regularly trotted out with no backing whatsoever.

And so it was with some displeasure that I heard the final talk of the Edinburgh Skeptics ‘Skepticamp 2009’, in which the speaker argued that we should all be fluffy and nice to moderate religious people in order to change their beliefs, while letting the more crazy elements die out, falling apart due to their own contradictions. In the Q&A, while I was asking the speaker for some evidence to back up his claims, my friend David made a much more perceptive point. This was that even though someone’s religious beliefs can be classed as moderate (i.e. they don’t hold highly conservative views on social issues, or highly unscientific views on things like evolution), this in no way suggests they’ll be easier to persuade. Counter-intuitive, I know, but remember we’ve entered the deeply surreal and chaotic world of religion here, so bear with me. There may, then, be significant variation within the ‘moderate religionist’ type, possibly something along the lines of:

1) The Woolly: ‘Yeah, the Bible’s true, isn’t it? That’s what I was always told, anyway.’ This type of moderate believer hasn’t really thought through their beliefs, is rarely seen in their place of worship, and could probably be argued out of their God-belief by a sufficiently intelligent and persistent skeptic.
2) The Cozy: ‘Debate? What Debate? I’m just here for the tea and buns.’ This type is regularly seen in places of worship, because community is what they live off. Criticising this type of believer will be utterly pointless – debate is anathema to them. Their type of faith doesn’t make the same kind of ontological or empirical claims as others, and so they’ll go on believing no matter what you throw at them.
3) The Fundamoderate: ‘I have my liberal principles. They come from God.’  This variation will, on occasion, accept some of the more dodgy arguments for the existence of God, like ‘fine-tuning’, but on the whole will rely on good ol’ blind faith. This is deeply ingrained, however, so good luck trying to talk to them about atheism.

Note that two of the above three types are completely impervious to reason, and there could of course be many more types besides. The point is that we skeptics are too quick to assume that moderate religionists have the weakest faith and will admit God is fiction the minute they look at the front cover of The God Delusion. This isn’t necessarily the case.

The flip side of this argument is that, maybe, fundamentalists are a bit more insecure in their faith than we might at first assume. This is a point made in the (wonderful) list of ‘Things Creationists Hate’ on SkepticReport. It goes something like this: more moderate religionists are able to reconcile their faith with scientific facts as they come in due to the fact their faith is so strong. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, actually have a very insecure faith, and so need to block out or distort the findings of science (or arguments of philosophy and theology) in order to keep the whole precarious edifice propped up. Certainly, it often seems to be at moments of deep personal crisis that people turn to more fundamentalist religion (those who haven’t been brought up in it, that is), and it’s easy to imagine a model of 100% closed-minded fundamentalism we can call the ‘methinks doth protest too much’ position.

Taking the example of modern Evangelical Christianity, we can clearly see the intellectual rot has set in. Gone are the delicate, sophisticated (some would say sophistic) arguments of theologians, and in comes the ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it’ mode of thinking. Incidentally, it’s paralleled in the Evangelical’s music choice. While listening to the subtly shifting shades and complex key changes of the Fauré Requiem the other night I couldn’t help but compare it to the last time I visited a church, in this case to see a baptism a few months ago. The beautifully-written hymns of yesteryear have, it seems, been well and truly defenestrated, and have instead been replaced with glib, derivative 3-chord ‘Christian Rock’ of the most repulsively and nauseatingly inane sort. These believers don’t need anything complex or nuanced any more, and it’s exactly the same with their intellectual contributions.

So does this mean Evangelicals are perfect targets for the budding de-converter, and moderate Anglicans should be left well alone and not challenged? No, not necessarily. The purpose of the above discussion is simply to highlight the huge variety of ‘faith types’ within religion, and to show that all the talk of ‘how to address religious people’ and ‘how to de-convert religious people’ is purely academic until some evidence comes in to show how a particular atheistic approach would combat the delusions of one particular set of religionists. Of course, the very variety and complexity of religious views in the first place makes this kind of evidence coming in seem very unlikely indeed.

The upshot? No skeptic has the right to tell other skeptics how to act around religious people. Different religious people, even those of the same religions, will react in different ways to arguments thrown at them, with some ‘moderates’ being utterly unmoved and some ‘fundamentalists’ being niggled by serious doubts.  For this reason, isn’t it better that everyone’s just truthful? If Richard Dawkins thinks God is a delusion and can argue his position, he should do so with impunity. If scientists think creationism and fine-tuning arguments are mindless nonsense, they should say so and should be unafraid of offending religious people or ‘turning them away from science’. The moment we start tiptoeing around, afraid to say what we really think, is the moment we lose the freedom of speech and ideas which makes science such a powerful way of investigating the world.

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1. Those with ‘accomodationist’ views are now known in the blogosphere as ‘faitheists’, ‘I’m an atheist-but heads’, and, most amusingly, ‘credophiles’.

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  1. August 11, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    I think you’ve hit on a really important point here – in many ways you’d expect fundamentalists to be the easiest to convince, as their world view is built on black-and-white principles of ‘all true or nothing’. Hypothetically you only have to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of just one claim to make them question their whole faith structure. Cherrypickers can duck and dive, and accept the loss of one claim while continuing to believe. At least, that’s how it should work in theory!

  2. cdskelly
    June 29, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Speaking as an Evangelical Christian I have to say that I find it quite sad that you have not had the opportunity/privilege to interact with thinking Christians who not only have quite a bit to contribute intellectually, but also appreciate science and how it benefits humanity. Further, if it has been your experience that these supposed “believers” are not personally assured of the truths of the Scriptures through their own study and research along with faith (rather than through having been brainwashed or taught to be unreasonable) I dare say that I doubt you have actually ever met a genuine believer or have become much a part of their daily life, privy to their deepest thoughts and concerns.

    Like the Naturalist, a Christian will appreciate reason and always seek to operate within the world in a realistic way. The difference is that we look upon human reason as inherently limited to that which we can personally discover and know on our own. Christians believe that there are many things that can not be discovered through science, but rather must be revealed through the Scriptures. It is not that we desire to be unreasonable, just that we are purposeful about in what (or in Whom) we will place our trust for an unbiased explanation of the universe. To us it is unreasonable to deny a Creator His personal right to explain His creation to us in His way and even more unreasonable to disbelieve His account. Rather, we believe that the burden of proof, when one wishes to discount the assertions of the Scriptures, is upon those who disbelieve. They must account for why their disbelief is reasonable, even though science has never proved even one Biblical statement to be false.

    Lastly, I just want to say that it is also unreasonable to believe that all of the answers of the universe can be quantified and explained in terms that we can understand. Again, science is limited to only that which it can observe, which inherently rules out the supernatural realm. The only method that “science” has been able to derive for dealing with this reality is simply to say that the supernatural doesn’t exist. Yet they do so without offering proof. This is why they gain no ground with Christians: their faith in human reasoning keeps them biased. They are locked into the belief that the only things that exist are the things that they can personally see, study or observe. Unfortunately, until they can be objective about themselves and this world, until they can recognize that there is more to this world than meets the eye, they will continue to believe that Christians are unscientific, when in reality they have yet to understand what science is actually for.

  3. cdskelly
    June 29, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    I would also like to share the following article. I hope you find it interesting: http://www.icr.org/article/bible-believing-scientists-past/.

  4. Stuart Ritchie
    June 30, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Quite busy, so some brief responses:

    First paragraph – No True Scotsman fallacy.

    Second – so you believe the Bible is 100% accurate? No use talking to you, really.

    Third – no scientist says the supernatural absolutely, 100%, does not exist. No evidence has been found for the supernatural (and it could potentially be found – hard evidence of, say, miracles or prophecy or something like that). ‘Faith in human reasoning’? No, evidence that human reasoning has improved our lives immeasurably, where religious reasoning has done… er… nothing.

    Yer link – everyone believed in the Bible back then. Now, the vast majority of top scientists are atheists. What does that tell you?

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