Monthly Archives: August 2013

Atheism and Fundamentalism – are they compatible?

     More and more I hear the argument from New Atheists and strong atheists that they can’t be fundamentalists, and there are no such things as “atheist extremists.” Though I realize that the vast majority of atheists are far from extreme or fundamentalist in their views, I think that to claim that people of any section of society are incapable of holding or professing extreme views is to go easy on that group of people.

      Many say that atheists are unable to be fundamentalists because there are no fundamentals to which they cling. This is a claim that I take issue with, because it assumes that they are an entirely decentralized group with no connections whatsoever. Though there are many for whom atheism is merely a description of their position on one question, the question of the existence of gods, many more associate with specific groups that promote this idea. These groups inevitably hold ideas about certain topics, philosophical, political, or otherwise, and they have the potential to become “fundamentalists” for their ideals.

      Internet atheism is as diverse as it is in the rest of the world, but when your ideals are tied to a specific group or individual, then there is a prevailing dogma amongst the group that will be enforced between members and promoted outside of the group. Followers of specific Youtube atheists or atheistic philosophers will adopt not only the atheism, but the other parts of that person’s philosophy. This is where atheism becomes fundamentalism. It isn’t because of atheism that fundamentalism develops, rather it is because of the philosophy that builds up around atheism. In the same way, theism is usually not the fundamental about which religious fundamentalists complain, rather it is some theological or philosophical point of their religion.

      I don’t mean to insult any atheist readers, on the contrary, I mean to discuss atheism as a phenomenon which pervades the culture of the internet and to comment on some common trends among its adherents. My ontological position is primarily agnostic about God, closer to atheism than to theism, and I am as interested in irreligion as I am in religion.

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Free Thought

     Free thought is a phrase used by many such as myself in order to denote a level of intellectual engagement and discourse that leads to breakthroughs in understanding. People who support the idea of “free thought” or “free speech” hold quite a lot of rhetoric regarding their level of openness to new ideas. Someone in support of free thought needs to be tolerant of other ways of thinking in order to be taken seriously. My question for people who love to announce their support of free thought is this: if all the freethinkers think the same thing, it there really any free thought?

     This question occurred to me as I went into the final week of my summer philosophy course online. The course is heavily tied to the use of a series of lectures and radio conversations by a select group of people. The majority of my fellow students in the course have come to the same conclusions about the major issues discussed. I have disagreed with them on several of the main points, (these are not relevant to this essay, though I may address them in later posts) but they simply continue to bring out the same arguments used by the “free-thinking” philosophers who make up the backbone of the coursework.

     In being among the few dissenters in a class of like-minded “philosophers,” I have been given a delightfully blunt message about the world of intellectual discourse and conversation. Free thought is really a nonexistent fantasy when there is no opposition to provide another angle of thought. This is a far too common occurrence at Universities and Colleges across America, and elsewhere. As much as I champion of the cause of free thought and attempt to foster a belief in it amongst my readers, I too have fallen victim to a lack of freedom of thought on my blog.

     Being only one mind and one voice, I am unable to provide an alternative opinion (other than citations of alternative sources) without blatantly engaging in a strawman argument. We live in a time when those of like-mind seek out and join groups where they can agree with others without interruption from dissenting opinions, but I would like to challenge that idea. Whether you are looking at this issue from a religious, political, moral, or philosophical angle, take your ideas to somewhere where you are in the minority. If there is only agreement between those in a discussion, then no new ideas surface. If, however, those participating disagree, then progress will not be far off.

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Personal vs. Public Piety

     Religious devotion is the most important part of many people’s lives. They insist upon wearing traditional religious garb despite pressure to stop, they eat according to strict dietary guidelines, they lives their live in a general state of piety and respect for tradition. I respect the devotion of the very religious, despite a wide philosophical gap between us. I do not, however, respect those who are outwardly pious and spiritual, but do not know the true meaning or importance of their acts of devotion.

      I recently visited an amusement park with my family to enjoy some of the warm weather we have been having. An Orthodox Jewish summer camp was also visiting the park while we were there. When I see a group of people of a faith, culture, or tradition other than mine, I am often held rapt by their traditional ways and pious nature. I have been mesmerized by the prayerful manner of many a Rabbi, Priest, or Imam. I was not, however, so impressed with a few of the boys and councilors on this particular camp trip. They all wore black yarmulkes, but a few had jewel studs on their yarmulkes. I don’t understand how a device so clearly meant to humble oneself before God could possibly need to have diamond studs.

      When I visit church with my Catholic family, I often see people who shuffle almost angrily to be first to receive communion. The irony of this eludes them, but it is just one more example of people missing the point of their religious devotion. My religion teacher often says that if you don’t believe that the host is the body of Christ then you shouldn’t take it, but I think that if you don’t believe in peace and harmony, then you shouldn’t shake hands with your neighbor and tell them “peace be with you.”

      When people stop understanding the meaning behind their traditional garb or religious ceremony and start to wear gold plated mitres, jewel studded yarmulkes, or any other variation on “fashionable religion” they are missing the point of having a religion or life philosophy. It seems to me that if someone is acting religious for no reason other than to appear pious, they would be better served removing the act all together. Jesus had much to say on piety for the individual versus piety for show.

      “Be careful about not living righteously merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven” – Matthew 6:1

     When someone devotes their life to a faith, whether I agree with them philosophically or not, I can respect their dedication, but I hope that those of great spirituality or faith strive more for personal betterment and service to others than for fame and public recognition.

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