The term fundamentalism is bandied about with wild abandon, but what does it really mean? We have an intuitive sense of what it means, perhaps. When I use the term, I have in my mind ideas of hardliner, fanatical beliefs, adhered to by uncompromising believers in a dogmatic insistence that a particular (holy) text and/or ideology is correct. In a religious context, this can easily seem to lead such people in the direction of moral opposition to progressive liberal societies and zeitgeist, and perhaps towards violence, even.
Russell Blackford, of the Skeptic Ink Network’s The Hellfire Club, has co-authored a superb book called 50 Great Myths About Atheism which details some of the most obvious and ubiquitous myths, straw men and downright lies about atheists promulgated by theists the world over, the authors tackle the myth that atheists are/can be fundamentalist themselves. But of course, they set about questioning what that term actually means. In the philosophy of religion, there are many, many terms which are thrown about willy-nilly which are rarely defined adequately.
So let’s give it a try.
As Blackford states:
…it would be simplistic to claim fundamentalism as an exclusive evangelical Christian domain. Since the late nineteenth century, social conceptions of fundamentalism have clearly changed, and the idea goes beyond Bible literalism. For example, religious fundamentalism is often associated with an extreme opposition to modernity through acts of violence, resistance to science and scholarship, and subordination of women (see generally Ruthven, 2005, 2007). Beyond the context of religion, we also ﬁnd references to market capitalist fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, communist fundamentalists, and so on and so forth. What the label ‘‘fundamentalist’’ has in common in these cases is that those appropriately described as fundamentalists are not prepared to question the basis of their beliefs. This holds true as much for Islamic fundamentalists as it held true for the late nineteenth-century evangelical Protestants in the USA, or market capitalist fundamentalists with their unshakeable belief that ‘‘the market’’ will resolve the world’s economic problems. (Blackford 2013, p. 121)
Our common-sense understanding that such a behaviour in some way relies on adherence to a holy book or ideology is problematic in the usual demarcation sense. We are trying to apply a label to an area of a continuum, so what defines when behaviour changes from moderate belief to fundamentalism? The Sorites Paradox raises its ugly head.
At the core of fundamentalism – one of the main indicators if not the actual deﬁnition – is belief in the literal, inerrant, and unquestionable truth of the Bible (or, by extension some other holy book, or some theory or idea that is treated as one). That is not straightforward, because it can be difﬁcult to establish in a precise way what a ‘‘literal’’ interpretation of the Bible actually is. The Bible is a work, or rather a literary collection, that is obviously open to a wide range of interpretations, and many passages are treated by all comers as metaphors rather than literal descriptions of events.
So can you have a fundamentalist who accepts errancy in the Bible? Well, in my mind, if they adapt the Bible to their own misguided sense of morality and use it to codify sexism, homophobia and other problematic positions, then they would still qualify in my books as fundamentalist, even if the direction of causality is open for debate.
Surely the simplest definition of the term is that of a believer adhering to the fundamental tenets of a given religion. But this is again the continuum problem which gives rise to obvious abuse of the No True Scotsman fallacy. One man’s fundamentals is another woman’s errant claim. There is certainly fuzziness here. With 42,000 denominations of Christianity, for example, there are as many heretics as fundamentalists, perhaps. It all depends on where you are looking from, of course.
What it really comes down to, it appears, is when a belief comes into direct conflict with a set of moral codes and/or scientific body of knowledge. As soon as this happens, whether it be “homosexuality is a sin” or “the world is only 6,000 years old” we have a reaction: neurons flashing fire in our brains, which shout “fundamentalism!” in our brains.
Perhaps a truer definition of the word might be:
Any position which fundamentally conflicts with someone’s or some group’s set of moral and epistemological principles.
Does this mean that atheists can appear fundamentalist to some theists? Can this explain the reaction that Blackford has to such claims taht atheist fundamentalists are a myth?