Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?

Written by A.C. Grayling.

It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase "fundamentalist atheist". What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe - perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time - say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves - and still do?

Christians, among other things, mean by "fundamentalist atheists" those who would deny people the comforts of faith (the old and lonely especially) and the companionship of a benign invisible protector in the dark night of the soul - and who (allegedly) fail to see the staggering beauty in art prompted by the inspirations of belief. Yet, in its bleeding-heart modern form, Christianity is a recent and highly modified version of what, for most of its history, has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology - think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell's torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of calumny against Judaism. Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specialises in soft-focus mood music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only the few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breathtaking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the gullible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen's Sleeper, would not be able to recognise the faith that bears the same name as his own.

For example: vast Nigerian congregations are told that believing will ensure a high income - indeed they are told by Reverend X that they will be luckier and richer if they join his congregation than if they join that of Reverend Y. What happened to the eye of the needle? Oh well, granted: that tiny loophole was closed long ago. What then of "my kingdom is not of this world"? What of the blessedness of poverty and humility? The Church of England officially abolished Hell by an Act of Synod in the 1920s and St Paul's strictures on the place of women in church (which was that they are to sit at the back in silence, with heads covered) are now so far ignored that there are now women vicars, and there will soon be women bishops.

One does not have to venture as far as Nigeria to see the hypocrisies of reinvention at work. Rome will do, where the latest eternal verity to be abandoned is the doctrine of limbo - the place where the souls of unbaptised babies go. Meanwhile, some cardinals are floating the idea that condoms are acceptable, within marital relationships only of course, in countries with high incidences of HIV infection. This latter, which to anyone but an observant Catholic is not merely a plain piece of common sense but a humanitarian imperative, is an amazing development in its context. Sensible Catholics have for generations been ignoring the views on contraception held by reactionary old men in the Vatican, but alas, since it is the business of all religious doctrines to keep their votaries in a state of intellectual infancy (how else do they keep absurdities seeming credible?), insufficient numbers of Catholics have been able to be sensible. Look at Ireland until very recent times for an example of the misery Catholicism inflicts when it can.

"Intellectual infancy": the phrase reminds one that religions survive mainly because they brainwash the young. Three-quarters of Church of England schools are primary schools; all the faiths currently jostling for our tax money to run their "faith-based" schools know that if they do not proselytise intellectually defenceless three and four-year-olds, their grip will eventually loosen. Inculcating the various competing - competing, note - falsehoods of the major faiths into small children is a form of child abuse, and a scandal. Let us challenge religion to leave children alone until they are adults, whereupon they can be presented with the essentials of religion for mature consideration. For example: tell an averagely intelligent adult hitherto free of religious brainwashing that somewhere, invisibly, there is a being somewhat like us, with desires, interests, purposes, memories, and emotions of anger, love, vengefulness and jealousy, yet with the negation of such other of our failings as mortality, weakness, corporeality, visibility, limited knowledge and insight; and that this god magically impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a special being who performs various prodigious feats before departing for heaven. Take your pick of which version of this story to tell: let a King of Heaven impregnate - let's see - Danae or Io or Leda or the Virgin Mary (etc, etc) and let there be resulting heaven-destined progeny (Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Jesus, etc, etc) - or any of the other forms of exactly such tales in Babylonian, Egyptian and other mythologies - then ask which of them he wishes to believe. One can guarantee that such a person would say: none of them.

So, in order not to be a "fundamentalist" atheist, which of the absurdities connoted in the foregoing should an atheist temporise over? Should a "moderate atheist" be one who does not mind how many hundreds of millions of people have been deeply harmed by religion throughout history? Should he or she be one who chuckles indulgently at the antipathy of Sunni for Shia, Christian for Jew, Muslim for Hindu, and all of them for anyone who does not think the universe is controlled by invisible powers? Is an acceptable (to the faithful) atheist one who thinks it is reasonable for people to believe that the gods suspend the laws of nature occasionally in answer to personal prayers, or that to save someone's soul from further sin (especially the sin of heresy) it is in his own interests to be murdered?

As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is "naturalist", denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature's laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe - no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves "a-fairyists" or "a-goblinists" as "atheists"; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so. (Most people, though, forget that belief in fairies was widespread until the beginning of the 20th century; the church fought a long hard battle against this competitor superstition, and won, largely because - you guessed it - of the infant and primary church schools founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

By the same token, therefore, people with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists, and it can be left to them to attempt to refute the findings of physics, chemistry and the biological sciences in an effort to justify their alternative claim that the universe was created, and is run, by supernatural beings. Supernaturalists are fond of claiming that some irreligious people turn to prayer when in mortal danger, but naturalists can reply that supernaturalists typically repose great faith in science when they find themselves in (say) a hospital or an aeroplane - and with far greater frequency. But of course, as votaries of the view that everything is consistent with their beliefs - even apparent refutations of them - supernaturalists can claim that science itself is a gift of god, and thus justify doing so. But they should then remember Popper: "A theory that explains everything explains nothing."

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out an allied and characteristic bit of jesuitry employed by folk of faith. This is their attempt to describe naturalism (atheism) as itself a "religion". But, by definition, a religion is something centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it, what they read or see, what they treat as clean and unclean, who they have sex with and how and when; and so for a multitude of other things, like making women invisible beneath enveloping clothing, or strapping little boxes to their foreheads, or iterating formulae by rote five times a day, and so endlessly forth; with threats of punishment for getting any of it wrong.

But naturalism (atheism) by definition does not premise such belief. Any view of the world that does not premise the existence of something supernatural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics. And one can grant that the word "fundamental" does after all apply to this: in the phrase "fundamentally sensible".