Attacking Fundamentalism is not the only Atheist Agenda

September 14, 2010

In the marketplace of ideas, atheism offers plenty of criticism against scripture, dogmatism, and blind faith. Fundamentalism tends to be close-minded and fanatical, and it deserves all the censure and rebuke that atheists can provide. Liberal-minded religious people should join in.

However, believers are joining forces against atheism. We don’t see many attacks on fundamentalist religion arriving from mainline church leaders and liberal theologians. Rather, the bookstore shelves are full of books by all sorts of preachers and theologians saying that atheists don’t know what they are talking about. When atheists declare that religion has no intellectual value at all, religious leaders only have an easier time reassuring the faithful that they aren’t crazy.

There are larger cultural forces besides the public square’s intellectual arena. Why should non-fundamentalists band together with atheists, since few atheists are trying to understand liberal religion’s merits? Intellectual weapons against conservative religions miss liberal targets badly; it is quite possible to believe in a God that didn’t dictate the Bible or demand government take-overs. When some atheists condemn religious liberals and moderates as strongly as fundamentalists for irrationality, moral blindness, or barbaric conduct, only resentment against atheism follows. If atheism is supposed to be smarter, it could use brighter methods of public debate.

Atheists need more comprehensive approaches to dealing with religious belief than just a lot of boasting that reason only sides with atheism. Theological defenses of religion can be intelligently designed, too. Under stress from science and Enlightenment philosophy, modern theology has explored cosmological, ethical, emotional, and existential dimensions of religious life. Many kinds of theology have emerged, replacing a handful of traditional arguments for God with robust methods of defending religious viewpoints. There are philosophical atheists who have quietly and successfully kept pace. The discipline of atheology is quite capable of matching these theologies with its skeptical replies, so atheists can have pride in their reasoning skills. Taking theology seriously enough to competently debate God should not be beneath atheism.

I expand on these observations from the front lines of the God debates in my new book, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between . All of the major traditional and contemporary arguments for God are reorganized by these five categories: Theology From The Scripture (can we trust its accounts of Jesus?); Theology From The World (should we supplement science with acts of God?); Theology Beyond The World (does cosmology need supernaturalism to explain the universe?); Theology In The Know (placing religious certainties before any other knowledge); and Theology Into The Myst (letting religious experiences of God take priority over creeds). The final chapter on Faith and Reason evaluates the competition among Western worldviews struggling to balance reason and faith, including fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, panentheism, mysticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism.

My book is written as a non-technical guide for successfully debating almost any argument that a typical believer would raise. If you are stuck in an elevator with a theologian, or just chatting with a religious co-worker over lunch, you can be completely prepared. The God debates are for everyone.



#1 Brett Newton (Guest) on Tuesday September 14, 2010 at 3:59pm

I completely respect where you are coming from and see your point.  But my problem with staying astride of theology is:

1) It’s all built on a faulty premise, which makes all of theology just an exercise (albeit, an elaborate one) in bullshit.  Which leads me to,

2) Why should I then blow a substantial amount of time with a religion’s theology?  And,

3) Which religion’s theology should I study in depth?  Or should I try and hit every single religion’s theology?  Seems like I had better start working on those speed-reading skills some more.

I am with you on civil debate, but honestly, all I would like is for people to keep their “religious noses” out of my life.  The problem there is that while that seems a very reasonable (and in America, consitutionally-supported) idea, some people simply refuse to give even that much.

#2 Ed Johnson (Guest) on Tuesday September 14, 2010 at 8:15pm

I agree with Mr. Newton. It seems to me that religion and science, as traditionally defined, are completely immiscible.

But the discussions about whether or not there is a God will never resolve the question, largely because those who believe in the supernatural are not inclined to use logic and reasoning to come up with answers. I’m wondering, though, if those of us who are atheists, and who also believe that the world would be a better place without religion, could foster instead an evaluation of the social and individual EFFECTS of a belief in God and the practice of religion. This would surely bring the discussion a bit more to the factual end of the spectrum, and maybe eventually bring about some resolution. As we know, the effects of belief in God include:

  *An incredible amount of violence, wars, torture and murders which have been done in the name of a group’s religion or in the name of their deity.

  *Awesome quantities of human energy have been gobbled up in the celebration of each group’s God; salaries, buildings, armies, vestments, and much more.

  *Perhaps most important, the belief in God as father has dramatically reduced that ever-so-important sense of personal responsibility.

#3 Rodney Cooper on Tuesday September 14, 2010 at 8:38pm

What’s the goal, John?  To nueter fundamentalists, politically?  Or to drag them kicking and screaming to the truth?  Liberal religion is built on the same house of cards as fundamentalism and is just as intellectually bankrupt.  Siding with them is a impotent strategy, because they are poisoned, too, and besides, they’re very likely to turn on you if your politics cuts into their bottom line.  Choose your friends carefully.  I think my arguments make the kicking and screaming option the only viable choice.  Besides, the alternative smacks of elitism.

#4 Ed Johnson (Guest) on Tuesday September 14, 2010 at 10:03pm

My goal is to help people move at least a bit away from the supernatural and towards logic, rationality, reason, empiricism; thus away from religion and God. I am convinced that this would lead to a better world, with less adversity, competition and violence.


#5 Rodney Cooper on Tuesday September 14, 2010 at 11:54pm

Ed, 1 + 1 does not sometimes equal three.  And accepting something as true or false is not much of a leap from that.  Trying to cozy up to the liberals and moderates amounts to appeasement.  It’s a hard row to hoe, but flat footed rationalizing is the only thing that’s gonna win the day.  Once you cut into they’re bottom line, your going to find out real fast who your friends are.  You can’t move away from a God that doesn’t really exist; more appeasement. Cold hard logic is the only thing that these people can’t refute, and refute they will if given any kind of venue.  Don’t do it.

#6 wbthacker on Wednesday September 15, 2010 at 11:50am

I must say, Dr. Shook’s essay here makes a great deal more sense than what he wrote for Huffington Post at .

In that article, he leads off by asserting that atheists are “know-nothings” who are “proud of their ignorance.”  Then he graciously opines this description is “a little unfair.”

While I can understand the strategy of being diplomatic toward moderate theists (so as to enlist their help against fundamentalism), I really don’t appreciate being thrown under the bus like that. I can hear comments like those from the religious right any time; I don’t need someone with CFI credentials in their byline adding to that chorus. 

In the final analysis, it’s not clear whether your “well-intentioned betrayal” of atheists was meant to build a bridge, or sell a book.  Either way, I think you owe us an apology and an explanation.

Bill Thacker

#7 Clean Hippie (Guest) on Wednesday September 15, 2010 at 11:50am

“Why should non-fundamentalists band together with atheists, since few atheists are trying to understand liberal religion’s merits?”

  What exactly ARE those merits?

“theists need more comprehensive approaches to dealing with religious belief than just a lot of boasting that reason only sides with atheism. “

  Why does anyone need anything MORE than reason?  Reason doesn’t lie.  Reason doesn’t have an agenda.  Reason doesn’t take sides.

#8 EzraMeridian (Guest) on Wednesday September 15, 2010 at 8:11pm

Religious Liberal/Progressive do have merits. They pretty much agree with us on absolutely everything except the ‘god’ part. If god becomes a wall of separation between us, then we (atheists) are no better than the fundamentalists. We will forever be in a camp of our own. I thought Secular Humanists where supposed to have humility and compassion.

I understand that us Atheists side with reason etc. But from many (religious) people’s perspective, we are putting into question the way that they were raised. We cannot mess with people’s childhoods, without alienating them. In my experience (Recovering) Catholics are a great example. I have several Liberal Catholics who, for all intents and purposes, are on the edge of non-belief, but who are afraid to make the jump because of family, and because of community ties. They get offended with me, when I question the doctrine and dogma they were raised with. It’s as if you have insulted their parents. Quite often, they laugh about the dogma, but not about their deity.

Atheism has not yet figured out the community aspect, which religion has done so well. Who care’s if we have the facts and reason on our side. We don’t build communities, we don’t help raise their children (except in public schools). We are only just starting the BBQ’s and cookouts. I fear that we must not step into the area of ‘cult’, but must only be the catalyst for the kind of change that the Human Race needs to advance to a better existence for all of us. Otherwise we just become another sect in the war of ideas. It’s going to be a painfully slow process, but we will progress.

#9 Badger3k on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 8:51am

Does your book address actual arguments, or only the strawman that you give here?  Does it show the actual evidence for any gods existence, without which makes theological claims a mite suspect if they lack a secular (or even, dare I say it) scientific basis or rationale?  However, I might be generous and think you meant to say that when you said “atheists say religion has no intellectual value”.  Religion has emotional appeal, serves to moderate (and make extreme) social behavior, and cause untold psychological damage to millions (and often physical damage as well) - it can be a mixed bag. 

Can you at least preface these book-promotion blurbs here on the blog with something like “Coffee!” so we know which ones to read and which ones to ignore?

Clean Hippie - religion gives us “spirituality” - a rather nebulous and often vacuous term often used to describe various things that we already have words for, such as “emotions”.  It also gives illusory comfort, such as “Grandpa’s not really dead, he’s watching from heaven, where he can see everything you do in the bathroom or under the covers, you little pervert!” (why do they never take the idea to it’s logical conclusion?). 

I’m never sure why atheism is supposed to provide a sense of community for anyone?  If you want community, join a bowling league, a book club, a cooking club, or just hang out with friends and family.  Currently, religion serves as this all-purpose hub - take that away and people won’t be left floundering - at least not those who will take initiative and start something themselves.  Funny thing - CFI itself hosts get-togethers for people, which is what happens when people see a need and take action to fill it.  A philosophical position didn’t need to provide that - it can’t - only people can provide that.

#10 Badger3k on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 8:55am

Edit for my last post - the last paragraph is not towards Crazy Hippie - I just read up and saw that comment and wanted to respond to it.

#11 Ed Johnson (Guest) on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 9:13am

I’m a bit confused, Badger3k. Who’s book is it that you are referring to?


#12 Rob (Guest) on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 9:15am

We have the one debate tool we need “put up or shut up” Where, in the past several thousand years, has ANY theist managed to actually put up?

Why is the onus on an atheist to deal with unevidenced claims?

Quit with the sophistry, which is all theology is, let’s tie it to the real world. No words, EVIDENCE.

#13 steve oberski (Guest) on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 10:21am

There is no “discipline of atheology” just like there is no “discipline of not stamp collecting”.

Theology is just arguing over what colour the 6 foot invisible rabbit named Harvey is while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that there actually is no rabbit in the room.

It’s not dogmatic, close minded, unsophisticated, strident, fanatical etc to insist that we establish the existence of the rabbit before belabouring the colour of it’s putative fur.

#14 Ophelia Benson on Saturday September 25, 2010 at 5:30pm

“Why should non-fundamentalists band together with atheists, since few atheists are trying to understand liberal religion’s merits?”

Can’t we have a break from trying to understand liberal religion’s merits, just for awhile? Atheists have been doing that for decades, and what good has it done? It’s simply helped to entrench the idea that everybody has to “respect” religion and refrain from challenging its baseless claims about the world.

A further point is that most of liberal religion’s merits are secular. Community, solidarity, inspiration, and certainly morality can all be found outside religion, so religion doesn’t really deserve the credit for it.

#15 Robert Schneider on Monday September 27, 2010 at 7:20am

Right on, Ophelia.  This piece, while phrased differently, is no different than the huffpo fiasco.

Atheists need to be competent in theology “to adequately debate God.”

The problem with this… and the problem with the premise of your book… is that many of us have gone down the path of “debating theology” in elevators, school dorms, workplaces.  We have reached a point where it is clear that WE are always the ones stepping onto the religious believer’s home-turf by starting the discussion arguing the fine points of an a priori assertion that we disagree with.

The “right” approach at this point in history is for all of us atheists… old, New, borrowed or blue… to band together and say, “No, we will not play on your home-field any more.  There is neutral ground, called “secular society” in which you may not wield your trump card assumption of God’s existence before the discussion begins.” 

What is the “proper” way to debate theists?  Find SOME way to get them to accept a debate that begins with this assertion, “OK… all books are just books, written by humans.”  When we get that debate started, I’ll gladly join.  In the meantime, the whining that WE need to come back onto their turf or else risk looking “strident” or “arrogant” just doesn’t wash.

#16 Ben Finney (Guest) on Monday September 27, 2010 at 5:39pm

> Religious Liberal/Progressive do have merits.

I haven’t seen anyone deny that the *people* have merit. That doesn’t have any bearing on what merits the *religion* might have.

> They pretty much agree with us on absolutely everything except the ‘god’ part.

There are much more salient points on which they disagree with us.

We hold that faith is never a virtue. That there are good and bad reasons for believing a claim, and proclaimed authority or personal revelation are bad reasons.

We hold that it is of supreme importance whether a factual claim is true or not. That the emotional appeal or social usefulness of a claim is not an excuse if that claim has no basis in reality.

We hold that all ideas must be open to critical examination, even attack. That to identify oneself with an idea one holds, and to perceive attacks on that idea as an attack on one’s person, is a mistake.

These and many other non-negotiable positions of the reality-based community are at odds with the positions of religious people. The does-god-exist question is, I would say, of minor importance next to these disagreements.

There are many areas where moderate people can be our allies against fundamentalism, but it’s a mistake to think that this should be achieved by compromising integrity of valuing the truth and critical thought.

#17 EzraMeridian (Guest) on Tuesday September 28, 2010 at 9:12pm

Ben. I think that you are being short sighted. Sometimes we atheists over intellectualize the rationale of our position too much. Faith is not a virtue, but neither is atheism. We must judge people by their character, not their belief in a god. Frankly, I don’t care if people believe in fairies, ghosts, ufo’s etc. As long as that doesn’t inform their entire perception of reality.

#18 Ben Finney (Guest) on Wednesday September 29, 2010 at 2:39am


> Ben. I think that you are being short sighted.

I disagree. Now what?

> Faith is not a virtue, but neither is atheism. We must judge people by their character, not their belief in a god.

You say this as though you skipped exactly the same sentiment in my message. I repeat:

These and many other non-negotiable positions of the reality-based community are at odds with the positions of religious people. The does-god-exist question is, I would say, of minor importance next to these disagreements.

What is it in my message that you find to be short-sighted, and how so?

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