Saturday, March 31, 2007

Intolerance, Militancy, Fundamentalism, and Trying to Eradicate Religion

I am afraid that I feel compelled to interrupt "beyond belief 2006" weekend to address an Associated Press article that Atheists are Split over their Message, which is getting very wide distribution.

There are so many things wrong with this article that need clarification.

It starts with the opening paragraph:

BOSTON (AP) - Atheists are under attack these days for being too militant, for not just disbelieving in religious faith but for trying to eradicate it. And who's leveling these accusations? Other atheists, it turns out.

It sounds as if atheists are planning some sort of Holocaust, with theists as the victims.

Yet, in fact, atheists are only 'trying to eradicate' religious beliefs in the same sense that 16th and 17th century scholars were busy 'trying to eradicate' the idea that the earth is the center of the solar system, and in the same way that psychiatrists have 'tried to eradicate' the demonic possession theory of mental illness. The above paragraph is true in the same way that every author of an article that appears in a peer reviewed journal is 'trying to eradicate' alternative possible explanations for the same data.

It is pure nonsense to use the phrase 'trying to eradicate' in this context, when it really means nothing other than 'trying to convince people that alternative views do not correspond to reality'.

Indeed, I can hear Sam Harris's voice in my mind telling an audience, "If you disagree with what I write, I will muster the evidence and try to show you how the evidence supports my position. I will not try to defend myself by accusing you of 'trying to eradicate' my beliefs."

Yet, if we accept this new definition of 'trying to eradicate', then that is precisely what the critics of Harris and Dawkins are trying to do - 'trying to eradicate' what these critics call 'militant atheism'.

'Militant atheism'. Just like 'trying to eradicate', people who use this term are more interested in promoting irrational fear and hatred than in having an intelligent discussion on the issues. This term is used precisely because it frightens readers and listeners, warning them to stay away from (even, to hate and despise) the speaker's targets.

I had written about this topic earlier, in "Militant Atheists". There, I wrote about the blatant absurdity of calling a person who files a court brief telling the courts to enforce the Constitution, or writes a book deploring violence and seeking to target the causes of untold death and destruction, a representative of some sort of militancy.

As I said, these terms are used because of their capacity to generate fear and hatred, not because they accurately describe some component of the real world.

Here's a paragraph with a couple more propaganda terms.

Epstein calls them `atheist fundamentalists.' He sees them as rigid in their dogma, and as intolerant as some of the faith leaders with whom atheists share the most obvious differences.


Fine. Do you want tolerance? Then, sure, let's tolerate the hijacking of airplanes and flying them into sky scrapers. Let's tolerate suicide bombers.

Tolerance has to end somewhere.

I argue that it ends the moment that somebody picks up a weapon.

I also argue that legislation is the most destructive weapon of mass destruction around. Yet, to preserve the peace, in an open society, it is still not appropriate to use physical violence in the face of a political dispute.

'Tolerating' laws that enforce and reinforce bigotry and hatred, that unjustly denigrate whole segments of the population, that deny people the benefits of medical care, that lie to children about sex and contraception, and the like simply means refusing to take up arms - as long as people have the liberty to take up pens and keyboards instead.

Using the term 'intolerance' for something less - for arguing for a better way of doing things in a public (nonviolent) forum, is an abuse of the word 'intolerance'.

Imagine that you are laying in a hospital, and you feel like you are going to die. There are two doctors standing over you.

octor 1: "I believe that the problem is focused on your gall bladder. We are going to have to remove it."

Doctor 2: "No! The evidence clearly shows that this condition is caused by a bacteria. We should start the patient on antibiotics"

Doctor 1: "I do not see why you militant bacterialists simply refuse to tolerate the opinions of us defective organists. We have as much of a right to our opinion as you do. We have a sick patient here. We should learn to tolerate each other's beliefs and work together."

As soon as I heard Doctor 1 make that statement, I'm firing him as my doctor. Clearly, he does not understand what medicine is about and that treating a patient involves finding the best treatment based on the available evidence.

I simply do not want my doctors arguing in terms of 'tolerating' conflicting medical opinions that are not based on the evidence. I want them arguing in terms of body temperature, white blood cell count, X-rays, MRIs, glycerin levels, location and type of pain, and those types of claims.

The terms 'tolerance' and 'intolerance' only enter the picture when one of them turns violence. It is the violent person who becomes 'intolerant' in any morally meaningful sense. As long as the debate is in terms of words and not guns and explosives, the term 'intolerance' has no place.

I have written about this before, in "Speaking vs. Acting" where I make the point, and I made the point that criticism is not intolerance.

In fact, I have been thinking about making T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan on it.

Criticism Is NOT Intollerance

It is not an act of intolerance to tell somebody that they are mistaken. If it were, than every teacher in every school who ever gave a student something other than a perfect grade is guilty of intolerance. Because she certainly is not respecting the student's belief when she counts the statement "12 * 24 = 188" wrong.

Then there is the phrase 'atheist fundamentalists'.

Others have written on this topic. Here, the challenge is, "Please, please show me what the atheist is being 'fundamentalist' about? Where is the atheist bible that the atheist interprets literally? What are the doctrines that the atheist refuses to give up in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Show me, please, this list of 'fundamentals' for atheism."

So why use this term?

Again, it is not because the speaker has any interest in representing the real world. The speaker's purpose is propaganda. The speaker's purpose is to misrepresent the facts for the purpose of gaining a political upper hand.

People who read my blog know that I have a serious issue with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. However, my problem has absolutely nothing to do with 'trying to eradicate' religion, 'militant atheism', 'atheist fundamentalism', or 'intolerance'.

My objection is that they both violate the moral principle of personal responsibility. I argue that justice demands holding people reasonable only for their own actions, and that it is unjust to condemn one person because of somebody else's evil act. Dawkins and Harris speak in places as if one theist's evil actions is a stain on all theists - a position that I reject as strongly as the view that all atheists may be morally judged based on the actions of Stalin.

See, "The Hitler and Stalin Cliché" and "My Basic Problem with Dawkins and Harris".

I call this type of behavior bigotry. It involves branding a whole group of people based on the wrongful acts of some of its members - which I take to be the very essence of bigotry. I do not soft-peddle my criticism when it is aimed at other atheists. Wrong is wrong.

Yet, this error comes nowhere near the 'fault' of 'trying to eradicate' religion, 'militant atheism', 'atheist fundamentalism', or 'intolerance'. None of these terms apply to what Dawkins and Harris are trying to do.

They do not apply to anybody, as far as I know.

I suspect that there are militant atheists out there who have not yet acted on an urge to react violently to religion, who are 'intolerant' in the morally meaningful sense, are 'militant' in that they are willing to use arms, and would in fact be more than happy to 'try to eradicate' religion. Those people deserve our condemnation (as I argued in "The Atheist Terrorist".)

However, I just don't see evidence of such people in the writings of Dawkins and Harris. Equating their writings with such people by using the terms 'intolerant', 'militant' and 'trying to eradicate' religion is pure political demagoguery - an attempt to obscure reality for the purpose of political gain.


Anonymous said...

Militant atheists. Those are the guys hijacking planes so they can crash them into churches, right?

The media is so attached to the idea that they have to pretend both sides of a dispute are equal, even when they clearly aren't, that it forces them into this kind of absurd position: equating uncompromising speakers like Dawkins not with uncompromising speakers like Dobson, but with actual violent thugs like al Qaeda. Because otherwise they would have to admit that atheism doesn't *have* any violent thugs killing people for the glory of no god.

There's a big difference between verbal criticism, however harsh, and militancy. The AP ought not sweep it under the rug.

Greg Epstein said...

Nice blog. Thanks for the discussion, even for the criticism. I agree that a lot of the language was sensationalized in this piece, for example see the most recent entry at where I talk about never having actually called Dawkins and Harris "atheist fundamentalists." But I do want to see the national and international story shift, now that Richard and Sam have helped us get some needed momentum going, to be more about the positive aspects of Humanism-- that it can and must be diverse, inclusive, and inspiring-- and how we can work together with those who do not now and may never share our views on religion and theism, to nonetheless build a better world for all people.

Thanks again!

Greg M. Epstein
Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University

Anonymous said...

Hi Atheist Ethicist, another great blog entry! I'm for just about everything you've said, with one possible exception: what are your thoughts on the "Rational" Response Squad ( While certainly it can be argued that they are simply "stunt activist punks" who have not YET picked up a weapon to destroy the "mental disorder" known as theism, I remain concerned about the intensity of their philosophy and activities. Would love to hear your POV on this.

Anonymous said...

P.S. The article you mention, "Atheists Split Over Message"? There's a typo in the link. It should read "guardian" not "aguardian."

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The media's job is to provide a tool for linking eyeballs to advertisements. Since, in America, the vast majority of those eyeballs are Christian, and because they have a strong anti-atheist bias, and because people tend to turn their eyes away from things that they do not like, we can expect to see a strong correlation between success in media and pro-Christian/anti-atheist sentiments. Christians have decided to accept Jews and Muslims, so this appeal to Christian eyeballs can speak in neutral terms of these religions. However, the public attitude prevents them from doing anything but reflect the strong American anti-atheist sentiment.

As I wrote in Atheist Evangelism and Political Strategy, captivating entertainment requires a good villain. Atheists do not get to choose who their spokesmen are. That will be determined by the media, paying strict attention to the "eyeballs to ads" bottom line.

Some argue that Harris and Dawkins (and the Rational Response SQuad) should change their tone. However, I do not think that this will do any good. They have a role to play in the media quest for eyeballs. If they refuse to play this part any more, then the media will find somebody who will. Failure to do so will cost them too many eyeballs.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You can see some of my views on cooperation with theists in Michael Shermer: The Art of Political Compromise and Evangelicals against Global Warming.

Basically, they state that in a political system such as ours, succcess requires forming an alliance among the best 51% against the worst 49%. Because forming an alliance among he best 49% against the worst 51% simply results in giving power to the worst 51%.

Still, the national story is simply not going to shift to "the positive aspects of Humanism."

Note what I said above about the media's need to draw eyeballs to advertisements. Nobody is interested in "The positive aspects of humanism." Making that 'the story' simply means that the eyeballs are going to go somewhere else.

For example, it would be absurd to argue that the Holocaust happened because of a failure on the part of Jews to speak about the positive aspects of Judeism. It is just as easy to see the absurdity of Africans and Native Americans saying in the years befor 1860, "What we need to do is to speak more about the positive aspects of our culture."

Bigots simply ignore these claims. That's what bigotry does - it closes the mind to evidence. Heck, if these people can ignore the evidence for evolution, what makes you think you can get them to pay attention to evidence for moral atheists?

I would hold that the focus needs to be on the worst 49%. Who are they? What do they believe? Who are they harming? Success comes from uniting the victims of the worst 49% - the people who will be robbed of life, health, liberty, and quality of life by the worst 49% - in a campaign against them.

On this model, in America, one of the things we can say about the best 51% is that a majority of them will be Christian.

That's the objective real-world fact of the matter.

Plan accordingly.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In a blog entry called, Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse I wrote about some of the claims made by the Rational Response Squad, and addressed the ethics of The Blasphemy Challenge specifically in a blog entry by that name.

In short, I consider The Blasphemy Challenge itself to have merit, though some of the claims made by the Rational Response Squad to be wrong.

bpabbott said...


Another great post! However, I caught a particularly unfortunate typo

"Criticism Is NOT Intollerance"

It should read Intolerance ;-)

Hope I don't sound too critical or intolerant ;-)