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fundamentalism being and doing

So the term “atheist fundamentalist” followed Richard Dawkins around for a while, and even surfaced in an AlterNet interview with Dawkins himself nearly four years ago:

TM: People finally say, “What’s it to you? Why not be an atheist if that’s what works for you, and leave the rest of us to be as religious as we wish?” This, I believe, is offered as a challenge to your open-mindedness or your respect for others. You’re being called “an atheist fundamentalist.”

RD: “Fundamentalist” usually means, “goes by the book.” And so, a religious fundamentalist goes back to the fundamentals of The Bible or The Koran and says, “nothing can change.” Of course, that’s not the case with any scientist, and certainly not with me. So, I’m not a fundamentalist in that sense. [link]

Dawkins doesn’t discuss other senses in which one could be a fundamentalist; interviewer Terrence McNally doesn’t delve. And it’s a shame, because I think it’s reasonable if not helpful to call Dawkins a fundamentalist of a type, but not in the sense he describes. It’s not helpful because it’s such an emotional accusation, creates a false equivalence between two positions that really aren’t all that similar, etc. On the other hand, a formulation of fundamentalism Dawkins offers is pretty helpful: a fundamentalist takes a doctrinal position as fundamental and says everything else needs to find its place relative to that fixed point. I have to point out, though, that that’s not what people mean when they call Dawkins a fundamentalist; they mean that he’s insisting on setting the terms of the discussion.

Which brings me to a recent section of an episode of The Dividing Line [link, mp3 (see about 21:00-36:00)] where James White responds to Jackie Alnor, who has taken him to task (if I understand correctly) for engaging in debates that are too academic or deal with points that are too obscure, or something like that. It is fair to call White a fundamentalist in a sense since he holds to the “five essentials” [link], which was the original formulation of what it meant to be a fundamentalist. The same could be said of Alnor. But White takes Alnor (and by matter of course, tract-maker Jack Chick) to task for arguing poorly, resorting to

  • Shallow argumentation
  • Lack of fidelity to the truth
  • Inaccurate presentation of what one’s opponent or target says
  • Sensationalism
  • Intentionally dealing in half-truths

These points aren’t entirely distinct from one another, but they’re fine as far as they go. I think I would argue that when people talk about Dawkins being a fundamentalist (or White distinguishing himself from e.g. Alnor or Chick as being something other than a fundamentalist) this is what they’re talking about: a tendency on the part of fundamentalists to deal in caricatures, etc. and not fight fair. Or to behave like a fundamentalist more than actually be a fundamentalist.

There seem to be at least three flavors of this kind of argumentation:

  • “Your tradition or point of view is monolithic; my tradition or point of view is a vast diverse mosaic”
  • “You only disagree with me because you are ignorant; if you’d read enough (of X, for instance) you’d agree with me”
  • “Your position/tradition isn’t worth knowing”

Dawkins tends to indulge in this last flavor when he says there’s no point in knowing the arguments of historical theology, etc. And it sounds to me like Alnor is doing the same here in the clip White cites.

For the record, it seems to me like James White puts too much stock in what a debate does (or can do), but that’s another topic for another day. I tend to think that for whatever reason he’s of a transitional tribe of people who think less fundamentalist than many of their peers but more so than they realize. I’m not sure it’s possible to be presuppositionalist without being fundamentalist to some degree.

Update: I swear I hadn’t heard the 11/24 episode of The Dividing Line [link] when I wrote the above, and I had no idea White was about to hold forth on Dawkins. Please listen to White’s description of Dawkins in religious terms; I’ll restate what I said above: I don’t think this is helpful. Dawkins is a jerk, etc. but I’m not sure White gets anywhere with his analysis.


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