June 20, 2020

Are We "Secular Fundamentalists?"

God's politics

This may come as a surprise to some, but I enjoyed reading God's Politics : Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It back in 2006. Admittedly, it was a bit of a change of pace from the many books on atheism I was reading at the time. Not only was it written by a Christian, but it was written by a Christian who was calling for more faith in politics while opposing the co-opting of religion by either of the two primary political parties in the U.S. While I will admit that I found much of the pro-faith stuff rather sickening, I was determined to give the book a chance. This was not always easy, but I am glad I did so.

In the first few pages, I encountered the term "secular fundamentalists" in the context of right-wing Christian conservatives. This is a phrase most of you have heard conservative Christians use, as it seems to be one of their favorite boogeymen. In his book, Jim Wallis used this phrase to describe people (like me) who want to keep religion out of politics and public life. he made it clear that he feels strongly that faith deserves a central place in both politics and public life, and he seems to see us as occupying an equivalent place as the Christian fundamentalists, just on the opposite side of the continuum he imagines. That is, he envisions Christian fundamentalists on one side, "secular fundamentalists" on the other, and his preferred position as the far more desirable and reasonable position somewhere in between. His position, in case you are not familiar with Wallis, is often described as the "Christian left."

I probably don't need to tell you that I disagree with Wallis' characterization of "secular fundamentalists." I find the term to be little more than a meaningless distortion being used to push a religious and political agenda. It is not the polar opposite to Christian fundamentalism, and it cannot properly be considered a form of fundamentalism at all.

Fortunately, we don't have to make things up as we go because we already have a widely accepted definition of religious fundamentalism from which we can begin. As I have explained elsewhere, religious fundamentalism includes the following components:

  1. Biblical Inerrancy/Literalism
  2. Evangelism
  3. Premillennialism (expectation of second coming, rapture, etc.)
  4. Separatism/Sense of Persecution
Note: The research through which I identified these components included a number of Christian sources.

Are there analogs for any of these components in the secular community (so far as there even is a secular community)? There is no core secular doctrine, so #1 clearly does not apply. I also see no analog for #3. We are focused on this life because we recognize that it is the only life we have. The closest thing we might have to #2 are the efforts by some atheists to combat the negative image of atheists held by much of the public. Certainly, there are those among us who seek to foster the spread of atheism, but we are not trying to spread a doctrine (since we don't have one) as much as we are encouraging people to embrace reality and give up superstition. I do see an analog to #4 except that our sense of separation/persecution clearly rooted in reality. We are a hated minority; this is not a point of controversy. Of course, some of us also foster this sense of separation by continuing to criticize religion and distance ourselves from it.

The closest thing I can think of that might have some overlap with "secular fundamentalist" would be something like "atheist activist." By this, I mean an atheist who takes an activist stance about his/her atheism specifically and not merely about protecting the separation of church and state. The key difference here is that the necessary components of fundamentalism are absent. Whatever else an atheist activist might be, "fundamentalist" does not seem to apply.

This leaves me to conclude that Wallis is wrong and there is no such thing as a "secular fundamentalist." If we wants to make the case that some atheists are irrational, hold strong and often inflexible views, or behave in counterproductive ways, he'd be better off doing so. I wouldn't be able to disagree with that sort of argument. But "fundamentalism" means something more than just being irrational at times, holding strong and inflexible views, or behaving in counterproductive ways. Atheists can be all of these things (as can the Christian left), but this doesn't make us fundamentalists of any variety.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised and expanded in 2020.