Is There Such a Thing As Atheist Extremism?

Atheist Badge: The design of the A-le...
Atheist Badge: The design of the A-letter originates from the outcampaign.org - "Scarlet A" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before the mainstream news media decided that atheism was worth examining and begin to report on a so-called "new atheism," atheist bloggers were discussing issues of strategy and tone. This discussion has intensified, becoming one of the hot topics within around the growing atheist blogosphere and beyond. How aggressive should atheists be in opposing religion? If we become too aggressive, don't we run the risk of becoming too much like the religious fundamentalists we oppose? In this post, I will examine the possibility of "atheist extremism" and how we might recognize it if it were to appear.

I am going to start with the premise that is is at least possible for atheists to become too assertive/aggressive/militant/extreme in their views and/or behavior. If you disagree with this at the outset, I ask only that you try to suspend judgment until the end of the post. What might atheism extremism look like, and what are we to call such an atheist?

Fundamentalist or Militant Atheism

The first term with which we can easily dispense is that of "fundamentalist atheist." It is quite clear to me that there can be no such thing as atheist fundamentalism, and I will refer you to my previous post on this issue. In a nutshell, religious fundamentalism is about adherence to a particular doctrine. Atheism has no doctrine, as it reflects nothing more than the lack of god belief. Thus, there can be no fundamentalist atheism.

"Militant atheism" is probably the second most popular term used to describe over-the-top atheists. Is it any more viable than "fundamentalist atheism?" It initially appears so, but there are at least two problems with this label. First, militancy is virtually always used to describe a pattern of behavior rather than a viewpoint. Thus, "militant Christian" or "militant Muslim" conjures the image of someone who engages in militant acts and not just someone with strong beliefs. Second, "militant" implies violence. This hardly fits any group of American atheists I've encountered.

Atheist Extremism

I suggest that "atheist extremism" is the term we have been seeking. It carries no requirement of adherence to a particular doctrine, and it does not imply violence. But what does it mean, and what would an atheist extremist look like?

The atheist extremist would hold views which would be considered extreme by most members of the atheist community. Like any other type of extremist, an atheist extremist would be irrational. This irrationality would be manifest through cognitive errors such as (and not limited to) the following:

  • Overgeneralization - Drawing grand conclusions based on isolated examples (e.g., "Because one Christian does something bad, all Christians are bad.").
  • Dichotomous Thinking - Framing the world in terms of absolutes without acknowledging meaningful gradations (e.g., "Atheists are smart; religious believers are stupid.").
  • Disqualifying the Positive - Rejecting positive experiences as somehow not counting in order to preserve one's negative view of some group (e.g., "Christians may give a lot to charity but only to promote their agenda of brainwashing.").

Through irrationality, the atheist extremist would maintain his or her position by selectively focusing on supportive evidence while ignoring or explaining away contradictory evidence. Attempts to question his or her worldview would be experienced as personal attacks and would solidify extreme positions. Such an individual would form an intense emotional attachment to his or her viewpoint, overriding that justified by evidence and reason.

I have not encountered many atheists like this, but I have come across a few. I don't believe they are common, but I do believe they exist. Like extremists of other brands, they have largely stopped thinking and exist simply to argue a viewpoint they may no longer be able to articulate.

Note that what I have described here bears little resemblance to Harris, Dawkins, or any of the other prominent "new atheists" who are often accused of being too extreme. These prominent authors to express controversial opinions, but they are opinions with which the vast majority of atheists agree and opinions which are supported by reason and evidence.