Confessions of a reformed fundamentalist

Note: As a way of kicking off my new Znet blog, I’m reposting some old entries from my wordpress blog. You can view the original entry here.

I used to be a fundamentalist.

No really.

I used to be a fundamentalist atheist. I’d like to describe why I no longer am.

First, a bit of personal history. Neither of my parents are religious, so I never had the misfortune of a belief in god at a young and impressionable age (although I went to a C of E school for a while and was apparently not entirely atheist for a time). As I became older and more rational, I became increasingly annoyed at people who were religious because it seemed clear to me that there was no evidence for god, and certainly not the very specific god of religious texts like the bible. I became convinced that they couldn’t be generally capable of rational thought if they believed in it. I would describe this stage of my life as fundamentalist atheist. Richard Dawkins is probably the most well known example of someone in this stage. (And yes, my using the word stage is a conscious rhetorical trick for suggesting that his development has been retarded at an early stage.)

At university and subsequently, I became acquainted with religious people who clearly were capable of rational thought at quite a sophisticated level. I also realised that you could be right wing and capable of reason, which perhaps came as even more of a shock to me. Although to this day, I honestly can’t say I understand the mind of a rational person who is religious, the evidence suggested I had to revise my position (reluctantly though).

More recently, another reason has become more important. Anti-religious feeling has begun to be associated with specifically anti-muslim feeling, which is in turn tinged with a strong element of racism. The pope recently expressed the sentiment that islam is “evil and inhuman”. You’d expect the pope to think this – after all, islam is the competition – but many atheist or slightly christian people (you know, the ones who come up with cop out crap like “I believe there’s probably something”), who probably like to imagine that they’re not racists, think the same thing. It is of course possible to be anti-religious in a non-racist way, but I believe this to be much rarer.

I also realised that it is equally possible to be a liberal theist or a bigoted atheist, and I realised that I much prefer the former. In fact, whether someone believes in god or not is wholly irrelevant to how they behave in society. What is important is how they relate to other people. A recent study showed that muslim children at two schools in Blackburn were more tolerant than ‘white’ children. This is related to another point. Atheists can be manipulated by nonsense beliefs just as much as theists can. They can be motivated by racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, etc. Many of these have quite close parallels with religious forms of intolerance. As I argued in an earlier manifesto entry, focusing on religion and ignoring all these other forms of intolerance makes us miss some very important points.

I do think that ultimately, if rationality is to triumph then religion has to die out. I have some reservations about this based on my lack of personal knowledge or experience of religious sensations, but to be honest I don’t have many reservations about it. I don’t even think the concept of god is epistemologically meaningful. But this really is about the ultimate triumph of rationality, an event so far from the present as to be hardly worth speculating about. This fight is not the important one. The important fight is for rationality and compassion in the political domain, for freedom and tolerance.

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