A tirade was published last month by Al Stefanelli, the Georgia State Director of American Atheists, Inc, entitled Taking the Gloves Off.
In it, Al starts with this…shall we say “provocative”…statement:
It should come as no surprise that the individuals who abide by fundamentalist Christian and radical Islamic doctrines would be the first to cry out that they are being persecuted when their dangerous, damaging and disingenuous beliefs come under attack. Most of these people lack the maturity and intelligence to act in a socially acceptable manner. Many of them are sociopaths and quite a good number of them are psychopaths. All of them are clearly delusional.
Naturally, when I read this, I assumed it was a parody. Here’s someone who likes to poke a little fun at New Atheists by writing a piece that almost could describe their position if it weren’t so extreme. But it’s just a bit too absurd. Obviously an attempt at humor. You know, like Landover Baptist.
Turns out…not so much. Apparently Al is serious. And a lot of appreciative comments indicate he’s not the only one. Which is a bit sad for New Atheism, since if your position is indistinguishable from a parody of itself, then you’ve got a problem.
Al spends another 800+ words saying things like: “bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny” are “part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam”. That the “fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims are not interested in coexisting or getting along … They do not want to sit down with us in diplomatic efforts to iron out our differences and come to an agreement on developing an integrated society. They want us to die” (emphasis mine).
Of course, this is all true of radical Islam. No argument there. But really, for fundamental Christians, does Al really think that “their interpretation of the Bible … are such that there is no other course of action but to kill the infidel”?
What exactly does Al think fundamental Christianity is?
To my understanding, a fundamental Christian is someone who believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Christian fundamentalism arose as a response to liberal theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, precisely in defense of the doctrine of inerrancy. It exists because Christians then, as now, believe the Bible’s original manuscripts were free of error, having been “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16).
According to a Wikipedia article on Christian Fundamentalism—which I have no reason to question, but if you think Wikipedia is everything wrong with the world, feel free to add your own sources in the comments—the term “fundamentalism” was coined by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws in 1920 to designate Christians who were ready “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals”, namely the foundational doctrines of the Bible which were being eroded by liberal theology.
Thus, “fundamentalist Christian doctrines” are the doctrines that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that Jesus is of the same substance with the Father, that he was crucified and died, then raised again on the third day, etc. These are the doctrines that Al is speaking of—whether he knows it or not—when he says that they are part and parcel with bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny—and that people who believe them lack the maturity and intelligence to act in a socially acceptable manner, that many are sociopaths or psychopaths, and all clearly delusional.
True: Christian Fundamentalism has gotten a bad rap lately. The sorts of Christians who self-identify as fundamentalists are typically poorly trained in theology or apologetics. They are insular and simplistic in their understanding of both Christianity and other religions (including atheism).
And unsurprisingly, they sometimes hold to views that other Christians, such as myself, find at least unsophisticated, if not downright foolish. For example, I believe it’s fair to say that the characterization of Christians as teetotalers can be traced to fundamentalists. Whereas I personally try to be at least half cut every time I get behind the keyboard.
What you will not find in fundamental Christianity, however, is the view that non-believers of any stripe are to be put to the sword. You will not find sanctioned slavery. Nor the stoning of rape victims, as Al mentions in his article (he describes “fundamental Christians” and “radical Muslims” in the same breath, attributing the same objectionable practices to both groups without distinction). Nor will you find terrorism being taught as a biblical solution to ungodliness.
Westboro & Abortion Clinic Bombers
But the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated. As long as they are allowed to exist, we will continue to be inundated with accounts of buses, buildings, markets and abortion clinics being blown up, rape victims being murdered for adultery, wives being beaten (sometimes to death), airplanes being flown into buildings, people being tortured and sometimes beheaded for blasphemy, people being burned for witchcraft and sorcery and all the other horrific, inhumane and insane practices that are part of fundamental Christianity and Radical Islam.
I’m not aware of any buses being blown up by fundamentalist Christians. Nor buildings in general, nor markets nor planes. Neither do I know of any examples of fundamentalist Christians beating their wives to death (in the name of Christianity at least), torturing and beheading people for blasphemy, or burning anyone for witchcraft in recent history (and as regards less recent history, it only needs to be pointed out that burnings were a cultural, not religious, phenomenon).
In fact, the only thing that can actually be attributed to fundamentalist Christians on Al’s list of atrocities is the bombing of abortion clinics. Everything else is either anachronistic or the sole responsibility of Muslims—who I am hardly going to defend.
So, abortion clinics. Two obvious things need to be pointed out here:
Firstly, a lot of people who have done nasty things have claimed to be Christian. But by the same token, a lot of people who have claimed to be atheists have done nasty things. Stalin and Mao are fine and oft-cited examples. So if Al is going to take the approach that any belief system must, must, must be eradicated in the event that some nutjob uses it as a pretext for actions he finds objectionable, then the first thing he ought to do is shut down his own website.
Secondly, there is an obvious distinction between some isolated and infrequent acts of violence (in the modern day) by people claiming to be Christian, and the continuous, systematic, frequent pattern of violence found in Islamic responses to pretty much anything that offends them. Islam is undoubtedly a religion of violence—one only needs to read the Koran. The Bible, on the other hand, contains absolutely no general commands to engage in physical warfare against non-Christians, and indeed contains several examples of commands or principles to the opposite effect. And since I’m sure some atheist smart-ass will pipe up with Old Testament examples of Israel’s conquests, note how I said general commands. If atheists think the commands to Israel are general, and apply to Christians today, then they will need to explain why by exegeting the relevant passages.
Of course, it goes without saying that even if atheists think this, fundamentalist Christians do not—so the entire thrust of Al’s point is refuted by this mere observation. It is simply absurd.
Al will probably respond by saying that he is not talking about “mainstream” fundamentalist Christians, but rather about the extreme ones. But that isn’t what he said. “Fundamental Christianity” is a defined group, with defined doctrines and practices. Atheists can’t just co-opt the word to mean whatever they want it to mean. And such a response also begs the question as to whether these extremists are really Christians in the first place. It’s hardly clear that one can be a Christian and deny fundamental Christian truths like those expressed in 2 Corinthians 10:3–5. Indeed, that would, by definition, preclude you from being a fundamentalist Christian!
It’s also unclear why he even bothers to mention such an incredibly small group at all. Why not focus on Islam? And why mention fundamental Christians before radical Muslims every time—as if they were the greater problem, the greater priority?
Overall, Al’s piece is saturated with unintentional irony. Quite aside from its rank smear tactics and illicit comparison of fundamental Christianity to radical Islam, it reads like a fundamentalist manifesto. Is this what the response of pioneers of reason looks like? The champions of rationality? Looks more like something shrill fundamentalists would write.
But hey, that’s what all the cool atheists are doing these days.
Update, October 12, 2011: Wintery Knight has published an excellent complementary article in response to Al, documenting how and why militant atheism leads to persecution (particularly of Christians) on a far wider and more extreme scale than even Islam does.