Culture, Religion

Fundamentalist Christians and Atheists: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

May 1, 2012
Atheism symbol

One thing that has sometimes bothered me about atheists is just how fundamentalist they can be. That’s not to excuse all the saints on the other side of the fence who are just as rigid. But to me, they often seem like two sides of the same coin.

There is a piece on NPR about a minister who recently lost her faith and subsequently converts to atheism. There was a bit of time where she would go about her duties as a minister, while inwardly, she had lost her Christian belief.

Here’s how she describes her conversion:

I just kind of realized—I mean just a eureka moment, not an epiphany, a eureka moment—I’m an atheist.

The article goes on to include that this realization “just felt right.”

I’ve talked to many religious folks who describe their conversion to Christianity in almost the exact way, except substituting the word “Christian” for “atheist.” This is not to take away from Teresa MacBain’s experience, but my point being that at least from that description, her decision seems to be very much subjective.

The article does note a few tangible issues that MacBain had with her previous faith, but they seem hardly substantive and informed. (One of her questions was: “Is there any evidence of God at all?”—that is a very speculative and subjective question to begin with.)

MacBain recorded herself one Sunday morning as she drove to church (she chronicled her journey via recorded messages on her phone):

Sometimes, I think to myself, If I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be much easier.

Not know the truth? Not know the truth? So now, she knows the truth?

Which brings me back to where I started. Most fundamental atheists are fully convinced that they know the truth, and that those on the other side are ignorant of it, and mentally or spiritually unable to see the error of their ways.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that what fundamentalist Christians have been saying about the ungodly for… thousands of years?

Niko Alm - Rastafarian

Random Atheist: Niko Alm (click picture for story)

I happen to think that there are brilliant scholars, scientist, philosophers, and (gasp) ordinary people on both sides of that fence. And at some point, every person has to trust that their own experience and logic will lead them down the right path. But is that enough?

All belief requires a measure of faith, and an ability to admit that you might be wrong. Otherwise, there can never be any room for growth, learning, and ultimately progressing (or evolving, if you prefer that word).

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  • Reply Christopher C. Randolph May 1, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Kind of…

    I mean, everyone should realize that they are definitely wrong about some things they hold to be true. But true faith is not subject to doubt since, by its nature, such faith is the total lack of doubt. It is steadfast knowledge.
    Atheism is an oxymoron. One cannot be opposed to something or some one who one thinks does not exist. The premise is ignorant at best.

    I am not saying that everyone who does not believe in Jesus is ignorant or stupid. I’m just saying that I don’t believe in atheists.

    • Reply Brennan McCracken May 1, 2012 at 1:19 am

      I disagree. While the exact definition of atheism is oft-debated, I do not find it to be ignorant. Atheists aren’t radically opposed to God, but rather opposed to the belief and concept of such deities (Something that, as proven by billions of religious people around the world, does ‘exist’, at least conceptually).

      • Reply Christopher C. Randolph May 1, 2012 at 1:30 am

        I don’t mean that I think atheists are ignorant necessarily just that the term is an ignorant one. Anti-theist may be better for many.

        There are many legitimate reasons to reject religion and even God. These have been orchestrated by numerous professed believers much to their shame.

        I still do not understand, however, how a person can oppose something that he or she does not believe in at some level.

    • Reply Brennan McCracken May 1, 2012 at 1:45 am

      I couldn’t reply to your other comment, so I’ll reply here:

      As I stated in my other comment, atheists aren’t opposed to God. We can’t be, because we don’t acknowledge the existence of deities.We can – and do – oppose, however, the *belie*f in God. I hope I have clearly illustrated the difference.

    • Reply Mario Munoz May 1, 2012 at 3:39 am

      “But true faith is not subject to doubt since, by its nature, such faith is the total lack of doubt.”

      This is a tough statement to digest. Faith being “evidence of things not seen” means that one has to, at some level, make a decision about what that evidence means. Faith being the “substance of things hoped for” means that it is rooted in a non-substantive “hope.”

      I’m not refuting your statement (or supporting it, per se). My point is that it’s pretty difficult to equate faith with “actual” steadfast knowledge… there seems to be a difference.

      • Reply Christopher C. Randolph May 1, 2012 at 4:00 am

        Biblically speaking, no there is not a difference. true faith does not say I’m pretty sure or I hope so, or even I think so. It says I know so in spite of the lack of evidence. There is no room for doubt. That is the point Paul is making. And that Jesus make when speaking to Thomas concerning his belief compared to those who have not seen.

        Good question

      • Reply Mario Munoz May 1, 2012 at 5:43 am

        But there is a difference between faith and reason (which is based on the tangible). Hence, faith is “needed” because there is no stopgap.

        A geometric postulate, for instance, cannot be proved, but is assumed to be true, because it just makes sense. (i.e., you can only draw one line between two points). Why do I believe that? Because the math book tells me?

        Something as “solid” as mathematics includes several different schools of thoughts, all dependent on how one chooses to view the subject. From platonism, to realism, to empiricism, to logicism, etc…

        Which is why if someone hasn’t already “bought into” the religious language contained within Christianity, it would be extremely difficult to have a “rational” conversation with someone on the other side.

        I still stand by my initial speculation one should be given enough room to grow, which is contained within the absurd space between faith and reason.

        Of course, I could be wrong!

      • Reply Raborn May 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm


        The things you speak of are true by definition. Or, they are things we define to be true. Points, triangles, geometry, it’s just how we define things; they don’t actually exist, they simply model reality or some abstraction thereof.

        I only say this to clear up a problem with your analogy.

    • Reply snakebyte42 May 25, 2012 at 4:16 pm

      Faith is belief in the absence of, or in contradiction to, evidence–It does not and has never referred to rational beliefs. I like to think that just about all of my beliefs do not contain that. I’ll say that I have faith that humanity will continue to advance, but that’s about it.

      An honest question for you. Do you think it’s wrong to be adamant about some beliefs and completely deny the possibility of being wrong… such as that two plus two equals for?

      • Reply myatheistlife May 25, 2012 at 4:40 pm

        Well, two plus two does not equal for

        It’s a Zen thing

      • Reply Christopher C. Randolph May 25, 2012 at 9:29 pm

        Christian faith rational. A faithful beliver who knows God can trust what God says and we have a trustworthy text to rely on as well. How is that less rational than trusting a text book and professor? My son’s middle school science book is different than the one I was taught from and his teacher is not the same as mine yet I trust his teacher and his text. Is it less rational to believe our Lord whom I’ve known far longer and His text which has not changed and has proven to be accurate throughout much time and many trials? I don’t think so. Lack of belief on another’s part does not equate to irrationality on mine.

        No it is not wrong to deny the possiblity of being wrong about something one is knows is true such as two plus two is four and the existence of God.

  • Reply Brennan McCracken May 1, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Interesting piece, however it could have done without the over-generalisation of atheism. In painting atheists in this fundamentalist light (which, yes, is true in some cases), you have completely isolated a large group of non-believers who are respectful of different faiths and beliefs.

    • Reply Mario Munoz May 1, 2012 at 3:34 am

      Thanks for the comment, Brennan. I do agree that this article does highlight only a certain type of atheist. Unfortunately, that happens to be the case on both sides. Fundamentalist Christians are often intolerant and spiteful, making most people think that all Christians are that way (same can be said of other faiths, e.g., Islam). My argument here illustrates that “some” atheists tend to give others a bad name. I did not mean to imply that all atheists are like this, but rather, that “this kind” of atheist bothers me (just as much as “this kind” of Christian).

    • Reply Raborn May 25, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      By fundamentalist for atheists, do you mean “acting similarly to fundamentalist christians” or “operating on the fundamentals of atheism” ?

  • Reply NotAScientist May 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    “One thing that has sometimes bothered me about atheists is just how fundamentalist they can be.”

    I don’t think you’re using the term ‘fundamentalist’ properly.

    Perhaps you mean ‘passionate’? Or ‘outspoken’? Or even ‘evangelical’?

    “All belief requires a measure of faith, and an ability to admit that you might be wrong. ”

    I completely disagree with the first half of this sentence, and agree with the second half.

    • Reply Mario Munoz May 1, 2012 at 8:32 pm

      I was indeed using the term “fundamentalist” quite loosely, merely to illustrate the correlation between fundamentalist christians and atheists who exhibit similar predilections. Ultimately, the word refers to the static or strict adherence to a certain belief, in which case, I think it applies to MacBain, at least how she is portrayed in the NPR article.

      Secondly, a commentary on “faith” alone would take me much more than just a few sentences but I’ll try.

      Even if you are an empiricist of the highest order, at some level, it becomes necessary to trust that your assertions are correct and true. Thus, observations from past and present become your avenue to truth. Now, has the truth been passed down to us by the forefathers of scientific thought? A truth that is ever evolving as our collective minds decipher and make conjecture about, say, humanity’s origins?

      So when I stated that all belief requires a “measure of faith,” my intent isn’t necessarily to throw Bertrand Russel out with the bathwater. It only means that since most of us aren’t scientist/philosophers, we do have to believe some things that we could never prove ourselves. And even “proving” something would require us to think that we ourselves are impervious to flaws in our thinking.

      • Reply Raborn May 25, 2012 at 4:45 pm

        But this “faith” as you call it is far removed from the “faith” religious people tend to claim to. I call it trust. i trust scientists to give us at least somewhat reliable information as a whole because I understand the basics of methodological naturalism. When religious people claim faith, they might SAY they mean trust, but this argument is untenable. I can demonstrate that my trust is well founded, religious people cannot; their trust is blind that is why it’s called faith. They can assert that their deity is reliable, when that is demonstrably not true in regards to many supposed gods.It is not simply trust, but trust plus a lack of evidence.

  • Reply Jenny May 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    My mom and I were having this argument recently about creationism vs. atheism and she stated that Science is to atheists as God is to Christians. I could not dissuade her that atheists do not worship nor need faith. It was very maddening to say the least. I felt like her world view was so reduced by her steadfast belief to the bible, she couldn’t even think about seeing it any other way.

  • Reply Jay May 1, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    What comes to mind after reading this article and the comments:

    1. Reason and faith both exist, although neither can be seen.
    2. The evidence of both reason and faith can be seen (by what people choose to do).
    3. The ability to make a decision and the power of choice are gifts that we can all use.
    4. To rely on reasoning or faith, is a choice.

    Some people choose to limit themselves to either one or the other, even though Jesus Himself calls all people both to have faith in Him, and to reason with Him. The main purpose of doing both is to have restored relationship with Him and with others. From what I understand, neither Atheists, who reject faith, nor Christians, who reject reason, are fully living the abundant life that Jesus promises for those who choose to trust Him. Both ways are limited, and one can make their own judgement about which group is better off.

    I understand that former life experiences play a huge role in what people do/don’t believe and how they choose to live. But I do not think it’s healthy to be limited by our past or even our current circumstances. Also, I’m not in everyone’s head and haven’t lived everyone’s life to understand their decisions & choices to reject either reasoning or faith…so that’s something quite difficult to judge.

    I’m just thankful that I live in a country where this freedom to choose one’s religious faith is fairly protected. Some are not so fortunate. Actually, many are not so fortunate!

  • Reply Richard Sanchez May 1, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    A very interesting cross-section of views here, everyone! Be sure to check out IHL writer Morpiedra Vasolez’s piece on Christianity — from the perspective of a non-believer:

  • Reply myatheistlife May 2, 2012 at 6:34 am

    “”(One of her questions was: “Is there any evidence of God at all?”—that is a very speculative and subjective question to begin with.)””

    No, it is not speculative. The first claim of a god was responded to with ‘what are you talking about… prove it’ so we can easily surmise that non-belief is NOT speculative, it is reactive. Every question we ask about the world or universe or ourselves IS subjective. This cannot be helped, that is simply how it is.

    • Reply Mario Munoz May 2, 2012 at 9:44 am

      Ah, I see the distinction.

      However, when one speaks of evidence, particularly from a “layman’s” perspective, isn’t one making some sort of speculation (i.e., whether there is a god or not) based on one’s own subjective thought? That is to say, one could easily arrive at a causal argument (First Cause) as to why the world exists, based on the evidence provided by nature. (And in this case, it could be said that non-belief is reactive to THAT summation.)

      But that’s not to say that every clock HAS TO HAVE a clockmaker of some sort–but most people aren’t well versed in ontology, or well acquainted with Hume, or appropriately able to conceptualize an infinite universe that continually throws itself up (so to speak).

      My point is that MacBain, as portrayed by the NPR article, was turned to atheism, not by the result of reasoning and empiricist evidence validated by whatever truth-standard she now holds dear, but rather by a series of questions that have little bearing on whether god exists or not in the first place.

      Is there any evidence of God at all? Well, subjectively, yes…. and no. So what?

      (One of the other questions in the article is: “Would a loving God torment people for eternity?” Really? That drives you to atheism? The article makes it seem like she turns to atheism as an emotional reaction towards something she doesn’t like or understands. In which case, seems like the same reason some people are attracted to religion.)

      • Reply myatheistlife May 3, 2012 at 12:35 am

        I think the point is that she had been indoctrinated to believe the ‘layman’s’ evidence for god and upon questioning it found that it’s not evidence at all. The realization that what you were trained to believe as evidence is not evidence at all is a shocker for most people. It’s not an emotion thing, it truly is realization of facts and lack of them regarding a topic you were indoctrinated with from a young age etc. She finally looked at what evidence has been offered and found it lacking. Atheism is what you become when you reject all the ‘evidence’ you have been shown for the existence of gods. Evidence is not like a favorite food. It does not become true for some people and false for others. For evidence to be true it has to be true for all people. It’s not subjective. It may seem that why if you are indoctrinated to believe that evidence is some other thing.

  • Reply Anonymous May 25, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Sorry, but this just illustrates the vast misunderstanding of what the word “atheist” means. This is basically a “it takes faith to be an atheist and to believe in science”, which is a pretty old and pathetic argument.

  • Reply The Power of Prometheus: Drawing Lines in the Sand « In Harsh Light June 19, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    […] like most discussions on belief, these topics tend to spiral out of control without much room for a middle ground. In this regard, […]

  • Reply Victor Teng July 29, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    I strongly agree that New Atheists and religious fundamentalists are just two sides of one coin. Both contemporary “New Atheists” and religious fundamentalists interpret religious texts literally, blame contemporary issues their version “whore of Babylon”, and unit their followers by building personal cults with common hatred against their enemies (which can make them New York Times best seller). They refuse to accept the complexity of issues, which don’t sell.

    Take the example of the infamous Israel-Palestine conflicts, when Christian Fundamentalists blames Islam and New Atheists blamed religion (more specifically, Christianity and Islam). They reject to see Israel-Palestine conflicts geographically, politically, historically, even socially

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