If there is one thing Christian fundamentalists are good at doing, it is dismissing expert opinion. Of course, we all know that experts can be wrong. However, it is no small thing to reject a field of experts, and thus one would expect solid grounds to do so. Frequently, however, Christian fundamentalists are disturbingly cavalier in their ability to do so. One thinks, for example, of the way that expert scientific opinion is set aside when it comes to matters like the age of the earth, the common descent of living organisms, and human induced climate change.
With this in mind, it is no small irony that one frequently finds the same facile penchant to dismiss expert opinion among the most vocal (and acerbic) critics of Christian fundamentalists: I speak here of their perfect complement, the atheistic fundamentalist.
Take Richard Dawkins, for example. In response to the broad criticism of The God Delusion from theologians and philosophers of religion, Dawkins responded in the second edition of the book (Boston: Mariner, 2008) by rejecting the entire fields of discourse in which these experts work: “The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned.” (37) Dawkins goes on to suggest that “theology” (a term which he seems to equate with “religion”) is equivalent to “fairyology” by saying that a “clergy-man presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed ‘fairyology’ on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings.” (37)
Rejecting the Field
It is quite common these days to find atheists rejecting entire fields of discourse like systematic theology and philosophy of religion — or, as in Dawkins’ case, the impossibly broad category of “religion” — with the same cavalier dismissal. Consider this tweet I received a few days ago in response to my upcoming debate on God’s existence with Justin Schieber:The comment is nonsensical, of course. (There is no particular difficulty in having a rational discussion on a non-existent entity. Nor, for that matter, is it particularly difficult to have a rational discussion about an entity whose existence is disputed. Folks have those debates all the time.) While the quip itself may be nothing more than empty rhetoric, it has a serious purpose: the delegitimation of a field of discourse (philosophy of religion).
Rejecting the Experts
While DodeMacD may be anxious to be done with theology and philosophy of religion, other atheist fundamentalists are interested in the conversation. Indeed, they would like to view themselves as authorities on the field.
This gives rise to a second manifestation of atheistic fundamentalism: tout one’s lack of formal training in the field in question as a credential. How many self-described atheists/skeptics/humanists (etc) devote hours online to touting their expertise in matters of theology and philosophy of religion without ever having taken even a single undergraduate course in these fields? What is more, they wear their lack of formal education as a badge of honor … just like the Christian fundamentalist.
Consider as an example the way atheistic fundamentalists blithely dismiss the results of biblical scholarship. Christians often point to the majority opinion of experts on particular facts about the resurrection of Jesus (e.g. the post-resurrection appearances and empty tomb). Indeed, Gary Habermas undertook a magisterial survey of thirty years of academic publishing to drive the point home. (See here)
But none of this matters to the atheistic fundamentalist. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard atheists cavalierly dismiss majority opinion on topics like the historicity of the empty tomb with a quip like “Well, they are Bible scholars, right? So they believe the Bible.” (Needless to say, comments like this betray a staggering degree of ignorance about the religious climate among scholars of religion. Biblical studies hasn’t been dominated by piety since the mid-nineteenth century.)
Dismissive quips like that are then often followed up with some fanciful reconstruction of Christian origins that has been widely touted by some figure outside of (and thus untainted by) the academy who is enthusiastically embraced because he argues some fringe thesis, such as that Jesus never existed. The parallels with the Christian fundamentalist who rejects evolution in favor of the theory of a fringe young earth creationist are striking.
To make matters worse, these wanna-be skeptics are not even consistent in their rejection of the field, for the minute the experts express an opinion that aligns with their beliefs, they enthusiastically embrace it. For example, if a consensus of biblical scholars question the historicity of the Exodus then this fact is accepted. Talk about selection bias.
The Genesis of the Problem
I devote chapter 5 of You’re not as Crazy as I Think to addressing this problem. The chapter is appropriately titled “Those I Disagree with Are Probably Not Ignorant, Idiotic, Insane, or Immoral.” In the chapter I point out how fundamentalists (Christian, atheist, and otherwise) tend to justify their sweeping dismissal of expert opinion by imputing immoral character or sweeping incompetence to the field.
This move enables the Christian fundamentalist to reject scientific opinion by saying “Scientists ain’t gonna make a monkey out of me!” and it enables the atheistic fundamentalist to reject philosophical, theological or historical opinion by saying “Fairyology!”