Secular Fundamentalists: There is no such thing...and the AAI conference doesn’t make atheism a movement, either.

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One of the methods used by the religious to marginalize atheists and our increasing visibility is to accuse us of becoming that which we originally opposed, or in other words, just like them. It’s even better if they have the convenience of one experience with these so-called “secular fundamentalists” from which they can draw unfounded conclusions as to the validity of this argument and, ultimately, the character of all those who have no belief in gods, goddesses, or other mythical creatures.

This is the route taken by Michael Brendan Dougherty in the November issue of The American Conservative. His article, entitled “Secular Fundamentalists: Can atheists form a movement around shared disbelief”, uses this year’s Atheist Alliance International convention as fodder for his clumsy attempt to represent atheism as a new phenomenon comprised of the dogmatically anti-religious.

The title alone is an oxymoron—would Mr. Dougherty mind explaining the fundamentals of secularism before he starts labeling us as adherents to them? He tries to use Sam Harris’ speech about the word “atheist” and the subsequent reaction as proof of this claim, pointing out the discomfort of the audience during his speech. He goes on to assume that Sam Harris would prefer that there be no AAI conference next year, which is only true in one scenario—that in which religion is no longer a menace to society and has been effectively stripped of its power.

Of course, according to Mr. Dougherty, the only reason we get together is to tell jokes about pedophile priests and fight the morality imposed upon us by the “prudes and prigs” who surround us, it is really unnecessary since all of this can be done online anyway. As a matter of fact, most of the conference attendees or those with whom I have spoken regarding Harris’ speech, which was reprinted in The Washington Post, were pleased to see a dissenting position presented, even if some may have disagreed with that position. This is an example of the very thing that makes atheism different from religion; we’re allowed to ask questions and present our differences of opinion. There’s no excommunication from atheism. Apparently, he hung around for the Q&A, but failed to mention that in my question to Sam, I stated that I agreed conceptually but see no other way to gain any influence as a group by avoiding the one word under which we can unite. Harris agrees with that, and furthermore, I think that as atheists, we all agree that we would prefer to live in a world in which the word was not even necessary.

Dougherty goes on to the addition of Harris’ somewhat controversial affinity for meditation. He adds the jab frequently used against us, that we hate all religions, rather than just not believing in them, and goes on to misrepresent Daniel Dennett’s comment that he himself had been practicing meditation. Of course, in his mind, the audience was deeply troubled by this, despite the fact that meditation does not necessarily have a religious connotation and does have scientific evidence to show that similar contemplative practices have health benefits. Meditation may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there were certainly some in the audience who understand this point, but mentioning that would undermine his initial claim that we are “fundamentalists.” So he chooses to be dishonest instead, proclaiming that “the leaders of unbelief are exposed as potential monks and mystics.”

At least we still have Hitchens, whom he briefly addresses by using the well-worn “he’s just angry at God” argument. He then finds it humorous that conference attendees are excited by the opportunity to meet these distinguished individuals, and points out a person that had a conversation with Hitchens and was ecstatic, claiming that this is a form of “idol worship” and a religion of its own. If that is true, then Christians are assuredly in violation of their precious commandments by idolizing their own batch of celebrities such as Rick Warren, Dinesh D’Souza, or Lee Strobel. Being happy to meet a person that you admire and respect, who has potentially influenced your life through their work, is now a religion, folks. Again, nothing other than juvenile and amateur attempts to disparage atheists and a simple restatement of that childish taunt, “I know you are but what am I?”

In an egregious violation of journalistic objectivity, he goes on to personally insult Margaret Downey, referring to her as a “dippy hostess.” Margaret has fought for the rights of atheists and gays to join the Boy Scouts, has given a presentation to the United Nations on the discrimination of atheists, and is still the UN expert on atheist discrimination in the US. She has worked tirelessly for years on end and put her own life at risk to make separation of church and state a reality, not just some words on an aged document. The fact that he would have the audacity to refer to one of the most influential women in the world of atheism as he did displays the utter lack of respect and contempt that he holds for those who do not worship his imaginary friend, yet he wonders why we feel the need to rally together, speak up, and rattle cages.

The fact that, in his opinion, holding a conference qualifies your group as a “movement” is mildly amusing. I guess that makes attendees of “Star Trek” conventions members of a pro-Star Trek movement. In much the same way that the aforementioned “Trekkies” are chided for having their apparel, costumes, and merchandise, Dougherty goes on to more trivial evidences of this subversive “atheist movement.”

Apparently, Dougherty finds “young men with haircuts fit for their mother’s basement” a valid point upon which to base an argument that we are nothing more than a “cranky subculture” that wants to ridicule religion much as a teenager wants to rebel against his/her parents. He interestingly notes that we did not view “The Passion of the Christ” and instead chose “Life of Brian”. I take it he didn’t consider that we atheists have no desire to watch a man brutally tortured and ultimately murdered for two and a half hours. I consider that to be a good thing, and would certainly allow my children to watch “Life of Brian” before that snuff film of which he apparently approves.

He comes back to the worst insult Christians have to offer, which is the conflation of atheism to a religion itself. It is about time that atheists come together at conferences and stand up for ourselves in a country dominated by irrationality. How ironic that the best argument he can muster is that we’re just like them. He claims that the conference “provides plenty of evidence” by “[resembling] an evangelical retreat weekend.” Wouldn’t any conference probably have similarities; such as there were speakers, there were meetings, and an amalgamation of people hanging out conversing? Again, if the Church of Star Trek hasn’t been founded already, it is now, whether the fans agree or not. He completely ignores the valid criticisms of religious belief and insists on using ridicule and insults to make the entire concept seem silly, much like Christianity. Is he projecting his own feelings regarding the absurdity of his own religion, maybe?

He attacks Julia Sweeney as a “D-list celebrity” eager for a second career as an atheist spokesperson. The fact that she does a monologue based on her personal experience with religion escapes him, and once again, he sardonically quips that she must be fun on dates after she recounts a story about debating evolution while out with a former romantic interest. Watch out ladies and gentlemen—we’ve entered the “no-humor” zone.

The ad hominems don’t stop there, either. His next target is Greydon Square, and Dougherty can’t stop himself from painting him as a thug with a rap sheet. We all know that getting arrested completely discredits a person despite the validity of their beliefs or lack thereof in this case. Any journalist with credibility would at least have done his research and known that Greydon was released that day—his only charge being an unpaid ticket. We can add this to the list of half-truths purposely written by Dougherty and designed to deceive the readers.

Coming full circle back to Sam Harris, he quotes Sam from The End of Faith as saying, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” Not only is this completely skewed and out of context, he presumes that nobody would contemplate this statement. If you had the ability to stop the 9/11 hijackers before they boarded the planes that eventually slammed into buildings, killing thousands, would you have? What if lethal force was the only means by which it was possible? It is certainly a delicate subject, but it is not presented accurately in Dougherty’s piece. Dougherty’s defense then consists of the absurd claim that, “The Inquisition at least allowed defendants the chance to recant—often many times.” Yes, they did, offer a choice between keeping one’s integrity and dying or lying about one’s lack of belief and remaining alive. What a stunning example of Christian generosity and kindness. Maybe we should watch two and a half hours of that at next year’s AAI conference.

Finally, we have Richard Dawkins. Even this criticism isn’t bereft of superficial personal attacks, as he refers to Prof. Dawkins as “owl-faced” and “ignorant of religious people as a species.” Apparently, a speciation event occurred that officially separates the logical from the illogical; the reason-based from the faith-based. Unfortunately, it’s not true (sorry if he got anybody’s hopes up).

He argues that Dawkins’ proposition that religious indoctrination is tantamount to child abuse and that we should refrain from labeling our children as a particular religion is reductive and tendentious. Dougherty claims that religion is not a “mere set of mental propositions” and is, in fact, a way of life started at birth. I don’t imagine that Dawkins would disagree with the latter, but the issue is one of choice and the autonomy of children. It concerns the routine obfuscation that occurs when parents lie to their children with regards to evolution, history and the value of faith as a reasonable methodology. Many who have suffered from this treatment do not possess the ability to deprogram themselves as adults, and thus logic and rationality have been suppressed for yet another generation.

If he has no problem with that concept, why is it that he aims to make Julia Sweeney look like a child abuser for telling her daughter that they don’t believe in God? If the general consensus is that pushing religion on your children is not an issue, then why is the advocacy of non-religion? Why was there such a backlash to our own Blasphemy Challenge, largely because teens were being “targeted” by the evil atheists? It is the obvious hypocrisy that is most problematic here—indoctrination from Christian parents is fine, but atheist parents need to keep their lack of belief to themselves. The hazard represented by this mode of thought is actualized in the many cases of discrimination against atheist parents in child custody cases.

This article was nothing short of a long list of intellectually inept claims peppered with personal attacks which do more to reveal the character of the author than his intended targets. Michael Brendan Dougherty should be ashamed of himself for exploiting the kindness of the atheists at the conference who spoke with him in order to purposely malign and misrepresent us. His penchant for focusing on irrelevant, superficial details, such as age, clothing or hair-style, was deftly demonstrated in this piece, which I can only describe as being a supremely dishonest polemic aimed at the continued marginalization of atheists. Hopefully, his lack of journalistic integrity will prevent him from getting a press pass at any future events.

Here is the original article.


   yeah kelly, indignation


yeah kelly, indignation deluxe, in the "spirit" of atheist jesus/buddha ....

Invite a dahlia lama, and an atheist muslim facing the death sentence, in the name of that freaky God of Abe ....

 thanks a zillion plus .....

toomanytribbles's picture

seriously, can i join...

the church of star trek??

in other news, their lack of arguments is showing.


What I really want to know

What I really want to know is if the assistant editor at American Conservative is serious or if he's being dishonest here...


Maybe he'll let us know what the deal is here when he's alerted via email to the intellectual thrashing he just took. Someone send him a few bucks, I've got a feeling he'll want the booze and razor after reading this piece.

 A precursory look at his blog reveals he's obsessed with women that are way out of his league.  On second thought maybe he'll enjoy being outgunned by the smartest and most beautiful female atheist on the planet.  Where's Ray Comfort when you need someone to say "Have you ever lusted after a woman?"


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Brian37's picture

This is a symptom of every

This is a symptom of every rising voice of a minority in this country. When the minority says, "Thats enough", the majority rather than look at how they treat people are shocked that they would object to the status quo.

These morons falsely sell fear that we love Hitler and want a facist state, when all we are doing is saying we have a voice too and we are tired of being marginalized and demonized.

Christians reading this know themselves that they dont agree with other Christians on any given issue. Anyone who knows me personally or is used to reading my posts knows that other atheists dissagree with me. If this is not evidence of diversity even in the atheist label, I dont know what is.

Kelly is absolutly right, we are not lock step lemmings who blindly follow like sheep. We go to these conventions because we have one shared thing, a lack of believe in all deities. With Harris presenting an unpopular position to the audiance should show anyone with a middle school education, YOU DONT HAVE TO BE A GENIOUS to see that we are NOT all the same.

I am quite sure that many who agree with Hitchens were turned off by his bluntness. I was not myself. I dont see a need to speek in terms of "Leave it to Beaver" when disscussing religion. I do know many atheists that DO prefure the quite library conversations. Once again, this should show any laymen that atheists are diverse. 

This moron needs to face facts. We are humans just like he is. We have family members, co-workers and friends. We are diverse in our politics as well. There are Libertarians, Liberals and Consivertives. There are atheists for and against the death penalty. There are pollitically correct atheists for "hate crime" laws and someone like me who is against "hate crime" laws.

We are, just like Christians in one sense, "One size does not fit all". If they are to expect us to treat them as individuals then they need to do the same. If anything is distroying America is the blanket assumption that Jesus is our law comming from the bible when we know that not all Christians believe the same thing, much less that not all of America's 300,000,000 citizens believe in the same god.

This obnoxious behaivor on his part is nothing new in human phycology. A new vocalism on the part of a givin minority rizes and the majority is not used to something new, it takes them outside their comfort zone.

If this guy is truely intrested in understanding, then he needs to loose the stereotypes that atheists want a facist state. He needs to loose the pathetic immage fearmongers sell that atheists barbaque kittens and drink blood. Atheists simply dont buy any superstitious claims, be it about Vishnu or Ouiji boards or Big Foot, much less Thor or Jesus.

Atheists would not have any problem with theism IF it would keep it's paws of the laws everyone lives under. This guy would not want to live as a Christian living in Iran under Islamic law. So what makes him think we want to live under biblical law. What is wrong with common law that is based on advise and consent that WE agree on, not as Christians or atheists, but as United States citizens? 

He is just upset that people, not just atheists, but those other than Christians are finally saying, "You are not going to keep non-Christians at the back of the bus any longer". 

Insted of demonizing us like an inmature child, be brave and come here and debate us, insted of fearing us. Be brave and loose your stereotypes and understand that we are just as diverse as any other group. But do not expect us to keep our mouths shut when you sell lies and fear.

To quote Twisted Sister, "We're not going to take it anymore!" 

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."Obama
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The502's picture

Brian37 wrote: Atheists

Brian37 wrote:

Atheists would not have any problem with theism IF it would keep it's paws off the laws everyone lives under. This guy would not want to live as a Christian living in Iran under Islamic law. So what makes him think we want to live under biblical law. What is wrong with common law that is based on advice and consent that WE agree on, not as Christians or atheists, but as United States citizens?


Well, that's only partially true. 

We certainly would have no problems with american theists if they all understood the importance of keeping a secular government.  Seperation of church and state is probably the main reason that most of us become very outspoken about our lack of belief.   If the theists would accept the establishment clause of the First Amendment, instead of arguing against it, we wouldn't have to deal with fighting them in the courts.  The conversations and disagreements would be focused on the other reason that we speak up:  blind faith.

 Blind faith in an unfounded diety is completely illogical.  Hitchens, Dawkins, and others have chosen to speak up about this fact.  They will keep doing so, even if we were to wake up tomorrow and all the theists understood the importance of a secular government.  Faith is a silly notion, and it is open to scrutiny, even if it makes the faithful uncomfortable.

 So, even if the wall of seperation was built high and supported by both sides, we wouldn't have a problem with theists, but we would have a problem with theism.



You're right, Dougherty's juvenile approach to journalism is not only insulting, it's embarrassing.  "I know you are, but what am I" should have actually been the title to his article.  

When are you planning on writing your own op-ed piece?  As much as I enjoy reading a good refutation, I bet you have something on your mind that you want published.  

 I'm looking forward to your year-long blogging about theism.  I wish I had the time to do it myself.  I'm curious about how your writing and opinions will evolve over the next year.

 Keep up the good work!

Brian37 wrote:

Brian37 wrote:

These morons falsely sell fear that we love Hitler and want a facist state, when all we are doing is saying we have a voice too...

When you're that used to buying fear your entire life, it seems all too easy to start selling it to people. What's a moron to do? Eye-wink

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   This may help to


This may help to clarify Kelly's xlint post, a bit from,

Does Secular Fundamentalism Exist? Do Secular Fundamentalists Exist?


From Austin Cline,

Secularism vs. Fundamentalism:
Some Christians say they are in conflict with "secular fundamentalism," but what is this and does it even exist? The most basic characteristics of Christian fundamentalism can’t apply to secularism of any sort: virgin birth & deity of Jesus, substitutionary death & physical resurrection of Jesus, and a literal heaven/hell. These aren’t the limits of the concept, since the label applies to other religions, but even the characteristics which apply most broadly can’t be applied to secularism.

Erosion of Religion & Tradition:
Key to the fundamentalist position is the belief that the modern world has become corrupted by the forces of evil and that part of cause of this is the erosion of traditional religious beliefs and institutions. The fundamentalist response is thus to restore religion to its position of power and influence. There is nothing similar among secularists — no belief in the corruption of tradition and no belief that secularism must be "restored" to a position of dominance.

Infallibility & Inerrancy of Scripture:
Basic to fundamentalist sects in all religions is a strict adherence to literal or traditionalist interpretations of religious scriptures. Because fundamentalism is a reaction to modern changes, it is thought that such greater reliance on scriptures, which are treated as lacking any errors, provides a reliable anchor against the shifting winds of modernity. Nothing remotely like that exists for secularism. There isn’t even a fundamental text for secularism, much less one treated as infallible.

((( p.s. jesus philosophy was atheistic untill the church got threw with it , thats an opinion shared by many, invite the buddhists ! .... and yeah the media and public education sucks )))


Zombie's picture

Another great article kelly,

Another great article kelly, I find it illuminating that he uses a word, fundamentalist, as an insult to atheists. When i`m sure he calls himself a christian fundie with pride.

Morte alla tyrannus et dei

Vessel's picture

Very well written. I've read

Very well written. I've read a few of your recent blog posts and the writing has a professional quality to it that adds significantly to the credibility and impact of the refutation. Don't get me wrong the substance is there as well, it is just nice to see that you put the time and effort into the composition itself in the realization that appearance and professionalism count for something as well.

“Philosophers have argued for centuries about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but materialists have always known it depends on whether they are jitterbugging or dancing cheek to cheek" -- Tom Robbins

GKM's picture

Wonderful! Awesome! Faboo!

Hi, Kelly! This is my first post on your delightful site. You're doing great work, so thank you.

Late last month, I attended a horror convention. My geek friends will be astounded to learn that, by Mr. Dougherty's criteria, "Horror" is now a religion.

Although, Pinhead worship might not be completely out of the question. I mean, the guy has pins! In his head!

An evil souffle needs time to rise.

Hambydammit's picture

Wow, Kelly.  I felt my own

Wow, Kelly.  I felt my own testicles shrink, and I agree with you completely on all counts.  That poor guy is really going to have a hard time getting a date now.

To say that your blog is amazing would be criminal understatement.


Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
Books about atheism

The Flying Trilobite's picture

Great stuff!

Great stuff, Kelly.

 You hit all the arguments point for point.  The arguments presented for making atheists seem like a religion again show that theists are scrambling at straws.  It must be hard for them to defend blind faith and 2000 year old inconsistencies with logic, evidence and rigour.

Good on ya.

Glendon Mellow
The Flying Trilobite

Tilberian's picture

The fact is, atheism is

The fact is, atheism is going to have to look a lot like religion before it becomes enough of a cultural force to actually contend with the real article. IMO, one of the biggest problems with atheism today is that it is not enough like religion in its ability to inspire mass gatherings, donations and activism on the part of its members. Why? Because atheism doesn't require its adherents to constantly force themselves to overcome their own cognitive dissonance. Not believing in god is easy, because it makes sense. Believing in God requires people to constantly seek mob reinforcement of their views. Perversely, this is one of those areas where actually having to work at something makes it more valuable to people.

My reaction when a theist points out something about atheism that looks like religion is to say "Good. Looks like we're finally getting as good as you at motivating people." If they go on to try to say that atheism is actually a religion, however, I say "Key difference: I don't need faith to justify any of my beliefs."


Lazy is a word we use when someone isn't doing what we want them to do.
- Dr. Joy Brown

The Flying Trilobite's picture

Tilberian makes a good point...

...that would certainly catch some religious folks off guard, I would think.  A lot of atheists with an emphasis on freethought may disagree with the point, but it's a good one.  It takes all kinds of voices and big strong organised ones can help too.


Of course, Kelly is still valid in pointing out the disingenious use of the comparison of organised atheism to religion as some sort of a put-down. 



The Flying Trilobite

Glendon Mellow
The Flying Trilobite

DuckPhup's picture

I think that this issue

I think that this issue needs to contemplated with due consideration for context and perspective. The 'theist' position asserts 'belief' on the basis of 'faith'. There is no logically valid proof for the existence of deities.... heck... there is not even any compelling evidence. Those folks that society has decided to call 'atheists' do not 'believe' (in general) simply because they find that the reasons or alleged evidence purported to support the idea that invisible, magical, all-powerful, supernatural sky-fairies (gods) 'exist' are not compelling, and thus are insufficient to initiate or sustain a mental state of 'belief'. The idea that there is some kind of a 'choice' involved seems ridiculous to me. The reasons for 'believing' are either good, or they're not good. If they're NOT good, then one's 'bullshit alarm' goes off. You do not 'choose' to have your bullshit alarm go off... it just goes off. OK... so that's the end of that. Atheists are dispensed with. They are just folks who... for WHATEVER reason (or LACK of reasons) simply cannot be persuaded to BELIEVE in the existence of invisible, magical, all-powerful, supernatural sky-fairies (gods)... and have functional bullshit alarms. That's that... finis... the end. Done with atheists. So... now that we have dispensed with those pesky, annoying atheists... we come to highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational people. It is useful to take note that highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational and critically thinking people... as a rule... tend to look with disfavor and scorn upon gullibility, irrationality, willful ignorance, self-deception, self-delusion, intellectual dishonesty, lies, hypocrisy and drooling stupidity. Many highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational and critically thinking people feel that it their ethical duty and moral responsibility to confront ANY of those insults to the human intellect, human dignity and the human condition whenever, wherever and however they encounter them. It just so happens (coincidentally, of course) that religion... particularly the Abrahamic death-cults of desert monotheism (Judaism, Islam, Christianity)... wraps up most or all of those dubious 'qualities' into one neat and tidy package (with a bow on top), where they can be confronted all at once. Confronting religion, then... serendipitously (as a happy incident)... becomes a simple matter of efficiency. Highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational and critically thinking people happen to LIKE efficiency. 

"Ahh... arrogance and stupidity, all in the same package. How efficient of you." ~ Londo Molari, Babylon 5
 In summary... atheists are simply people who do not believe in invisible, magical, all-powerful, supernatural sky-faeries. The very idea causes their bullshit alarms to go off (which can be VERY annoying, if it happens all the time... which it does). That is all.... that is the ONLY thing that defines atheists. So... taking issue with religion is NOT am 'atheist thing'... rather, it is a 'sane and rational' thing. People just get blinded and distracted by the peculiar and eerie coincidence that most highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational and critically thinking people also happen to be atheists.  We should try not to read too much into that. It is OK for highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational and critically thinking people to be deeply offended by gullibility, irrationality, willful ignorance, self-deception, self-delusion, intellectual dishonesty, lies, hypocrisy and drooling stupidity. It is OK for highly intelligent, well educated, sane, rational people to be grateful for the efficiency that arises (coincidentally) from the convenient fact that religion neatly encapsulates all of those deeply offensive insults to the human intellect, human dignity and the human condition. 
"The god who is reputed to have created fleas to keep dogs from moping over their situation must also have created fundamentalists to keep rationalists from getting flabby.  Let us be duly thankful for our blessings." ~ Garrett Hardin
 The thing that gets religious knickers in a knot over these matters is that they are put into the uncomfortable position of having to DEFEND gullibility, irrationality, willful ignorance, self-deception, self-delusion, intellectual dishonesty, lies, hypocrisy and drooling stupidity... each of which they seem to regard as a virtue. So, I don't think that they are OFFENDED so much as they are dreadfully inconvenienced by the unfamiliar burden of being forced to think. Feigning offense could be just a ploy that is invoked to escape that unfamiliar and unwelcome burden.