Is it possible to be atheist and extremist?

Sep 20, 2011 Comments Off by

Clearly in order to answer this question we’re going to need to define extremism.

Extremism is a relative description. One thing is extremist with respect to another. To label something extremist is to state that it is very different compared to the average.

One could suggest that it is as different as something could possibly be, in other words, at the extremes. This would be the literal definition. Though this is not how the word is commonly used. Most of the time, those labelled extremist are not maximally different to the average, in other words, they could be more extremist.

Extremism must also be used in conjunction with another descriptor. We must state in what way someone is extremist. For example, a vegan is extremist with respect to the consumption of meat, as is someone on the Atkins diet.

With this particular question, our second descriptor is atheism. For the definition of atheism, we will use the default for this website.

Well now that we have our definitions sorted, we reach an odd point. To describe someone as both atheist and extremist would suggest that the person is different to the average as an atheist. But as atheism is a minority philosophy anyway, in fact most philosophies are in the minority, so this is pointless as everyone would be labelled extremist.

So maybe we’ve missed something. The problem surely lies in the word extremism. To define it as meaning very unusual, whilst correct, does not help us solve this question. The common understanding of the word has some further properties.

Perhaps extremism involves radicalism, the idea that on a fundamental level something must change. In this case it would be true that all atheists are extremists because atheism contends the core and most fundamental belief of the religious, the existence of a god. Once again we’ve shown the extremist description to be useless.

But even if you’re fine with calling all atheists extremists using the last definition, at no point have we found anything in the definitions that suggests extremism is intrinsically bad. Most of the time when people try to describe atheists as extremists, they do so because they’re being condescending. They’re trying to hint that “atheism has extremists too”. Well to those people, for goodness sake, do not just randomly attribute labels to a group of people without understanding them.

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