Atheism, Fundamentalism and the Protestant Reformation

Uncovering the Secret Sympathy

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Liam Jerrold Fraser
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , June
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Liam Jerrold Fraser argues for the structural similarity of New Atheist and Protestant Fundamentalist thought based on two presuppositions that originated in the Protestant English Reformation: a literal, univocal, and perspicuous hermeneutic of scripture and the view that God’s activity disrupts and substitutes for natural causation. The methodology of the study is “textual, genealogical and analytic” (5): genealogical—it offers a diachronic narrative of the two presuppositions over five hundred years; textual—the primary evidence considered in the contemporary synchronic comparison is popular literature written by New Atheists and Protestant Fundamentalists; and analytical—the last chapter turns from historical to rational reconstruction to argue for the structural instability of both forms of thought. New Atheist texts are limited to popular works written after 2001 (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet); the Christian Fundamentalist texts include English works of the Reformed tradition produced since the late 1960s with attention paid to literature that opposed evolution. Chapters 1-3 trace the genealogy and historical effects of the presuppositions; chapters 4-5 analyze how the two presuppositions continue to structure the thought of both communities. 

Chapter 1 narrates how the Protestant principles of sola scriptura and sola fides contributed to the use of empiricist philosophy and physics in 18th century Christian apologetic works. Henry VIII’s placement of English Bibles in every parish church made sense due to the supposed clarity of scripture; nevertheless, access to the Bible did not lead to uniformity, but division, dissention, and war. In turn, John Locke’s empiricism looked for stabilization in reason and in a literal, univocal, and perspicuous Bible. Second, this approach to scripture correlated with a new approach to God’s activity in the world. Whereas medieval hermeneutics allowed for symbolic views of nature, the Protestant approach led to a view of nature as a system of causal relations in which God’s creative activity was direct, unmediated, and disruptive. This led to the erosion of the scholastic distinction between primary and secondary causes. It also led to the idea that if God’s activity was direct then it should be empirically observable.

Chapter 2 traces the transmission of the presuppositions upon lower and middle-class atheism in England. After the Restoration, the skilled working-class experienced a heightened animosity towards the established church, while nonconformists adopted Locke’s empiricism which continued to separate the Bible from tradition and structure. This hermeneutic was popularized by the evangelicals, ironically making the Bible an important source for unbelief. Middle-class unbelief, on the other hand, came about through a natural theological worldview that sought to unite faith and science as evident in the work of William Paley, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Huxley. In turn, literal readings of Genesis were subverted to prove the incompatibility of Christianity and science which became competing truth claims to describe reality. 

Chapter 3 argues that American Fundamentalism also held to the presuppositions that undergirded atheism in England, but with an increased emphasis on Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. The philosophy of David Hume and Thomas Reid supported an inductive approach to both theology and science that presupposed that the facts of scripture and nature should be self-evident to any observer. Common Sense Realism was established in America at Princeton through James Witherspoon and incorporated into theology by Charles Hodge, thus leading to two pillars of fundamentalist thought: the verbal inspiration of scripture and an inductive understanding of the bible and science. Rueben Torrey and J. Gresham Machen radicalized these positions. Nevertheless, the majority of early American evangelicals did not target evolution nor hold to a six-day creation theory, but held to either a day-age or gap reading. It was William Jennings Bryan that brought evolution to the forefront of the Evangelical cause. 

The second half of the book turns to an analysis of the cogency of comparisons of New Atheist and Protestant Fundamentalist thought and then argues for their conceptual instability. Chapter 4 compares Atheist/Fundamentalist approaches to the two presuppositions and then, in turn, traces a host of other similarities that derive from them. The second half of the chapter turns to the common social realities that created a mutual interdependence of both constituencies. Both groups, for instance, reject the post-modern trend in humanities and social sciences to stress contextual interpretation of truth and instead favor a univocal and decontextualized understanding of reason. Chapter 5 argues that both atheism and fundamentalism are unstable and require additional strategies to stabilize them. Fraser concludes with the surprising advice that, nevertheless, traditional Protestant denominations neglect these presuppositions at their own peril because, more often than not, they crystalize the heart of Protestant thought better than their liberal alternatives. Instead, readers should seek to better understand them and, if possible, to repair them.

Fraser’s argument contributes to recent literature that has gestured towards similarities between New Atheism and Protestant Fundamentalism (John F. Haught and Conor Cunningham), while simultaneously furthering the “dependence thesis” of Michael Buckley. The study also participates in a tradition of scholarship from Max Weber to Brad Gregory that argues for a causal relationship between the Protestant Reformations and modern secularism. What sets this study apart from these predecessors is its methodology (genealogy of ideas), scope (English Reformation to New Atheism), and focus on biblical hermeneutics. Fraser should also be commended for taking popular literature seriously in the study of religion. From a historical perspective, though, a genealogical study runs the serious risk of anachronism. The past is read from where the genealogy ends or founders are created in order to vouchsafe present positions. On the other hand, the analytical side of the study pushes for conceptual clarity, but runs the historical risk of interpreting past evidence in light of “ideal types” that do not always fit the complexity, nuances, and contradictions of the past. Nevertheless, as a “genealogical history” the study is compelling, provocative, and hopefully will generate more theological studies on New Atheism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Dubbelman is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
January 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Liam Jerrold Fraser is a Minister of Word and Sacrament of the Church of Scotland.


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