I got into a bit of a debate recently on twitter with someone who objected to my use of the term 'atheist fundamentalists'. My use of the phrase was in something of an offhand remark (as is the nature of twitter) to an article in the Guardian in which atheist philosopher Michael Ruse argued that the 'New Atheists', the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens etc, bring atheism into disrepute. I thought it was quite a reasonable and refreshing article but some of the comments showed that Ruse had touched on a raw nerve. These comments, to my mind, exhibited the classic behaviour of fundamentalism. By fundamentalism I meant an unthinking, narrow-minded, dogmatism, unwilling to see the other's point of view, and absolutely convinced of its own correctness. There is no such thing, my objector insisted, it is a misnomer. For one thing atheists, it is claimed, have no fundamental beliefs. For another thing, the term 'fundamentalist' has a particular provenance within a certain section of American Protestant Christianity. It is insulting, it was claimed, to genuine fundamentalists, to apply this term, willy-nilly, to people of other worldviews, of other faiths, or no faith.
On the one hand, I have to acknowledge that it was a bit of a cheap shot. Fundamentalist has become such a pejorative term that it is basically only used as an insult. I certainly wouldn't like to be called a fundamentalist, and by the rules that I claim to live by I thereby shouldn't apply this label to other people. I admit that part of my reason for calling some atheists 'fundamentalists' is that I know that it will wind them up. However, I would like to push back a little on my claim that atheists can be 'fundamentalists' as much as 'religious' folk.
Firstly, I have to disagree with the view that atheists have no fundamental beliefs. Whether you say atheists hold the view that there is no god or, as many atheists prefer to phrase it, they hold the view that there is not enough evidence to convince them of the the existence of god, this is a belief. Science is unable to adjudicate on the existence of God.
Secondly, like it or not, the word 'fundamentalist' has entered the popular discourse. 'Fundamentalist' is regularly applied to narrow-minded and dogmatic people of many different religions and worldviews. This may be unfair to the North American Christians who self-identify as fundamentalist but that is too bad. We talk of 'Islamic fundamentalists' or 'freemarket fundamentalists' and it is usually clearly understood what is being said. We don't have to be wooden literalists about the use of the word 'fundamentalist'
Thirdly, I'm in good company (in my opinion) as Alistair McGrath (who is nothing but gracious in his interactions with Dawkins et al) has labelled the viewpoint of 'the new atheists' as 'atheist fundamentalism'. See the subtitle of his response to Dawkins
'Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine'
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Michael Ruse supplies the blurb on the front cover of this book - 'The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why'. It is no wonder that Ruse has become anathema in some atheist circles. He has denied the faith.
Lastly, the 'New Atheists' themselves acknowledge that atheists can act religiously. When Hitchens is reminded in debates of the atrocities committed by prominent atheists in the 20th century he says 'ah, but they were acting religiously. They learnt all of their worst tricks from religion etc, etc.' I tend to agree, because I believe that all human beings are religious at heart. If people do not worship God they will devote themselves to something else and this can include worldviews. Atheists are just as capable of being narrow-minded and dogmatic as 'religious' people. That's what I saw in some of the responses to Ruse and, it seems to me, is something akin to fundamentalism.
So what do people think? Is there such a thing as an 'atheist fundamentalist'? Is it acceptable to apply the label fundamentalist to other people, or is it too much of a pejorative insult?