The idea of a fundamentalist atheist seems a contradiction in terms. Fundamentalists, at least since the emergence of the term in the early twentieth century, are people committed to a particular interpretation of a text: at least that’s what they claim to be. Atheism has no sacred text, although there are atheist cults. Some people would enlarge the definition of fundamentalist to include dogmatism, and tribalism but I think the defining quality of a fundamentalist is a certain style of the imagination. It is not so much the imposition of a particular set of ideas on the world as it is a sense of the self-evident that is out of key with that of the surrounding world. I want to say ‘self-evident’ rather than ‘sacred’ because disorder and disagreement are threatening to the fundamentalist in ways quite different to those in which blasphemy shocks a believer.
It seems at first that the defining quality of a fundamentalist’s imagination is that they can’t themselves see it: they are convinced that they deal only with facts and their logically ineluctable consequences. Metaphors are simply decorations – the flower beds around the power station, in Mary Midgley’s phrase – but the fundamentalist believes that his central beliefs are not in the least bit metaphorical. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually separate out the fundamentalist from the rest of us very well. For we all base our thinking on imaginative constructs and metaphors which have through long use become invisible to us. The only way for most of us ever to notice this is to be immersed in a foreign culture and language where all of a sudden nothing can be taken for granted. And it is not surprising that fundamentalism has its greatest appeal to the uprooted.
For the fundamentalist starts their journey when they find that the things they take for granted are all of a sudden pointed out as of questionable sanity and rationality by the society around – which is of course pursuing its own equally irrational and arbitrary habits as if those were perfectly normal. Some people can handle this and some can’t. It’s not that the fundamentalist needs security more than is psychologically healthy: it’s that they find themselves in a situation where this security can’t be achieved in socially acceptable ways – and once you start to feel like that, the consequences are entirely self-reinforcing. The further you get from the assumptions of mainstream culture, the more grotesque they appear, and with that grotesquery comes an assumption that they are evil too.
In this sense, the New Atheist movement shares some important characteristics with religious fundamentalism. For a start, it was a social rather than an intellectual development. The two intellectual novelties associated with it have now been quietly forgotten as being too embarrassing to mention. So let’s bring them up: