I think, as a practical matter, if the purpose of atheism is to win debates with, or score points against, theists, then it makes sense to resist phrases like “fundamentalist atheist.” But as an existential concern, this kind of semantic jostling seems to me close to pointless. Every person must look at the world whole, and ask herself what worldview, as a whole, makes the most sense. Both atheist and theistic worldviews—however elaborate or reserved in their claims—require more than rhetoric or positioning from their honest adherents. All worldviews require metaphysical, epistemic, and evidentiary justifications. In matters of truth nobody gets the presumption of innocence, or gets to leave certain of her assumptions unstated and simply “given.” As the Royal Society of London’s famed and hundreds of years old motto has it: Nullis in verba (”Take nobody’s word for it”).
I think, therefore, that fundamentalism in all its stylistic forms should be resisted—and that includes its secular manifestations. To my mind, a fundamentalist is someone who tends to:
- show impatience for nuance;
- lacks irony with regard to his/her own positions;
- has an excess identification with a group (or groups) led by jut-jawed confidence men (charismatic leaders);
- demonizes out-groups and attributes to opponents malign motives, evil, or stupidity;
- treats texts or certain authorities with excessive deference;
- does not look too closely at his/her own metaphysical/epistemic premises;
- dreams of a mono-cultural world in which the views of his/her small group become the universal sensibilities of all humanity;
- is inherently incurious and impatient towards books, ideas, or points of view different from those of his/her group;
- tends to learn a “lingo” that marks her off as a member of the group;
- absorbs and memorizes knee-jerk thought-terminating cliches as “answers” to questions about the movement
I think of a small secular cult like the followers of Ayn Rand as having these traits, and I think it is undoubtedly true that Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers etc. attract a fair amount of people who are stylistically cultic and dogmatic, and who have character traits that would fit in real comfy with religious fundamentalists (if they were religious adherents).
Frankly, there are people who see a “market” in “confidence atheism” and are happy to exploit it. There are people, in short, who are drawn to confidence men with outsized personas. Cults of personality—whatever you call them—are dangerous. And I think that is what people are responding to when they compare contemporary neo-atheists to fundamentalists. They’re trying to get a handle on that Ayn Rand personality cult and hyper-certainty phenomenon that seems to be lurking about the neo-atheist movement.