In support of the claim that “fundamentalist atheist” has at least some descriptive value, it should be noted that Stephen Gould used a similar phrase in his early disputes with evolutionary psychologists who imagined a reductive Darwinian “just so” story accounting for each and every human behavior and mental property. Gould called his opponents “Darwinian fundamentalists.”
So I suppose that when people have a reductive formula for “explaining” and measuring all phenomena (whether it is the Bible or materialist reduction or natural selection) and use it as a kind of “universal acid,” a one size fits all tool that substitutes for thought, then we might call it a kind of fundamentalist mentality. Hitler, for example, wasn’t a religious fundamentalist adhering to the strict dictates of a religious book, but he did have obsessive simplifying “formulas” in his head that reduced his problem-solving to thought-substituting equations (Aryan advancement via struggle, the “law” of survival of the fittest, eugenics, Jews as parasites on the Aryan body). Hitler, if anybody was, was an early “Darwinian fundamentalist”. His intellectual instruments made no distinctions and applied globally. And so a “fundamentalist atheist” is someone who might have in his head a reductive formula (or small list of formulas) for quickly explaining and thinking away complex issues, which is very like fundamentalism. Thus, we see formulaics in atheist phrases like these:
- “Religion poisons everything.”
- “Religion is the root of all evil.”
- “Religion is a viral meme.”
- “All properties of mind, existence, and origins can be reduced to physics and chemistry.”
- “Natural selection accounts for all biological and human mental phenomena.”
- “Evolution by natural selection is a universal acid.”
Such statements can (and have) functioned in ways akin to quoting Bible verses. They are used as global reductive dogmas that go very far beyond what the evidence warrants, and that are substitutes for complexity, thought, and nuance. They are expressions of faith and ideology, and they are very blunt intellectual instruments.
I think, for example, that one of the very great errors of the contemporary neo-atheist movement is its general failure to make distinctions between different religious practices and thought, lumping religious people together as a collective “evil.” Thus Evangelical Francis Collins, who accepts that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time, is nevertheless often treated at atheist blogs with an indistinguishable vehemence from that dished upon young earth creationists. And in the threads of some of these blogs, even I, as an agnostic, am seen as a “creationist” because I’m merely open to the possibility that there might be mind (or telos) prior to matter—that it is not a closed issue for me. The very fact that I keep my mind open to the possibility that there might be a non-material (teleological) explanation for some aspects of existence, mind, or origins is sufficient to brand me a “supernaturalist.” To say “I don’t know” constitutes a secret and sinister commitment.
Another example: At atheist biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog, I notice a repeated habit on the part of some atheist posters to equate God-belief with fairy-belief. Again, there is no subtlety or nuance to such thinking. There is no attempt to make epistemic distinctions. It is just a bludgeon.
In short, distinctions and qualifications matter. And when you stop making them, you’re heading for reductive fundamentalism, and so the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” seems properly descriptive.