In my recent interview on Canadian Catholic, I explain how atheist apologist John Loftus is a fundamentalist atheist. I’ve been discussing the phenomenon of fundamentalist atheism for years now. But I often get the reply that fundamentalism cannot apply to atheism because fundamentalism is essentially a religious phenomenon.
That, of course, assumes that atheism cannot be religious, a claim I do not accept. But I’m going to set that point aside here and focus on another: the expanding semantic range of fundamentalism.
Originally, “fundamentalism” referred to a movement in early twentieth century North American Protestantism. The name derives from a set of pamphlets printed between 1914-18 and funded by a rich oilman named Lyman Stewart. These pamphlets were intended to galvanize American pastors and their congregants against the encroachment of the liberal theology that was becoming predominant at university based seminaries.
Eventually, the term broadened to refer to other religious movements that manifested similar characteristics to the original Protestant fundamentalism, i.e. reactionary and counter-cultural with sharp binary oppositions between insiders and outsiders and an anti-intellectual streak that tends to dismiss knowledge discourses that fall outside the prescribed boundaries approved by the community (e.g. Muslim Fundamentalism).
But once we recognize that the fundamentalist spirit is an orientation that can be manifested in all sorts of religious traditions, it is not a big leap to recognize that it can be likewise manifested in ostensibly non-religious groups, communities, and movements as well. Thus, secular, atheist, or humanist individuals and communities can also manifest reactionary and counter-cultural traits with sharp binary oppositions between insiders and outsiders and an anti-intellectual streak that tends to dismiss knowledge discourses that fall outside the prescribed boundaries approved by the community.
And that describes an atheist like John Loftus very well. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the new atheists not to mention the many snarky village atheists one is likely to bump into on social media.
To conclude, I want to emphasize that I am not proposing a novel expansion of the semantic range of the term fundamentalist. In point of fact, this expansion is already well established: I am simply recognizing it and using it to label appropriately the atheist fundamentalist. To illustrate, I point you to dictionary.com which offers three definitions of fundamentalism including the following:
- a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam.
- strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles. (emphasis added)
Once you recognize that you can, in the broadest sense, be a fundamentalist about any “set of basic ideas or principles,” you should be able to recognize with little controversy that one can certainly be a fundamentalist about atheistic principles.