One of the more annoying claims some people make is that atheists are or can be fundamentalists. This is annoying for two reasons: one is that atheists rarely go out and picket funerals or insist on what people can do in their own bedrooms based on a literal reading of Voltaire or Hume. The other is that it implies that atheism is like a religion or ideology. In an otherwise balanced article that takes issue with the first point, u n d e r v e r s e inadvertently adopts the latter position.
He [Chris Schoen] writes:
…, the fact that one of the major fault lines today between theism and atheism is “al-Darwinia” is a red herring. The real reason that atheists are supposed to be incapable of fundamentalism is because the values of the Enlightenment (not atheism per se, but its wellspring) are a hedge against intolerance. But this proposition was falsified long before Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot (who massacred, it is true, not “in the name” of atheism, but instead in the name of a putatively scientific ability to engender political and economic fairness at the point of a sword) in the terror of Robespierre. The brigades of the eminently rationalist and vehemently atheist “al-Jacobin” and “al-Marx” were all too numerous and all too real.
And so far as I can tell, none of them, including Pol Pot, Stalin or Mao acted positively in the “name” of atheism. They instead acted on the basis of various degrees of Marxism, antimodernism or modernism, and nationalism. So they are excellent moral lessons against these ideologies; just not atheism. As the author knows well, atheism is not an ideology; there are many atheist ideologies, such as freethinking, liberal secularism, Marxisms, libertarianisms, and so on, but being atheist is at the least a side effect of the overall ideology itself, and at most is a doctrine of the ideology. There are also Christian versions of these same ideologies; and likewise also of the use of scientific reasoning in various ways.
I agree with the author that many traditions that take their origins from the Enlightenment hold, usually without a lot of evidence to back it up, that they are immune from overall error because they are skeptical, or scientific, or whatever, but that doesn’t license the conclusion that all Enlightenment rationalism is liable to become extremist or do horrible things.
The claim that atheism has led to bad things, or that it can be “fundamentalist” is to reiterate the falsehood that atheism is a religion, an ideology. It is not. It consists in a single “doctrine”: there is no god. All else, ranging from politics to culture to metaphysics or even ethics, are entirely open. There is no atheist line other than “there is no god”. It’s very hard to be “fundamentalist” about a single declarative sentence.
What those who claim atheism is a religion mean to say is that they object to modernism, to Enlightenment ideals ranging from the sufficiency of reason through to egalitarianism. They dislike some or all aspects of various things, which are sometimes (not always) concomitant with atheist views. And yes, some of those who take those lines can be strong about it; they can be assertive or even aggressive, nearly as much as the real fundamentalists of religion. If there were a society based on Enlightenment ideals, I have no doubt that there would arise those who were exclusively committed to some set of views, which may or may not include the single sentence “there is no god”, but the fundamentalism that would result would be nationalist, or Marxist or libertarian or whatever. It can’t be “atheist”, because it’s a belief that has one fairly unequivocal proposition, and you either think it is true or you do not.
The problem that u n d e r v e r s e has is that he thinks that opposing theism is a set of values, a set of beliefs, and sure, some atheists have constructed a viewpoint that might be called a worldview, although personally I don’t think taking science seriously is a worldview so much as damned good sense. But this is in virtue of a set of what philosophers call doxastic attitudes, such as a healthy skepticism, a reliance on empirical data, and on fundamental rules of reasoning. It is, if you like, a fundamentalism of reasoning. It is not because they are atheists; in fact they are usually atheists because they have the doxastic and epistemic commitments they do.
But there are many paths to atheism. Some rely on the Enlightenment. Some rely on experience of bad religion. Some rely just on a desire to get on with life. One cannot be fundamentalist about something that lacks any overall coherent set of beliefs. I hope this is clear now.
Incidentally, I write this as an agnostic, as I have many times said before. If atheist fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, agnostic fundamentalism is like the old joke about the Unitarian KKK: they burn a question mark in your lawn. It’s hard to be fundamentalist about the belief that a question makes no sense, even more than about a single sentence. So stop talking about atheist fundamentalism and name the actual targets you have in mind, and deal with them as they are, and not in terms of some bogeyman.