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.