This question hides some complications. They will need to be teased out, to answer it properly.
First, when atheists criticise some religious believers for being “fundamentalist”, they usually mean something quite specific: the belief that the words of a holy book are infallibly and literally true. This literal-minded approach leads “fundamentalist” believers to make such claims as that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old (a literal reading of the biblical genealogies seems to produce a date about 6,000 years ago for the creation of the world in six days). That claim conflicts with enormous amounts of converging evidence, gathered from various branches of science, that the Earth is actually billions of years old.
No atheist suggests that all believers are fundamentalists, only that some are. They do worry about the fact that fundamentalist views have gained a lot of political clout in recent years.
Atheism and Fundamentalism
Whatever else atheists are guilty of, they are seldom guilty of anything at all like religious fundamentalism.
Atheists are usually prepared to accept results from science, to emphasise that scientific knowledge is always provisional to some extent (though some broad findings, such as the great antiquity of the Earth and the evolution of life from earlier forms, are now supported by such overwhelming evidence that they are very well established), and to resolve their various differences by evidence and rational argument. To underline this point, atheists do not rely on, say, the literal words of Darwin’s Origin of Species, assumed to be an infallible collection of unchanging truths.
But Are Atheists Intolerant?
Perhaps the question is not really meant to be about fundamentalism, but about having an intolerant or authoritarian attitude towards others. But you can be passionate about what you believe, and consider important, without being either intolerant or authoritarian.
It’s true that some atheists express themselves in a forthright manner, but they don’t try to coerce anybody to agree with them. They confine themselves to using words, in an attempt to persuade, and the language they use is often quite mild compared to what you hear in many other areas of public debate – think of politics, for example. In fact, it sometimes appears that religious believers are demanding a double standard – as if they think that the kind of forthright speech that is acceptable for criticism of other ideas should not be allowed for criticism of religious ones.
Posted: June 4th 2007
See all questions answered by Russell Blackford