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In comparative religion, fundamentalism refers to anti-modernist movements in various religions.

In many ways religious fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, characterized by a sense of embattled alienation in the midst of the surrounding culture, even where the culture may be nominally influenced by the adherents' religion. The term can also refer specifically to the belief that one's religious texts are infallible and historically accurate, despite contradiction of these claims by modern scholarship.

Many groups described as fundamentalist often strongly object to this term because of the negative connotations it carries, or because it implies a similarity between themselves and other groups, which they find objectionable.


The fundamentalist phenomenon

Although the term fundamentalism in popular usage sometimes refers derogatorily to any fringe religious group, or to extremist ethnic movements with only nominally religious motivations, the term does have a more precise denotation. "Fundamentalist" describes a movement to return to what is considered the defining or founding principles of the religion. It has especially come to refer to any religious enclave that intentionally resists identification with the larger religious group in which it originally arose, on the basis that fundamental principles upon which the larger religious group is supposedly founded have become corrupt or displaced by alternative principles hostile to its identity.

This formation of a separate identity is deemed necessary on account of a perception that the religious community has surrendered its ability to define itself in religious terms. The "fundamentals" of the religion have been jettisoned by neglect, lost through compromise and inattention, so that the general religious community's explanation of itself appears to the separatist to be in terms that are completely alien and fundamentally hostile to the religion itself. Fundamentalist movements are therefore founded upon the same religious principles as the larger group, but the fundamentalists more self-consciously attempt to build an entire approach to the modern world based on strict fidelity to those principles, to preserve a distinctness both of doctrine and of life.

The term itself is borrowed from the "Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy" which appeared early in the 20th century within the Protestant churches of the United States, and continued in earnest through the 1920s.

The pattern of the conflict between Fundamentalism and Modernism in Protestant Christianity has remarkable parallels in other religious communities, and in its use as a description of these corresponding aspects in otherwise diverse religious movements the term "fundamentalist" has become more than only a term either of self-description or of derogatory contempt. Fundamentalism is therefore a movement through which the adherents attempt to rescue religious identity from absorption into modern, Western culture, where this absorption appears to the enclave to have made irreversible progress in the wider religious community, necessitating the assertion of a separate identity based upon the fundamental or founding principles of the religion.

Fundamentalists believe their cause to have grave and even cosmic importance. They see themselves as protecting not only a distinctive doctrine, but also a vital principle, and a way of life and of salvation. Community, comprehensively centered upon a clearly defined religious way of life in all of its aspects, is the promise of fundamentalist movements, and it therefore appeals to those adherents of religion who find little that is distinctive, or authentically vital in their previous religious identity.

The fundamentalist "wall of virtue", which protects their identity, is erected against not only alien religions, but also against the modernized, compromised, nominal version of their own religion. In Christianity, fundamentalists are "Born again" and "Bible-believing" Protestants, as opposed to "Mainline", "liberal", "modernist" Protestants, who represent "Churchianity"; in Islam they are jama'at (Arabic: (religious) enclaves with connotations of close fellowship) self-consciously engaged in jihad (struggle) against Western culture that suppresses authentic Islam (submission) and the God-given (Shari'ah) way of life; in Judaism they are Haredi "Torah-true" Jews; and they have their equivalents in Hinduism and other world religions. These groups insisting on a sharp boundary between themselves and the faithful adherents of other religions, and finally between a "sacred" view of life and the "secular" world and "nominal religion". Fundamentalists direct their critiques toward and draw most of their converts from the larger community of their religion, by attempting to convince them that they are not experiencing the authentic version of their professed religion.

Many scholars see most forms of fundamentalism as having similar traits. Peter Huff wrote in the International Journal on World Peace :

"According to Antoun, fundamentalists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite their doctrinal and practical differences, are united by a common worldview which anchors all of life in the authority of the sacred and a shared ethos that expresses itself through outrage at the pace and extent of modern secularization." [1]

Objections to the use of the term

Christian fundamentalists, who generally consider the term to be positive when used to refer to themselves, often strongly object to the placement of themselves and Islamist groups into a single category, and resent being labeled together with factions that use kidnapping, murder, and terrorist acts to achieve their ends. Characteristics based on the new definition are also projected back onto Christian fundamentalists by their critics. There is however no objection to the term fundamentalist when used to describe only Christian groups, and objections to the term Muslim fundamentalist are much less strong.

Many Muslims protest the use of the term when referring to Islamist groups, because all Muslims believe in the absolute inerrency of the Qur'an, and western writers only use the term to refer to extremist groups. Furthermore, many Muslims strongly object to being placed in the same category as Christian fundamentalists, who they see as being religiously incorrect, and fail to see the theological distinction between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Christian groups. Unlike Christian fundamentalist groups, Islamist groups do not use the term fundamentalist to refer to themselves.

The Associated Press stylebook now recommends that the term fundamentalist not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself. This would include Christian fundamentalist groups but exclude Islamist groups. Some news writers ignore this recommendation, however.

Basic beliefs of religious fundamentalists

For religious fundamentalists, sacred scripture is the authentic word of God. Fundamentalist beliefs depend on the twin doctrines that God articulated his will precisely to prophets, and that we also have a reliable and perfect record of that revelation, which has been passed down to our day in an unbroken chain of tradition.

Since Scripture is the word of God, no one has the right to change it or disagree with it. People are thus obliged to obey the word of God. The appeal of this point of view is its simplicity: people must do what God tells them to do. However, the fundamentalist insistence on strict observation of religious laws may lead to an accusation of "legalism".

Christian Views

Christian fundamentalists (major separate article) see their scripture, a combination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as both infallible and historically accurate. The New Testament represents a new covenant between God and man, which is held to fulfill the Old Testament, in regards to God's redemptive plan. On the basis of this confidence in Scripture, fundamentalist Christians accept the account of scripture as being literally true and believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and rules the church from heaven. They believe that the church has been granted the gift of the Holy Spirit, who leads the church into fulfillment of God's will according to the Scriptures.

Most Christian fundamentalists do not believe that it is possible to infallibly interpret the Bible on every point, but even those who believe this do not feel it is in contradiction to their main premise concerning the necessity of infallible scriptures. This is because they believe that God interprets His own intent and fulfills His will for those who trust Him, and through them, despite their faulty understanding; nevertheless it is the church's obligation to understand the Scriptures, to believe what they say and act accordingly. However, there are types of Christian belief that attach infallible authority to the interpretations of some single, living individual or ruling body.

Jewish Views

Jewish Denominations believe that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) cannot be understood literally or alone, but rather needs to be read in conjunction with additional material known as the oral law; this material is contained in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash. While the Tanakh is not read in a literal fashion, Orthodox Judaism does view the text itself as divine, infallible, and transmitted essentially without change, and places great import in the specific words and letters of the Torah. As well, some adherents of Orthodox Judaism, especially Haredi Judaism, see the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash as divine and infallible in content, if not in specific wording. Hasidic Jews usually ascribe infallibility to their rebbe's interpretation of the traditional sources of truth.

Islamic Views

Muslims believe that the Qur'an was dictated by Allah, through the Arch-Angel Jabril, to Muhammad, and that the current text of the Qur'an is identical to what was said by Muhammad to be the Qur'an. However, Muslims adhering to Islamic fundamentalism in addition see Islam as:

  • It describes the beliefs of traditional Muslims that they should restrict themselves to literal and traditional interpretations of their sacred texts, the Qur'an and Hadith.
  • It describes a variety of religious movements and political parties in Muslim communities. In this sense, Islamic fundamentalism is a form of religious conservatism, which is opposed to liberal movements within Islam.

Hindu Views

  • Fundamentalism, for the most part, is alien to Hinduism as followers generally adhere to the Vedic statement, "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously." However, certain sects of Shaivism and Vaishnavism, notably, ISKCON, may be viewed as fundamentalist and can often adhere to a literal interpretation of selected puranas. ISKCON, in particular, states that Krishna is the only supreme God and is famous for labeling Shiva and Devi as demigods. Most Hindus, however, believe that Vishnu and Shiva are the same and Devi is the personification of God's power. They are also clear to distinguish between demigods or devas and God.

Arguments in favor of fundamentalist positions

Fundamentalists claim both that they practice their religion as the first adherents did and that this is how religion should be practiced. In other words, a Christian ought to believe and practice as those who knew and followed Jesus during His time on earth. A Muslim ought to give the same consideration to the followers of Muhammad. Analogous arguments can be made for most systems of religious belief. Fundamentalists justify this belief on the idea that the founders of the world's religions said and did things that were not written down; in other words, their original disciples knew things that we don't. For fundamentalist Christians, this claim is justified by the Gospel of John, which ends with the statement "there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:25, NKJV) Further justification is adduced from the static or falling attendance of many liberal or reformed congregations, from the scandals that have struck, for example, the Roman Catholic church, and from the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between religiously liberal and avowedly secularist views on such matters as homosexuality, abortion and women's rights.

Criticism of the fundamentalist position

Many criticisms of the fundamentalist position have been offered. The most common is that the theological claims made by fundamentalist groups cannot be proven. Another criticism is that the rhetoric of these groups offers an appearance of uniformity and simplicity, yet within each faith community, one actually finds different texts of religious law that are accepted; each text has varying interpretations. Consequently, each fundamentalist faith is observed to splinter into many mutually antagonistic groups. They are often as hostile to each other as they are to other religions.

In order to carry out the fundamentalist program in practice, critics claim that one would first need a perfect understanding of the ancient language of the original text, if indeed the true text can be discerned from among variants. Furthermore, they charge that fundamentalists fail to recognize that fallible human beings are the ones who transmit this tradition. Elliot N. Dorff writes "Even if one wanted to follow the literal word of God, the need for people first to understand that word necessitates human interpretation. Through that process human fallibility is inextricably mixed into the very meaning of the divine word. As a result, it as impossible to follow the indisputable word of God; one can only achieve a human understanding of God's will. (A Living Tree, Dorff, 1988)

Most fundamentalists do not deal with this argument. Those that do reply to this critique hold their own religious leaders are guided by God, and thus partake of divine infallibility.

Fundamentalist is held by many to cause followers of a faith to become overly attached to their religion's leaders. Followers believe that person to be infallible, or the voice of God, and who can direct them infallibly in the interpretation of the sources of truth. Religions which have such a hold over their followers are often referred to as cults.

A general criticism of fundamentalism is the claim that fundamentalists are selective in what they believe and practice. For instance, the book of Exodus dictates that when a man's brother dies, he must marry his widowed sister-in-law. Yet fundamentalist Christians do not adhere to this doctrine, despite the fact that it is not contradicted in the New Testament.

Fundamentalist teachings are criticised by questioning the historical accuracy of the religious texts in question when compared to other historical sources; as well as questioning how documents containing so many contradictions could be considered infallible.

The novelist Bernard Cornwell was brought up as a Christian fundamentalist and studied theology in order to falsify the claims made by his adoptive parents. He stated (on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs programme on 18 April 2004) that his conversion came when he realised that the whole idea of fundamentalist religion was total rubbish and that the happiness of this realisation has never left him.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote that the greatest threat to the world is not nuclear or biological warfare but mind control. This is thought to be a reference both to fundamentalism and political ideologies such as fascism.

Fundamentalism and politics

"Fundamentalism" is a morally charged, emotive term, often used as a term of opprobrium, particularly in combination with other epithets (as in the phrase "Muslim fundamentalists" and "right-wing fundamentalists").

Very often religious fundamentalists, in all religions, are politically aware. They feel that legal and government processes must recognise the way of life they see as prescribed by God and set forth in Scripture. The state must be subservient to God, in their eyes: this, however is a basic belief of most religions.

Most 'Christian' countries went, or are also going through a similar stage in their development. The governments of many Muslim countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, are Islamic, and include people with fundamentalist beliefs. More secular politicians are often to be found working in opposition movements in these countries.

See also

External links


  • Appleby, R. Scott, Gabriel Abraham Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan (2003). Strong Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226014975
  • Armstrong, Karen (2001). The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-39169-1
  • Brasher, Brenda E. (2001). The Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415922445
  • Dorff, Elliot N. and Rosett, Arthur, A Living Tree; The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law, SUNY Press, 1988].
  • Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby (eds.). The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Last updated: 05-15-2005 05:32:33