What is Fundamentalism?

I recently had a discussion with another blogger on the definition of fundamentalism, and it got me wondering, what really is fundamentalism?

Early in the twentieth century there was a movement to re-interpret all the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith to bring them in line with the modern world. This movement was called “modernism.” Some theologians from Princeton wrote a series of booklets called “The Fundamentals,” defending traditional Christian beliefs.

The Princeton professors were not ignorant or violent. They were not opposed to science or social progress; they were traditional in their belief. They did not believe there was any essential conflict between traditional beliefs and science or progress.

Fundamentalism was first a theological description. It has now become a sociological description for intolerant, violent extremists in any religion.

We are painfully aware of the violence associated with Muslim fundamentalism, and there are a few fringe groups of Christian fundamentalism that are troublesome.

Recently in Jerusalem a woman was attacked on a bus for refusing to sit in the back. (See “In Jerusalem as well as Tehran.”)

Fundamentalism is not identical with having a holy book. There are Christians, for example, who regard the Bible as the authoritative source of their faith but who also recognize the complexity of the historical interpretation of the Bible. There are also fundamentalist forms of religions that do not rely on a single sacred text like the Bible or the Qur’an.

These are the attributes I see in modern fundamentalism:

1. The belief that a group has exclusive and direct access to the absolute truth, whether it be in the form of a holy book, a living prophet, or an inspired tradition. There is no room for questions of interpretation, subtleties of meaning, or flexibility in application.

2. The denial of any other form of access to the truth. If reason, conscience, or experience conflict with the group’s truth, they must be suppressed.

3. A siege mentality: the belief that the group is engaged in a mortal struggle with the forces of evil, that all those outside of the group are enemies.

4. The justification of all means necessary to defeat the enemy: coercion, violence, or deception are equally valid.

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting description. For me the element of ‘literalism’ is important in any definition. That was, what for me, used to distinguish between ‘evanglicalism’ and ‘fundamentalism’. The fundamentalists believed in creationism, the evangelicals, while holding to a high view of the holy book, would concede that literature didn’t have to be taken literally.

  2. Interestingly enough, B.B. Warfield, one of the original “fundamentalists” believed that the Bible was inerrant but didn’t have a problem with evolution. I agree with you that literalism is a component, but the term “literal” is used in various ways and can be somewhat confusing. In dealing with the Bible, “literal” interpretations are often unhistorical; they would have been meaningless to the original readers and writers.

    I also find a wide variety in what people mean when they say they do or don’t believe in creation or evolution. Some who reject evolution have no problem with development over long ages; they just reject the idea that God had nothing to do with it, that we are “the result of impersonal forces that did not have us in mind.” Others who reject the idea of creation think the only option is the direct creation of every variety of finch (for example) within a 24-hour period, about six-thousand years ago.

  3. I would also add as a marker a tendency to glorify the past and demonize the present.

  4. Interesting thought. Thanks for reading, Jon.

  5. Funny how words change over time. No longer is the word ‘fundamentalist’ a compliment. I had never thought to articulate the four point description above, but in light of today’s radical fundamentalists, it looks like the description fits. The list above seems to become more radical as it progresses, as does the real life practice of many fundamentalists.
    On the other hand, there are some things I believe about the Bible that are not subject to change. While I don’t believe I’d kill someone for disagreeing with me over them, I do like to think that I’d be willing to die for those essentials of my faith. Does that make me a fundamentalist?

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