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In comparative religion, fundamentalism has come to refer to several different understandings of religious thought and practice, through literal interpretation of religious texts such as the Bible or the Qur'an and sometimes also anti-modernist movements in various religions.


Movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.

  • 1. A movement in north american Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.
  • 2. The beliefs held by those in this movement.
  • 3. Strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines fundamentalism as a usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

Brief History

Fundamentalism, as the term is used today, is a fairly recent creation closely linked with the historical and cultural contexts of 1920s U.S. Protestantism (e.g. the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the Presbyterian Church). Since then the term has been 'exported' abroad and applied to a wide variety of religions including Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. Fundamentalism should not be confused with Revivalist movements which can be traced back much further in time and are not specific to 20th Century America.

Used in its contemporary sense, Fundamentalism is a continuing historical 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 as well as scientifically accurate, despite possible contradiction of these claims by scholarship and scientists otherwise considered as being authoriative.

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.

Origins and Development of the Term

Fundamentalism, as a movement, arose in the United States starting among conservative Presbyterian academics and theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. It spread from there to conservatives among the Baptists and other denominations during and immediately after the First World War. The movement's purpose was to reaffirm orthodox Protestant Christianity and to defend it zealously against the challenges of liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other "-isms" it regarded as harmful to Christianity. Since then, the focus of the movement, the meaning of the term, and the ranks of those who willingly use the term to identify themselves have changed several times. Fundamentalism has so far gone through four phases of expression while maintaining its central commitment to its orthodoxy.

The earliest phase involved identifying the fundamentals of Christianity and initiating an urgent battle to expel those inimical to orthodox Protestantism from the ranks of the churches.

The series of twelve volumes called The Fundamentals (1910-1915) provided a wide listing of things considered inimical to the Faith: Romanism (i.e., Catholicism), Socialism, modern philosophy, atheism, Eddyism (i.e., Mary Baker Eddy and her Christian Science), Mormonism, spiritualism (i.e., "channeling" and the like, but above all, "liberal theology", which rested on a naturalistic interpretation of the doctrines of the faith), German higher criticism, and Darwinism, all of which appeared to undermine the Bible’s authority. The writers of the articles were a broad group from North America and the United Kingdom and from many denominations. The doctrines they defined and defended covered the whole range of traditional Christian teachings.

Almost immediately, however, the list of inimical movements became narrower and the “fundamentals” less comprehensive. Some defenders of the fundamentals of Christianity began to organize outside the churches and within the denominations. The General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1910 affirmed five essential doctrines regarded as under attack in the church: the inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the historicity of the miracles. These were reaffirmed in 1916 and 1923. Another version put the Deity of Christ in place of the Virgin Birth.

The term "fundamentalist" was perhaps first used in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist Watchman-Examiner; but it seemed to pop up everywhere in the early 1920s as an obvious way to identify someone who believed and actively defended these doctrines of Christianity. The Baptist John Roach Straton called his newspaper The Fundamentalist in the 1920s. The Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen disliked the word, and only hesitatingly accepted it to describe himself, because, he said, the name sounded like a new religion and not the same historic Christianity that the Church had always believed.

Through the 1920s in the United States, the fundamentalists and modernists struggled against each other for control of the large northern denominations. Fundamentalists viewed this struggle as nothing less than a struggle for true (i.e., historical) Christianity against a new non-Christian religion that had crept into the churches themselves. In his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) Machen called the new naturalistic religion "Liberalism" but later followed the more popular fashion of calling it "Modernism".

Even though people like Harry Emerson Fosdick professed to be Christian, fundamentalists felt Fosdick and other nonfundamentalists could not be regarded as such because they denied the traditional formulations of the doctrines of Christianity and created modern naturalistic statements of the doctrines. The issue was as much a struggle over a view of the identity of Christianity as it was over a method of doing theology and a view of history. Fundamentalists believed that the ways the doctrines were formulated in an earlier era were true and that modern attempts to reformulate them were bound to be false. In other words, the fundamentals were unchanging.

Church struggles occurred in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Protestant Episcopal Church, and even in the Southern Presbyterian Church, but the grand battles were fought in the Northern Presbyterian and Northern Baptist denominations. Machen was the undisputed leader among Presbyterians, joined by Clarence E. Macartney. Baptists created the National Federation of the Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptists (1921), the Fundamentalist Fellowship (1921), and the Baptist Bible Union (1923) to lead the fight. The battles focused upon the seminaries, the mission boards, and the ordination of clergy. In many ways, however, the real strongholds of the Fundamentalists were the Southern Baptists and the countless new independent churches spread across America’s South and Midwest, as well as the East and West.

LATE 1920s TO THE EARLY 1940s: By 1926 or so, those who were zealous for the fundamentals had failed to expel the modernists from any denomination. Orthodox Protestants, who still numerically dominated all the denominations, now began to struggle amongst themselves. During the Depression of the 1930s the term "fundamentalist" gradually shifted meaning as it came to apply to only one party among those who believed the traditional fundamentals of the faith. This party embraced a policy of separation – if they could not remove modernists from the Church, they would remove the Church [meaning themselves] from the modernists. Meanwhile, neo-orthodoxy associated with Karl Barth’s critique of modernism found adherents in America as well as Europe.

During this period, "fundamentalist" came to refer principally to those advocating a separatist practice as a means of maintaining the fundamentals of the faith. These separatist fundamentalists split off from the modernist mainline churches, forming various new orthodox denominations. These fundamentalists also identified themselves with what they believed was pure in personal morality and American culture. Thus the term "fundamentalist" came to refer largely to orthodox Protestants outside the large Northeastern denominations.

EARLY 1940s TO THE 1970s: In the 40s, a split occurred among these separatist fundamentalists, specifically over the issue of separatism. While the persistent separatists continued to identify themselves as "fundamentalists", the other sector came to regard the term as undesirable, having connotations of divisiveness, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, lack of concern for social problems, and possibly even ignorance or foolishness. This second group wished to regain fellowship with the orthodox Protestants who still constituted the vast majority of the clergy and laity in the large Northeastern denominations – Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian. They began calling themselves "evangelicals" rather than "fundamentalists". The champions of this movement were Carl F. H. Henry and Kenneth Kantzer, and later Billy Graham. While the two groups still had much in common organizationally, methodologically, and theologically, the fundamentalists believed they were more zealous than evangelicals in their opposition to apostasy, Communism, and personal evils, and they were far less willing to cater to social and intellectual respectability. The evangelicals regarded the separatists’ approach as unduly antagonistic and counter-productive; furthermore, by abandoning ecclesiastic, academic, and social institutions, the separatist fundamentalists had essentially surrendered control of these fields to the modernists. The separatist hard-liners tended to oppose Billy Graham, the reading of Christianity Today, and patronage of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, while evangelicals supported these.

LATE 1970s AND THE 1980s: During this period, dismayed by changing social conditions, many of the separatist fundamentalists also rethought the withdrawal from society, and became politically active, and as such were sometimes described as neo-fundamentalists. They formed coalitions with other conservative Christians. Jerry Falwell, and Tim LaHaye together with Pat Robertson became leaders of the trend. Religious and moral conservatives of all kinds also went on the offensive at that time, all trying to re-assert conservative (orthodox) control of the churches and other institutions. However, this shift has tended to blur the lines between fundamentalist, evangelical, and all other conservative Christians, and even social conservatives of all religious persuasions.

The fundamentalist phenomenon

Although the term fundamentalism in popular usage usually 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 title of a four volume set of books called The Fundamentals published in 1909. The books were published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (B.I.O.L.A. now Biola University), and edited by R.A. Torrey, who was a minister affiliated with the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Initially the project was funded by Lyman Stewart, president and cofounder of the Union Oil Company of California (currently known as UNOCAL), and cofounder of B.I.O.L.A. The books were a republication of a series of essays that were sent by mail to every minister in the United States. They were called "The Fundamentals" because they appealed to all Christians to affirm specific fundamental doctrines such as The Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Jesus. This series of essays came to be representative of the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" which appeared late in the 19th 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 can be known as "born again" and "Bible-believing" Protestants, as opposed to "mainline", "liberal", "modernist" Protestants, who represent "Churchianity". In Islam there are jama'at (Arabic: (religious) enclaves with connotations of close fellowship) fundamentalists self-consciously engaged in jihad (struggle) against the Western culture that suppresses authentic Islam (submission) and the God-given (Shari'ah) way of life. In Judaism fundamentalists are Haredi "Torah-true" Jews. There are fundamentalist equivalents in Hinduism and other world religions. These groups insist 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. This is especially obvious if modernity, secularism or an atheistic perspective is adopted as the norm, against which these varieties of traditionalism or supernaturalism are compared. From such a perspective, 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." [2]

Controversy over use of the term

The Associated Press' AP Stylebook recommends that the term fundamentalist not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself. Many scholars, however, use the term in the broader descriptive sense to refer to various groups in various religious traditions, and the massive five-volume study The Fundamentalism Project published by the University of Chicago takes this approach. In popular discussions, the term fundamentalist is frequently used improperly to refer to a broad range of conservative, orthodox, or militiant religious movements.

Christian fundamentalists, who generally consider the term to be positive when used to refer to themselves, often object to the placement of themselves and Islamist groups into a single category. They feel that characteristics based on the new definition are wrongly projected back onto Christian fundamentalists by their critics.

Many Muslims protest the use of the term when referring to Islamist groups, and object to being placed in the same category as Christian fundamentalists, whom they see as theologically incomplete. Unlike Christian fundamentalist groups, Islamist groups do not use the term fundamentalist to refer to themselves. Shiite groups which are often considered fundamentalist in the western world generally are not described that way in the Islamic world.

Basic beliefs of religious fundamentalists

For religious fundamentalists, sacred scripture is considered the authentic, and literal word of their religion's god or gods. Fundamentalist beliefs depend on the twin doctrines that their gods articulated his will precisely to prophets, and that followers also have a reliable and perfect record of that revelation.

Since a religion's scripture is considered the word of its gods, fundamentalists believe that no person is right to change it or disagree with it. Within that though, there are many differences between different fundamentalists. For example, many Christian fundamentalists believe in free will, that every person is allowed to make their own choices, but with consequence. The appeal of this point of view is its simplicity: every person can do what they like, as much as they are able, but their gods will bring those who disobey him without repentance ("turning away from sin") to justice. This is made clear by the commands of Jesus in the New Testament concerning any kind of revenge("Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord" for one). The Judaist belief is similar, but they do not believe that it is wrong to take vengeance. The fundamentalist insistence on strict observation of religious laws may lead to an accusation of legalism in addition to exclusivism in the interpretation of metaphysical beliefs.

Christian views

Main article: Fundamentalist Christianity

Self-described Christian fundamentalists see the 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 human beings, which is held to fulfill the Old Testament, in regard to God's redemptive plan. On the basis of this confidence in Scripture, many fundamentalist Christians accept the account of scripture as being literally true.

It is important to distinguish between the "literalist" and Fundamentalist groups within the Christian community. Literalists, as the name indicates, hold that the Bible should be taken literally in every part. English language Bibles are themselves translations and therefore not a literal word-for-word rendering of the original texts; the King James Version is notable, which while poetic, uses arcane language. Literalism can also encompass only believing one translation of the Bible, usually the KJV, is valid for use.

Many Christian Fundamentalists, on the other hand, are for the most part content to hold that the Bible should be taken literally only where there is no indication to the contrary. As William Jennings Bryan put it, in response to Clarence Darrow's questioning during the Scopes Trial (1925):

"I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: 'Ye are the salt of the earth.' I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving Ebba's people."

Still, the tendency toward a literal reading of the Bible is criticized by mainline Protestant scholars and others.[3] [4] [5] .

According to anthropologist Lionel Caplan,

"In the Protestant milieu of the USA, fundamentalism crystallized in response to liberals' eagerness to bring Christianity into the post-Darwinian world by questioning the scientific and historical accuracy of the scripture. Subsequently, the scourge of evolution was linked with socialism, and during the Cold War period, with communism. This unholy trinity came to be regarded as a sinister, atheistic threat to Christian America...Bruce [Chpt. 9 of Caplan 1987] suggests that to understand the success of the Moral Majority, an alliance between the conservative forces of the New Right and the fundamentalist wings on the mainly Southern Baptist Churches, we have to appreciate these fears, as well as the impact of a host of unwelcome changes - in attitudes to 'morality', family, civil and women's rights, and so on - which have, in the wake of economic transformations since the Second World War, penetrated especially the previously insular social and cultural world of the American South." (Caplan 1987: 6)

The term fundamentalist has historically referred specifically to members of the various Protestant denominations who subscribed to the five "fundamentals", rather than fundamentalists forming an independent denomination. This wider movement of Fundamentalist Christianity has since broken up into various movements which are better described in other terms. Early "fundamentalists" included J. Gresham Machen and B.B. Warfield, men who would not be considered "Fundamentalists" today.

Over time the term came to be associated with a particular segment of evangelical Protestantism, who distinguished themselves by their separatist approach toward modernity, toward aspects of the culture which they feel typify the modern world, and toward other Christians who did not similarly separate themselves. Examples of things that fundamentalists might believe important to avoid are, modern translations of the Bible, alcoholic drinks or recreational drugs, tobacco, modern popular music including Christian contemporary music, folk instruments in worship, dancing, "mixed bathing" (men and women swimming together), and gender-neutral or trans-gender clothing and hair-styles. Such things might seem innocuous to the outsider, but to some fundamentalists they represent the leading edge of a threat to the virtuous way of life and the purer form of belief that they seek to protect and to hold forth before the world as an example. Many fundamentalists accept only the King James Version translation of the Bible and study tools based on it, such as the Scofield Reference Bible.

Because of the prevalence of dispensational eschatology, some fundamentalists vehemently support the modern nation of Israel, believing the Jews to have significance in God's purposes parallel to the Christian churches, and a special role to play at the end of the world.

The term, fundamentalist, is difficult to apply unambiguously, especially when applied to groups outside the USA, which are typically far less dogmatic. Many self-described Fundamentalists would include Jerry Falwell in their company, but would not embrace Pat Robertson as a fundamentalist because of his espousal of charismatic teachings. Fundamentalist institutions include Pensacola Christian College, and Bob Jones University, but classically Fundamentalist schools such as Fuller Theological Seminary and Biola University no longer describe themselves as Fundamentalist, although in the broad sense described by this article they are fundamentalist (better, Evangelical) in their perspective. (The forerunner to Biola U. - the Bible Institute of Los Angeles - was founded under the financial patronage of Lyman Stewart, with his brother Milton, underwrote the publication of a series of 12 books jointly entitled The Fundamentals between 1909 and 1920.)

Jewish views

Main article: Jewish fundamentalism

Most 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 Torah; this material is contained in the Mishnah, Talmud, Gemara 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, 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 frequently ascribe infallibility to their Rebbe's interpretation of the traditional sources of truth.

Mormon views

Main article: Mormon fundamentalism

Mormon fundamentalism is a conservative movement of Mormonism that believes or practices what its adherents consider to be the fundamental aspects of Mormonism. Most often, Mormon fundamentalism represents a break from the brand of Mormonism practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and a return to Mormon doctrines and practices which adherents believe the LDS Church has wrongly abandoned, such as plural marriage, the Law of Consecration, the Adam-God theory, blood atonement, the Patriarchal Priesthood, elements of the Mormon Endowment ritual, and often the exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood. Mormon fundamentalists have formed numerous sects, many of which have established small, cohesive, and isolated communities in areas of the Western United States.

Islamic views

Main article: Islamic fundamentalism

Muslims believe that their religion was revealed by God (Allah in Arabic) to Muhammad,the prophet of Islam, the final prophet delivered by God. However, the Muslims brand of conservatism which is generally termed Islamic fundamentalism encompasses all the following:

  • It describes the beliefs of traditional Muslims that they should restrict themselves to literal interpretations of their sacred texts, the Qur'an and Hadith. This may describe the private religious attitudes of individuals and have no relationship with larger social groups.
  • It describes a variety of religious movements and political parties in Muslim communities.
  • As opposed to the above two usages, in the West "Islamic fundamentalism" is most often used to describe Muslim individuals and groups which advocate Islamism, a political ideology calling for the replacement of state secular laws with Islamic law. The more radical of these Islamists may advocate violent overthrow of secular states, or even Islamist terrorism.

In all the above cases, Islamic fundamentalism represents a conservative religious belief, as opposed to liberal movements within Islam.

"Non-Abrahamic" religions

Some argue that the religious idea of fundamentalism is limited to "Abrahamic religions", and have connected the phenomenon specifically to the notion of revealed religion. However, the answer to the question, Who is a fundamentalist? is in the eye of the beholder. It is not uncommon for detractors to apply the fundamentalist label to Heathens or virtually anything else religious, describing an attitude rather than a self-perception or a doctrine.


H.H. the Dalai Lama has agreed that there exist also extremists and fundamentalists in Buddhism,[1] arguing that fundamentalists are not even able to pick up the idea of a possibly dialogue.[1]

The Japanese Nichiren sect of Buddhism, which believes that other forms of Buddhism are heretical, is also sometimes labelled fundamentalist. However, Nichiren Buddhism contains influences from Shintoism and a strongly nationalistic streak that would disqualify it from being fundamentalist in the strictest sense.

At the height of the Dorje Shugden Controversy Robert Thurman claimed: "It would not be unfair to call Shugdens the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism" referring to the Muslim extremists of Afghanistan, who believe in swift and brutal justice.[2] A statement which was rejected by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the NKT, arguing: "This really is a false accusation against innocent people. We have never done anything wrong. We simply practise our own religion, as passed down through many generations.";[3]

David N. Kay argued in his doctoral research that the New Kadampa Tradition (aka NKT) fit into the criteria of Robert Lifton’s definition of the fundamentalist self.[4] Inken Prohl stated: "Kay’s argument shows that, due to the NKT’s homogenous organizational structure, its attempts to establish a uniformity of belief and practice within the organization, and an emphasis on following one tradition coupled with a critical attitude toward other traditions, the NKT fits into Lifton’s category of “fundamentalism”. Kay describes how struggles for control of NKT’s institutional sites and NKT’s repressed memory of its institutional conflicts both contribute to NKT’s later 'fundamentalist' identity."[5] However Prohl states also: "Although this observation presents a convincing and challenging observation of a mechanism at work in Buddhist organizations in the West, I would hesitate to characterize, as Kay does, such organizations as 'fundamentalist' due to the vague and, at the same time, extremely political implications of this term."[5]

Non-religious fundamentalism

Some refer to any literal-minded or intolerant philosophy with pretense of being the sole source of objective truth, as fundamentalist, regardless of whether it is usually called a religion. For example, when Albania under Enver Hoxha declared itself an "atheist state", it was deemed by some to be a kind of "Fundamentalist Atheism". There are people who in their attempt to live according to the writings of Ayn Rand seem to detractors to transgress respect for other perspectives in propagating their views, so that they are deemed to be a kind of "Objectivist Fundamentalist", and they are spoken of derogatorily as, "Randroids." In France, the imposition of restrictions on public display of religion has been labelled by some as "Secular Fundamentalism." The idea of non-religious Fundamentalism almost always expands the definition of "Fundamentalism" along the lines of criticisms.

In The New Inquisition, Robert Anton Wilson lampoons the members of skeptical organizations like CSICOP as fundamentalist materialists, alleging that they dogmatically dismiss any evidence that conflicts with materialism as hallucination or fraud.

Occasionally, it seems to represent an idea of purity, and is self-applied as signifying a rather counter-cultural fidelity to some noble, simple, but overlooked principle, as in Economic fundamentalism; but the same term can be used in a critical way. Roderick Hindery first lists positive qualities attributed to political, economic, or other forms of cultural fundamentalism. They include "vitality, enthusiasm, willingness to back up words with actions, and the avoidance of facile compromise." Then, negative aspects are analyzed, such as psychological attitudes, occasionally elitist and pessimistic perspectives, and in some cases literalism.

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 adducted 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. Some of the most common are that the theological claims made by fundamentalist groups cannot be proven, and can be considered irrational or demonstrably false and contrary to scientific evidence. For example, some of these criticisms were famously asserted by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial. 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 addition, it has been observed that there is no such thing as a Muslim, Jewish, or Christian Fundamentalist. Rather, a fundamentalist's fundamentalism is their primary concern, over and above other denominational or faith considerations.

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 is 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 their god or gods, and thus partake of divine infallibility.

Fundamentalism 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 their gods, 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. However, defenders of fundamentalism argue that according to New Testament theology, large parts, if not all of the Mosaic Law, are not normative for modern Christians. They may cite passages such Colossians 2:14 which describes Jesus Christ as "having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us" (NKJV). Other fundamentalists argue that only certain parts of the Mosaic Law, parts that rely on universal moral principles, are normative for today. Therefore, in their view, there is no contradiction between such passages in the Old Testament and their belief in biblical infallibility. Critics contend that unreasonable literal readings of the Bible and other religious texts by fundamentalists necessarily result in advocating contradictory and even hypocritical positions.

Christian fundamentalists often insist that the Bible is infallible in its various prophetic assertions. However, in the book of Ezekiel, specifically Ezekiel 26:1-14, we find a prophecy (the conquering of the city of Tyre) that, according to Ezekiel 29:18-20, seems to have not been fullfilled in exactly the way the prophet had predicted. This prophecy is the subject of much scholarly debate in regard to interpretation of the prophecy itself and the interpretation of the actual events that took place. At any rate, it is clear that Nebuchadnezzar did in fact conquer the city of Tyre as prophesied, although the spoils of the battle apparently were not as extravagant as Ezekiel predicted they would be, and the city has been rebuilt (modern day Sur, Lebanon) contrary to prophetic claims it would never stand again.

Another discrepancy found in the actual recorded words of the Bible is found in Mark 2:26 when Jesus asks the Pharisees if they remembered how David “went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering.” According to 1 Samuel 21, however, the high priest was Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech. This contrast between these two passages of the Bible is used by many to criticize the view that the Bible is absolutely inerrant.

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 that some believe to contain many contradictions could be considered infallible.

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 their gods and set forth in their scripture. In their eyes, the state must be subservient to their God: this, however is a basic belief of most religions, even if their practitioners do not insist upon it.

Most "Christian" countries go 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.


  • Appleby, R. Scott, Gabriel Abraham Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan (2003). Strong Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01497-5
  • 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 0-415-92244-5
  • Caplan, Lionel. (1987). "Studies in Religious Fundamentalism". London: The MacMillan Press Ltd.
  • Dorff, Elliot N. and Rosett, Arthur, A Living Tree; The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law, SUNY Press, 1988.
  • Gorenberg, Gershom. (2000). The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. New York: The Free Press.
  • Hindery, Roderick. 2001. Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? Mellen Press: aspects of fundamentalism, pp. 69-74.
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
  • Marsden; George M. (1980). Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 Oxford University Press, ([6])
  • Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby (eds.). The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ruthven, Malise (2005). "Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning". Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280606-8
  • Torrey, R.A. (ed.). (1909). The Fundamentals. Los Angeles: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (B.I.O.L.A. now Biola University). ISBN 0-8010-1264-3
  • "Religious movements: fundamentalist." In Goldstein, Norm (Ed.) (2003). The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2003 (38th ed.), p. 218. New York: The Associated Press. ISBN 0-917360-22-2.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tibet und Buddhismus, No. 79, April/2006, page 14, web:[1]
  2. Newsweek, April 28 1997, CESNUR
  3. Reply to Newsweek, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 1997, CESNUR
  4. Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain: Transplantation, Development and Adaptation by David N. Kay, London and New York, page 110, ISBN 0-415-29765-6
  5. 5.0 5.1 Inken Prohl, Free University of Berlin, Book Review on "Tibetan and Zen Buddhism in Britain..."

See also

External links

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