Most people in the west would have heard the words “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist” at some point, and it has often been used in the context of religious extremism to identify religious people who do violence in the name of their religion, or those religious people who cannot admit any criticism or questioning of their beliefs. Many people would have also been exposed to what they’ve deemed religious fundamentalism in practice, whether that be in their churches, mosques, or synagogues, or on the street in schools, places of work, and so on. People have often spoken about how perceived fundamentalism has been a detriment to one’s faith, something leaving them feeling immoral, alienated, and uncomfortable. Important it is then to try and distinguish between religious fundamentalism and religious fundamentals.
Analysts would attest to the fact that ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are terms which are fairly complex and layered. They are full of meaning and almost certainly dependent on ideological context. For example, not only would the definition of fundamentalism and a fundamentalist need to be entertained, but they would also need to be situated in relation to ideology. What, for instance, would a Communist fundamentalist look like, and how might he compare to a Muslim, Christian, or idealist fundamentalist? Or if a Communist or Muslim changes his or her beliefs often deemed fundamentalist, but remains a Communist or Muslim nonetheless, is he or she still a fundamentalist? Clearly then many questions could be entertained.
One such question concerns the distinction between the terms ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘fundamentals.’ In respect to the latter, religions and philosophies must by their nature always contain some kind of fundamental foundational beliefs. The Christian religion is a good example of this. As stipulated in the essay collection, The Fundamentals, Christian foundational beliefs include the belief in the deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christ’s second coming, and the belief that believers will spend eternity with God in new physically resurrected bodies. In the same way, foundational beliefs to philosophical naturalism would be the non-existence of gods, a God, the supernatural, and the belief that the natural world is all that exists, and so on. There are similar ‘fundamentals’ to every religion from Islam’s shahada (there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger), the Mormon concept of Christ, to the Jehovah Witnesses inerrant, infallible New World Translation of the Bible. Fundamentals are thus foundational to an ideology, religion, or philosophical system in that they constitute the essence of the system that without which the system would not exist or rightly be identified as “Christianity,” “Mormonism,” or “Communism.”
It is likely that if ascribing to fundamentals is what is meant by one being deemed a fundamentalist, then one would imagine that many, if not all, practitioners of a faith or ideology would gladly and proudly accept the tag. However, many people today who live in what some have termed a “liberal society” would see fundamentalism as those who are considered to be an extremist in their views. For Christians, they are classified as such if they “believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, if they hold views against sexual permissiveness, homosexuality, abortion on demand, or any views which are politically incorrect” (1). This notion of fundamentalism can often be a pejorative smear against practitioners of a faith whose beliefs generally oppose the mainstream beliefs and politically correct ideas within a society. Often, however, fundamentalism can extend beyond just accepting the fundamentals of one’s own religion. It can be in reference to movements movements or orientations that are both politically significant and militantly irrational. Militant in this sense does not necessarily mean that the fundamentalist is abuse and violent against other human beings although this certainly has occurred, bur rather more appropriately understood as possessing an aggressive orientation in respect to his or her ideological expression. It is essentially to be aggressively active for an irrational cause, and such a person is often deemed beyond reason. As such, fundamentalism in some of the ways stipulated above (merely being extremist in one’s views) is not necessarily religious by nature. Such fundamentalism can encompass any set of beliefs and ideologies, from politics, to philosophy, secularism, social and racial ideas, and even sport. On such a view, a diehard soccer or rugby fan can just be as “fundamentalist” and extremist as some of the most ardent religious fundamentalists. Ultimately, what would seem to unify such people is their dislike of the idea of others questioning their beliefs, and often they will impose their beliefs on others.
We will be exploring the concepts of fundamentalism and fundamentals further at this blog and in some more detail, with intent to focus on the concepts as they are expressed within certain religious and non-religious traditions. At this point I think it is important to accept not only the distinction between fundamentals and fundamentalism, but also to note that fundamentalism is not necessarily monopolized by or limited to religions. If we can agree with this reasoning then it should open up exploration into the topic further.
1. Robbins, D. What People Ask About the Church. Available.