The Characteristics of Religious Fundamentalism


Religion scholar David Chidester refers to religious fundamentalism as “the wildest of wild religion” (1). Fundamentalists, he writes, “oppose modernity, threaten the state, and spread terrorism.” In popular media and academic analysis, religious fundamentalism has often been represented as a form of religion that makes inauthentic claims on religious authenticity.

Although a number of scholars find the term “fundamentalism” to be a problematic description, many yet find it useful to refer to religious groups that display certain characteristics. R. Scott Appleby finds fundamentalists to be absolutist, reactive, selectively dualistic, and millenarian in their expectations of the imminent destruction of the prevailing social order (2). Religion scholar Karen Armstrong says that,

“despite its inadequacy, the term fundamentalism has become a shorthand way of referring to a broad band of religious movements in all the major faiths that bear a strong family resemblance. While this short survey shall be confined to fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is important not to forget the fundamentalism that has erupted in Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. There is also a form of secular fundamentalism, which opposes all forms of faith as belligerently as religious fundamentalists attack secularism” (3).

Chidester finds there to be warranted concern over religious fundamentalism, especially that which “violates the moral order of modernity by its irrational violence and intolerance, its puritanical mores and patriarchal gender discrimination, which deploy premodern religious impulses to challenge modern social formations” (4). This strand of fundamentalism produces intolerance and demonizes others who question or object to the fundamentalist’s views and interpretations.

The Backlash to Modernity and Globalization

The strong reaction to modernity perceived to threaten their worldview is a major characteristic of fundamentalist ideologies. In fact, many fundamentalists fear total annihilation; according to Armstrong, “All are convinced that the modern, liberal, secular establishment wants to wipe out religion… fundamentalists fear that modern society wants to purge itself of religion” (5). Although fundamentalist religious groups emerge independently and tend to differ, at the root is a fear of change facilitated by globalization. Globalization, seen to be a major constituent of modernity, brings an influx of peoples, technologies, possibilities, ideas, values, beliefs, and worldviews to new territories where these contribute to processes of ideological change and contestation.

We have evidence of the threat of modernity in parts of the Muslim world. For example, President Kemal Ataturk, in an attempt to modernize Turkey, abolished Sufi orders, closed down all the madrasas, and forced men and women to wear Western clothing. In Iran, the Shahs, who mobilized modernization policies in the country, had their soldiers tear the veils off women. In 1935, Iranian soldiers shot at a large crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing several hundred of them protesting in a holy shrine against the wearing of obligatory Western clothes. Shah Muhammad would also execute theology students and mullahs. In the Muslim world, modernity also came with colonial subjugation so it is little wonder that under these circumstances such a severe distrust for secularization, perceived as destructive to faith rather than as liberating, has emerged. In American Christianity, moreover, fundamentalist fears emerged when the Supreme Court in 1962 deemed school-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading unconstitutional on grounds that it violated the separation of church and state. Similarly threatening was the 1973 Roe vs. Wade case that granted women the right to obtain abortions. No doubt the Christian fundamentalists found themselves under siege from every direction, thus fueling fears of annihilation.

Fundamentalism and Technology

Although fundamentalism’s backlash to modernity can be seen in various areas, its movements have also utilized technologies produced by modernity (6). Fundamentalist groups make use of the internet, cyberspace, mobile networks, and communication technologies to mobilize their following and reach supporters. More frighteningly, some groups have taken the initiative in military developments to produce suicide vests, car bombs, weaponry, and more. Armstrong thus sees how “fundamentalism is inextricably tied to the modern world, and, rather than being merely a temporary aberration, it is here to stay. Fundamentalist movements may hearken back to a Golden Age, but they are essentially modern and could have taken root in no time other than the present… Fundamentalism grows in a symbiotic relationship with the secularism against which it reacts” (7). One might consider the words of the American evangelist Billy Graham (d. 2018) who claimed to have “used every modern means to catch the attention of the unconverted — and then we punched them right between the eyes with the gospel” (8).

Backlash to Co-Religionists

Religious fundamentalists seem to take great issue with co-religionists who they feel have made too many concessions to alien ideologies (9). There are Christian fundamentalists, for example, who strongly object to other Christians who accept the science of evolution, which fundamentalists believe to be incompatible with their worldview. Armstrong explains that,

“For US Christian fundamentalists, evolution is more than a mere scientific hypothesis; it is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern world. Like abortion, it seems to reveal the destructive, murderous underbelly of modernity. An evolutionist, they imagine, champions the survival only of the fittest, convinced that might alone is right” (10).

The fundamentalist strategy is often to link evolution to social ills, such as a lack of value for human life, atheism, moral degeneracy, and more. This backlash was on display in the 1925 Scopes Trial where fundamentalists attempted to have the teaching of evolution banned from public schools. John Scopes, a biology teacher, was brought to court because the law at that time prohibited the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible” (11). Sociologist of religion Nancy Tatom Ammerman explains the issue fundamentalists started having with co-religionists,

“For many religious people, the new ideas and strange ways of life seemed too different to ever be reconciled with what they knew of Christianity. If nothing else was sacred, at least religion should be. When, in the late nineteenth century, some denominations began to liberalize their views of doctrines such as the virgin birth, human depravity, the resurrection, and life after death, conservative groups began to fight back…” (12)

Withdrawal From the Mainstream

Fundamentalists often withdraw from mainstream society to create enclaves deemed to be the pinnacle of pure faith within a godless world. For example, during the twentieth century, American fundamentalists and their churches established Christian academies where “children of believers could be educated in ‘creationist’ science and traditional values” (13). The curriculum propagated creationist science and “traditional” values and, in many cases, only white children were accepted into them (this racist inclusion criterion changed in 1964 when congress passed the Civil Rights Act enforcing racial integration). Importantly, the fundamentalist’s withdrawal from society does not mean that they will resort to engaging in violence; according to Armstrong, “Only a tiny proportion of fundamentalists take part in acts of violence or terror. Most are simply engaged in an uphill struggle to lead what they regard as truly religious lives in a society that seems essentially and irredeemably hostile to their faiths” (14). Thus, such groups will often plan counter-offensive strategies against the dominant political or religious establishment. American Protestant fundamentalists, for instance, usually engage in peaceful and lawful campaigns to oppose liberal or “heretical” views from school textbooks. Bob Jones University in South Carolina is a fundamentalist enclave that is fully dedicated to young-Earth creationism and anti-evolutionism, even in its own science department. Although counter-offensive strategies are usually devoid of violence and aggressive behaviour, there is always the threat of violence. Because fundamentalists are convinced their worldviews are under threat of extinction, that the world is closing in on them, and that they are at war with the powers of darkness, there is always the possibility of them lashing out violently.

Fundamentalism and Violence

And indeed there are cases where fundamentalists have lashed out and resorted to violence to obtain their goals. Formations including Sikh extremists, al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, Islamic revolutionaries in Chechnya, the Jewish underground, Zionist extremists, and American Christian radicals who stalked feminist activists and gunned down abortion doctors have resorted to various forms of violence. Hamas, for instance, is the Muslim Brotherhood’s military arm with the goal of destroying Israel and establishing an Islamic Palestinian state. Such a goal is only attainable through the violent spilling of blood. But fortunately, as Armstrong notes, “All the great world religions insist that every form of religiosity must lead to compassion. Fundamentalists often fail this test: they are so gripped by their fears of destruction that they often downplay those passages in their scriptures that speak of respect for the sacred rights of others and emphasize the more belligerent strains in their respective traditions” (15).

Fundamentalism and Politics

A number of scholars have identified fundamentalism as providing a political problem. Gabriel Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan claim fundamentalism to be one of the “most significant political phenomena of our time.” Armstrong agrees and writes that “Once religion is brought into politics, positions become more absolute and more difficult to resolve” (16). A major reason for fundamentalism being a political problem is the fundamentalist’s desire for state power and because they can form powerful opposition groups. For example, in five instances since 1979, fundamentalists have captured nation-states: Iran (1979), Sudan (1993), Turkey (1996), Afghanistan (1996), and India (1996, 1998, and 1999). Fundamentalism is also “entangled” in family, sexual, and gender politics (17). In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell constructed a political “profamily” program proposing initiatives to restore “traditional” moral values in American society by opposing reproductive choices, women’s rights, and alternative sexualities. Religious fundamentalism has often been obsessed with women’s bodies and male power. Anthropologist Homa Hoodfar explains that “Controlling women and their bodies and reclaiming the family as a site of male power and dominance is a common thread found in all brands of fundamentalism” (18). Armstrong views the situation similarly writing that “since the emancipation of women has been one of the most prominent hallmarks of modernity, fundamentalists in all traditions tend to overemphasize women’s traditional, secondary role” (19).


1. Chidester, David. 2012. Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa. University of California Press. p. 73.

2. Appleby, R. Scott. 2002. “Fundamentalism.” Foreign Policy 128:16-18, 20-22.

3. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. “Resisting Modernity: The Backlash Against Secularism.” Harvard International Review 25(4):40-45. p. 40.

4. Chidester, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 73

5. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 42.

6. Chidester, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 84.

7. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 44.

8. Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. Portland: Broadway Books. p. 26.

9. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 41.

10. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 43.

11. Brinkley, Alan., and Fitzpatrick, Ellen. 1997. America in the Modern Times. New York: The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc. p. 226-228.

12. Tatom Ammerman, Nancy. 1987. Fundamentalists in the Modern World: Bible Believers. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

13. Reichley, A James. 1987. “The Evangelical and Fundamentalist Revolt.” In Piety and Politics, edited by Richard Neuhaus and Michael Cromartie. Washington: Ethics & Public Policy Center. p. 76.

14. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 41.

15. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 45.

16. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 44.

17. Chidester, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 85.

18. Hoodfar, Homa. 1996. “Bargaining with fundamentalism: Women and the politics of population control in Iran.” Reproductive Health Matters 4(8):30-40. p. 30.

19. Armstrong, Karen. 2004. Ibid. p. 45.

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