Fundamentalism refers to a "deep and totalistic commitment" to a belief in, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), a reaction to perceived doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.
The term fundamentalism was originally coined to describe a narrowly defined set of beliefs that developed into a movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century, and that had its roots in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of that time. Until 1950, there was no entry for fundamentalism in the Oxford English Dictionary; the derivative fundamentalist was added only in its second 1989 edition.
The term fundamentalist has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs in the face of criticism or unpopularity, but has by and large retained religious connotations. The collective use of the term fundamentalist to describe non-Christian movements has offended some Christians who desire to retain the original definition.
Fundamentalism is often used as a pejorative term, particularly when combined with other epithets (as in the phrase "Muslim fundamentalists" and "right-wing fundamentalists"). Richard Dawkins used the term to characterize religious advocates as clinging to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence. Others in turn, such as Christian theologian Alister McGrath, have used the term fundamentalism to characterize atheism as dogmatic.
The term "fundamentalism" has its roots in the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) which defined those things that were fundamental to belief. The term was also used to describe "The Fundamentals", a collection of twelve books on five subjects published in 1910 by Milton and Lyman Steward 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 first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which distilled these into what became known as the "five fundamentals":
By the late 1910s, theological conservatives rallying around the Five Fundamentals came to be known as "fundamentalists."
Since then, the focus of the movement, the meaning of the term Fundamentalism, and the ranks of those who willingly use it to identify themselves, have gone through several phases of re-definition, though maintaining the central commitment to its orthodoxy.
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.
Some fundamentalist movements, therefore, claim to be 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.
Since a religion's scripture is considered the word of its god or 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 able 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 god or gods will bring those who disobey 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.
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 Shintō and a strongly nationalistic streak.
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. A statement which was rejected by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (aka 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.
Recently, the Western Shugden Society have written an open letter to Robert Thurman, challenging him to justify this claim: "You should show your evidence publicly through the internet before 25th October 2008. If your evidence does not appear by this date then we will conclude that you have lied publicly and are misleading people."
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. It would appear that there is no significant Christian denomination which is "literalist" in the sense that they believe that the Bible contains no figurative or poetic language. As the term is commonly used, "literalists" are those Christians who are more inclined to believe that portions of scripture (most particularly parts of the Book of Revelation) which most Christians read in a figurative way are in fact intended to be read in a literal way. 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.
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.
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.)
In regards to attitudes to scriptures, many schools of Hinduism such as Smartism and Advaitism encourage interpretation of scriptures philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, other schools, such as Vaishnavism stress the literal meaning (mukhya vṛitti) as primary and indirect meaning (gauṇa vṛitti) as secondary: sākṣhād upadesas tu shrutih - "The instructions of the shruti-shāstra should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations.
In all the above cases, Islamic fundamentalism represents a conservative religious belief, as opposed to liberal movements within Islam.
The fundamentalist "wall of virtue", which protects their identity, is erected against not only other religions, but also against the modernized, 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. In Islam there are jama'at ((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:
In The New Inquisition, Robert Anton Wilson lampoons the members of skeptical organizations like the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP - now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) as fundamentalist materialists, alleging that they dogmatically dismiss any evidence that conflicts with materialism as hallucination or fraud.
In France, the imposition of restrictions on public display of religion has been labeled by some as "Secular Fundamentalism." The idea of non-religious fundamentalism almost always expands the definition of "fundamentalism" along the lines of criticisms.
The term "fundamentalism" is sometimes self-applied to signify 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.
Sam Harris has been criticized by some of his fellow contributors at The Huffington Post. In particular, RJ Eskow has accused him of fostering an intolerance towards faith, potentially as damaging as the religious fanaticism which he opposes.
In December 2007, the Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan criticized what he referred to as "atheistic fundamentalism", claiming that it advocated that religion has no substance and "that faith has no value and is superstitious nonsense." He claimed it led to situations such as councils calling Christmas "Winterval", schools refusing to put on nativity plays and crosses removed from chapels, though others have disputed this.
Richard Dawkins has rejected the charge of "fundamentalism," arguing that critics mistake his "passion" - which he says may match that of evangelical Christians - for an inability to change his mind. Dawkins asserts that the atheists' position is not a set of fundamental beliefs, but one held based on the verifiable evidence - as he puts it: "The true scientist, however passionately he may “believe”, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will."
Sociologist of religion Tex Sample asserts that it is a mistake to refer to a Muslim, Jewish, or Christian Fundamentalist. Rather, a fundamentalist's fundamentalism is their primary concern, over and above other denominational or faith considerations.
A criticism by Elliot N. Dorff: "In order to carry out the fundamentalist program in practice, one would need a perfect understanding of the ancient language of the original text, if indeed the true text can be discerned from among variants. Furthermore, human beings are the ones who transmit this understanding between generations. "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 criticism of fundamentalism is the claim that fundamentalists are selective in what they believe. For instance, the book of Genesis 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, 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 .
"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."
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.
Howard Thurman was interviewed in the late 1970s for a BBC feature on religion. He told the interviewer, "I say that creeds, dogmas, and theologies are inventions of the mind. It is the nature of the mind to make sense out of experience, to reduce the conglomerates of experience to units of comprehension which we call principles, or ideologies, or concepts. Religious experience is dynamic, fluid, effervescent, yeasty. But the mind can't handle these so it has to imprison religious experience in some way, get it bottled up. Then, when the experience quiets down, the mind draws a bead on it and extracts concepts, notions, dogmas, so that religious experience can make sense to the mind. Meanwhile religious experience goes on experiencing, so that by the time I get my dogma stated so that I can think about it, the religious experience becomes an object of thought."
American futurist John Renesch expands upon this notion by stating, "For me, fundamentalism is an attempt to comprehend that which cannot be comprehended, to rationalize the unfathomable, “effing” the ineffable. It is similar to trying to measure the immeasurable or the “indefinitely extensive.” It is the human mind doing what it is supposed to do, making sense of things. But some things are ineffable and attempts to make sense of them are fruitless unless one is willing to settle for any explanation just to have one. Again, this goes for business, law, medicine, romance, politics…anything, not just religion."
Christian fundamentalists, who generally consider the term to be pejorative when used to refer to themselves, often object to the placement of themselves and Islamist groups into a single category given that the fundamentals of Christianity are different than the fundamentals of Islam. 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. Shia groups which are often considered fundamentalist in the western world generally are not described that way in the Islamic world.