What is Fundamentalism?

The termfundamentalist” is a controversial one, mainly because few want to be labeled with it on the one hand, and its overuse on the other makes it vague and meaningless.

One recent suggestion offered on Facebook (as something someone else had once said) is that fundamentalism is “the belief that the Bible is easy to read, and that it consists primarily of prohibitions.”

The term originally comes from The Fundamentals, a series of tracts published a little more than a century ago. But things that were not considered fundamentals then – such as denial of mainstream science – have come to characterize it, and those first “fundamentalists” were far more intellectually rigorous and serious than most who are so labeled today.

This is worth highlighting, because fundamentalists often characterize themselves as defenders of unchanging truth. But what they are in fact is defenders of the idea of unchanging truth against the onslaught of not only change but also the evidence that their supposedly unchanging truths have changed in the past and continue to change even as a result of their defensive efforts.

So perhaps I should offer that as my own definition of “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism is the defense of the idea of unchanging truth against the evidence from the history of their own belief system that what they label as unchanging truth is something that has evolved in the past and continues to evolve in the present.

What’s your definition of fundamentalism, assuming you consider the word worth using?

 

  • Frithweaver

    Shortly after 9/11 I heard this glib expression of the cognitive dissonance of Fundamentalism: “Those who fight modernity using the tools of modernity.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I like it!

  • http://brucegerencser.net/ Bruce Gerencser

    I divide fundamentalism into two sub categories, theological fundamentalism and social fundamentalism. Evangelicals are inherently theological fundamentalists. They all believe in the authority and the inspiration of the bible and have a core set of beliefs they consider non-negotiable. A social fundamentalist is a person that has a strict bible based code of conduct and worldview. Many Evangelicals are social fundamentalists too. It is important to understand that there is little difference theologically between Al Mohler and Fred Phelps. Where they differ is on the social implications of their belief system.

    Evangelicals hate being called fundamentalists but….if it walks, talks, acts…..

    What confuses the issue is that Evangelicalism has a number of people who are liberal/progressive in theology but still self identify as Evangelical. The Emerging/emergent church movement, for example, is liberal/progressive even though they hang around the periphery of Evangelicalism. They will likely be tomorrow’s liberal/progressive church.

    That is my take any way, as far as Evangelicalism is concerned. When people bristle over being labeled a fundamentalist, I find what I have said here helpful in my discussions with them.

    • Herro

      >They [theological fundies] all believe in the authority and the inspiration of the bible and have a core set of beliefs they consider non-negotiable.

      >What confuses the issue is that Evangelicalism has a number of people who are liberal/progressive in theology but still self identify as Evangelical.

      What’s even more confusing is that some theological fundies identify as “progressives” (e.g. here on the progressive Christian channel on Pathes)

  • http://jamesdowden.wordpress.com/ James Dowden

    “Fundamentalism is the defense of the idea of unchanging truth against the evidence from the history of their own belief system that what they label as unchanging truth is something that has evolved in the past and continues to evolve in the present.”

    Hmmm. How does one differentiate Fundamentalism from Roman Catholicism in that case?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Can the two not overlap in some instances? But I do not see that they must overlap completely. Could you clarify what you mean?

      • http://jamesdowden.wordpress.com/ James Dowden

        All I meant was that I don’t think that that association would be liked from either side. But maybe I’m being restrictive in in practice defining Fundamentalist as “an Evangelical whom other Evangelicals are embarrassed of”.

        And of course the Roman Catholic authorities would eschew a phrase like “unchanging truth” in favour of half a dozen or so Latinate phrases that play smoke and mirrors with what may be changing or not.

    • http://brucegerencser.net/ Bruce Gerencser

      I would consider Catholicism to be quite fundamentalist. Here in the United States, people tend to equate fundamentalism with people like Fred Phelps, but the Catholic church is every bit as theologically fundamentalist as a Calvinistic extremist like Phelps. Even socially, the Catholic church is at the forefront of the culture war in the United States. Their fundamentalism is different but it is nonetheless fundamentalism. (and I have had some hardcore Catholics comment on my blog that were every bit as the fundamentalist as the Baptists I grew up with)

      Most religions have fundamentalist tendencies. Once a religion says, this you must believe or this is the way you must live, they are fundamentalist.(in the historic sense of the word) The issue, at least to me anyway, is to what degree they are fundamentalist. Of course religions that are spiritual rather than text-based would not be considered fundamentalist, nor would a universalist church that accepts all faiths or no faith at all.

      Fundamentalism is an interesting subject and one, for the sake of the future of the human race, we best not ignore. I would add that I think fundamentalism can be found in politics, economics, etc. Some hardcore capitalists are every bit as fundamentalist as Christian fundamentalists. (and often are Christian and capitalist, deriving their fundamentalist capitalist beliefs from their fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian Bible)

      The people who get upset the most over being called fundamentalist are hardcore atheists. I am an atheist but there are some within the atheist movement who use the language and methodology that Christian fundamentalists use. As soon as they say, a REAL atheist is ___________, they have started down a fundamentalist path.

      Of course, all of this is quite subjective. Rarely do any of us fit neatly in a box.

      Just my two cents.

  • Priscilla

    Seems to me that fundamentalism is not unique to Christianity. There are fundamentalists in other religions as well. I think it would be enlightening to look at what they have in common.

  • Raymond Watchman

    To cut to the chase. I could write at great length on this subject, but can distil it all into one simple, unambiguous conclusion: Fundamentalism is an idolatry. And as such, It is based in and predates on fear, pride and ignorance. It is a counterfeit Gospel, an ego-serving closed-circle belief system that will argue all manner of absurdity and fabrication in order to protect itself, rather than risk have the hammer of truth smash the idol asunder.

  • Marta L.

    A while ago Sarah Over the Moon asked whether she was a fundamentalist, so I did some poking around and blogged about what the word meant. So for on my thoughts about what it means to be a fundamentalist, I have a handy-dandy blog post. http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/?p=2544

    The abbreviated version: I agree with you that historically, Christian protestantism started with that tract series, and more generally with a rejection of modernism and higher criticism especially wrt the Bible. Other religious fundamentalist movements (fundamentalist Judaism and Islam in particular) use that word as a kind of analogy. But I also think fundamentalism goes deeper than that, that it’s more an attitude and an approach than a specific historical trend. As I said in that post:

    It’s about how you do the arguing. Are you a gatekeeper, trying
    to say who can and can’t speak for a certain group? Is your focus on
    delineating an in and an out crowd? How do you handle disagreement – do
    you treat it as an opportunity for dialogue, or are you more keen to say
    someone is wrong? Does the fact that someone is on the outside of the
    acceptable circle mean everything they might have to say is out of
    bounds for serious consideration? [...] Fundamentalism is a way we engage topics, a way we meet our enemies.
    Does it come with a focus on “Believe this, be right, that is what
    matters” or do we recognize that we are called to love even our enemies,
    which begins often enough with understanding and dialogue if not always
    in agreement? It comes in degrees, but it also pops up all over the
    ideological spectrum.


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