root of fundamentalism

Fundamentalism, in many ways, used to rely solely on the inherent truth of its system as the source of its certainty.

It has become more complicated. Now, fundamentalism, although it still depends on the inherent truth of its system, is more of a reaction to the increasing mystery and uncertainty of our world. Fundamentalism is only going to become more rigid as our world becomes more unpredictable. As innumerable questions mount, the ground of fundamentalism will rise to meet them.

I have seen this in my own life as well as in others: I’ve seen conversion to fundamentalism when the questions and uncertainties are just too overwhelming to be assimilated by the mind. I’ve also seen conversion away from fundamentalism for the exact same reasons.

Which makes one wonder if the actual root of fundamentalism is fear.

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  • Mary Ellen Mayo

    yes…fear kept me there for years after I should have already walked out…that fear will always be there, but I have a faith community today that loves me through it, so it’s not so bad…

  • that’s great Mary. community sure helps.

  • Jeannie

    I believe the root is fear. However, one cannot ignore the perks that come with having all the answers. And in the case of pentecostal/charismatic fundamentalist, one not only gets to be right and have all the answers, but one attains super powers by having authority over demons and the like.

    It’s a powerful pull in an uncertain world – absolute truth, peace in a fearful situation and super powers balled up together. Just don’t look at the ball too closely.

  • amy

    I believe it is exactly that “fear” based..


    Karen Armstrong posits that the ground from which fundamentalism (of any kind, though she focuses on the monotheistic religious kind) grows is fear. Specifically, a fear of annihilation, of everything that one identifies the Self with becoming irrelevant in the world in which one lives.

  • Sandra: I agree with Karen’s analysis.

  • I’ve read some of Karen’s other books, so I may have to read that one too.

    From reading the customer comments, she hits on something that I have seen myself. Most fundamentalist type movements actually start out for what appears to be a valid reason. (“Appears” is the correct word — it does not mean its actually valid, but seems like it is to someone.)

    A very fascinating book is called “Milestones” by Sayyid Qutb. This book was the beginning of the modern Islamic fundamentalist movement. Qutb wrote this after attending college in America. It was his attempt to make sense of what he saw in America — our rampant consumerism and materialism — and his belief in Islam. His conclusion was that western values were decadent and there needed to be a return to pure Qur’anic values.

    The thing is, technically he was right: we ARE decadent and materialistic. He faulted Christianity for its powerlessness. For the most part, churches ARE powerless. We cannot fault his observations; what we fault is his conclusion. Like all fundamentalist movements (maybe all movements) after the death of the founder, others took the original ideas and changed them to suit themselves and their own way of thinking. His ideas for liberation turned into a means to control.

    The whole Religious Right movement started with the best of intentions. It appeared to some that a liberal, antagonistic minority wanted to marginalise or eliminate the influence of Christianity in America. What seemed like a good idea at the time was hijacked by professional politicians and hucksters who took advantage of the political naivety of churchgoers. They changed the tone of the argument from Christian values to Republican Conservative values. (It is my opinion that they also marginalised the influence of Christianity in America also, just in a different way.)

    What’s the answer? Well, ultimately its an answer we really don’t want to hear, even though it is in scripture. People harbor evil and selfishness in their hearts. It doesn’t matter what they believe or think — there is always the temptation to turn even the best of intentions around for personal gain, power or control.

  • As I started reading your post and before I got to the last line, I was thinking “Fundaamentalism is about fear”.

    I say that s someone who grew up in a fundamentalist church and went to their grade-school from K-6.

    With hindsight, I also think our teachers had compulsive tendencies. Being wrong could NOT be forgiven and God did not like sinners. (all this was implied, not stated) They were also “practical dualists”. In order for us to be right in God’s eyes and beloved by God, someone else had to be wrong and unloved.

    Fear at every turn.

  • Karen’s one-note sermon–the epilogues of several of her books, and the main topic a few more–is compassion. Simply to move through the fear to compassion. Instead of letting universal suffering breed fear and hatred, choose to see the suffering of others as a bonding in our humanity. We all suffer, we all fear, we could all hate, let’s instead love and serve.

  • Tiggy

    I can only feel glad that the churches ARE powerless – or God knows what they’d do. There was a time they had a great deal of power and an Inquisition.

  • A Different Michelle

    I was just thinking about this, myself. Armstrong’s take on it is interesting, and quite probably is at least one of the reasons people turn to certainty.

    Isn’t fear also a common reaction to the unknown? That’s why some people are afraid of the dark–It’s difficult to discern your surroundings with any clarity.

    This has led me to wonder why some people are more comfortable having questions, sitting with questions, worshiping while holding questions, and seeking, while others find comfort in believing they have answers.

  • Fundamentalism comes in many colors.

    Islamic fundamentalism has taken over countries and is looking to take over the world.

    Christian fundamentalism wishes to get Christians into government to make everything work better. Fat chance.

    Christians are sinners, too.

    Calvin’s Geneva is a good look at Christian fundamentalism in charge.

    The cure? I don’t know if there is a cure for fundamentalist Islam. But if Christians will stop looking at the Bible as a lawnmower manual, for upward religious mobility, and start to read it in light of the gospel (the forgiveness of our sins), then we have a shot at righting this ship.

  • JD

    I can see fundementalism being rooted in fear. At the very minimum, they use fear as a tool to bring people in line and as a motivation. I don’t think American Christian fundementalism not only want to remake government, I think their aim is to turn the world into a Christian theocracy. Unfortunately, it seems they look to the European Middle Ages as an inspiration and forgetting the parts of it that should serve as a cautionary tale.
    One key difference between Christianity and Islam is that Christianity, for the most part, “Christian” societies had the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Pre-Renaissance Europe was pretty vicious, closer to modern Islamic societies than modern Western societies, people were often killed for heresies, hundreds of thousands were killed for practicing witchcraft. At one time, suggesting a natural explanation for earthquakes and other natural disasters was an offense worthy of a cruel death at the hands of Christianity. Christians don’t seem to ever remember that part of their history.

  • @ Steve…the Bible as a lawnmower manual…love it!

  • You hit the nail on the head!

  • thanks michelle.
    and thanks everyone for your great comments. important topic, and growing!

  • I was going to say what Michelle said. Instead, I’ll just ring the bell: dingdingdingdingdingdingding!

  • james

    Fear of feeling fear
    fear of being alone
    Fear of failure
    fear of getting it wrong
    Fear of making mistakes
    Fear of loss
    Fear of the wrath of god
    Fear of losing family, culture and friends
    fear of uncertanity
    fear of not knowing
    fear of not belonging
    fear of love
    fear of vulnerability
    fear of authenticity
    fear of being self
    fear of trusting another
    fear of smallness
    Fear of listening
    fear of the inner voice of love

    We live in a world that has gone into anxiety meltdown because the authorities no longer have so much power. Yet people are drawn to the fundies as they offer security, the right answer, a ‘family’- or mob/cult/herd etc.

  • good james. like that list.

  • Martha

    I’ll add a couple to James’ excellent list:

    Fear of loss of control
    Fear of being too “Catholic”
    Fear of thinking for one’s self
    Fear of missing heaven
    Fear of autonomy
    Fear of …

    I think the list could go on and on.

  • Doesn’t all boil down, in some way or other, to the conviction that God is to be feared and is looking for every possible opportunity to punish us?

  • JamesB

    I wonder too if the fear isn’t caused by internal uncertainty; the uncertainty that comes when we adopt beliefs based solely on someone else’s interpretations and/or authority instead of trusting our own ability to think and understand. Rather than face the internal struggle head on we put up bigger defenses and retreat further within our walls. At least that’s how it was for me during my time in the institution.

  • Ed

    If ‘perfect love casts out fear,’ and fundamentalism is based on fear, then does perfect love cast out fundamentalism? Actually, I wonder if fundamentalism is just a marketing tool. They can’t get people to support their holey (I spelled that the way I wanted to 🙂 causes so they use scare tactics.

  • If ‘perfect love casts out fear,’ and fundamentalism is based on fear, then does perfect love cast out fundamentalism?

    As someone raised in fundamentalism, I’d say that perfect love most certainly does cast out fundamentalism.

    Fear is a powerful force and weapon, though. There is a wonderful play by Eugene O’Neil called “Lazarus Laughed”. Lazarus comes back from death and tells everyone how wonderful it is to be in God’s presence. His village takes his message on board and stops fearing death and they start spreading the message. The Roman Empire hears what is going on and comes in and slaughters everyone in the village. The reason? Without the fear of death, they will lose control of their Empire.

    I suspect that we all have Empires that we protect with fear. Either by making ourselves afraid or trying to make others afraid.

    Some fundamentalists (the kind I grew up with) aren’t trying to manipulate people for money. They really believe that God is wrathful, that they aren’t good enough and that God’s grace and mercy are insufficient. (They don’t say that, they talk constantly about God’s grace even as they insist daily what horrible sinners we are and how God hates sin.) Their fear has control of them and they are genuinely fearful that the people they teach won’t grow up to be as cautious as they are and might commit the sin of joyful freedom (again, not at all articulated). It’s sad.

  • I believe the fear factor is the strongest motivation behind fundamentalism. A sense of security and control is an elemental human desire.

    But elitism may play a role as well. People like the notion to be part of the “chosen ones” as opposed to the ignorant and the “bad”. It’s very unfortunate that the “us vs. them” mentality becomes then the main source of feeling unique, special and validated.

  • yes josh, i definitely agree. elitism is a product of it.