What is a Fundamentalist?

The word “fundamentalism” comes out of the conflict between liberal and conservative American Christians in the late 19th-early 20th century. The word itself was coined when various conservative Christians devised lists of doctrines that they considered fundamental to Christian belief. It was popularized when members of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles published a series of essays titled, The Fundamentals. To be a fundamentalist was to hold to one of these lists of doctrines and insist that its centrality to Christianity was non-negotiable in the face of progressive revelation or an evolving Christian culture.

Since then the meaning has been expanded. Folks like Karen Armstrong have pointed out that Christian fundamentalism shares many of the same features as Jewish and Muslim conservative movements, and so it makes sense to use the same term across the monotheisms. Fundamentalism became a term to describe reactionary movements within a religion that are opposed to the secular, pluralistic and tolerant aspects of modern society.

But we’ve also seen the word used to describe other movements, including atheists and other non-religious groups. Is there a way to do this and still have the word be meaningful?

Ian at Irreducible Complexity kicks it around a bit and comes up with a definition that might work: “A Fundamentalist is someone who argues against tolerance and accommodation.

I like it and I don’t. It works, but it’s watered down. Every movement – political, religious or cultural – has its hard-liners who reject compromise. I don’t really want to be talking about “fundamentalist environmentalists.”

It also loses the core, which to both myself and Armstrong is the rejection of modernity. I’d consider that, well, fundamental.

Any thoughts?

  • FO

    “A Fundamentalist is someone unwilling to contemplate the idea that his or her beliefs may not be entirely true.”

  • http://www.loujost.com Lou Jost

    I’ve always associated fundamentalists with the belief that their holy book (bible, Koran, or whatever) is revealed truth that should be taken literally.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    When I think of a fundamentalist, it’s not necessarily even tied specific to religion, it goes even further, to specific ideas, to refusal to hear other ideas, to attempt to shut down or to silence other ways of belief

    • Custador

      Mmmm, I agree. I’ve always taken the noun back to the adjective, so to speak: A funamentalist is a person who regards (what they see as) the fundamental principles of [insert belief here] as completely and inarguably true, completely above debate, not subject to evidence against. As a kind of addendum to that, I think of them as people who are generally so emotionally dependent on that attitude that they’ll react with strong emotion (fear and/or anger) whenever challenged on it.

  • Giel

    I’ve been called an ‘atheistic fundamentalist’. Reading this, disregarding it’s religion based and adding it to the equation, a mathematician (pun int.) would also be considered a fundamentalist. I’m a bit confused now.

  • Giel

    Crap, i should’ve read Ian’s blog link. Excuse me my click-depth. Seems my confusion is common.

  • The Vicar

    G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay, which I’m not even going to try to look up because he wrote about a zillion essays and any collection which is likely to contain a specific one is likely to actually be complete and thus take up at least 5 volumes of fairly dense print, which would presumably date from ~1915 or so, in which he mocks* American fundamentalist Christians because, unlike “fundamentalists” of any other religion — at least of that time — they specifically revere their scriptures WITHOUT insisting on examining them in the original language/text but instead rely on translations. So it’s fairly clear that there is an established notion of fundamentalists being concerned with the exact terms of their scriptures.

    *A lot of atheists, insofar as they are aware of Chesterton at all, think of him as a Catholic apologist, and assume he was some kind of right-wing horror show. In point of fact, Chesterton was a populist who was very much on the side of what later became known as “liberation theology”, and died while on an anti-Nazi speaking tour, before the Catholic church made their bargain with Hitler. I maintain that, had Chesterton survived beyond World War II, he would almost certainly have left the Catholic church. An interesting guy — but an unbelievably prolific writer.

  • Noelle

    I’ve seen others equate Xian fundamentalism to Calvinism. How’s that play in? Calvin was a 1500s kinda guy, so he was long dead by this fundamentalist movement. Not to mention, there are Calvinist-based denominations that are far from fundamentalist. Are there fundies who have naught to do with Calvin?

  • http://www.twitter.com/Alexthethinker Alex Abbott

    I’ve been thinking about this problem of defining the term “fundamentalism” recently. When I hear people labeled as “atheist fundamentalists”, the implication is that someone who is extremely vocal or aggressive in their rhetoric qualifies as a fundamentalist.

    I reject that application of the term, though, because it fundamentally – pun only somewhat intended – misidentifies the spirit of the phrase. Would we have called Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a “civil rights fundamentalist”, Gandhi a “peace fundamentalist”, just because these people were extremely vocal and persistent in the name of a specific cause? Nonsense.

    To me, a proper usage of “fundamentalist” refers to a refusal to examine or evaluate other points of view and their rationales, whether or not the potential fundamentalist is against modernity. A lack of perspective is more inditing than anti-modernism.

  • Kelley

    If everyone in the US was a strict “Constitutional Fundamentalist” there would never have been any amendments. We now have 27 amendments including abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, income tax, etc. To me, fundamentalism is a belief in a set of rules by which one lives his/her life, to the exclusion of any change or alteration of those rules. Seems like a self-imposed dead-end to me.

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com Matt E

    “To be a fundamentalist was to hold to one of these lists of doctrines and insist that its centrality to Christianity was non-negotiable in the face of progressive revelation or an evolving Christian culture.”

    It doesn’t take much work to make this definition viable for any religion or any other world view, Marxism, Environmentalism or what have you. Any of these groups can and do have members who hold certain doctrines as central and non-negotiable in the face of a changing world.


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