What is a Fundamentalist?

What is a Fundamentalist? January 2, 2013

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?

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