Fundamentalism

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Fundamentalism refers to two overlapping phenomena. The first is the historic phenomenon which emerged in Protestant Christianity throughout nineteenth century United States. The second is a general trend in all religions which share similar methods and ideologies.

Historic (Christian) Fundamentalism

Historic fundamentalism refers primarily to a type of Christianity that holds to a strict literalism regarding Biblical interpretation, often to the point of asserting the literal truth of parts of the Bible that other Christians consider to be allegory or requiring less strict interpretation. One instance of this type of interpretation is creationism, literal belief in the first chapters of Genesis - where more liberal Christians may believe that they are a moral tale about God's creative power and redemption, the fundamentalist will assert that it is all literally true, happened in the last ten thousand years and all animals descended from those on Noah's Ark.

Christian fundamentalism is often traced back to a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth and published between 1910 and 1915. Each of these pamphlets was by an academic putting forward doctrines about the Bible and arguing for the inerrancy of the Bible, against Darwinism and religious movements like Christian Science (referred to as Eddyism), Mormonism and spiritualism, as well as personal testimonies.

In the United States, fundamentalism is strong in some areas and has an important role politically as part of the Christian Right. Preachers like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., groups like Focus on the Family, denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention and universities like Bob Jones University and Liberty University are widely associated with Christian fundamentalism, although some are no longer self-identifying as fundamentalist, preferring to use the term evangelical.

Generic Fundamentalism

The concept of fundamentalism has been extended from its original use to cover similar movements in other religions: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. This extension has been criticised because each of the movements has its own distinctive character, but against this it has been argued that all fundamentalisms follow a broadly similar pattern. The principal evidence for this argument comes from The Fundamentalism Project, an undertaking funded by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and headed by Martin E. Marty and Scott Appleby. This has produced a five volume guide to fundamentalism spanning 8,000 pages (published by the University of Chicago Press[1]). In the first volume, Fundamentalisms Observed[2], the group describe some of the similarities between fundamentalist movements:

  • a concern with the erosion of religion and an undermining of the role religion has to play in society
  • a reaction against certain components of modernity
  • an embrace of certain aspects of a Manicheanist dualism pitting good against evil
  • absolutism and Scriptural inerrancy
  • Millennialism or Messianism
  • the concept of an 'elect' or specific chosen membership with strict boundaries of who is and is not saved
  • charismatic leadership
  • strict focus on and requirements around personal behaviour

Throughout world religions, fundamentalism has developed largely in reaction to secularisation and modernisation. Like its historic brother, these different movements commonly revolve around literal reading of religious texts, strict interpretations of religious laws and practices, and a propensity against the modern, 'secular' world, with its tolerance of different views and behaviours.[3]

In modern usage, fundamentalism can also refer (often negatively) to fervent and strict belief in the doctrines of any religion or ideology - for instance, the phrase "free market fundamentalist" is used to describe those who hold firmly and (in the opinion of their critics) unquestioningly to free market or libertarian beliefs.

References

  1. University of Chicago Press, The Fundamentalism Project
  2. Marty, M E and Appleby R S (eds). Fundamentalisms Observed. University of Chicago Press. 1991. (In particular the Conclusion by the two editors)
  3. Armstrong, K. The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Harper Perennial. 2004