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In comparative religion, fundamentalism refers to the anti-modernist movements of various religions. In many ways religious fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, characterized by a sense of embattled alienation in the midst of the surrounding culture, even where the culture may be nominally influenced by the adherents' religion. Fundamentalism also refers to a way of approaching one's religious scripture; i.e. in fundamentalism one holds that one's religious texts are infallible and historically accurate.

This term can refer to the approach of an individual or a group to religion.

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The fundamentalist phenomenon

Although in popular usage, fundamentalism sometimes refers derogatorily to any fringe religious group, or to extremist ethnic movements with only nominally religious motivations, the term does have a more precisely descriptive denotation. "Fundamentalist" describes a movement to return to what it considers the defining or founding principles of the religion. Especially, it has come to refer to any religious enclave which intentionally resists identification with the larger religious community in which it originally arose, on the basis that fundamental principles upon which the larger religious group is supposedly founded have been displaced by alternative principles hostile to its identity.

This formation of a separate identity is deemed necessary on account of a perception that the religious community has surrendered its ability to define itself in religious terms. The "fundamentals" of the religion have been jettisoned by neglect, lost through compromise and inattention, so that the general religious community's explanation of itself appears to the separatist to be in terms that are completely alien and fundamentally hostile to the religion itself. Therefore, fundamentalist movements are founded upon the same religious principles as the larger group, but the fundamentalists attempt to more self-consciously build an entire approach to the modern world based on strict fidelity to those principles, to preserve a distinctness both of doctrine and of life.

The term itself is borrowed from the "Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy" which appeared early in the 20th century within the Protestant churches of the United States, and continued in earnest through the 1920s. The fundamentalists were a diffuse party of traditionalists[?], who raised a protest within their various denominations against the ascendant "Liberal" or "Modernist" parties, whom fundamentalists charged had radically departed from the most basic presuppositions of Christianity, and in place of these foundational assumptions had substituted an agnostic principle. The fundamentalists argued that Liberalism had established a different religion entirely, a skeptical religion, a secular religion, a humanist religion, a new paganism hostile to authentic faith typified by an unhealthy friendliness toward the world, especially as represented by the increasingly pluralistic, post-Enlightenment culture of Europe.

The Protestant, fundamentalist critics of liberal Protestantism were very vocal in denouncing the anti-supernaturalism of the Modernists, accusing them of taking dictation from the unbelieving culture, deciding what Protestantism must be by imitating arbitrary social trends, replacing the things of God with the worldly and self-serving whims of ordinary men. The churches were surrendering their right to define themselves and their own beliefs, according to the fundamentalists, and thus the churches themselves were discrediting their relevance and assisting in the further marginalization of Christianity. It was to the great consternation of fundamentalists, that "agnostic", "irreligious", "worldly" and "skeptical" opinions were represented as coming from their own "religious leaders", in the newspapers and by denominational publishing houses, as though these were the consensus view of their denominations. The fundamentalists felt increasingly exiled within their own churches, where none of the traditional instruments of definition seemed to help: theirs were the heritage, the Scriptures, the constitutional documentation of faith - but what the liberals had was institutional control, the money, the presses, the seminaries and colleges, and with the help of moderates, the standing committees also were theirs against the militant fundamentalists. In reaction, the fundamentalists formed seminaries and colleges of their own, mission boards and publishing houses which championed the fundamentalist cause, and finally in some cases, separate denominations which carried on the fight to preserve continuity of identity with their forebears in the faith of past generations.

The pattern of the Fundamentalist-Modernist debate in Protestant Christianity has been repeated with remarkable parallels in other religious communities, and it is for the purpose of describing these corresponding aspects in otherwise diverse religious movements, that the term "fundamentalist" has become more than only a term either of self-description or of derogatory contempt. Fundamentalism, thus, is a movement through which the adherents attempt to rescue religious identity against absorption into modern, Western culture, where this absorption appears to the enclave to have made irreversible progress in the wider religious community, necessitating the assertion of a separate identity based upon the fundamental or founding principles of the religion.

Fundamentalists believe their cause to have grave importance, and even cosmic significance. They perceive themselves as protecting not only a distinctive doctrine, but a vital principle, and a way of life and of salvation. Community, comprehensively centered upon a clearly defined religious way of life in all of its aspects, is the promise of fundamentalist movements - and thus it appeals to those adherents of religion who find little that is distinctive, or authentically vital in their religious identity.

The fundamentalist "wall of virtue", which protects their identity, is erected against not only alien religions, but also against the modernized, compromised, nominal version of their own religion. They are "Born again" and "Bible believing" Protestants (as opposed to "Mainline", "liberal", "modernist" Protestants, who represent "Churchianity"). They are Islamic jama'at (Arabic: (religious) enclaves with connotations of close fellowship) self-consciously engaged in jihad (struggle) against Western culture which suppresses authentic islam (submission) and the God appointed (shari'ah) way of life. They are "haredim", "Torah-true" Jews, etc. - groups which insist on a sharp boundary between themselves and the faithful adherents of other religions, and finally between a "sacred" view of life against the "secular" world of "nominal religion", which they characterize as the anesthesized, darkest, lifeless extremity of life, doubly-dead, worse than ignorant, where the truth is supposedly known but without consciousness of its meaning. Fundamentalists direct their apologetic toward and draw most of their converts from the larger community of their religion, by attempting to convince them that they are not experiencing the authentic version of their professed religion.

Basic beliefs of religious fundamentalists

For religious fundamentalists, their sacred scriptures are the words of God. Fundamentalist beliefs depends on the twin doctrines that God articulated His will precisely to prophets, and that we also have a reliable and perfect record of that revelation , which has been passed down to our day in an unbroken chain of tradition. Since Scripture is the word of God, no one has the right to change it or disagree with it. People are thus obligated to obey the word of God. The appeal of this point of view is its elegant simplicity: people must do what God tells them to do. Fundamentalists' insistence on strict observation of religious laws may lead to their being dubbed 'legalistic'.

Christian fundamentalists see their scripture (a combination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) as both infallible and historically accurate. On the basis of this confidence in Scripture, they accept the account of scripture as being literally true, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and rules the church from heaven. They believe that the church has been granted the gift of the Holy Spirit, who leads the church into fulfillment of God's will according to the Scriptures. Most Christian fundamentalists do not believe that it is possible to infallibly interpret the Bible on any point, but even those who believe this are unable to see any contradiction of their main premise concerning the necessity of infallible scriptures. This is because they believe that God Himself interprets His own intent and fulfills His own will for those who trust Him, and through them, and despite their faulty understanding; and, nevertheless, it is the church's obligation to understand the Scriptures and to believe what they say, and act accordingly. However, there are types of Christian belief that attach infallible authority to the interpretations of some single, living individual or ruling body.

Jews believe that the Tanach (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament) can not be understood literally or alone, but rather needs to be read in conjunction with additional material known as the oral law; this material is contained in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Orthodox Judaism, especially Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, is a fundamentalist Jewish denomination, as opposed to Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism which are theologically opposed to fundamentalism. All Jews, even the Orthodox, do not read the Tanach in a literal fashion, but most Orthodox Jews read the Mishnah and Talmud in what may be termed a fundamentalist way. All Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and many Modern Orthodox Jews, hold that these texts are divine and infallible. Hasidic Jews usually ascribe infallibility to their rebbe's interpretation of the traditional sources of truth.

Argument in favor of fundamentalist positions

Fundamentalists claim that they practice their religion as the first adherents did, and they further argue that this is how religion should be practised. In other words, a Christian ought to believe and practise as those who knew and followed Jesus during His time on earth. A Muslim ought to give the same consideration to the followers of Muhammed. Analogous arguments can be made for most systems of religious belief. Fundamentalists justify this belief on the idea that the founders of the world's religions said and did things that were not written down - in other words, their original disciples knew things that we don't. For Christians, this claim is verified by the Gospel of John, which ends with the statement "there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:25, NKJV)

Criticism of the fundamentalist position

Many criticisms of the fundamentalist position have been offered. The most common is that all theological claims made by fundamentalist groups are unprovable. Another criticism is that the rhetoric of these groups offers an appearance of uniformity and simplicity, yet within each faith community, one actually finds different texts of religious law that are accepted; each text has varying interpretations. Consequently, each fundamentalist faith is observed to splinter into many mutually antagonistic groups. They are often as hostile to each other as they are to other religions.

In order to carry out the fundamentalist program in practice, one would first need to perfectly understand the ancient language of the original text, if indeed the true text can be discerned from among variants. Furthermore, fundamentalists fail to recognize that fallible human beings are the ones who transmit this tradition. Elliot N. Dorff writes "Even if one wanted to follow the literal word of God, the need for people first to understand that word necessitates human interpretation. Through that process human fallibility is inextricably mixed into the very meaning of the divine word. As a result, it as impossible to follow the indisputable word of God; one can only achieve a human understanding of God's will. [Source: "A Living Tree; The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law', Eliot N. Dorff and Arthur Rosett, SUNY Press, 1988].

Some critics take the view that a fundamentalist approach then introduces the danger of a partisanship that becomes attached to an individual leader or leading body, when the followers believe that entity to be a living voice of authority to infallibly direct them in the interpretation of the sources of truth.

Although most of the claims made by fundamentalists are practically unprovable, skeptics of a less religious bent may further criticize fundamentalists by questioning the historical accuracy of the texts in question when compared to other historical sources; as well as questioning how documents containing so many contradictions could be considered infallible.

Fundamentalism and politics

"Fundamentalism" is a politically-charged term, often used (depending on who is using it) as a term of opprobrium, particularly in combination with other epithets (as in the phrase "Muslim fundamentalists" and "right-wing fundamentalists").

Very often religious fundamentalists, in all religions, are politically active. They often seek to change laws of a nation or state to conform strictly to the boundaries set out in their own particular religious scripture. The governments of many Muslim countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, are led by Islamic fundamentalists. Less legalistic politicians are often to be found working in opposition movements in these countries.

See also: Islamist -- Pentecostalism -- Ultra-Orthodox Judaism -- Christianity -- Christian fundamentalism


The Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, by Brenda E. Brasher, Routledge; ISBN 0415922445, 2001

The Fundamentalism Project, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, University of Chicago

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