It is an oft repeated line, and I’ll bet you’ve heard it. All fundamentalism is bad, and there are fundamentalists of all kinds. It is fundamentalism that is the real problem, and Christian fundamentalists are just as dangerous as Muslim fundamentalists. Down with fundamentalism, the true enemy of peace, love and progress!
This bit of received wisdom, common enough to spread easily among people across the media and to go unchallenged every time it is uttered, is another in a series of contemporary proverbial sayings that have primarily one thing going for them: they are safe. What I mean is, they seem to get nods of approval from everyone and offend nobody, thus they don’t run afoul of the pc police. If you’re ever in a serious discussion in a group with mixed opinions, a cliche like this one can get you a fleeting moment of universal agreement. Who, after all, would dare question or challenge an anti-fundamentalist statement and thus risk being branded pro-fundamentalism?
And yet, a problem lurks behind this bumper sticker mantra, a problem that can be revealed by just a little careful investigation.. We will first define fundamentalism itself more clearly, Before challenging the basis and target of standard criticism of those we usually label “fundamentalists.” My point will be to show that we’ve put the bull’s eye in the wrong place and are thus missing the mark.
What is Fundamentalism?
Widely used today, this word would not have been recognized by English speakers prior to the 20th Century. It was essentially coined in the context of an internal divide between American Protestants (esp. Baptists and Presbyterians) who were thought to be embracing modern cultural and intellectual approaches to ancient truth (referred to as “modernists”) and those who were reacting against them and seeking to stay true to traditional belief in the Bible and Christian doctrine. This latter group began speaking of the “fundamentals” of the faith, which led to the term “fundamentalists,” which they gladly self-applied, as it would be some decades yet before this term took on the negative connotation it carries now in our culture.
By the 1960s the term “fundamentalism” began to have the more expanded application that we know today, referring to the most strict, traditional or conservative wing of any religious group. In time the word was less used by conservative Christians themselves and increasingly used in American political discussion to refer (in an increasingly derogatory way) to politically active conservatives, mostly of an evangelical persuasion. It became less about theology and more about social, political stances and allegiances.
But what does the word “fundamentalism” actually mean? In the simplest terms, it is a firm belief in, and strict adherence to, a set of “fundamental” beliefs or teachings, usually (but not always) religious in nature. Whatever the sacred body of teaching is, the fundamentalist truly and fully believes in the truthfulness of it in an unwavering way. And whatever guidelines that the teachings prescribe for living, the fundamentalist is very zealous to keep those guidelines and live according to them.
Any time the word “fundamentalist” is applied, the first question should be, “What is the specific set of beliefs and/or principles to which the fundamentalist is strictly committed?” And here we have to be accurate rather than to over-generalize. For example, Islamic fundamentalists maintain the strictest adherence to what exactly? Is it strict adherence just to Islam or to the Qur’an? That is way too general, as demonstrated by Muslims in the millions who claim to be strictly adhering to the Qur’an and to Islam (thus “fundamentalists” by definition in their own right) but who do not look much like those we deem “fundamentalists” and thus would not be called by that name in popular media and culture.
Those we label “fundamentalist” Muslims have a strict adherence to a specific tradition rooted in a specific interpretation of the Qur’an governed by selected teachings in the vast body of writings known as the “ahadith.” The nature of the Qur’an itself and these centuries long collections of hadith writings (supposed saying of and anecdotes about Muhammad) open the way for a lot of varying interpretation of the religion. The modern day radicals are committed to a particular strain or tradition that emphasizes a specific version of Islamic sharia law, military action, brutal codes governing perceived blasphemy or dishonoring of Islam, treatment of women or those who do not believe in their strict way of thinking (including moderate Muslims).
Similarly when the media reports on “fundamentalist Mormons” they are focusing on groups who are firmly committed to something quite specific. The allegiance of these Mormons is not to the present hierarchy of religious authorities headquartered in Salt Lake City, as is the allegiance of mainstream Mormons. The body of ideas and teachings that the fundamentalists hold to is found in Mormon history and in earlier writings and practices of Mormon leaders, polygamy being most notable among them. Thus the term “fundamentalist Mormon” (or if you like “Mormon fundamentalist”) does not simply mean “one who is truly and firmly committed to Mormonism,” since that would describe a lot of mainstream Mormons. The point, again, is to emphasize the necessity of zeroing in on exactly what a group’s “fundamentals” truly are.
The Belief is the Issue, Not the Believing
Do you notice the emphasis being made in the preceding paragraphs? In each case of a “fundamentalist,” there is a person with firm belief in and commitment to a truth or body of truths. Too often today people foolishly focus on the element of firm belief, dedication and commitment rather than on the nature of the truth(s) being firmly believed. This is the wrong emphasis and misses the point. If you have disdain for someone’s beliefs and resulting behaviors, the response should not be to criticize their subjective psychological activity but rather the objectively understood content of the belief itself.
When I hear people today repeat the line that “the real problem is fundamentalism,” I hear them saying that the real problem is people’s habit of having firm beliefs in things, and that if only people would not hold firm beliefs but instead be mostly agnostic with just a few loosely held beliefs, this would be progress. Wrong diagnosis and thus wrong prescription. What they should say instead is that “the real problem is with false and destructive beliefs.” When someone adopts firm allegiance and strict adherence to certain wrong and dangerous beliefs, the natural consequences will probably be negative – not because of their act of believing but because of the content of the belief(s).
Someone at this point may suggest that not believing in much of anything will also serve the same purpose and avoid the bad outcome. But people are bound to believe things, and rightly so. It is human nature to form and to hold beliefs. You can’t not do it. An attempted withholding of all belief is not a healthy approach to avoiding wrong beliefs. If someone is eating tainted food that is ruining her health, the answer is not for her to stop eating altogether, but to replace the tainted food with clean and healthy food.
But suppose for a moment that you were in fact able to rid your mind of belief in any truth or principle whatsoever (which, again, I say is impossible). If so, you certainly would not be susceptible to false and destructive ideas, but – and here I give a nod to the philosopher William James – you would also be woefully deficient of good and true ideas. Being without any beliefs of any kind would not only be paralyzing in day to day life (on what basis could you make any important decisions?), but it would lead you to an immoral level of apathy and inaction. If you were to see a grave injustice taking place, there would be no beliefs or principles to spur you to action in response. You would be free from any false, foolish or harmful beliefs, to be sure, but only in the same way that my dog is also free of false, foolish or harmful beliefs.
As usual, C. S. Lewis helped clarify the point I am trying to make here when he explained that the more ultimate a person’s beliefs, the more serious he or she will take them, the more passion he or she will feel about them, and the stronger the motivation will be to act in accordance with them. This carries dangerous potential of course, since destructive religious beliefs will come with more zeal than casually held, half-hearted beliefs. But the solution to this is not a world full of watered down, spineless automatons. People with no serious beliefs end up contributing nothing and taking up couch space. Sure “the Dude abides,” but that’s about all he does. he “takes ‘er easy,” but he’s not good for much else.
As Lewis more eloquently puts it:
“Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all created beings the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God. … It seems that there is a general rule in the moral universe which may be formulated ‘The higher, the more in danger.’ The ‘average sensual man’ who is sometimes unfaithful to his wife, sometimes tipsy, always a little selfish … is certainly, by ordinary standards, a ‘lower’ type than the man whose soul is filled with some great Cause, to which he will subordinate his appetites, his fortune, & even his safety. But it is out of the second man that something really fiendish can be made; … It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics. Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it. … We must not over-value the relative harmlessness of the little, sensual, frivolous people. They are not above, but below, some temptations” (Reflections on the Pslams, Chapt. 3).
All “Fundamentalists” are Not Equal
Since beliefs vary widely, fundamentalists (those who hold firmly to their beliefs) will also vary widely. This gives the word itself enough elasticity to refer simultaneously to a Canadian pastor who in a sermon reads a less-than-pro-gay Bible passage, as well as to an Islamic militant who slices the heads off of civilian captors on Youtube. Same word. In this way it has become like the word “person,” needing a qualifier or further description before I can really get an accurate notion of who and what we are talking about.
But popular media has not surprised us in its failure to add the necessary qualifiers and make the proper distinctions. The reason is not just shoddy reporting, as common as that is today. There is a kind of ideological motive for such ambiguity as well, and here I am referring to the desire to promote the aforementioned proverb that all fundamentalism is really equally dangerous.
Some years ago CNN ran a special week-long series on religious fundamentalism/extremism entitled “God’s Warriors.” The three major Western monotheisms each got an episode dedicated to them. Needless to say the first episode, “God’s Muslim Warriors,” was a jam-packed two-hour exploration of militant groups and major terrorist events of the last several years all over the world. It was all explosions, assassinations, hijackings, beheadings, rapes, human trafficking, executions, etc., all across the vast Islamic spectrum, Shias and Sunnis, Arabs, Persians, Indonesians and Pakistanis, etc.
The following night it was time for “God’s Jewish Warriors,” which focused almost exclusively on ultra-orthodox militant Zionist Jews in the state of Israel. Then came the third installment on “God’s Christian Warriors,” where things took a turn for the downright silly. Along with the obligatory coverage of a couple of renegade abortion clinic bombers of the last thirty years, this episode focused on the “extremism” of conservative evangelical Americans. There was a clip from a sermon on Ephesians 6 where the pastor talked about spiritual “warfare,” about taking up “the sword” and wearing “armor,” as if this “militant” language was on par with the radical Muslim insurgent fighters. There was an interview with a director of a Christian youth camp that imposes, if you can believe this, dress codes on the girls and enforces rules about various kinds of moral conduct. A subtle and ridiculous comparison was then implied between that camp’s regulations and the strict sharia codes imposed on the oppressed women under the Taliban.
The dishonesty in this series’ overall comparison is plain to anybody with sense. The series (which you can watch in installmentshere) attempted to leave the viewer with the impression that all religious believers are equally threatening due to their warrior-like adherence to certain beliefs and principles. They are all in this respect fundamentalists, which is, of course, the ‘real’ problem.
But as I pointed out above, the beliefs and teachings themselves are the issue, not the fact that there are dedicated followers of each one. In one episode men are interviewed who espouse the belief that all “infidels” (which includes most of us) should be put to death unless we convert. In another episode men are interviewed who believe that citizens should vote pro-life. Do you detect relevant difference in those two? Yes they all seemed equally convinced of their views, but those views of which they are convinced are miles apart, are they not? Again, the content of a man’s belief is the issue, not merely his dedication to it.
If you want proof that you already agree with this, ask yourself: Would I mind if someone I knew were zealously and wholeheartedly committed with every fiber of his or her being to fighting world hunger and the suffering of third world children? By contrast, would I be OK with a co-worker or neighbor who believes in the views of the so-called “Islamic State” (including justification of execution, torture, enslavement, forced conversions, etc.), but is too half-hearted and undedicated to actually join the movement or take action himself?
The fact is that you would have no problem at all with the person who is a “fundamentalist” in his or her beliefs about loving all people and helping the least fortunate. You would support and admire someone who is an “extremist” in the area of altruistic self-sacrificial charity and work for the poor. But you would be worried, suspicious and uneasy about the man who holds the views of Neo-Nazis or ISIS, even if he holds them in a lukewarm way (assuming there are lukewarm believers in those ideologies).
Clearly each one of us, if we are truly honest, is concerned more about people’s beliefs than about their zeal on behalf of those beliefs. We are all living testimonials of the point I am making in this article. Fundamentalism per se is not a bad word. It need not be the pejorative that it has become with the knee-jerk reactions it always receives. Having beliefs to which you are dedicated, committed, willing to make sacrifices – this is not the problem. Both the greatest people who ever lived AND the worst people who ever lived shared this in common.
Pol Pot was an extremist, but so, in a sense, was Martin Luther King, Jr. The Nazi party was dogmatically committed to its race ideology and “final solution.” But Mother Theresa’s “Missionaries of Charity” were also quite dogmatically committed to a sort of ideology and the solution they saw to the plight of the poorest in Indian society. In both cases the level of commitment was strong enough to move the different groups (the SS and the sisters) to courses of action that are considered radical and extreme, but morally opposite. So long as a person’s fundamental beliefs are good, right and true, I applaud their zealous devotion to, and consistent living in accordance with, those beliefs, and I say, bring on the extremists.