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Fundamentalism, in a religious context, is when a religious group believes that its scripture is the absolute truth, an exact representation of the world, its origins, and/or its eventual fate. The term was coined to refer to certain Christianity movements, but it is a sociological movement that is observed in religions as well.

"The prospects for the human race are bleak.[...] We cannot stop the destructive forces we have unleashed. We can hope only to lessen the disasters looming before us. This will require a sober, dispassionate response, one that accepts the severe limitations of humanity and gives up utopian fantasies. [...] the danger is not religion or science. The danger is fundamentalism itself. [...] The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it discusses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. That is part of the attraction."

Chris Hedges[1]

Christian fundamentalism[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:


Religious influence under threat[edit]

All Christian doctrines have been in constant flux since the beginning of the religion. Throughout the medieval period, a church's doctrines were enforced by military and political power, with varying degrees of success. [2] Inquisitions, crusades and purges of heretics were used to suppress opponents.

The Reformation, the Enlightenment (approx. 1750 to 1800), the advance of science and increasing secularisation broke the domination of organised religion. The credibility of religious leaders was threatened by the study of the authorship of the Bible, called higher biblical criticism, [3] by which the Bible was read critically, just like they analyzed other ancient writings such as Homer’s Iliad and practiced by German scholars since the Enlightenment. It was realised Moses probably did not write the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), and that most of the prophecies were probably written after the fact.

The power of organised religion also came under threat from social movements, liberal theology and scientific progress, such as evolutionary theory as published by Charles Darwin in 1859.


Since their authority had been undermined, Christians who wanted to enforce their doctrine on other denominations or on secular society had to use other means of persuasion. Since the movement is largely about enforcing a belief system on outsides, it has always had a significant political aspect.

"Numbers were everything: the larger the church, the more natural it was that its preacher would rise in the ranks. Dissent among the ranks was discouraged because it projected an image of disunity to the world; public image was essential, for it was believed that size, power, and influence testified to the world that 'the Lord is in this place.' [4]"

In 1874, Charles Hodge had published his three-volume Systematic Theology in which he argued that the facts in the Bible are for the faith what the facts of nature are for science. [5] Hodge had a powerful impact on conservative Christianity. Because of this, he might well be called the father of Christian fundamentalism.

Niagara Bible Conferences, 1883-1897

Allegorical interpretation of the Bible was dismissed as unreliable.

Early 20th century[edit]

A twelve volume set of essays titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth edited by R.A. Torrey was published and distributed for free starting in 1909. It promoted the importance of basic doctrines including The Trinity, The Second Coming and inerrancy of scripture. Some of the essays argued against the higher criticism movement.

1925, Scopes Monkey Trial.

Fundamentalism “went underground” for several decades until its re-emergence in the last quarter of the twentieth century. [6] [7]

Reemergence in the late 20th century[edit]

Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s is generally thought to be the formal re-immergence of Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism today focuses on three main items: homosexuality, abortion, and creationism. In other words, Christian fundamentalists are against equal rights for homosexuals—esp. around issues such as marriage, the adoption of children, and in some states the holding of political office. Fundamentalists are also against the teaching of evolution in public schools and against Stem cell research. In addition, they oppose a woman’s choice for an abortion under the argument that life begins at conception and therefore abortion is murder. The same Conservative fundamentalists tend to oppose state funded medical care although the death rate is higher in the United States than in other developed countries with free universal health care. They oppose killing a fetus while it is in the uterus but after a baby is born they are prepared to do less that political liberals do to keep that baby alive.


While they actually have modern origins, fundamentalists claim that they are advocating the original correct doctrines of Christianity. The idea of a "correct" interpretation is despite disagreements between Christians and even fundamentalists themselves. There is no evidence that a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible was originally held by the early church or any time until the 19th century.

"One of the greatest weaknesses of fundamentalism [...] is a lack of clear doctrine. This problem goes back to the very foundation of the movement. As previously noted, fundamentalism arose in the era of mass evangelism, and age when results trumped truth, and it never shed those beginnings. [4]"

While they all agree that the Bible is the inerrant, divinely inspired, infallible Word of God, they disagree sharply on its true meaning. Broadly speaking, the movement's religious beliefs include:

Among US Christian evangelicals, the majority support social views such as:

  • Support for torture [9]
  • Support for war [10]
  • Political conservatism. [11]
  • Preference for a smaller government, which conveniently allows for a greater role for religion. [11]
  • Opposing welfare spending by government. [11]
  • Opposing abortion in most or all cases. [11]
  • Opposing homosexuality and same sex marriage. [11]
  • Personal charity or tithing. [8]
  • Authoritarianism
  • Traditionalism
  • Zionism

Biblical literalism[edit]

Main Article: Biblical literalism

Literalism is the belief that a text, or at least large portions of it, should be read literally, not allegorically. This is commonly associated with fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

Biblical literalism entails:


Christian fundamentalists are more effective at driving sin underground than preventing it. This leads to hypocritical stances on many social issues.

"States that banned gay marriage had 11 percent more porn subscribers. The level of agreement in a state with the statement that "Even today miracles are performed by the power of God" predicted higher pornography consumption. States claiming to have old-fashioned values about family and marriage purchased substantially more adult-content subscriptions.[12]"

Why is this? The more sexual repression there is in a state or a community the more people are tempted or driven to find whatever outlet they can.

Jurisdictions that have been influenced by fundamentalist to repress or ban sex education and abortion very frequently end up with a higher abortion rate, which is the opposite of their stated goal! [13]

Islamic fundamentalism[edit]

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Many Muslim fundamentalists adhere to a traditionalist Salafi/Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. Some terrorist organizations follow or promote an extreme version of Salafi Islam. Within the Salafi movement, emphasis is placed on teaching: [14]

  • strict monotheism (tawhid)
  • avoidance of innovation in religious matters (bida’a) and
  • loyalty to Islam and disloyalty to anything un-Islamic (wala wal baraa)
  • personal interpretion ijtihad in interpreting Islamic law, outside of the traditional taqlid interpretation schools.
  • Quranic literalism
  • religious sharia law as core part of religion
"It is far easier to obey without thinking. [...] in the last 100 years, Islam has been sliding back to an era that never really existed. [15]"

Ironically, the movement's origins only go back to the 18th century, based on the revivalist teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792).

Peer group pressure[edit]

"It is outside politics or religion. It is about certain individuals who come together for the thrill of being part of something bigger. It is a youth subculture ... and peer groups play a big role [16]"

Political motivation[edit]

"IS is also tapping into a general crisis of citizenship and malaise with dysfunctional Arab governments. Indeed, it is experiences of injustice and abuse by authorities, and not poverty, that are driving disenfranchised individuals toward radical extremist ideology. [17]"

Atheist fundamentalism[edit]

Atheists and secularists are sometimes accused of being fundamentalist with respect to their beliefs.

"The secular utopians from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris to Daniel Dennett to Christopher Hitchens have also forgotten they are human. Both they and religious fundamentalists peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication. [...] These atheists and Christian radicals have built squalid little belief systems that are in the service of themselves and their own power. They urge us forward into a nonreality-based world, one where force and violence, where self-exaltation and blind nationalism, are an unquestioned good."

Chris Hedges

Just about every belief system, including atheism, has been used as a justification for war and oppression. Atheism itself is a minimal belief system, or lack of belief, that does not itself justify any particular action. Only when atheism is combined with other beliefs such as xenophobia, nationalism, imperialism, political advantage, utopianism or an obsession with national security can it take on a more sinister aspect. In a sense, atheism is sometimes an incidental consequence of these broader belief systems.

Fundamentalists are the true theists[edit]

Sam Harris defines a religious moderate in terms of their cherry picking of scripture:

"Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world. [...] From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. [...] Religious moderation is the produce of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance-and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.[18]"

However, religious texts are generally contradictory, so even fundamentalists need to loosely interpret their texts in certain places. On the other hand, moderates arguably cherry pick to a greater extent. He also assumes, probably rightly, that all religious texts are incompatible with modern culture and values unless they are selectively used. He observes that theists often have a poor understanding of scripture, so the omissions are rarely noticed, such as the death penalty for heresy. Harris calls religious moderation a simple "neglect" of divine law and a result of modern culture and scientific knowledge making literalism untenable. Harris anticipates that advances in science will eventually replace our outdated understanding of spiritual and ethical understanding as well. He also notes that religious belief is not backed by reliable evidence. Moderate religion legitimizes fundamentalism because it prevents criticism of literalism. It also lacks any preventative measure to avoid believers becoming radicalized. He calls moderate religion just as bad as fundamentalism because:

"By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those that do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.[18]"

Firstly, it is unreasonable to call a religious moderate just as irrational as a fundamentalist, since they accept many modern developments in knowledge. Secondly, what does it matter to a skeptic if religious moderates adhere to a particular scripture?

Harris writes dismissively of moderate religion, called it "failed", half-hearted and illegitimate, when compared to literalism. He is here adopting the interpretation of the fundamentalists as to what constitutes religion (argument from authority). However, we don't have any reason to agree with fundamentalists as to what constitutes religion. Moderate religion is a valid form of religion to billions of people (appeal to majority). He has not found suitable grounds to dismiss moderate religion as illegitimate or unworthy of examination in its own right.

By accepting the fundamentalist interpretation of scripture as the valid or true interpretation, Harris may be inadvertently adding authority to their claims, at least among those with a predisposition to religious belief. An alternative tactic is to argue that holy books can be interpreted in any way you choose to believe, which might enables peoples' consciences to influence their behavior for the better.

Responses to fundamentalism[edit]

Since fundamentalism is harmful to both society and to the believers themselves, it is often desirable to reduce fundamentalism or mitigate its harmful effects.


Some people have called for a dialogue with fundamentalists in the hope of moderating their views.

"Let us therefore reject all superstition in order to become more human; but in speaking against fanaticism, let us not imitate the fanatics: they are sick men in delirium who want to chastise their doctors. Let us assuage their ills, and never embitter them, and let us pour drop by drop into their souls the divine balm of toleration, which they would reject with horror if it were offered to them all at once."


Address root causes[edit]

There have been many causes suggested for terrorism, including politics, national rivalries, disenfranchisement, injustice, ineffective governments, power struggles between rival factions, western imperialism, conflict over control of land, lack of institutions, etc. This issues are often complex, difficult to address or lack the political support needed for a solution.

Military action[edit]

While fundamentalists have often been violently suppressed or attacked, it is questionable if this is an effective approach since it may drive more people to join their cause. Usually, an ideology cannot be destroyed by force.

"Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. [...] Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the read of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. [...] This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan [...]"

Sam Harris[18]

"I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don't make any apology for it. And I think it's sickly and stupid and suicidal to say that we should love those who hate us and try to kill us and our children and burn our libraries and destroy our society. I have no patience with this nonsense."

Christopher Hitchens
"with massive civilian casualties, air strikes will heighten the popular support for IS and hence be highly counter-productive. [17]"

An extreme view is to regard terrorism as part of a "clash of civilizations" that must be met with military force.


Some commentators have called for improved critical thinking skills and self reflection in education, rather than indoctrination which leaves people vulnerable to fundamentalism and extremism.

"The heart of the problem is the predominance of an indoctrinatory approach to learning and teaching about Islam. This confines Islamic education to uncritical transmission of a revered set of texts. This form of Islamic education is exploited by extremist recruiters in both majority and minority Muslim societies. [...] We need to provide young Muslims with Islamic literacy that integrates reflective thinking skills and intercultural understanding to help them engage intelligently and confidently with their faith heritage and wider society. Unfortunately, so far neither Muslim communities nor educational policymakers have shown interest in developing such alternative educational models. [19]"

Jihadi recruits are often found to have a high degree of science and engineering education. [20] Commentators have speculate the mindset of these disciplines predispose people to believe in black and white solutions. This is not necessarily an appropriate attitude in approaching social or political issues which are often characterised by uncertainty and grey areas. A possible solution is to reform education to "humanise" science and engineering. [21]

Hearts and minds[edit]

"The winner of this war will not be the parties that have the newest, most expensive, most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to have the people on its side. [...] As soon as the people have hope in the political solution, then Islamic State will just collapse. It will have no ground any more. It will collapse. [22]"

Ignore or contain them[edit]

One interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's writings is that he thought those who were weary of Earthly life, which he thought was the foundation of metaphysics and religion, should be left alone, so they can make a self-realization:

"Let him lie, until of his own accord he awakeneth,- until of his own accord he repudiateth all weariness, and what weariness hath taught through him!"

While this may be good advice for people who cannot be reached in other ways, we may want to prevent them falling into this state in the first place. For those who are on self destructive path, Nietzsche recommends the drastic step of encouraging them:

"And him whom ye do not teach to fly, teach I pray you- to fall faster!"

Of course, apologetics is only effective in a limited set of circumstances.


  1. I Don't Believe in Atheists, 2008
  2. 381 A.D. Heretics, Pagans, and The Dawn of the Monotheistic State
  3. [1]
  4. 4.0 4.1 [2]
  5. [3]
  6. Marsden, George M. "Fundamentalism and American Culture." New York, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  7. Noll, Mark A. "A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada." Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 [4]
  9. [5]
  10. Protestants and Frequent Churchgoers Most Supportive of Iraq War, Gallup, March 16, 2006
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 [6]
  12. [7]
  13. George Monbiot, Who’s driving high abortion rates? It’s the religious right, 13 Jan 2016
  14. Hassan Hassan, The secret world of Isis training camps – ruled by sacred texts and the sword, The Observer, 25 January 2015
  15. Comment by Juvegirl
  16. The story of a radicalisation: 'I was not thinking my thoughts. I was not myself'
  17. 17.0 17.1 [8]
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 The End of Faith, 2004
  19. [9]
  20. [10]
  21. [11]
  22. [12]
  • Barr, James. "Fundamentalism." London, SCM Press, 1977.
  • Harding, Susan Friend. "The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics." Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2000.

See also[edit]

v · d Secularism
Support for separation of church and state   United States Constitution · First Amendment · Free exercise clause · Religious test · Separation of church and state
Attacks against separation of church and state   Proselytizing · Theocracy · In God We Trust · Persecution · Authoritarianism · Fundamentalism · Blue laws · Dominionism · Sharia · Theodemocracy · Blasphemy laws · Blasphemous libel · List of Theocratic political parties
Arguments for theocratic government   America as a Christian nation · Australia as a Christian nation · Canada as a Christian nation