Fundamentalism

When people talk about 'extreme' religious beliefs, they are usually referring to fundamentalism. But what is fundamentalism exactly?

Fundamentalism Fundamentalism

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Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we will look at the concept of fundamentalism in sociology.
    • We will go over the definition and origins of religious fundamentalism.
    • We'll then explore the causes and characteristics of fundamentalism.
    • We'll study some examples of fundamentalism today, including Christian and Islamic fundamentalism.
    • Finally, we will touch on fundamental human rights.

    The definition of religious fundamentalism in sociology

    Let's look at the meaning of religious fundamentalism and briefly cover its origins.

    Religious fundamentalism refers to the adherence to a religion's most traditional values and beliefs - a return to the basics or fundamental tenets of the faith. It is often characterized by a degree of militancy, as well as literal interpretations of, and a strict reliance on, a religion's sacred text(s).

    The first known instance of religious fundamentalism was observed in the late 19th century in the United States of America. A liberal branch of Protestant Christianity had emerged which attempted to adapt its views to better accommodate the post-Enlightenment age of modernity, particularly new developments in sciences such as the theory of biological evolution.

    Conservative Protestants heavily opposed this, believing that the Bible must not only be interpreted literally, but was also historically accurate. They began a fundamentalist movement that would remain influential for centuries to come.

    Causes of religious fundamentalism

    Let's go through some sociological explanations for religious fundamentalism here.

    Globalisation

    Anthony Giddens (1999) argues that globalisation and its association with Western values, moral codes, and lifestyles is an undermining force in many parts of the world. Westernisation and its association with equality for women and minorities, free speech, and the promotion of democracy, is regarded as threatening traditional authoritarian power structures and patriarchal dominance.

    This, coupled with the influence of Western consumerism and materialism, which is viewed as 'spiritually empty', means that the advent of globalisation has caused significant insecurity among the people. The growth of fundamentalist religion is therefore a product of and a response to globalisation, providing simple answers in an ever-changing world.

    Steve Bruce (1955), however, asserted that religious fundamentalism does not always arise from the same source. He differentiated between two varieties: communal fundamentalism and individualist fundamentalism.

    Communal fundamentalism happens in less economically developed nations as a response to outside threats such as those outlined above.

    On the other hand, individualist fundamentalism is the type commonly found within developed nations and is a reaction to social changes within society itself, usually due to increasing diversity, multiculturalism, and modernity.

    Fundamentalism, Colourful world map on a blackboard, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Globalisation made it easier to spread the ideas of modernity

    Religious differences

    Samuel Huntington (1993) argues that a 'clash of civilisations' materialised between fundamentalist Islam and Christianity in the late 20th century. A range of factors, including the declining importance of nation-states resulting in the rising importance of religious identity; as well as increased contact between countries due to globalisation, mean that religious differences between Christians and Muslims are now exacerbated. This has resulted in hostile 'us versus them' relationships, and the increasing likelihood of digging up old conflicts.

    However, it must be noted that Huntington's theory has been widely criticised for stereotyping Muslims, ignoring divisions within the religions themselves, and obscuring the role of Western imperialism in fostering fundamentalist movements.

    Characteristics of fundamentalism

    Now, let's look at the key features that characterise fundamentalist religion.

    Religious texts are taken as 'gospel'

    In fundamentalism, religious scriptures are absolute truths, undisputable by anyone or anything. They dictate all aspects of a fundamentalist's way of life. Moral codes and core beliefs are adopted straight from their sacred texts, with no flexibility. Scripture is often used selectively to support fundamentalist arguments.

    An 'us versus them' mentality

    Fundamentalists tend to separate themselves/their group from the rest of the world and refuse to make any compromises. They reject religious pluralism and mostly avoid contact with those who think differently than them.

    All areas of social life are deemed sacred

    Everyday life and activities require a high level of religious commitment and engagement. For example, fundamentalist Christians consider themselves 'born again' to live the rest of their lives in a special relationship with Jesus.

    Opposition to secularisation and modernity

    Fundamentalists believe that modern society is morally corrupt and that tolerance of a changing world undermines religious traditions and convictions.

    Aggressive reactions to perceived threats

    Since many aspects of modernity are viewed as threats to their value systems, fundamentalists often adopt defensive/aggressive reactions in response to these threats. These are intended to shock, intimidate, or cause harm.

    Conservative and patriarchal views

    Fundamentalists tend to have conservative political opinions, which usually means they believe women should occupy traditional gender roles and are intolerant of the LGBT+ community.

    Fundamentalism, The Bible on a stand, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Religious texts such as the Bible are foundational to fundamentalism.

    Fundamentalism in contemporary society

    Fundamentalist interpretations of religion are on the rise in some sections of society. The two most discussed forms of the phenomenon as of late are Christian and Islamic fundamentalism.

    Christian fundamentalism: examples

    One of the most prominent examples of Christian fundamentalism today can be seen in the case of the New Christian Right (also known as the Religious Right) in the US. This is the section of American right-wing politics that relies on Christianity as the foundation of their political beliefs. Rather than the economic, their emphasis is on social and cultural matters.

    The New Christian Right holds conservative views and pushes for policies and reform on a variety of issues, most notably education, reproductive freedom, and LGBT+ rights. They advocate for the teaching of creationism rather than evolution in biology curriculums, and believe sex education in schools should be abolished and replaced with abstinence-only messaging.

    Christian right-wing fundamentalists are also against reproductive rights and freedoms, condemning abortion and contraception and lobbying against the provision of these services. Many supporters of the New Christian Right also hold homophobic and transphobic views and campaign against rights and protections for these communities.

    Islamic fundamentalism: examples

    Islamic fundamentalism refers to a movement of puritanical Muslims who seek to return to and follow the founding scriptures of Islam. The phenomenon has risen most visibly in nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

    There are several well-known examples of fundamentalist Islamic groups that either are or have been active in the past few decades, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

    While they may have different origins, Islamic fundamentalist movements all generally hold the view that countries with Muslim-majority populations should return to a fundamental Islamic state governed by the rules and laws of Islam in all aspects of society. They oppose all forms of secularisation and Westernisation, and seek to eliminate all 'corrupting' non-Islamic forces from their lives.

    Similar to other fundamentalist religious followers, they have deeply conservative views, and go as far as to treat women and minority groups as second-class citizens.

    Fundamentalism and human rights

    Religious fundamentalism has long been criticised for its extremely poor record of upholding fundamental human rights.

    For example, states and movements that are considered to be Islamic fundamentalist have rules that conflict with international law, resulting in violations of human rights including a severe lack of criminal procedures, very harsh criminal penalties that cause great distress, discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and prohibitions against abandoning the Islamic religion.

    The Salafi-Wahhabist regime (a strand of Islamic fundamentalism) that rules Saudi Arabia does not recognise religious freedom and actively prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions.

    Fundamentalism - Key takeaways

    • Religious fundamentalism is a system of belief where religious texts are interpreted entirely literally and provide a strict set of rules by which followers must live.
    • According to some sociologists like Giddens, religious fundamentalism is a reaction to the insecurity and perceived threats brought by globalisation. Others like Bruce state that globalisation is not the only driver of fundamentalism, and that 'inside threats' such as social change are the main cause of religious fundamentalism in the West. Huntington argues that religious fundamentalism is due to increasing ideological clashes between Christian and Muslim nations. His theory has been actively opposed for various reasons.
    • Fundamentalist religions are characterised by a belief that religious texts are 'infallible', an 'us versus them' mentality, a high degree of commitment, an opposition to modern society, aggressive reactions to threats, and conservative political views.
    • The two most common forms of religious fundamentalism in contemporary society are the Christian and Islamic strands.
    • Religious fundamentalism is considered a threat to human rights and often violates them.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Fundamentalism

    What does fundamental mean?

    The fundamentals of something are the core principles and rules upon which it is based. 

    What is the definition of fundamentalism?

    Religious fundamentalism refers to the adherence to a religion's most traditional values and beliefs - a return to the basics or fundamental tenets of the faith. It is often characterised by a degree of militancy as well as literal interpretations of, and a strict reliance on, a religion's sacred text(s). 

    What are fundamentalists beliefs?

    Those who hold fundamentalist beliefs have very strict and inflexible views based on literal interpretations of scripture.  

    What are fundamental rights?

    Fundamental human rights refer to the legal and moral rights that every human being is entitled to, regardless of their circumstances.

    What are the fundamental British values?

    Some examples of fundamental British values, which often contradict the values of religious fundamentalism, are democracy, rule of law, respect and tolerance, and individual liberty.
     

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