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Monday, July 12, 2010

An Anthropologist Describes Fundamentalism

Recently I have had some posts on Fundamentalism. I used to consider myself a fundamentalist Christian. In the circle in which I lived, it was considered a "badge of honor." It was equivalent to being a biblical Christian, one who remained true to the Bible in spite of the opposition from the world.

Today for most people the term "fundamentalist" is a pejorative term. It refers to anyone who is too extreme in their religion. Many times it carries the connotation of someone who will resort to violence in support of their religious beliefs, such as Islamic fundamentalists or even Christian fundamentalists who kill abortion doctors.

So, the term "fundamentalism" means different things to different people.

In his book Introducing Anthropology of Religion,  David Eller describes fundamentalism from an anthropological point of view:

Religious fundamentalism derives its name from the notion of "fundamentals," those things--beliefs, behaviors, organizational structures, and/or moral injunctions--that are felt by members to be most essential or central, the oldest, deepest, and truest aspects of it. (p. 276).
He sees three common elements in religious fundamentalism:

First, religious fundamentalism is for something, namely what it perceives to be the fundamental and crucial elements of its faith, which constitutes the worldview and "the truth" for practitioners. In the case of Christianity, these fundamentals typically focus on the Bible even as a literal and inerrant document and source of knowledge; a certainty that their path is the true path and therefore, the exclusion and sometimes condemnation of others (even other Christians) as corrupt and lost; a sharp distinction between religion and "the secular," the latter of which is inferior or actually evil; an eschatology in which the end-time is near and only they will survive into the new kingdom, that is, an apocalyptic view and a sense of being "chosen"; an uncompromising moral standard; and increasingly, a willingness to participate in politics to institutionalize all of the above, including a more or less conscious desire to dismantle the separation of church and state. . . .

Second, religious fundamentalist is against something. . . As Marsden proceeds to argue, fundamentalists "must not only believe their evangelical teachings, but they must be willing to fight for them against modernist theologies, secular humanism, and the like" (George Marsden, "Defining American Fundamentalism, p. 23). . . Fundamentalists see themselves as militants. . . They are, in their words and often enough in their works, at war with the world
(pp. 277-78).
For some this means total separation from the world, such as the Amish, or other communal groups. For others it means separation from what they perceive to the be the evil pleasures of the world, such as gambling, dancing, drinking alcohol, certain types of music, certain types of apparel, and so on. For still others it takes on an activist form whereby the world is engaged and attempts are made to change the world. This could be through evangelism (either mass meetings or personal "soul-winning"), and/or through political means, such as attempts to "legislate morality,"  post the Ten Commandments, reinstate prayer in schools, teach "scientific" creationism, and so on. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition are examples of this type of fundamentalism. An even more extreme example is the Christian Reconstructionists, a Calvinist group (which would eschew the label Fundamentalist), whose stated goal is to enforce all of the OT laws including stoning homosexuals, adulterers, and so on.

Eller notes a third common thread of fundamentalism--it is enamored with the past. The past, when the fundamentals were formed and truly practiced, looms as a kind of golden age, an ideal and idealized way of life. Fundamentalisms thus emerge as one variation of the cultural nostalgias produced by the modern world--memories of a better, purer time (p. 279). Fundamentalism favors the past over the present. This is evidenced oftentimes in their choice of hymns over more modern worship music, in the use of the King James Bible over newer translations, and so on.

Here are some additional characteristics of a fundamentalist mentality:

  • Intellectual and moral absolutism--"we alone have the truth."
  • Obsession with who is and who is not a real "fundamentalist"
  • The need to be "certain"--doesn't like ambiguity
  • Submission to authority is a prime virtue--the written Scriptures as taught by the (male) leader
  • Sense of being special--we are God's children, we have the truth and everyone else is lost
  • Resistance to change--any change is seen as compromise which is almost always wrong
Probably the common thread through all of these is the suspicion of any modern ideas. Modernity, for fully understandable reasons, undermines all the old certainties; uncertainty is a condition that many people find very hard to bear; therefore, any movement (not only a religous one) that promises to provide or to renew certainty has a ready market (Peter Berger, The Desecularization of the World,  p. 7 cited by Eller,  p. 282). This is why conservative and authoritarian religions are growing. They provide a rock of certainty in a fast-changing world. They provide simple and divinely authoritative answers to the complexities of life. For certain people, this has a tremendous appeal.

As Eller concludes:
No religion is immune to fundamentalist tendencies, especially in a modern world of religous and cultural pluralism, rapid social change, and strong religious beliefs and sentiments. All fundamentalisms share a certain reactionary or defensive nature--even a certain militancy--although they also vary significantly not only between religions and between societies/states but also within religions. They are also, it is quite clear, no utterly unique to modern times but can be found in all times of change and threat--which are almost all times. They are ultimately one of the recurring forms of "revitalization movements" that arise in all societies (and not only in religious institutions) during moments of turmoil and (real or perceived) social decline. . . . The fact that these very circumstances are certain to continue and even intensify in the future suggests that fundamentalisms are likely to persist, and it also proves conclusively that "modernity" is not the death of religion but may rather give it new and energetic life" (p. 301).
So, one should not be surprised at the rise of fundamentalism in the 20th century. Since the last century brought the greatest amount of change to the world, it is only natural that there were a segment of society that resisted that change. As Eller points out, fundamentalism is a mentality and it is not unique to religions (although that is the most visible and potentially dangerous kind). As we move into the 21st century, one can only expect more rapid changes in society and therefore stronger resistance from fundamentalists.


  1. What shall be done about this plague of modernism?

  2. Well, I'll send e-mail's to all my fundamentalist friends from my computer as I sit in my house with electricity and indoor plumbing. I may have to drive my car in order to do organizational work, but, don't you worry, we'll fight this modernism.

    Hold on, I need a snack from my refrigerator.

  3. One is reminded of Pope Pius IX's 1861 condemnation of the proposition that "The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization."

  4. Ken
    If you don't believe christianity, why do you believe anthropology? I don't see any reason to believe anything they have to say.

  5. John S,

    I think you may have missed the point here. Or on second thoughts, you are doing a great job of illustrating it!

  6. John,

    How does decide what to believe? It seems to me that you have to use reason. Anthropology makes sense and evangelical Christianity doesn't, in my opinion.

    As Clare points out, you are illustrating perfectly the point of the article.

  7. Ya'll might want to check out Dr. Ron Baity of Berean Baptist Church and his reaction to the NC Assembly recently re prayer. Although I can sympathize somewhat with his feeling slighted in the situation, he is putting the fundamentalist attitude on display.

    For those unfamiliar with fundamentalism, it's a good illustration of it. It would be good to read the background, then watch his press conference he did at his church in Winston-Salem.

  8. Ken ,
    I am not sure these characteristics are very distinctive and helpful. I could just as easily use these basic characteristics to define many atheists as fundamentalists.

    * Intellectual and moral absolutism--"we alone have the truth." OR We alone are true since we know all religions are false and is simply a product of evolution.

    * Obsession with who is and who is not a real "fundamentalist" or New Atheists or the old school.
    * The need to be "certain"--doesn't like ambiguity. OR Many Atheist criticize Christians for using the term mystery to describe uncertain things.
    * Submission to authority is a prime virtue--the written Scriptures as taught by the (male) leader OR The scientific consensus of the moment is our prime authority.
    * Sense of being special--we are God's children, we have the truth and everyone else is lost OR We are better than the Christian and other religious people because we are scientific and use reason rather than just faith.
    * Resistance to change--any change is seen as compromise which is almost always wrong. An atheist example of this kind of change is wrong mentality could be seen in the reaction to the late-Anthony Flews change of mind.


  9. Is anyone monitoring Evangelicalism's edge (perhaps a "leading" edge) in terms of the Emerging/Emergent Church? I've put some attention into watching it, particularly Brian McLaren, who I tend to like... including in person, on a very brief meeting and correspondence. I don't think he goes nearly far enough, but he is well "past" fundamentalism, and since he struggles to remain connected as "orthodox" on some level, he IS able to move many, especially youth, to greater openness, exploration, heart-centered faith, etc. Similarly with some of the other Emerging leaders.

    One the other hand, some of them (I'm going by their writings, not attending meetings or personal knowledge) are not very original or challenging of orthodoxy, except in its outward forms of organization or style of worship, ritual, legalism, etc. But the "movement" overall is fascinating and important to watch, to get a sense (and some encouragement) about how some people ARE open to change, even pursuing of it, and DO try to rethink everything. As a result, it seems that some leave the kind of fundamentalism described above (or Christianity altogether), and that the process also fosters movement by a substantial segment of Christianity in the direction of better integration, true compassion, less of the reactionary traits Eller, Marsden, Armstrong (Karen), and others well describe.

    BTW, besides Armstrong's "The Battle for God," another older classic that is still worth reading is "Fundamentalism" by Barr, the British liberal theologian.

  10. Joe,

    I agree that there can be fundamentalists of almost any description because essentially it is a mindset. However, the key element of fundamentalism is a retreat to the past and a rejection of modernity. This is typically not true of atheists.

  11. Lynn mentioned Ron Baity. I knew Ron years ago when I pastored in Ohio. Remember hearing him preach a sermon on the text "neither give place to the devil" and for 45 minutes he told us his personal opinion as to what should be on the list of "devil" activities. It was fundamentalism in full dress.

    I was a fundamentalist pastor for many years. I found your post on this, and Eller's observations to be spot on.

    Sometimes, I think it hard for people to really understand fundamentalism unless they were immersed in the culture like some of us were.