AskDefine | Define fundamentalism

Dictionary Definition

fundamentalism n : the interpretation of every word in the sacred texts as literal truth

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  1. The tendency to reduce a religion to its most fundamental tenets, based on strict interpretation of core texts.
  2. The belief that fundamental financial quantities are the best predictor of the price of an instrument.
  1. The beliefs held by those in this movement.
  2. Strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles.



Extensive Definition

Religious fundamentalism refers a "deep and totalistic commitment" to a belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of a holy book, absolute religious authority, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (fundamentals), away from doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.
The term fundamentalism was originally coined to describe a narrowly defined set of beliefs that developed into a movement within the US Protestant community in the early part of the 20th century. Until 1950 there was no entry for fundamentalism in the Oxford English Dictionary; the derivative fundamentalist was added only in its second 1989 edition.
The term fundamentalist has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs in the face of criticism or unpopularity, but has by and large retained religious connotations. Richard Dawkins used the term to characterize religious advocates as clinging to a stubborn, entrenched position that defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence.


Christian origins

The term "fundamentalism" came into existence at the Niagara Bible Conference which defined those things that were fundamental to belief. The term was also used to describe "The Fundamentals", a collection of twelve books on five subjects published in 1910 by Milton and Lyman Steward
A criticism by Elliot N. Dorff: "In order to carry out the fundamentalist program in practice, one would need a perfect understanding of the ancient language of the original text, if indeed the true text can be discerned from among variants. Furthermore, human beings are the ones who transmit this understanding between generations. "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 is impossible to follow the indisputable word of God; one can only achieve a human understanding of God's will." (A Living Tree, Dorff, 1988)
A criticism of fundamentalism is the claim that fundamentalists are selective in what they believe. For instance, the book of Genesis dictates that when a man's brother dies, he must marry his widowed sister-in-law. Yet fundamentalist Christians do not adhere to this doctrine, despite the fact that it is not contradicted in the New Testament. However, according to New Testament theology, large parts, if not all of the Mosaic Law, are not normative for modern Christians. They may cite passages such Colossians 2:14 which describes Jesus Christ as "having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us" (NKJV). Other fundamentalists argue that only certain parts of the Mosaic Law, parts that rely on universal moral principles, are normative for today. Therefore, in their view, there is no contradiction between such passages in the Old Testament and their belief in biblical infallibility.
Howard Thurman was interviewed in the late 1970s for a BBC feature on religion. He told the interviewer, "I say that creeds, dogmas, and theologies are inventions of the mind. It is the nature of the mind to make sense out of experience, to reduce the conglomerates of experience to units of comprehension which we call principles, or ideologies, or concepts. Religious experience is dynamic, fluid, effervescent, yeasty. But the mind can't handle these so it has to imprison religious experience in some way, get it bottled up. Then, when the experience quiets down, the mind draws a bead on it and extracts concepts, notions, dogmas, so that religious experience can make sense to the mind. Meanwhile religious experience goes on experiencing, so that by the time I get my dogma stated so that I can think about it, the religious experience becomes an object of thought."
American futurist John Renesch expands upon this notion by stating, "For me, fundamentalism is an attempt to comprehend that which cannot be comprehended, to rationalize the unfathomable, “effing” the ineffable. It is similar to trying to measure the immeasurable or the “indefinitely extensive.” It is the human mind doing what it is supposed to do, making sense of things. But some things are ineffable and attempts to make sense of them are fruitless unless one is willing to settle for any explanation just to have one. Again, this goes for business, law, medicine, romance, politics…anything, not just religion."

Universal aspects of Fundamentalism in all religions

Fundamentalists believe their cause to have grave and even cosmic importance. They see themselves as protecting not only a distinctive doctrine, but also 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 it therefore appeals to those adherents of religion who find little that is distinctive, or authentically vital in their previous religious identity.
The fundamentalist "wall of virtue", which protects their identity, is erected against not only other religions, but also against the modernized, nominal version of their own religion. In Christianity, fundamentalists can be known as "born again" and "Bible-believing" Protestants, as opposed to "mainline", "liberal", "modernist" Protestants. In Islam there are jama'at (Arabic: (religious) enclaves with connotations of close fellowship) fundamentalists self-consciously engaged in jihad (struggle) against the Western culture that suppresses authentic Islam (submission) and the God-given (Shari'ah) way of life. In Judaism fundamentalists are Haredi "Torah-true" Jews. There are fundamentalist equivalents in Hinduism and other world religions. These groups insist on a sharp boundary between themselves and the faithful adherents of other religions, and finally between a "sacred" view of life and the "secular" world and "nominal religion". Fundamentalists direct their critiques 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.
Many scholars see most forms of fundamentalism as having similar traits. This is especially obvious if modernity, secularism or an atheistic perspective is adopted as the norm, against which these varieties of traditionalism or supernaturalism are compared. From such a perspective, Peter Huff wrote in the International Journal on World Peace:
"According to Antoun, fundamentalists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite their doctrinal and practical differences, are united by a common worldview which anchors all of life in the authority of the sacred and a shared ethos that expresses itself through outrage at the pace and extent of modern secularization."

Basic beliefs of religious fundamentalists

For religious fundamentalists, sacred scripture is considered the authentic, and literal word of their religion's god or gods. Fundamentalist beliefs depend on the twin doctrines that their god or gods articulated their will precisely to prophets, and that followers also have a reliable and perfect record of that revelation.
Since a religion's scripture is considered the word of its god or gods, fundamentalists believe that no person is right to change it or disagree with it. Within that though, there are many differences between different fundamentalists. For example, many Christian fundamentalists believe in free will, that every person is able to make their own choices, but with consequence. The appeal of this point of view is its simplicity: every person can do what they like, as much as they are able, but their god or gods will bring those who disobey without repentance ("turning away from sin") to justice. This is made clear by the commands of Jesus in the New Testament concerning any kind of revenge ("Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord" for one). The Judaist belief is similar, but they do not believe that it is wrong to take vengeance. The fundamentalist insistence on strict observation of religious laws may lead to an accusation of legalism in addition to exclusivism in the interpretation of metaphysical beliefs.


H.H. the Dalai Lama has agreed that there exist also extremists and fundamentalists in Buddhism, arguing that fundamentalists are not even able to pick up the idea of a possible dialogue. A statement which was rejected by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (aka NKT), arguing: "This really is a false accusation against innocent people. We have never done anything wrong. We simply practise our own religion, as passed down through many generations.";
David N. Kay argued in his doctoral research that the NKT fit into the criteria of Robert Lifton’s definition of the fundamentalist self. Inken Prohl stated: "Kay’s argument shows that, due to the NKT’s homogenous organizational structure, its attempts to establish a uniformity of belief and practice within the organization, and an emphasis on following one tradition coupled with a critical attitude toward other traditions, the NKT fits into Lifton’s category of “fundamentalism”. Kay describes how struggles for control of NKT’s institutional sites and NKT’s repressed memory of its institutional conflicts both contribute to NKT’s later 'fundamentalist' identity." However Prohl states also: "Although this observation presents a convincing and challenging observation of a mechanism at work in Buddhist organizations in the West, I would hesitate to characterize, as Kay does, such organizations as 'fundamentalist' due to the vague and, at the same time, extremely political implications of this term."
According to anthropologist Lionel Caplan,
"In the Protestant milieu of the USA, fundamentalism crystallized in response to liberals' eagerness to bring Christianity into the post-Darwinian world by questioning the scientific and historical accuracy of the scripture. Subsequently, the scourge of evolution was linked with socialism, and during the Cold War period, with communism. This unholy trinity came to be regarded as a sinister, atheistic threat to Christian America...Bruce [Chpt. 9 of Caplan 1987] suggests that to understand the success of the Moral Majority, an alliance between the conservative forces of the New Right and the fundamentalist wings on the mainly Southern Baptist Churches, we have to appreciate these fears, as well as the impact of a host of unwelcome changes - in attitudes to 'morality', family, civil and women's rights, and so on - which have, in the wake of economic transformations since the Second World War, penetrated especially the previously insular social and cultural world of the American South." (Caplan 1987: 6)
The term fundamentalist has historically referred specifically to members of the various Protestant denominations who subscribed to the five "fundamentals", rather than fundamentalists forming an independent denomination. This wider movement of Fundamentalist Christianity has since broken up into various movements which are better described in other terms. Early "fundamentalists" included J. Gresham Machen and B.B. Warfield, men who would not be considered "Fundamentalists" today.
Over time the term came to be associated with a particular segment of Evangelical Protestantism, who distinguished themselves by their separatist approach toward modernity, toward aspects of the culture which they feel typify the modern world, and toward other Christians who did not similarly separate themselves.
Because of the prevalence of dispensational eschatology, some fundamentalists vehemently support the modern nation of Israel, believing the Jews to have significance in God's purposes parallel to the Christian churches, and a special role to play at the end of the world.
The term, fundamentalist, is difficult to apply unambiguously, especially when applied to groups outside the USA, which are typically far less dogmatic. Many self-described Fundamentalists would include Jerry Falwell in their company, but would not embrace Pat Robertson as a fundamentalist because of his espousal of charismatic teachings. Fundamentalist institutions include Pensacola Christian College, and Bob Jones University, but classically Fundamentalist schools such as Fuller Theological Seminary and Biola University no longer describe themselves as Fundamentalist, although in the broad sense described by this article they are fundamentalist (better, Evangelical) in their perspective. (The forerunner to Biola U. - the Bible Institute of Los Angeles - was founded under the financial patronage of Lyman Stewart, with his brother Milton, underwrote the publication of a series of 12 books jointly entitled The Fundamentals between 1909 and 1920.)


see Hindutva Hinduism, being a conglomerate of religious traditions, contains a very diverse range of philosophical viewpoints and is generally considered as being doctrinally tolerant of varieties of both Hindu and non-Hindu beliefs.
In regards to attitudes to scriptures, many schools of Hinduism such as Smartism and Advaitism encourage interpretation of scriptures philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, other schools, such as Vaishnavism stress the literal meaning (mukhya vitti) as primary and indirect meaning () as secondary: - "The instructions of the shruti-shstra should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations."

Islamic views

Muslims believe that their religion was revealed by God (Allah in Arabic) to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, the final Prophet delivered by God. However, the Muslims brand of conservatism which is generally termed Islamic fundamentalism encompasses all the following:
  • It describes the beliefs of traditional Muslims that they should restrict themselves to literal interpretations of their sacred texts, the Qur'an and Hadith. This may describe the private religious attitudes of individuals and have no relationship with larger social groups.
  • It describes a variety of religious movements and political parties in Muslim communities.
  • As opposed to the above two usages, in the West "Islamic fundamentalism" is most often used to describe Muslim individuals and groups which advocate Islamism, a political ideology calling for the replacement of state secular laws with Islamic law.
In all the above cases, Islamic fundamentalism represents a conservative religious belief, as opposed to liberal movements within Islam.

Jewish views

Most Jewish denominations believe that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) cannot be understood literally or alone, but rather needs to be read in conjunction with additional material known as the Oral Torah; this material is contained in the Mishnah, Talmud, Gemara and Midrash. While the Tanakh is not read in a literal fashion, Orthodox Judaism does view the text itself as divine, infallible, and transmitted essentially without change, and places great import in the specific words and letters of the Torah. As well, adherents of Orthodox Judaism, especially Haredi Judaism, see the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash as divine and infallible in content, if not in specific wording. Hasidic Jews frequently ascribe infallibility to their Rebbe's interpretation of the traditional sources of truth.

Mormon views

Mormon fundamentalism is a conservative movement of Mormonism that believes or practices what its adherents consider to be the fundamental aspects of Mormonism. Most often, Mormon fundamentalism represents a break from the brand of Mormonism practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), and a return to Mormon doctrines and practices which adherents believe the LDS Church has wrongly abandoned, such as plural marriage, the Law of Consecration, the Adam-God theory, blood atonement, the Patriarchal Priesthood, elements of the Mormon Endowment ritual, and often the exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood. Mormon fundamentalists have formed numerous sects, many of which have established small, cohesive, and isolated communities in areas of the Western United States.

Non-theistic "fundamentalism"

Some refer to any literal-minded philosophy with pretense of being the sole source of objective truth, as fundamentalist, regardless of whether it is usually called a religion . Others, including the blogger Austin Cline of, argue that fundamentalist atheism does not exist, because it cannot exist on the grounds that atheism has no fundamental doctrines, and that fundamentalism is not a personality type.
The use of the word "fundamentalism" has been used to label several positions that do not necessarily fit the original definition. Some atheists and those called "evolutionists" by creationists, for example, have been called fundamentalists due to their outspokenness and high level of certainty. On the Canadian talk show The Bigger Picture, the biologist Richard Dawkins said that his critics mistook passion for fundamentalism. He has also stated that, unlike religious fundamentalists, he would willingly change his mind if new evidence challenged his current position.
However, some view the atheistic position as making the same kind of claims as any of the theistic views. In this case, the assertion about the nature of a deity is the quality of non-existence, and seems to have exactly the same objections as any other claims about the nature of a deity. There appears to be a wide range of interpretations of the nature of the creator based on our observations of creation, the universe we live in. All of them seem to be equally unfalsifiable based on our not being able to directly access the theoretical realms beyond what we can observe. .
In France, the imposition of restrictions on public display of religion has been labelled by some as "Secular Fundamentalism" . The idea of non-religious Fundamentalism almost always expands the definition of "fundamentalism" along the lines of criticisms .
In The New Inquisition, Robert Anton Wilson lampoons the members of skeptical organizations like CSICOP as fundamentalist materialists, alleging that they dogmatically dismiss any evidence that conflicts with materialism as hallucination or fraud .
Occasionally, it seems to represent an idea of purity, and is self-applied as signifying a rather counter-cultural fidelity to some noble, simple, but overlooked principle, as in Economic fundamentalism; but the same term can be used in a critical way. Roderick Hindery first lists positive qualities attributed to political, economic, or other forms of cultural fundamentalism. They include "vitality, enthusiasm, willingness to back up words with actions, and the avoidance of facile compromise." Then, negative aspects are analyzed, such as psychological attitudes, occasionally elitist and pessimistic perspectives, and in some cases literalism.

State atheism

State atheism is the official rejection of religion in all forms by a government in favor of atheism. When Albania under Enver Hoxha declared itself an atheist state, it was deemed by some to be a kind of fundamentalist atheism and where Stalinism was like the state religion which replaced other religions and political ideologies. Any one practising a non-Stalinist religion or setting up a different political party would be sent to prison . See also North Korea, China and Vietnam.

Atheistic fundamentalism

In December 2007, the Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan criticised what he referred to as "atheistic fundamentalism", claiming that it advocated that religion has no substance and "that faith has no value and is superstitious nonsense" . He claimed it led to situations such as councils calling Christmas "Winterval", schools refusing to put on nativity plays and crosses removed from chapels, though others have disputed this .

Controversy over use of the term

The Associated Press' AP Stylebook recommends that the term fundamentalist not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself. Many scholars, however, use the term in the broader descriptive sense to refer to various groups in various religious traditions, and the massive five-volume study The Fundamentalism Project published by the University of Chicago takes this approach. In popular discussions, the term fundamentalist is frequently used improperly to refer to a broad range of conservative, orthodox, or militiant religious movements.
Christian fundamentalists, who generally consider the term to be positive when used to refer to themselves, often object to the placement of themselves and Islamist groups into a single category given that the fundamentals of Christianity are different than the fundamentals of Islam. They feel that characteristics based on the new definition are wrongly projected back onto Christian fundamentalists by their critics.
Many Muslims protest the use of the term when referring to Islamist groups, and object to being placed in the same category as Christian fundamentalists, whom they see as theologically incomplete. Unlike Christian fundamentalist groups, Islamist groups do not use the term fundamentalist to refer to themselves. Shia groups which are often considered fundamentalist in the western world generally are not described that way in the Islamic world.

Citations and Footnotes


  • Appleby, R. Scott, Gabriel Abraham Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan (2003). Strong Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-01497-5
  • Armstrong, Karen (2001). The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-39169-1
  • Brasher, Brenda E. (2001). The Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-92244-5
  • Caplan, Lionel. (1987). "Studies in Religious Fundamentalism". London: The MacMillan Press Ltd.
  • Dorff, Elliot N. and Rosett, Arthur, A Living Tree; The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law, SUNY Press, 1988.
  • Gorenberg, Gershom. (2000). The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. New York: The Free Press.
  • Hindery, Roderick. 2001. Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? Mellen Press: aspects of fundamentalism, pp. 69-74.
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
  • Marsden; George M. (1980). Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 Oxford University Press, (
  • Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby (eds.). The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • (1991). Volume 1: Fundamentalisms Observed. ISBN 0-226-50878-1
    • (1993). Volume 2: Fundamentalisms and Society. ISBN 0-226-50880-3
    • (1993). Volume 3: Fundamentalisms and the State. ISBN 0-226-50883-8
    • (1994). Volume 4: Accounting for Fundamentalisms. ISBN 0-226-50885-4
    • (1995). Volume 5: Fundamentalisms Comprehended. ISBN 0-226-50887-0
  • Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Ruthven, Malise (2005). "Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning". Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280606-8
  • Torrey, R.A. (ed.). (1909). The Fundamentals. Los Angeles: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (B.I.O.L.A. now Biola University). ISBN 0-8010-1264-3
  • "Religious movements: fundamentalist." In Goldstein, Norm (Ed.) (2003). The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2003 (38th ed.), p. 218. New York: The Associated Press. ISBN 0-917360-22-2.
fundamentalism in Aragonese: Fundamentalismo relichioso
fundamentalism in Asturian: Fundamentalismu relixosu
fundamentalism in Bengali: মৌলবাদ
fundamentalism in Min Nan: Goân-lí-chú-gī
fundamentalism in Bosnian: Vjerski fundamentalizam
fundamentalism in Bulgarian: Фундаментализъм
fundamentalism in Catalan: Fonamentalisme
fundamentalism in Czech: Fundamentalismus
fundamentalism in Welsh: Ffwndamentaliaeth
fundamentalism in Danish: Fundamentalisme
fundamentalism in German: Fundamentalismus
fundamentalism in Estonian: Fundamentalism
fundamentalism in Modern Greek (1453-): Φονταμενταλισμός
fundamentalism in Emiliano-Romagnolo: Fundamentalisum religiåus
fundamentalism in Spanish: Fundamentalismo
fundamentalism in Esperanto: Fundamentismo
fundamentalism in Persian: بنیادگرایی
fundamentalism in French: Fondamentalisme
fundamentalism in Irish: Bunúsaíocht
fundamentalism in Korean: 원리주의
fundamentalism in Croatian: Vjerski fundamentalizam
fundamentalism in Indonesian: Fundamentalisme
fundamentalism in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Fundamentalismo
fundamentalism in Icelandic: Bókstafstrú
fundamentalism in Italian: Fondamentalismo
fundamentalism in Hebrew: פונדמנטליזם
fundamentalism in Latin: Fundamentalismus
fundamentalism in Lithuanian: Fundamentalizmas
fundamentalism in Hungarian: Fundamentalizmus
fundamentalism in Malay (macrolanguage): Fundamentalisme
fundamentalism in Dutch: Fundamentalisme
fundamentalism in Japanese: 原理主義
fundamentalism in Norwegian: Fundamentalisme
fundamentalism in Norwegian Nynorsk: Fundamentalisme
fundamentalism in Pushto: بنسټپالنه
fundamentalism in Polish: Fundamentalizm
fundamentalism in Portuguese: Fundamentalismo
fundamentalism in Romanian: Fundamentalism religios
fundamentalism in Russian: Фундаментализм
fundamentalism in Sicilian: Funnamintalismu
fundamentalism in Simple English: Religious fundamentalism
fundamentalism in Slovak: Fundamentalizmus
fundamentalism in Serbian: Фундаментализам
fundamentalism in Serbo-Croatian: Vjerski fundamentalizam
fundamentalism in Finnish: Fundamentalismi
fundamentalism in Swedish: Fundamentalism
fundamentalism in Thai: ความเชื่อมูลฐานทางศาสนา
fundamentalism in Turkish: Köktendincilik
fundamentalism in Ukrainian: Релігійний фундаменталізм
fundamentalism in Urdu: بنیاد پرستی
fundamentalism in Yiddish: פאנדעמענטאליזם
fundamentalism in Chinese: 基本教义派

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