What is Fundamentalism and What Should We Do About It?

Published September 26, 2018 by Tobias Müller

Tobias Müller reflects on the concept of fundamentalism and the prospects and limits of its analytical purchase.

Labelling somebody a fundamentalist is almost unequivocally understood as a damnatory verdict. Fundamentalists are considered to hold views that make them stand outside of an alleged consensus of liberal democracy. Scholars have argued, however, that precisely the exclusion of certain religious groups on social, political and moral levels has led to the emergence of fundamentalism in the first place. This means that fundamentalism cannot be understood without the perceived cultural, social and political crisis in the context of its emergence. Reducing a complex phenomenon such as fundamentalism to ideology or doctrine alone risks biased representations of religion similar to those that have been prevalent in Europe over centuries: the prioritisation of belief over practice, orthodoxy over heterodoxy, and expert religion over everyday lived realities.

Dr Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University, was a Christian pastor and televangelist (By Liberty University - Liberty University, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2139884)

Definitions of fundamentalism often draw on resistance to secularisation and modernity. This creates the self-understanding of fundamentalists as 'beleaguered believers'. The popularisation of the term fundamentalism can be traced back to Protestant Christian groups in the USA in the 1920s. They claimed scriptural infallibility and headship of men over women as principles that needed to be protected and reinvigorated. However, fundamentalists' self-description of protecting traditional or original belief omits a decisive fact: The language of 'revival' or 'return' to the origins of religion conceals that those practices are always interpreted, adapted, transformed or, in some cases, even invented. Thus, one can conceptualise fundamentalists as ‘'radical conservatives' or 'mobilised traditionalists' who are strategically working towards a certain 'apocalyptic vision' through a personal and collective set of ethical practices rooted in a mythical past or future.

So what should we so about fundamentalism? Many positions held by fundamentalist groups, such as the complete structuring of all social and political decisions through divine authority or the patriarchy expressed through restricted access to offices and resources for women, offend our understanding of liberal democracy and the equality it seeks to establish. However, many fundamentalists denounce violence and are law-abiding citizens. This raises the question whether the best way to promote liberal attitudes is to simply ignore and condemn these groups, or whether there are better ways of preventing further polarisation that ultimately plays into the hands of those who declare European societies to be morally and politically bankrupt.

This article is written by Tobias Müller who will start with the Woolf Institute as post-doctoral Junior Research Fellow in November 2018. (The article also appears on the Festival of Ideas website here.) He will be working on strictly observant religion, gender and the state. Together with Prof Kim Knott and Dr Ed Kessler MBE, he will discussing current developments in Fundamentalism at the Festival of Ideas of the University of Cambridge on Monday 15 October 2018, 6-7.30pm. Attendance is free but booking is essential: https://www.festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk/events/rethinking-religious-fundamentalism.

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