Michal Ann McArthur
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Choking on a Camel
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Understanding World Religious Fundamentalisms, Part 1: Introduction to Religious Fundamentalism

Part 2 >

It may be surprising to some, but religious fundamentalism is a fairly modern phenomenon (1). The term “fundamentalism” when used with reference to modern religious fundamentalism was coined in the United States in the 1920s. Between 1910 and 1915, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles published twelve volumes titled The Fundamentals, outlining what was considered to be the fundamentals of the orthodox Protestant Christian faith, particularly the Reformed faith. Those who adhered to these beliefs came to be called fundamentalists.

By the mid-20th century, many Western academics thought religion might be fading away. People envisioned coming decades of ecumenism, openness, tolerance, and interreligious dialogue and were caught off-guard by the rise of intolerant, exclusivist, and sometimes militant fundamentalism. In the form of fundamentalist Islam, religious fundamentalism is in the spotlight and rising. Today, it is a serious contender for world domination (2) and plays a key role in global economics and politics.

Fundamentalism seems to be triggered when the members of a religion judge that moderates in their group are compromising with modernity. They fear that the group is in danger of being assimilated in such a way that their religious identity and tradition might be lost. Fundamentalists rise up in reaction against such threatening compromise (3). In the United States in the 1970s, Christian fundamentalism, exemplified by the Moral Majority, experienced a revival in reaction to the Supreme Court’s banning of Bible study and prayer in the schools, the legalization of abortion, and the rise of the left-wing counterculture (4). The Moral Majority called for a moral revival and a return to what they called “traditional family values.” Islamic fundamentalism experienced a revival when moderate Muslims were perceived as accepting Western culture and values and making other secular adaptations that some adherents felt threatened their identity.

1. Martin E. Marty, “The Future of World Fundamentalisms.” Published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 142, No. 3, September 1998. Web. 26 June 2013. Marty argues that “the invention of the term signals that it may have been necessary, and was convenient, to describe a new phenomenon.”

2. Ernest Gellner, Postmodernity, Reason and Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 2. He saw three major contenders: religious fundamentalism; relativism, exemplified in postmodernism, which he thought could easily lead to nihilism; and Enlightenment rationalism, or rationalist fundamentalism.

3. Martin E. Marty, “The Future of World Fundamentalisms.”

4. Tyler Roberts, Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2009), 105.

Part 2 >

Part 1: Introduction to Religious Fundamentalism
Part 2: What is Religious Fundamentalism?
Part 3: Christian Fundamentalism in Philosophical Perspective
Part 4: Doctrinal Distinctives of Protestant Christian Fundamentalism
Part 5: Christian Fundamentalism and Choking on a Camel