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What is Fundamentalism?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Fundamentalism is the strict adherence to a set of beliefs, in most cases religious. The term is often applied to certain sects of Christianity, but is common to most World Religions. Often, fundamentalism is referred to in a derogatory way and is paired with extremism and its negative associations. Fundamentalists do no find their beliefs extreme, but rather basic or fundamental.

In Christianity, most fundamentalists are those who support a strict reading and following of Biblical texts. Churches considered to practice fundamentalism are those that tend to read most biblical texts as the undisputed word of God, which cannot be negotiated or watered down, as they claim many modern versions of Christianity do. Such churches exist in most Christian sects and may be promoted as “back to the basic” or “bible-based” churches.

As the Bible is the source of God’s word, there can be no argument in fundamentalism for disputation of the Word. Criticisms levied against Christian fundamentalism claim that fundamentalists often preference the Old Testament over the New, particularly when considering such things as homosexuality or the relative age of the earth. Also, less fundamental biblical scholars point to glaring inconsistencies in most Biblical books, which may be accounted for by suggesting that the Bible is the word of God as interpreted by the imperfect human.

In return, Christian fundamentalists would respond by saying that to question the origins of the Old Testament, or those of the New, is to question the word of God. What appear as inconsistencies are of no matter, because study of the Word will help us become wiser, as adherence to the Word will assure us passage to heaven. If an inconsistency appears, then we are simply not wise enough to understand it.

In one form of Christianity, Mormonism, fundamentalists advocate not only a close reading of and adherence to Biblical teachings, but also to the teachings in The Book of Mormon . These views are often thought of as extreme by mainstream Mormons because they advocate polygamy and blood atonement, in which those who commit murder must literally have their blood spilled upon the ground as punishment. Further, these teachings often outlaw Blacks from taking part in the priesthood. Most Mormons are not fundamental in their beliefs, and though quite religious, they find certain aspects of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s teaching abhorrent or at least inapplicable to modern life.

In Islam, Westerners often attribute fundamentalism to Shiites. However, Moslems in general do not consider Shiites to be fundamentalist. They point instead to Wahhabis, a group of Sunnis who are fundamental in regards to the strictest interpretation of biblical texts and the refutation of praying to saints or beloved Sufi leaders. Of great importance is remembering that it is only the “One God” to which people may pray. Any other prayers are polytheistic and against the fundamental teaching of Islam.

True fundamentalism in Judaism is difficult to find, since almost all Jews believe that interpretations of the Tanakh, or what Christians would term the Old Testament, are necessary to understand its teachings. Only one small group, the Karaites, do not interpret Tanakh texts by reading the Torah and Mishnah. One might class Orthodox and Hasidic Jews as fundamental, yet they are not so, because they rely on textual interpretations, even when their adherence to Jewish law is inflexible.

Fundamentalism also evokes certain political connotations. Suicide bombings and stockpiling of weapons in rural areas of America, as well as other countries, sometimes associated with extremist religious right groups, are seen as outgrowths of fundamentalist beliefs. Though fundamentalism can be associated with extremism, this is not always the case. Many fundamentalists merely want to get as close to their sacred texts as possible and have nothing to do with jihad or political extremism of any kind. It is quite inaccurate to tar all fundamentalists with the same brush as political extremists.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon951929 — On May 18, 2014

The fundamentalist Christians I have been in contact with all had the same problem of not being able to connect with other people. They did not know how to pick up on common communication cues. In short, they could not form meaningful relationships with other people. Nor could they process information of any kind very well. This is not surprising when you consider the extreme lack of thought processing needed to maintain a belief system that is riddled with contradiction.

By anon246379 — On Feb 09, 2012

Thank you for writing this. I found it very helpful.

By hyrax53 — On Jan 30, 2011

I try very hard to keep an open mind with others who disagree, though I find it hard with fundamentalists at times. However, there are also the people so strongly agnostic or atheist who have some of the same closed-mindedness problems as the religious people they most dislike. It seems like there are extremists of every possible thinking or leaning, and the important thing for all of us is to find a way to cohabitate with one another.

By DentalFloss — On Jan 29, 2011

I am not as experienced withe fundamental extremes of non-Christian groups. In fundamental Christianity, though, I have noticed one of the most seemingly irrational (at least to me) things is the way in which fundamentalist Christians refuse to even discuss the beliefs of others, let alone listen to the reasons others might have for those beliefs.

For example, while I am now a Lutheran Christian, when I began college I was agnostic, and my roommate was a fundamentalist. There were many political issues on which we disagreed, and when I tried to explain to her what I thought, she would say that the Bible said something else. In general, the concept that there were some for whom the Bible was not a good piece of evidence for an argument for an opinion seems to be missing from the understandings of Christians who practice religious fundamentalism.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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