The Dangers of Fundamentalism

Is fundamentalism dangerous? Most people seem to think so. Of course, before we can answer that question we must ask a different one. What is fundamentalism?

On the built in dictionary on my computer, fundamentalism, as it pertains to any religious claim, is defined as follows:

fundamentalism |ˌfəndəˈmen(t)lˌizəmnoun

  • a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.

Well, what do you think?

If we take that definition with a strict, literal interpretation, I do think it’s dangerous; mainly because it’s kind of dumb. We should be interpreting these ancient documents the same way as any document, ancient or otherwise, is interpreted; the way the author originally intended. If you disagree with me on this, feel free to write me or comment below. I will then be happy to discover that you agree with me, since your (the author’s) intent doesn’t determine what a piece of writing means.

If the author of a piece of scripture meant it to be taken literally, by all means take it literally. But if the author wrote a poem, we should interpret that as a poem, which may not be literal. If the author meant it to be allegorical, then we should interpret it allegorically, not literally. Parables, for example, are stories told by Jesus to make one or two points. The parable of the Prodigal Son(s) is not about a literal person. Some hold Genesis 1-11 is meant to be taken allegorically. If the author is using a literary device of their day, including things like hyperbole or switching the order of events in order to give the story a better flow/make a point (a common ancient writing practice), then we should interpret as such. I think if someone were to think that literally everything should be taken literally, we should be worried. They are unable to comprehend how to read any piece of literature properly.

I don’t think it takes much to figure this out, however. Of course, people make mistakes and in many cases it’s difficult to determine the author’s intent (Genesis 1-11 for example). But I would dare to say there is not a single person on the planet who is consistently fundamentalist by this definition. So, if someone thinks that the literal interpretation of scripture is required to be a fundamentalist, take heart! Fundamentalism may be dangerous, but there aren’t any fundamentalists.

To be honest, though, I don’t think interpreting the definition of fundamentalist fundamentally is very accurate. Often, when I encounter people who talk about fundamentalism, it is in the sense that a fundamentalist is a person who thinks they are absolutely right, often with an air of arrogance. What makes a person a fundamentalist is not even their beliefs themselves per se, but their attitude. For example, in this article there were very few comments on beliefs. It was almost all about one’s character. Being closed to other opinions or evidences, believing they and their beliefs are beyond the scope of criticism, thinking science or logic have no place, and using force, whether physically, psychologically, or otherwise to bring others into their beliefs is the essence of fundamentalism. For Christian fundamentalism, often Westboro Baptist is cited as an example.

Now, Westboro Baptist Church makes me simultaneously rage and weep. You can’t even say their name without lying twice. I would agree acting like them is dangerous. Hate is not a characteristic of God or His people. God is love, He does not hate anyone. He said to love your enemies, thus I must love WBC, even if they refuse to have the radical love Jesus presented in that very passage. But I’m not afraid to say that they’re completely wrong. Jesus said we can know true and false teachers by their fruit.

Furthermore, I would agree being closed to opinions and evidences is wrong. Anti-intellectualism is very dangerous, as I argued when trying to convince Christians they need apologetics. I would also agree that forcing others into belief systems is wrong. In fact, Christianity is one in which that’s not even possible. Christian faith is by its nature a personal, intimate decision. Christians can Witness and try to convince people of the Christian truth claims via the evidence and sound arguments, but they cannot make someone have faith. You can force people to do actions or take part in rituals, but we’re “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith is between that person and God. We can try to convince and persuade, but we cannot force.

So to give my opinion on today’s question a second time, yes, fundamentalism is dangerous, at least as it regards to people’s character.

However, to say that Jesus meant what He said when He stated, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), no matter how gracious a person, is often thought to be fundamentalist too. (As a side note, this is an important thing to understand. Christians don’t just arbitrarily think they are right. They think Jesus was right. You have to take it up with Him.) It’s not that people are interpreting parts of scripture literally that makes them fundamentalists, but that they believe that the truth claims the author is trying to make actually correspond to reality, regardless of whether the author was speaking literally or not.

Thus, a fundamentalist could be defined as a person who thinks they’re exclusively right in regards to certain religious claims, regardless of their character.

In my experience, a lot of the resentment towards fundamentalism, so defined, seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what religions are. Religions aren’t lifestyles. They drastically affect your lifestyle, to the point that if it doesn’t you probably don’t really believe it, but they aren’t themselves lifestyles. And they aren’t clubs either. It’s not just a group of people you hang out with who have a common interest. I can see why people would be frustrated at evangelism if it really just carried the same weight as trying to convince someone to become a Minnesota Vikings fan.

I have written a post musing on the definition of religion (in which the answer is “depends on the context”, but they are always truth claims), but for now, I will define religions as the answer or a claim that implies the answer to the questions about the basics of reality. What is human purpose? Is there a point to our existence? Is the foundation of reality personal or impersonal? Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? Can we know the answer to these questions? Notice answering these questions are claims about reality. To answer them is to say “this is the case.” All religions make claims about reality. Even saying we can’t know the answers is itself a religious claim about reality. Claiming someone is wrong is even a religious claim about reality, sort of, because you know enough about reality to know that the person did not accurately describe it.

So what’s the implication? If saying that something is the case, independent of human thought, is what makes someone a fundamentalist, everyone is a fundamentalist! There are 2 categories of people in this world: those who know they’re a fundamentalist and those who don’t. So the question becomes whose fundamentals are true.

What if we are claiming all religions are true? Surely they wouldn’t be fundamentalists. But then we just made a fundamental claim about reality; all religions are true (which most, if not all, religions would disagree with, thus actually saying all religions are false). Therefore, we’re fundamentalists. And answering in such a way does imply the answers to the questions about the basics of reality. The answers are just self-contradictory. Why? Well, it doesn’t take much research to see that religions contradict each other. That may sound a bit aggressive or harsh, and I’m sorry if that is offensive, but it’s true. There cannot be both only one God and no God and many gods at the same time. The goal cannot be both disappearing into the Whole and relationship with Jesus. We cannot reach Heaven by solely weighing our good and bad and solely weighing Christ’s. If one is true, the other is necessarily false.

But what if we claim there is no truth? What if there are no absolute truths? Then, I have a simple question to ask. Is that true? You see, we get into a bit of a pickle here. If we answer yes, it is true there is no truth, then there is a truth, namely that there isn’t one, and that would be true for everyone. And if we answer no, than there is absolute truth and we can move on. Either way, there is absolute truth. “Either way…” is kind of the nature of absurd, self-referentially incoherent statements.

To claim there are absolute truths is simply to state that there’s such a thing as reality. Sticking the word “absolute” there is just pejorative and probably redundant. And notice that even if saying there is no truth wasn’t incoherent, it would still imply the answers to the deepest questions of life. The answers, I guess, are just whatever you want. Perhaps that’s the draw. But it would still be fundamentally true that it’s whatever you want.

So, it seems, even if we are claiming everyone is right and no one is right, we are all fundamentalists (And everyone thinks they’re right, at least to an extant. Otherwise we’d change our minds). But I suspect it’s not really about reality. It’s not about what’s true or what the facts are. People love science and that’s a wonderful way to find out truth. And no one calls a scientist a fundamentalist for believing, say, the earth is roughly spherical; even though that’s an absolute truth claim; even if they would probably act angrily if someone legitimately believed otherwise.

I suspect we don’t want to be told what to do. And the nature of God would certainly involve us having to change what we naturally do. “Don’t tell me how to live my life!” “Don’t push your beliefs on me!” We believe it’s fundamentally true people shouldn’t be doing this. We want to live our own lives. We want to rule our own lives. We live in a world where it’s believed playing God is only wrong if God’s the one doing it. This is called the human condition.

So let’s answer the question again. What about this fundamentalism? Is factual fundamentalism dangerous?

No, and I think obviously so.

We’re allowed to make truth claims, even if they have big implications for everyones’ lives. Notice that if you would answer “yes” to that question, you are making a factual claim, thus making you a fundamentalist.

Was it wrong for me to say Westboro Baptist was wrong? You probably agreed with me. That made us fundamentalists. Is it wrong for you think I’m wrong about all religions not being the same, thus saying my claims do not align to reality? That would make you a fundamentalist. The way reality actually is matters. Reality does not alter for our opinions. You may not like that gravity exists, but if you jump off a cliff, you’re still going to fall.

The real danger here, I think, is when those who rebuke factual fundamentalists become the character fundamentalists themselves. Suddenly evidence and logic are out the window. Suddenly they cannot be criticized and other opinions are wrong. Suddenly they are forcing the belief that beliefs shouldn’t be forced. That type of fundamentalism, as we have seen already, is dangerous. In this fundamentalist postmodernism, suggesting an objective truth is truthfully the objectively, fundamentally wrong action. Speaking of God is off limits. Reality cannot be discovered. Opposing positions are dismissed a priori.  Trying to ground ourselves in reality is the fundamental evil. It’s a world where we are chained in midair.

There is such a thing as reality, including the truth about God. No one is out to get anyone. If believing that there are both affirmative and negative religious truths makes me a fundamentalist then I guess that’s what I am. If your reaction is to chastise me for that, or think I’m wrong, I guess I’m not aligning to reality very well. Welcome to the fundamentalist club. No character fundamentalists, though, please. That’s dangerous.

Keep pondering,

Aaron

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3 thoughts on “The Dangers of Fundamentalism

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