Understanding religious fundamentalism

Unimaginable caring
Ray Richmond

All religions are based on fundamentals and all have their fundamentalists. They have their own texts, stories, doctrines, symbols and practices. Some are formed in antiquity, others are early in recorded history and some are quite recent. We are today focused on religious fundamentalism, but it is necessary to acknowledge first that fundamentalists are found everywhere. Fundamentalists may be Maoists, Hindus, Christians, Astronomers, Liberals, Buddhist, Marxists, Muslims, Feminists or Freudians. But only some are 'militant' and 'triumphant' or resort to violence and killing. Fundamentalist are scattered throughout human history and are found in all social strata. They are trained and nurtured by the left and the right.

Fundamentals are important. They provide a re-assertion of the basics, established and trusted as a foundation. Societies and individuals reach out for stability, safety, identity, continuity, and comfort. But time marches on. When their relevance fades they require re-empowerment. The fundamentals may also be imperilled, obscured or ignored, but usually at great cost.

Christian fundamentalism

Between 1910-15, in response to 'Biblical Criticism' in general and 'Darwinism' in particular, conservative Christians published some pamphlets called 'The Fundamentals'. These were a defence of the Moses authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), David's authorship of the Psalms, and the accuracy of the biblical prophecy predicting specific events in the life of Jesus. Each of these suppositions has been successfully challenged by modern scholarship. Beyond that, these tracts also defended the literal accuracy of ... 'the primary Christian themes' of scripture. Five doctrines were named the core fundamental doctrines. To deny or question these was thought to be heresy or apostasy. They were:

  • 1. The inspiration of scripture as the literal, revealed word of God.
  • 2. The virgin birth as the miraculous and literal means of the divinity of Jesus.
  • 3. A substitutionary atonement that was accomplished in the death of Jesus.
  • 4. The certainty of the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  • 5. The truth of the second coming of Jesus, the day of judgement based on the record of ones life, and the certainty of heaven and hell as the places of eternal reward and punishment.

Another similar set of beliefs was developed in the United States, and a third, known as 'David's five smooth stones' were designed to slay the Goliath of 'modernism and science'.


We should note here that Christian Fundamentalists today (as described by the beliefs above) now call themselves 'Conservatives' (that's with a capital 'C') and disavow the tag 'fundamentalist' because of the present public demonising of 'Muslim fundamentalists' who seek martyrdom. Archbishop Jensen did this in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. He believes and supports the teaching of these fundamentals in his church and his constituent members condemn those who don't. He appears capable of causing schism based on these views. Archbishop Pell is more careful with his words and in Catholic fashion gives more emphasis to the doctrines and traditions of the church than to literal interpretations of scripture. Triumphal Christian fundamentalists have killed in holy wars and still do. We remember the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Klu Klux Klan, abortion clinic bombers and snipers, royal armies, and freedom fighters.

Conservative Christians outnumber liberals in conservative times. The majority of Christians however do not participate in church activities and have moved on to 'spirituality' practices and readings or are taking 'time-out'. The Christian beliefs and their pre-enlightenment philosophical context are simply 'unbelievable' to most humans. Most fundamentalist beliefs are not supported by the traditional statements of the church councils and are not required beliefs taught in seminaries. I went to seminary in the early 1960s and I know what the required teachings were. A hundred years or more of biblical scholarship does not support their requirements, but they have very little regard for evidence and peer review. Some are proud of their anti-academic and anti-cleric reputations.

Islamic fundamentalism

Militant Islamic fundamentalists blame the ills of their societies on the 'West', with much justification, and call for the overthrow of local governments and the return to Jihad against the infidels. They have been more danger to the local scene than to other countries, but this is changing. They are no more triumphalist than Christian fundamentalists, who believe they are obligated to convert every human being to the true faith, the only valid prophet from God, and the only valid scriptures to guide them. This, and the violence needed to achieve it, is widely acknowledged to be a convenient distortion of their faiths.

Terrorism and fundamentalism have again been linked together and are supported at the highest levels. It is a potent mix. This time the key issues are again votes, money and the abuse of power.

However, change is the one certainty in life. It is endemic, ubiquitous, and challenging. We humans don't do change and endings very well. We repeatedly give great importance to our own creations, giving them absolute status, and protection from review. This was idolatry for Moses and is just that for Jews, Christians and Muslims today. I am glad that imagination, curiosity, insight, revelation, and the big Ah-ha's, are still happening for people. Dreams and visions and imaginings abound. Life never stops still. It won't be controlled, and it invites our participation. In our arrogance we are inclined to believe we are in charge, when manifestly we are ignorant pretenders.

We humans are hopelessly hooked on inventing stories of meaning and tragically convicted for giving them eternal unchallenged 'divine' status. Religion as presently practiced is a huge problem for the family of humanity, and it's getting worse. Unsupportable beliefs provide only momentary comfort and eventually turn to ashes.

Reality is relentless and uncompromising. Participants who dissent and break open the working consensus of the past will always be hounded, condemned, stoned and killed. Most manifestations of democracy assume that both conserving and dissenting forces have necessary roles in governance. Recently, dissent has been labelled undemocratic and un-Australian. Advocacy for outcomes other than government policy creates, will not be supported. Challenges will be silenced or drowned by well-funded propaganda.

All power over others will be abused. It is not a matter of 'if' but 'when'. This requires persistent watchfulness. Yes political fundamentalism operates in democracies run by parties to the left, right and centre. Checks and balances are needed to identify the warning signs.

What to do?

Religious fundamentalism in particular is driven by the speeding up of change. The speed and effects of change have relativised all absolutes. Reality is not perceived in the same way as before. All the great stories of meaning are 'less fitting' to reality. They 'don't stack up' as we say. A paradigm shift has occurred. One sign of this is that people who used the word 'paradigm' or were 'big picture' people were lampooned in the 80s.

The latest and most successful of human stories is that articulated by Einstein, with some important revisions since 1915. 'Relativity' is the descriptive operational word for this new story. It has relativised all previous stories and stripped them of ultimate significance. There is no room for absolutes in a relative universe. Did you hear what this priest just said? Our Gods have clay feet, and they have all been smashed. This story, however is the latest and most useful. It too will be revised eventually and a new grasp on reality will sweep it away. Paradigmatic change is a painful journey. It is no mystery why we are in trouble just now. Alvin Toffler wrote a book in the late 1970's called The Third Wave as a way of describing this social pain, which on his observations had happened twice before. The third wave is however recent and the largest. All waves build on forces from behind and from resistance from in front.

It is no wonder that reactionary and unsupportable forces of conservatism, change-exhaustion, and determined resistance have manifested themselves along the fault lines of those who have been left out, experience weakness, and cry out for justice. I do not waste time and effort in confronting or arguing with fundamentalist Christians concerning their beliefs. This is unproductive and I find it better to leave them to live their chosen irrelevance. The processes of history will take care of them. I am however concerned for those in deep mourning, who know what they have lost, and experience the emptiness and disorientation. We must care for the human family in prolonged and painful mourning.

We are called to unimaginable caring. What do we do? I have been collecting thoughts, mine and others, about what we could do about fundamentalism and terror. What follows is a second cut and it's not right yet. Perhaps you can help.

  • 1. Never challenge an ideologue head-on with abuse or in expectation of rational discussion. Expect their right to believe their beliefs. Name fraudulent leadership and expect accountability. Expect lawful behaviour and procedural fairness dealing with it.
  • 2. Tell the new story and describe the new situation with a new polemic and welcome the great promise of that which is coming new.
  • 3. Show the links the new story has with the old stories and modify the polemic for the care and support needed. We are dealing with global system-wide mourning. It will take some time.
  • 4. Speak of the 'in-between-times' and invite all to the new pioneering journey between the 'no longer' and the 'not yet' where there is little certainty and considerable risk of failure.
  • 5. Create new and inclusive symbols for the new story and test them. Be pro-active with symbols, stories, colour, shapes and poetry.
  • 6. Celebrate the past and give honour to the pioneers who went beyond the reach of supply lines and comforts without a guarantee of success..
  • 7. Live peaceably with your neighbours, listen to their cares and affirm their experiences. Hear their story and learn from the new story they are fashioning.

Lastly, I am profoundly shaken and disappointed in the 'coalition of the willing' unilateral actions and flagrant violation of hard-won global governance in the United Nations. I fear that these abuses of power have escalated the isolation, injustice and rage of some of the poorest people on the planet. If ordinary people do not expect better of democratic processes, we are surely entering a more dangerous era.

Rev Ray Richmond is Pastor of the Wayside Chapel, Uniting Church in Australia, Kings Cross, Sydney. This paper was presented at the Now We the People conference at the University of Technology, Sydney, on 24 August 2003.

See also:

Suggested citation
Richmond, Ray, 'Understanding religious fundamentalism', Evatt Journal, Vol. 3, No. 5, August 2003.<https://evatt.org.au/papers/understanding-religious-fundamentalism.html-0>