Tuesday, November 03, 2009


This has been banging around in my head for a couple weeks now, and I finally decided I'd let it out to play so that I could get some rest. Here goes...

Since at least 9/11 (/2001, for my anal retentive readers), our culture has been saturated with the words fundamentalist and fundamentalism. Our oh-so-balanced-and-fair-and-not-alarmist-at-all-really media make sure that it is used a minimum of five times on every broadcast. (I'm pretty sure this FCC rule was passed as part of the Patriot Act.) Yet I posit that the common vernacular definition of this word is lacking in some key ways.

Most people associate the word(s) in question with religion. This is, of course, partly accurate, but only partly. More pointedly, the average Western Joe/Joanne on the street will identify two religions specifically: Christianity and Islam. Again, this is understandable given the media bombardment we have undergone during the last eight years.

There is something critically important missing in this understanding of fundamentalism. While there are significant examples of fundamentalism at work in the Christian and Muslim religions, we too often fail to acknowledge that fundamentalism is present - and indeed appears to be growing - in all World religions and cults. Even more critical, I see evidence that fundamentalism is growing at an alarming rate in every human ideology - religious or secular.

So how would I define fundamentalism? Simply this:
Fundamentalism is the holding of a deeply held belief system to the extent that one's beliefs become absolutely exclusive of all other belief systems or points of view, and adherents to opposing belief systems present a clear and present danger to the vitality of one's own belief system.

A Fundamentalist is one who holds their worldview in such a manner.
Some expansion on these definitions is in order, I think.

First, deeply held beliefs are human and good. I'm not at all arguing against deeply held beliefs of all stripes. It's how we get by in life. We have to put together a worldview that lets us take our next breath, or we will spend our lives paralyzed.

Most people adopt the worldview that their culture and significant authorities in their lives give them without much thought, and they do so primarily because they need the worldview to survive, and life is hard enough work without over thinking everything, anyway. Indeed, I would argue that most if not all worldviews are adopted emotionally first, and any rationality that is done to solidfy them is done after the fact, but that's really another topic for another time.

So just having a deeply held belief system does not make one a fundamentalist. Speaking openly about one's belief system doesn't make one a fundamentalist. Choosing to live in a way consistent with one's belief system, through one's ethics, priorities, goals, expenditures of time and money, etc., does not make one a fundamentalist. Are we all clear on this point? It's time to stop labeling people who are merely religious as fundamentalists.

So we turn to the second element of fundamentalism: absolute and exclusive belief in one's worldview. This believer says, "Your point of view can't possibly be right, because I know mine is." It is a place of profound hubris.

This is the point most people - with our media makers at the helm - resort to using "fundamentalist" as a label. Arrogance, naturally, is offensive to those whom are deemed "outside" or "unenlightened", and often those so offended fight back with mockery, personal attacks, and the other weapons of modern political warfare.

Furthermore, it is at this point that activists of all creeds and causes become the most vocal. Here, straw men are constructed and burned in effigy. Characters are assassinated. Innuendos and insinuations abound.

And so, on both sides things take a turn. They get ugly. Shouting matches and, at times, physical violence rule the day. True fundamentalism waits in expectation just around the corner, waiting for an opportunity to seize the day.

The lit match that begins the firestorm of Fundamentalism is a small shift of ideals. The true believer makes the leap from, "They can't be right," to, "They can't be allowed to continue!". Fear arrives in force. Fear grips the heart of the believer and they see clearly that their beloved worldview is facing the threat of extinction. "If my worldview is allowed to fall, then the entire universe will collapse into chaos. I cannot survive! We cannot let this happen!!"

And the formula is complete:
beliefs + arrogance + fear = fundamentalism
Make no mistake, fundamentalism is neither isolated nor rare. Certainly there are Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, and fundamentalists of all religions. But there are also atheist fundamentalists, environmental fundamentalists, vegan fundamentalists (though that may be a redundancy), and many, many more. I would wager that every human belief system harbors the potential for, if not the actuality of, a fundamentalist camp within.

So how do we guard ourselves and those we love from this pandemic? Sad to say, but there are some who may have already traveled too far down the road to fundamentalism. It usually takes a major seismic event in one's life to shake loose a fundamentalism that is that deeply seated.

For the rest, there's a simple cure: humility. Recognize that an essential truth of our existence is our finiteness. We are limited by our bodies and minds; by time and space. We don't know it all. We really can't know it all.

There always exist the possibility that our beliefs, no matter how well-founded we believe they are, may be missing vital information. And if that possibility exists, we must hold our beliefs lightly. We must be willing to listen to and learn from one another. We must be willing to honestly evaluate new information that comes our way against our existing beliefs and be courageous enough to let our beliefs change if it is clearly necessary. We must love others above and beyond our beliefs. It is the only way of peace.


Frank Quick said...

This is all nothing but hippy propaganda! It cannot possibly be correct because I don't see it this way and mine is the only correct way to see things!

Oh wait... No, never-mind... I thought for a moment that I was someone else.

What I meant to say was...

Vegan fundamentalist!!! HAHAHHHAHAAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! ::continues to cackle into his sleeve for several minutes::

I know some of those people.. They scare me.

Rigel Thurston said...

Great article. I've been trying wrap my mind around and put into words what you just did so effortlessly. I might add that fundamentalism is actually the manifestation of a spiritual sickness rooted in pride that we all have the potential to fall into. Speaking for myself, I know that I am constantly teetering between some form of fundamentalism, whether religious in nature or not.