Despite the massive amounts of media attention given to this topic and the endless procession of talking heads who attempt to provide answers to these questions, I have found myself continually frustrated and dissatisfied with their answers. In addition to my search for a basic explanation of what exactly fundamentalism is, my most pressing question has been trying to understand why fundamentalists from different religions share so much in common. This strange and terrifying cultural phenomenon seems to not be restricted to any particular tradition but is rather a non-localized personality disorder or sickness which affects people from all across the religious (and secular) spectrum. In the course of my studies in comparative religion, comparative mythology, philosophy, depth psychology, and theology, I have finally started to answer some of these questions for myself, and I think some of my discoveries may be helpful others.
But before we explore what fundamentalism is, let's establish what it isn't.
Each of these religious texts contain so many possible interpretations and narratives that they effectively serve as a tabula rasa (blank slate), allowing people to project onto them whatever they wish to see and finding validation for their beliefs therein. Going solely off of these texts, you can find plausible arguments for genocide as well as pacifism, promiscuity and celibacy, materialism and simplicity, egalitarianism and totalitarianism, animism and anthropocentrism… every contradiction you could ever hope for, essentially. Obviously, having knowledge of hermeneutics, language analysis, varying methods of interpretation, historical/cultural context, and an awareness of how these texts were written and assembled can provide some insight into where these contradictions arise from, but very few people have the time and energy to do all of this work. There are many factors which serve to mystify these texts and make this level of insight inaccessible to most people, which is a conversation of its own. This mystification creates an environment in which most religious adherents rely on experts (clergy) to decipher all of this information for them (Rabbis, Imams, Pastors, Sanghas, Priests, Scholars, etc.). As these clergy receive their education from other clergy who have been taught very specific narratives of these texts, this inevitably leads to a situation in which we have billions of religious adherents who have virtually no context for their religious tradition/scriptures and very little understanding of the many ways that power and history has shaped their religious practice. One might be tempted to think that the opportunities of the internet and globalization in general would help clear up some of this ignorance, but unfortunately the opposite is true. As information on the internet is completely decontextualized and one-dimensional, it allows for a proliferation of the ignorant to dominate the cybersphere with their hatred. I would say that discerning reality from confusion on these issues is more difficult now than ever before.
Paradoxically, by the time someone has gone through all the work of sifting through all of these layers of confusion and mystification, they are confronted with the unsettling realization that these texts are inseparable from the context that birthed them. The very act of digging to the heart of a religious text in order to find the fundamental elements of that text is the very process which destroys any possibility of finding these fundamentals; the more one searches, the more they realize how impossibly quixotic the quest is in the first place.
As one who has lived on both sides of fundamentalist culture, it is incredible to me how powerful this tabula rasa phenomenon is. As a child, I had plenty of access to Bibles in my house, I was even forced to memorize entire sections of it, but somehow I never saw that the words and teachings of Yeshua (Jesus) directly contradicted everything I was taught about Christianism. I developed a simple set of “bible-coping skills” to help me deal with parts of the Bible that my family didn’t like: “Times were different back then, that doesn’t really apply to us now,” “Jesus didn’t mean that literally, it's just a metaphor,” “That only applies to other Christians,” “Well, that's the old covenant, this is the new covenant,” etc. These coping-skills allowed me to ignore or discredit ideas which didn’t line up with my cultural programming (domestication), allowing me to read, study, and memorize the Bible without ever having to actually confront the ideas that lay within it. What is fascinating about this is that the scriptures were largely insignificant when compared to the rest of my domestication. My father’s fundamentalist rhetoric took precedence over any of the messages actually contained in the Bible, and it took me many years to begin questioning it. Any scriptural contradictions or seeming discrepancies between the words of Yeshua and our beliefs were easily explained away and dismissed; it really didn’t matter what was actually written in that book.
This is a crucial aspect of understanding fundamentalism: the power of cultural conditioning/domestication is far greater than the power of the scriptures themselves. Essentially, this means that all attempts to prove that the religion is inherently violent/ignorant/intolerant are completely missing the point. There are no fundamental elements of any religious text, and any attempt to reduce them to a set of basic beliefs says much more about the person undertaking such an effort than it does about the texts themselves.
Once, as an educator, I assigned my students with the task of finding specific philosophical narratives within certain religious texts, in order to demonstrate this tabula rasa effect. Without fail, they were able to find (very convincing) narratives of feminism in the Bhagavad Gita, pacifism in the Quran, anarchism in the Book of Mormon, Marxism in the Tripitaka, and, just for fun, a zombie apocalypse narrative in the New Testament. The exercise was, obviously, an attempt to illustrate how we can find validation for virtually anything we want within these vast tomes of completely decontextualized stories, metaphors, and myths. This is also confirmed when one realizes that within each of these religions there exists individuals from nearly every political and philosophical tradition. There are pacifist Christians and racist vigilante Buddhist death squads, luddite Catholics and transhumanist Mormons, anarchist Jews and fascist Hindus.... you name the ideology, and I guarantee that someone, somewhere has found a justification for that ideology within their specific religious tradition.
Of course there are overall trends within each one of these religions and general narratives within their scriptures, but these trends have much more to do with social/political/historical context than inherent doctrine and the scriptural narratives can be easily ignored or evaded (as they often are). A few of these religions (most notably Judaism, Christianism, Islamism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) have been “adopted” by various States and Empires at some point in their history, which has drastically affected the way that these traditions are practiced and the way that the texts are interpreted. For example, one could compare global Bahá'í culture with global Christian culture and point out that Bahá'í culture is, on the whole, much more peaceful, egalitarian, and tolerant than its counterpart. Does this mean that Christianism and its sacred text—the Bible—is inherently more violent and intolerant? Only if one ignores the fact that Christianism has been enmeshed with Empire for at least the past 1700 years, while Bahá'í has yet to receive the same treatment. If a State or Empire were to extend its graces to the Bahá'í faith, I have no doubt that its adherents would quickly join the ranks of the other religions in practicing violence and hatred on unbelievers and apostates. The only reason Western Christian fundamentalists aren’t currently strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up crowds of strangers is that they have no need to do so, they are currently on the “winning team.” Even a cursory review of the history of Christendom will review that these monotheists have no problem engaging in mass slaughter of infidels and committing indiscriminate acts of terrorism when their God (and State) calls upon them to do so. If my father would have thrust a rifle in my hands and pointed at the infidels when I was a child, I have no doubt that I would have killed and died in the name of my God, as that was what I was taught to do, that was my reality, there was no questioning who the enemy was or what they deserved. Blatant commandments such as “Thou shalt not kill” are of little consequence to the fundamentalist, they are driven by much deeper urges (which are easily justified when the same Bible that says "thou shalt not kill" then goes on to tell stories of conquests, genocides, and the carnage of Empire.)
For anyone interested in understanding the role of religious identity and culture in our world, this is very important to understand, as it provides context for why certain religious traditions have developed along the lines that they have. The West’s current depiction of Islamism as being “inherently violent” is a great example of this, as very few scholars or analysts (on either side of the issue) have taken care to point out the political and social dynamics which underlie this tension. The historical realities of Christian (and specifically American) intervention and exploitation of predominantly Islamic countries are rarely brought into these conversations, which leads to incredibly ignorant and inaccurate depictions of Islamism as being more violent than its monotheistic siblings —Christianism and Judaism. Islamism is inherently violent, absolutely, but not because of any unique doctrine or specific mandates contained in the Quran; it is only violent to the extent that it is a religion of Empire, and is therefore subject to the whims of Empire. Islamism is also inherently pacifist, to the extent that it contains numerous mandates, stories, and teachings which encourage nonviolence, peace, and equality.
Yet at the same time there remains a sense that these religious texts are somehow important to understanding fundamentalism, that there is a certain sort of fanatical dedication to these ancient scriptures within fundamentalist cultures. I agree, there is an emphasis on literal interpretation, but one cannot take the entirety of any religious text literally, there are simply too many possible interpretations to allow for such a simplistic explanation. If I were to take Jesus’s famous “sermon on the mount” literally, I would be acting in direct opposition to fundamentalist Christianism.1 The answer lies in which parts of these books are taken literally, which interpretations become doctrine, and which narratives are focused on. Essentially: which beliefs/myths the fundamentalists are bringing to the tabula rasa. Before we explore what these myths are, let's continue establishing what fundamentalism isn’t.
Fundamentalism isn’t just religious extremism. That is, it isn’t engaging in violent action or rhetoric in order to further a religious cause. This assertion directly ties into the previous question we just explored, as it assumes that there is a core set of beliefs within each of these religious traditions/scriptures and the fundamentalists are those who use violence to enforce these beliefs. As there is no basic set of beliefs which comprise these scriptures or traditions, and as the utilization of ideological violence is endemic to the vast majority of our species, it is a major feat of conflation to say that only fundamentalists engage in religious violence. The connections between military culture and religion are well established, but I doubt many would consider the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Iraqi Armed Force, or the US Marine Corps examples of religious fundamentalism. At many points in the history of Judaism, Christianism, Islamism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, religious leaders have called upon their members to engage in violence against other religions, and have been met with little resistance. History shows that it doesn't take much to militarize an entire religious population. Actually, the vast majority of religious violence in the world is committed by moderates; that is, regular people who have been incited to hatred by their leaders, not by fundamentalist sects.2 3
Unfortunately, this belief will continue being perpetuated, as a commonly employed tactic (of all fundamentalists) is to accuse another religion of being inherently violent, ignorant, intolerant, etc. Those who spout such provocative rhetoric will make sweeping generalizations in order to objectify other cultures and effectively make them Other. There are many reasons for engaging in such demagoguery, all of which serve to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred towards the Other and a feeling of unique greatness towards the few select members of the fundamentalist group. This serves as a happiness surrogate; as members of fundamentalist communities and cultures give up so much personal happiness, freedom, and autonomy over to their leaders and deities, they believe that they are compensated with a sort of spiritual entitlement which manifests itself in eternal rewards and privileges. By sacrificing so much in this life, they hope to receive vast rewards in the next.
The belief that fundamentalism is simply religious extremism/violence also ignores the fact that violence takes many forms, some visible and some not. Structural, or systemic violence is constantly working to ensure that the gears of progress continue churning on. When one considers that religious morality almost always serves those in power and reinforces dominant narratives, that religious groups are often tax-exempt and receive preferential treatment from the State, that religious clergy regularly engage in child-abuse and other forms of exploitation, that women are (often violently) subjected to men and masculinity, and that religions never fail to provide spiritual justifications for war and imperialist conquests, it becomes harder to distinguish who exactly is engaging in religious violence and who isn’t.
- The sermon on the mount can be found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the narrative of Matthew, chapters 5-7
- Mark Juergensmeyer’s work is illuminating here, especially his “Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State” (2008), and “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence” (2003)
- There has also been significant resistance to militarization and empire within religious groups, many times by fundamentalist communities (quick example: Men in many US Mennonite communities were conscientious objectors during WW1 and 2 and were jailed, fined, and treated horrendously for refusing to enlist in the military)