On Fundamentalism


I have stated here within this blog that I am against fundamentalism. I have also found myself defending fundamentalism in terms of indigenous rights and evolutionary social theory. Considering that I have mixed feelings on the matter, I have decided to work it out with a new blog post.

The term, fundamentalism, generally refers to literalist interpretation of religious narratives. In the past, when I have said, “I am against fundamentalism,” what I most likely meant is that I am against the more evangelical and militant brands of religious fundamentalism. But what fundamentalism really is, and I mean what underlies the common understanding of the word, is a psychological need for solid footing and significance.

On this broad conceptualization of the term, I suppose we must all be fundamentalist of one sort or another.

You will find in certain social evolutionary theories of religion the proposition that societies require fixed truths in order to function. The evolution of language and the ability to imagine counterfactuals, while advantageous on one end, threaten to throw social order into disarray. With an evolved ability to lie, it makes sense that a need for sacrality arose. Sacred beliefs facilitate much more than supernatural imaginings; for instance, vows and oaths upon sacred beliefs discourage lies and encourage obligations at all levels of society, from marriage to commerce.

Sacrality not only maintains truths, it is the fundamental truth and thus we have fundamentalism. Nevertheless, religion is not the only thing that can be fundamental. Political orientations rest on fundamental beliefs, atheism is fundamental, and science too must stand on fundamental assumptions.

Beliefs filter our perception and therefore the stronger the belief, the stronger the need to believe, the stronger the bias. Because we internalize our beliefs, we feel them with the force of our personal being. The god loving Christian is personally disgusted by the desecration of the cross. The patriotic American is personally affronted by the burning of the American flag. The Jihadist Muslim will not tolerate insults to the prophet. The emotions that such symbolic desecrations can incite are a testament to their psychological internalization.

The problem with sacrality is that it is a cultural construct—what is holy to one population might be sacrilegious to another. Because fundamental beliefs are internalized, opposing fundamental views threaten the very essence of one’s being.

Not all religious extremist feel the need to retaliate against those who are different. The Amish, for instance, are complete pacifist, except perhaps in their harsh shunning of their own. They impose absolutely nothing on the non-Amish. Yet, a modernist cannot help but feel that Amish children are somehow at a disadvantage; such belief is a testament to the modernist’s own fundamentalism.

Throughout the world, there remain handfuls of virtually uncontacted tribes. Attempts to make contact with remote tribes of Papua New Guinea and Amazonia have been met with skin clad men, spears, and arrows. There is a movement to protect these people from external influences such as forced assimilation or from logging and mining upon their lands. I personally would like to see these tribes survive because they offer a window into the remote cultural past. My own view is not so much a matter of sympathy as it is selfish curiosity. Primitive people provide a comparative perspective on human cultural development.

If tribal people can be allowed to retain their myths, legends, and customs unhindered from modernity then should not all people have the right to self-determination? But then again, is it really self-determination to be born into such situations? If people are forced to abandon old beliefs for modernity then does that not testify to another form of fundamentalism?

My conclusion is that fundamentalism is inescapable from both the functioning individual and society. We maintain those beliefs that serve our own interest and self-concept as both individuals and cultural populations. While fundamentalism is often a label applied to others, perhaps we should come to terms with our own absolutist beliefs.