Religious Fundamentalism: A Social Phenomenon

There is a brand of religious belief that expresses itself in a very ugly way. It is combative, divisive, out of touch with reality, and dangerous in some cases. A term coined for this is "religious fundamentalism." Religious fundamentalism is easy to recognize, as it has marked many points of history by impeding progress, denying science, refusing civil rights, as well as inciting violence, harming the environment, and damaging the mental health of multitudes of people.

But where does fundamentalism come from? We have all seen hideous expressions of Christian faith in the west, but how can this have emerged from the teachings of Jesus, who was committed to nonviolence, loving one’s neighbor, forgiveness toward enemies, and died at the hands of religious people? The fact in the matter is that the Christian fundamentalism we see in the western world has nothing to do with Jesus. Fundamentalism is created when a religious group is unable to cope with social change. Religious fundamentalist movements are always regressive because they insist on remaining in the past. It is always a product of its time, and almost always entirely disconnected from its own tradition. This is why, for example, the Religious Right is primarily concerned with retaining conservative social policies, but they have virtually no room for the teachings of Jesus in their agenda.

Fundamentalism is birthed out of fear, it causes religious people to invent new ideas and then claim that their novel ideas are the “only true belief.” One example of this are the creation stories in Genesis in relationship with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Genesis creation stories were not read as literal history until a couple centuries ago, but some Christians reacted to Darwin’s ideas, claiming that if evolution is in fact true, then the whole Bible falls apart. This is not true of course, and it is a relatively new idea. The reactionary fear of and resistance to change is iconically displayed in the Scopes trial that took place in 1925, in which some Christians insisted that evolution should not be taught in schools. Ever since this event, faith and science have been seen as opponents, and many Christians today are taught to be skeptical of science at a young age, much to their detriment. It all revolves around fear. Most mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches have not had many qualms with science, it is primarily fundamentalist Christians that have caused this divide.

When some Christians see championing of women’s rights, the accelerating advancement of science, the pressing needs of various social issues, they are threatened by the rapid transformation of society. It is disorienting when the world as you know at suddenly changes, and some people recoil in fear. Rather than move forward with the flow of history, some religious people resist it, and insist that the world must stay as it is. This is why many fundamentalist churches are still operating as if they existed in the 1950’s, because they have demanded to remain in the past. In some cases, you’ll find that churches have adopted more modern styles of worship as well as more casual settings. Yet, the ideologies and beliefs of these churches are the exact same as their fundamentalist counterparts. This is why much of Evangelicalism is really just fundamentalism in hipster’s clothing.

Perhaps you have a friend or family member who is an ardent fundamentalist (Christian or otherwise), and you have tried talking with them, but they cannot be reasoned with. You may have grown weary of trying to maintain a meaningful relationship with them, and even though their beliefs are harmful, you do not know what approach to take. Here is what I would recommend: Have compassion on them in knowing that their beliefs are rooted in feeling threatened. Know that their aggression is caused by a profound fear of losing their sense of identity, and so they have used religion as a defense mechanism to retain stability. Instead of trying to defeat them in an argument, ask yourself, how can you help them overcome their fear? How can you effectively communicate that you are are on their side? What can you do to empower them to expand their mind? Depending on the situation, you may need to draw boundaries and say “We aren’t going to have this conversation again.” Sometimes, you have to allow this person to navigate their own journey, and you will not be a pivotal figure that changes their mind.

I can speak from experience - my own transition away from fundamentalism was very painful, and filled with a great deal of emotional and intellectual turmoil. The god that I once believed in had died, and I came to find a new way of seeing God. The Bible I once believed to be the inerrant owner’s manual to life fell apart, but I came to see the sacred Scriptures in a refreshingly different light. The Jesus that had once answered all my questions began to question all of my answers and overwhelm me with riddles. The way I once saw the world had been thoroughly deconstructed, and it was truly devastating.

But I am still here.

In the same way that I am still here, you will undergo painful struggles of change and growth, but you will still be here. That is part of what it means to be human. Religious fundamentalism will either die out or reform - there is no third option. We will live in a new world in which Christianity does not hold people back, but strengthens them to be all that they can be. Fundamentalism is not a pathway to the future, it is the dying breath of the past, and the Spirit of the living Christ is ceaselessly inviting us forward in history. Forward, where we will keep discovering, keep changing, keep improving, keep adapting, keep evolving, and continue to find out what it takes to make the world be what God desires it to be, and that is Good News.