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Fundamentalism: the Challenge to the Secular World by Lloyd Geering


Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by St. Andrew's Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, P.O. Box 5203, Wellington, New Zealand (http://www.standrews.org.nz/satrs/). Copyright 2003 by Lloyd Geering, used by permission of the author..


Chapter 1: Roots and Nature


On September 11, 2001, the most powerful nation on earth was shaken to its psychological foundations. It was attacked by a new method, devised by an unexpected force: Islamic fundamentalism. The devastating destruction of the Twin Towers in New York took not only the United States by surprise. By medium of television the whole world looked on aghast. The whole operation seemed unreal. It had been so cleverly planned and efficiently executed that the intelligence network of the CIA and the military might of United States had no inkling of what was coming.

Yet it was immediately attributed to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, an international organisation of Muslim fundamentalists. After the first shock subsided, the symbolic character of the onslaught was realised. The attackers were aiming to knock out the power centres of the United States: the Twin Towers were known as the World Trade Center, the Pentagon controlled the US military, and the White House contained the administration. Al Qaeda had planned to strike a mighty blow against what they took to be the Great Satan. Whatever we may think of this shocking act, it demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible that fundamentalism can no longer be ignored, whether in religion, society or world affairs.

We had actually been warned, at least in a general way, that fundamentalism could be very dangerous. As far back as June 1982, James Barr, a Scottish Old Testament scholar and lifetime investigator of fundamentalism, wrote these words in The Current Affairs Bulletin:

Fundamentalism has suddenly become a matter of concern for everyone, whether or not they are personally religious. It affects education in science and history; it affects political elections in some countries, and through this it affects international relations; it may affect the question of whether mankind survives into the 21st century. Therefore, if people want to understand the world in which they live, they may find it necessary to understand something about fundamentalism.

We were not far into the 21st century when fundamentalism gave us a wake-up call. So what is fundamentalism? Why is it so dangerous? What motivates it? And how did it all begin?

The Fundamentals

First, let us look at the origin of the term. It derives from a series of 12 booklets entitled The Fundamentals, which were published between 1909 and 1915. By courtesy of two oil millionaires in the United States, about three million of these booklets were distributed free to every minister and Sunday School superintendent in America.

The booklets were intended to counter the spread of liberal religious thought in the churches of America, which the publishers believed to be undermining the eternal Christian truths – "the fundamentals". The booklets reaffirmed what the writers took to be the fundamental and unchangeable doctrines of Christianity: the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the substitutionary view of the Atonement.

Actually the booklets expounded a rather narrow form of Protestantism, which was far from constituting the beliefs common to all Christians. This is shown by the fact that they attacked not only liberal Protestantism but also Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science. However, they were chiefly concerned to condemn the new biblical criticism and the Darwinian theory of evolution, both of which had emerged in the 19th century. The booklets did not cause as much stir at the time as might have been expected, and failed in their primary purpose of immediately checking the spread of liberal Christian thought.

But they did give rise to the term "fundamentalist". This was coined by a Baptist journalist in 1920. As a result of the booklets, he deemed the word "conservative" to be too weak to refer to Christians who were now setting out, as he said, "to do battle royal for the Fundamentals". The term was intended to be worn as a badge of honour, like "loyalist", "crusader" or "republican". But it was not long before the liberals were using the word as a term of abuse. It became a synonym for blind ignorance and obscurantism.

The reason for this is that fundamentalists were rejecting what was fast becoming common knowledge, based on scientific evidence. For what received more publicity than the booklets was the infamous American trial in 1925 when a school teacher, John Scopes, was tried and convicted for teaching biological evolution in a Tennessee school. Thereafter, fierce theological battles broke out between the fundamentalists and the liberals in seminaries and churches. For example, the fundamentalists withdrew from the prestigious Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Princeton and founded the conservative Westminster Seminary. In New Zealand, conservative Christian students withdrew from the Student Christian Movement to form the Evangelical Union: to join, they had to sign a document indicating belief in the infallibility of the Bible.

Thus, having started as the name of a Christian phenomenon in America, the term "fundamentalist" began to spread throughout the world, for what it pointed to was by no means confined to the Christian West. Today we speak of Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Hindu fundamentalists. Some even speak of certain political and economic ideologies as fundamentalist. George Soros in America and Jane Kelsey in New Zealand have both referred to "market fundamentalists", by which they mean those who reject all modern forms of socialism and government interference in economic issues, and who seek a return to the free market and private enterprise of pre-modern society.

A remarkable prediction

Here, however, we shall confine our attention to religious fundamentalism. It is within religious commitment that the term originated, and that is where it properly belongs. At first, liberals widely assumed that the rise of fundamentalism was but a temporary phenomenon which would soon fade away. This has not been so, and there was at least one liberal who foresaw what would happen. It was in 1925, the year of the Scopes trial, that the internationally famous New Testament scholar Kirsopp Lake wrote a book entitled The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow.

In his view, the denominational divisions of the church had already become obsolete; he believed the real divisions cut right across the denominations and consisted of the following:

● First, there were the Fundamentalists. Kirsopp Lake judged such people to be strong in conviction but spiritually arrogant and intellectually ignorant.

● Second, there were the Experimentalists (or Radicals), among whom he numbered himself, belonging as he did to the Anglican Modernists. These were willing to shed all the inherited and supposedly unchangeable dogmas in order to be free to explore fresh forms and expressions of the Christian faith which would be more relevant to the new cultural and intellectual climate. Lake believed the Experimentalists held the key to the future, but acknowledged that because they had no firm belief structure it was difficulty for them to establish a viable identity.

● Thirdly, there were the Institutionalists (or Liberals). These constituted the main body of the church. They were strongly critical of the Fundamentalists but regarded the Experimentalists with dismay. They opted for a middle way, clinging to a watered down version of the traditional dogmas. Lake thought that these, while trying to be loyal to the old and to respond to the new, were too cautious and were often being led into dishonesty and double-talk.

Then Lake made this striking prophecy: "The fundamentalists will eventually triumph. They will drive the Experimentalists out of the churches and then reabsorb the Institutionalists who, under pressure, will become more orthodox . . . The Church will shrink from left to right."

That is a remarkable prediction, for it generally describes the state of affairs in the mainline churches today. In 1925 the Protestant churches were much more liberal, relative to the society around them, than they are today. The Fundamentalists were a minority in 1920 and had to fight hard to maintain their position. As late as 1948, one of them said to a staff member in the Theological Hall at Knox College in Dunedin: "All we ask is to be left alone." Fifty years later it is the liberal wing of the mainline churches which finds itself in the minority. This is because many of the liberals have been disengaging themselves from the institutional church since it showed so little sign of change, leaving the conservatives in the majority. The membership of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, has shrunk to less than half of what it was even 30 years ago, and is much more conservative.

In Australia the more liberal section of the Presbyterian Church joined with the Methodists and Congregationalists to form the Uniting Church of Australia. The continuing Presbyterian Church of Australia consequently consists of the conservative rump of the earlier church. This is now controlled by fundamentalists, as Peter Cameron found to his cost. A Church of Scotland minister, he was appointed principal of St Andrew’s College, but now stands convicted of heresy. He has published his experiences, first in Heretic, and then in Fundamentalism and Freedom.

The fact that fundamentalism was not a short-lived reaction but, on the contrary, has continued to spread and is now manifesting itself in a wide variety of forms throughout the world, shows that fundamentalism is a powerful force which has deep roots.

Thus the booklets which gave rise to the term turned out to be only one tip of a very large iceberg. I use this simile because it was while the booklets were being published that an unexpected iceberg sank the Titanic, a ship regarded at its launch as one of the wonders of modern engineering. Something like that was to happen to 20th century Christendom. In 1900 the Christian world of the West entered the new century with highly optimistic hopes of where modern science, coupled with an ever more liberal Christianity, was leading. The sky was the limit.

Shock of World War I

World War I came as a tremendous shock to this blind optimism. It was a shock not only because it occurred at all, but also because it was not a war among the unenlightened nations outside of Christendom – it was a war initiated by the Christian nations themselves. Something had gone seriously wrong in the state of Christendom. All through the 19th century these European nations had been extending their empires by colonising the world, chauvinistically regarding themselves as the bearers of light to a world in pagan darkness. What had gone wrong?

Even worse was to follow: the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Russian gulags, the construction of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, ethnic cleansing, to say nothing of the breakdown of many marriages and increase in petty crime – and all within the nations of Christendom. All these features of the brave new world served only to strengthen the convictions of those Christians who believed that Christianity had lost its way and needed to be brought back to its true path. Such people were no longer content to watch passively while Rome burned. They resolved to go on the offensive against modernism. That is the motivation which lies behind fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is not one movement but a collection of movements, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and so on. Fundamentalists often find themselves bitterly opposed to one another. But they do have one common enemy and it is that which leads us to the heart of all religious fundamentalism. It believes the modern secular and humanistic world is the enemy of religion and hence injurious to humankind.

Long before President George W Bush initiated what he called "the war on terrorism", fundamentalists had launched a war on what they called modernism, secularism and humanism. The journalist who coined the term "fundamentalist" actually spoke of "doing battle". Christian fundamentalists are doing battle against liberalism, humanism, and secularism. Muslim fundamentalists are doing battle against the secularisation of Islam and the evil West which has caused it. For reasons we shall explore in a later lecture, they have singled out the United States in particular as the Great Satan. It is a serious error of judgment to dismiss fundamentalists in any cavalier fashion.

Challenge of the secular world

To understand the modern phenomenon of fundamentalism, it is not sufficient simply to explain the origin of the term. We must go back further and examine the origin and nature of the modern secular world, to which fundamentalists are so violently opposed.

Humankind is currently caught up in the most radical cultural change which has ever taken place. Human culture, of course, has always been undergoing slow evolutionary change. In the past 200 years, however, cultural change has suddenly accelerated. It is now overturning beliefs and institutions which, in some cases, have lasted for millennia, and which are judged by some to be absolutely essential or fundamental to the meaning of people’s lives and the welfare of society. In particular, within the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, modernity appears to be threatening the very foundation of all truth and meaning, namely the being and authority of God. Religious fundamentalists condemn the modern secular world as humanistic and godless.

The modern secular world has emerged in part because of the knowledge explosion. We know so much more than people of the past – not only scientific knowledge about the physical world, but also historical knowledge about our cultural origins. The modern study of history has brought to light earlier periods of sudden cultural change. One of them, rather similar to our current one, has been termed the Axial Period. It occurred in the relatively short space of a few hundred years before and after 500 BCE, and it gave rise to the great world religions.

Before that Axial Period, each ethnic group had evolved its own culture and language, with its own distinctive way of understanding the world and worshipping the forces of nature. These ethnic cultures survived in Africa, South America and Oceania until recent times. But on the continent of Asia, where the Axial Period occurred, the nature religions were eliminated, marginalised, or submerged within what we now call the great world religions. The previously independent ethnic cultures became superseded by supercultures, such as Christendom. By the year 1900 the three most successful supercultures had divided up the world among them. They were the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East and the Buddhist Orient.

A new wave of change

But already, some two centuries before 1900, a further wave of cultural change had begun in Western Europe. Some now call it the Second Axial Period. It has been even more radical and more widespread than the first, and it is spreading faster. As the First Axial Period gradually subordinated ethnic cultures to religious supercultures, such as Christendom or the Umma Muslima, this Second Axial Period is in turn subordinating the religious supercultures to a new and still emerging culture. This new culture, increasingly global in extent, does not look to supernatural causes but to natural causes. It is not based on divine revelation but on the human enterprise of empirical science. It is not religious in the traditional way but humanistic. It is secular in the sense that it focuses on this world and this time.

At the first Axial Period, the ancient nature religions reacted strongly against the rise and spread of the new world religions, just as the Maori tohungas, for example, strongly resisted the message brought by the Christian missionaries. Nowhere is this ancient conflict more clearly documented than in the Old Testament itself. There is described the bitter cultural war between the prophets of the Baalim and the Israelite prophets.

In a similar way, in this Second Axial Period, the religious cultures arising from the First Axial Period feel threatened by the new secular and humanistic culture. Jews, Christians and Muslims are today in some disarray over how to respond. In each of these faiths there are some who strongly support the change and are even pioneering the way forward. There are many who find themselves ambivalent and do not know what to make of it all. Some who believe the change to be fundamentally evil are resisting it to the point of waging war against it. Convinced that they must remain loyal to the fundamentals of the past, they condemn secular humanism as the work of the devil.

As 500 BCE marks the central point of the First Axial Period, so the 18th century Enlightenment marks the irreversible threshold of change by which the Second Axial Period brought us into the modern world. The theistic foundations of Christianity were challenged by the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. Theism, or belief in a personal God, was replaced by deism, or belief in an impersonal First Cause. Dependence on divine revelation was replaced by human endeavour and discovery.

The Enlightenment not only heralded radical cultural change but also, quite understandably, brought the first signs of sharp reaction to it. The religious trend taking place at the Enlightenment is made clear by the very titles of some of its most important books: The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (John Locke, 1695), Christianity Not Mysterious (John Toland, 1696), and Christianity as Old as the Creation (Matthew Tindal, 1730). The books of the latter two authors aroused such indignation that Parliament ordered them to be burned.

But such fierce reaction to the new thinking did not stamp it out. Indeed, the new virtues of personal freedom and human equality being promoted by the Enlightenment led to the French Revolution, followed by much social change and radically new thought in Europe in the 19th century. It is hardly surprising that not only fundamentalists but also even some fairly traditional thinkers and theologians look back to the Enlightenment with grave concern. Yet to the Enlightenment we owe many features of modern culture which most of us now take for granted and would not dream of surrendering – the freedom to think for ourselves, the freedom to ask questions and to hold up cherished beliefs to critical examination, the freedom to express our opinions and doubts, the assertion of human rights, the acknowledgement of human equality, to name but some.

Thus the Enlightenment was a very liberating period. It replaced the divine right of kings with democratic self-rule. It gave rise eventually to many new freedoms – the emancipation of slaves, the emancipation of colonies from imperial control, the emancipation of women from male domination and, more recently, the freedom of homosexuals to "come out".

Catholic reaction

As the continuing debate over the last of these so well illustrates, however, the ideas generated by the Enlightenment were so innovative that they were not readily acceptable to church authorities. Those who embraced the new thinking from the Enlightenment often found themselves forced out of the church establishment. The most severe reaction was in Catholicism. Papal authority, having already suffered a severe blow from the Protestant Reformation, now took the opportunity to condemn the fruits of the Enlightenment. Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors (1864) condemned the new freedom of thought then emerging.

This was followed in 1869 by the calling of the ecumenical council now known as Vatican I. Among other things it made the infallibility of the papacy a mandatory dogma. This move attempted to protect Catholicism from modern thought by building a protective wall of authority around it. The Vatican had long forbidden the faithful to read books thought to be injurious to their spiritual health, by placing them on the Index. Even so, the new thinking still managed to gain a tiny foothold in Catholicism in what was called Catholic Modernism. It had a short life between about 1890 and 1908, and then it was severely crushed by papal authority. Its leading lights were condemned and expelled from the church.

The impact of modernity did not show itself again in Catholicism until Pope John XXIII called Vatican II, when Catholicism took a sudden but cautious leap into the modern world with its policy of aggiornamento (updating). The impact of this change began to lose momentum under Paul VI and Catholicism has been retreating to the pre-Vatican II mode under John Paul II, called by some Catholics "our fundamentalist Pope".

Protestant liberalism

The Protestant response to the Second Axial Period was more complex than that of Catholicism. This was because, first, it was out of Protestantism that the pioneers of Enlightenment thinking emerged, and secondly, because Protestantism did not have the organisational unity and central authority to crush it in the way the Vatican dealt with its Modernists. A positive response manifested itself in what became known as Protestant liberalism.

This began with the revolution which took place in our understanding of the Bible. This had long been regarded as the receptacle for the divine voice: it was the Word of God in written form. By using the tools of historical and literary criticism, however, biblical scholars such as Reimarus, David Strauss and Julius Wellhausen revealed the human origin and character of the Bible. The doctrine of divine revelation had come to its end, even in respect to the Bible. Bishop Stephen Neill did not exaggerate when in 1962 he referred to Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835) as a "turning point in the history of the Christian faith".

This biblical revolution was accompanied by a radical shift in Christian thought, as it endeavoured to accommodate itself to the new intellectual climate. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), sometimes known as the first modern theologian, shifted the base of theological thinking from divinely revealed dogma to human religious experience. This was a very radical change which cannot be overestimated. By the end of the 19th century the scholars of Protestant liberalism had fully accepted the humanistic origins of the Bible, come to terms with the scientific notion of biological evolution, and were completely confident that the essential core of Christian doctrine could be salvaged intact and re-expressed in terms relevant to the modern age.

This is shown by the popularity of Adolf von Harnack’s lectures of 1900, The Essence of Christianity, in which he presented the most liberal interpretation of Christian thought to date. Harnack reduced what he called "the essence of Christianity" to something very simple: the love of God, the love of one’s neighbour, and incorporating into human society whatever Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God.

This was taken a stage further in America in an address given in 1909 by a progressive educationalist, Charles Eliot (1834-1926), who had been President of Harvard University for 40 years. Harvard is not only the oldest university in the United States but, being a Unitarian foundation, had long been known for progressive thought. At the age of 79 Eliot sketched what he called "the religion of the future". He said it would consist of practical service to others. It would no longer need churches, scriptures, and dogmas but would promote education, social reform and preventive medicine. No wonder the people who would soon become known as the fundamentalists took fright. Such ideas might be acceptable in educated circles in the cities, but churchgoers in small-town America were shocked by what was becoming known as "the social gospel". That brings us back to the publication of The Fundamentals, but now we can appreciate the deep-seated causes which led up to it.

Muslim Modernists

Although the chief impact of the Enlightenment has been on the Christian West within which it emerged, eventually it began to influence other cultures. In the latter part of the 19th century a small but influential group of leading Muslim figures became known as the Muslim Modernists. It prompted Muhammad Iqbal, who later played a leading role in the foundation of Pakistan, to write The Reconstruction of Islamic Thought. He noted that there was a time when European thought received inspiration from the world of Islam, but conceded that "for the last 500 years religious thought in Islam had been practically stationary". He believed the younger generation of Muslims in Asia and Africa were demanding a fresh orientation of their faith. So he set out to provide this, discussing the basic ideas of Islam in the light of such Western thinkers as Kant, Whitehead, Bergson, Einstein and Carl Jung.

Another Muslim Modernist, Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, even rose to the office of Grand Mufti. Such people were confident that Islam could absorb the full impact of scientifically based modern thought coming from the West. But what happened to these modernists? I put that question to the lecturers of the Department of Islamic Studies in the University of Jordan when I visited them in 1980. I was told: "The modernists were not true Muslims!" Modernism disappeared in the Islamic world, just as it had done in Catholicism and, to a lesser extent, as it has done in Protestantism.

Thus, in both the former Christendom and the Islamic world, religious thought has becoming polarised. The only alternatives seemed to be either a return to the pre-modern form of the religious tradition that ends in fundamentalism, or the radical shift to secularism which, seeing no possible re-interpretation of the tradition, rejects the tradition in toto. Either way, religion has been losing its public face. It has become a matter of personal choice, to be practised privately within an increasingly secular state.

This is best illustrated by Turkey which, until World War I, was the leading Islamic state. After its defeat, Kemal Ataturk turned his country into a modern secular state by means of a far-reaching cultural revolution. This abolished the Caliphate, replaced Shari’a law with a western constitution, and even adopted the Roman alphabet. Ataturk made no attempt to undermine the importance of the Islamic heritage, but left Turks free to practise Islam as a personal option. In a very short time he effectively privatised Islam, in much the same way as Christian allegiance has become slowly privatised in the West.

Jewish responses

The effect of the Enlightenment on Judaism has been quite different. Initially it was a great boon, bringing a release from the severe restrictions Jews had long lived under within Christendom. They were now free to leave the ghettos and register as normal citizens of whichever country they lived in. Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the celebrated composer, not only strongly encouraged his fellow-Jews to follow his lead but he embraced many of the Enlightenment values.

But this led to a new crisis in Jewry. In becoming hyphenated Jews – German-Jews, Dutch-Jews, French-Jews – they ran the risk of losing their Jewish identity by assimilation. The new freedoms and atmosphere of cultural change entered so much into German Judaism that many converted to Christianity, including, for example, the father of Karl Marx. Others changed their day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday to be more in keeping with their Christian fellow citizens. A widely publicised conflict broke out in one of the synagogues between a conservative elderly rabbi and a radical young rabbi who was all for change. Surprisingly, the council of rabbis sided with the young rabbi on the grounds that it was not true to the spirit of Judaism to be opposed to all change.

In the long run Judaism found it easier to come to terms with the changes of the Second Axial Period than did Christians or Muslims, partly because each synagogue is democratically ruled and is relatively independent. This has meant that Jews have been free to make a wide variety of responses to the modern secular world. Many have assimilated to the secular world and largely lost their Jewish identity. The synagogue-going Jews are divided into orthodox, conservative, liberal or reform, and reconstructionist.

It is largely because the traditional anti-semitism did not disappear as a result of the enlightenment, as it was expected to, but rather intensified in Russia and Poland that the Zionist movement was formed in 1897. This has been secular and nationalist, rather than religious. The Nazi Holocaust served to spread Zionism among nearly all Jews, with the result that since the modern State of Israel was founded in 1948, its strongest supporters are now often referred to as Jewish fundamentalists.

In sum

To sum up, here are the chief features of religious fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism rejects the human freedoms which have opened up in the aftermath of the western Enlightenment, and is committed to combat secular humanism and all other aspects of the modern world which it regards as injurious to the spiritual condition of humankind.

Fundamentalism asserts that humans must submit to the authority of the Divine Being, whose divinely revealed truths and absolute commands they believe to have been permanently revealed – in the Torah for the Jew, in the Bible for the Christian, and in the Qur’an for the Muslim.

Fundamentalism consequently leads people to think in terms of black and white. Everything is either true or false, good or bad; there are few shades of grey, little uncertainty, and no area for debate and dialogue.

Fundamentalism is distrustful of human reason. It does not enter into open dialogue but dogmatically proclaims. It is wary of democracy, the assertion of human rights and the equality of the sexes. It favours strong, male, charismatic leadership, both in religion and in society.

Fundamentalism seeks to exercise control by establishing theocratic societies which conform to the (divinely revealed) absolutes. Hence Israel must be a Jewish state, Iran must be an Islamic state, while American fundamentalists are committed to making the United States a more truly Christian state. But are fundamentalists the loyal and faithful interpreters of their respective traditions that they claim to be?

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