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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 2: A Distortion of Religion


Religious fundamentalists see themselves as the champions and faithful guardians of the ancient truths and moral commandments which constitute the essence of their particular faith. In other words, they claim to be the true exponents of the religious tradition they represent. They often speak of themselves as Torah-true Jews, born-again Christians or true Muslims.

I wish to show that fundamentalism, while appealing to the past, is actually a new and modern religious phenomenon, and one that does not faithfully represent the faith in the way it claims to. It is new because it is a reaction to the advent of the modern secular world, and this is something which none of the great religious traditions has had to encounter before. That is why the term "fundamentalism", as we have seen, is less than 90 years old.

Far from being the loyal defence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, fundamentalism is a religious aberration. For the fundamentalist Jew, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has been replaced by the Torah. For the fundamentalist Christian, God has been replaced by the Bible. For the fundamentalist Muslim, Allah has been replaced by the Qur’an. Their respective Holy Scripture has become their object of their faith – their God. This was not so in the pre-modern world.

This may be illustrated by a remark made by a perceptive Muslim to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, an authoritative western scholar of Islam: "Muslims no longer believe in Allah in the way our forebears did. Today Muslims believe in Islam". This subtle but important difference is reflected in the fact that Muslim fundamentalists are rightly referred to today as "Islamists" rather than "Muslims". In this age when the culture of modernity has been fast eroding the traditional belief in God, along with the transcendent spiritual world supposedly surrounding him, the conservative devotees of the religious past hold ever more firmly to the most tangible form of the past: Holy Scripture. And that makes them fundamentalists.

So fundamentalism may be described as a modern religious disease, for it distorts genuine religious faith in the same way as cancer distorts and misdirects the natural capacity of body cells to grow. Instead of bringing spiritual freedom and the realisation of a spiritual goal, as all sound religion should, fundamentalism imprisons people into such a rigid system of belief that they find it difficult to free themselves. Fundamentalism takes possession of human minds and blinds them to the realities which most others accept as self-evident. Fundamentalism fosters a closed mind, restricts the sight to tunnel vision, hinders mental and spiritual growth, and prevents people from becoming the mature, balanced, self-critical persons they have the potential to become.

Deceptive appeal to Scripture

The fact that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon is not at all obvious at first, simply because it makes its claim on the basis of something which has long been central to the religious tradition in question: the appeal to Holy Scripture. This claim, by its very subtlety, often deceives even non-fundamentalists. They sometimes feel themselves at a disadvantage, for the fundamentalists appear to have claimed the high moral ground. They are able to claim support for their case from the very words found in the Torah, the Bible or the Qur’an.

What is novel about fundamentalism is not the honouring of Holy Scripture, but the way in which it is done. Fundamentalists treat Holy Scripture as the starting point of their faith tradition when in fact it is the product: it gathered its authority only after the tradition had started. This is especially so with Judaism and Christianity, both of which existed long before they had Holy Scriptures. It is rather less so with Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam each evolved out of an initially fluid faith tradition, in which there was still much freedom for creative change and development. As each produced its Holy Scripture, there certainly was a tendency for that creative spirit to diminish and for the living faith tradition to become frozen into a static and lifeless form. This was overcome, however, by devising a variety of methods of interpretation to accommodate the text to the changing circumstances in which people lived.

Up to the advent of the modern world, Jews, Christians and Muslims certainly gave their respective Scriptures all due respect and honour – but they were not fundamentalists, even though there was the potential to become so. They felt free to interpret their scriptures in the light of new knowledge and fresh experience. Moreover, they were reading and interpreting their Scriptures in a cultural and religious context which, while not the same as that in which they were written, was at least in reasonable harmony with it. For example, even in the 16th century Protestants and Catholics, in spite of their differences, were both closer to the world view of primitive Christianity than they were to that of the modern world.

A new world view

Till the advent of the modern world it was relatively easy for Jew, Christian and Muslim to acknowledge the words of their respective Scriptures to be self-evidently true, as well as being divinely revealed. This is no longer the case. The advent of modern culture, with its accompanying knowledge explosion, has changed all that. The task of interpreting the Holy Scriptures in a way which is relevant to the changing cultural context and self-evidently true began to reach breaking point from the 19th century onwards. It was this that led to the modern religious aberration of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists reject much of the modern world view and insist, somewhat blindly, on remaining within a world view consistent with their particular Holy Scriptures.

What all fundamentalists have in common is not a set of specific beliefs but an attitude of mind. It is the conviction that they possess a knowledge of absolute truth of which they have become the divinely ordained guardians. This conviction then gives them a feeling of extreme confidence and of inner power in relation to all who differ from them. They become crusaders, bent on defending and spreading the truth as they see it.

Fundamentalism breeds intolerance for it makes people absolutely sure they know the mind and will of God on any subject which particularly concerns them. Fundamentalists see no value in tolerance, one of the new values which emerged as a result of the Enlightenment. They regard tolerance as a form of moral weakness, an unjustifiable compromise with falsehood and evil. Intolerance, in turn, quickly leads to fanaticism. It is salutary to remember that the word fanatic is derived from the Latin word fanum, meaning a temple. The fanatic was a person who believed himself to be wholly inspired by divine power. Fanatics are impervious to reasoning and will stop at nothing to achieve their ends, passionately believing them to be not their own ends but God’s.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam each have a history which shows how, at their best, they have accommodated themselves to changing circumstances. Each was a living, evolving tradition. Each can proudly point to its saints and stalwarts in the past – but these were not fundamentalists. On the contrary, some of them, such as the Jewish Maimonides, the Christian Thomas Aquinas and the Muslim al-Ghazzali, were creative and controversial figures in their own day before they were later revered as great authorities. By contrast, today’s fundamentalists stifle religious creativity and deny their faith the opportunity to continue on its evolving path as it responds to the challenges of newly emerging knowledge. Like King Canute, ordering the waves to retreat, fundamentalists reject the modern world and command it to go away.

Fundamentalists tend to have a static view of reality: they have not come to terms with the ever-changing and evolving character of culture, religion and life itself. Just as they reject the biological evolution of species, they fasten on particular beliefs and practices and regard them as absolute and fixed for all time. This is what constitutes the very nature of superstition. By its etymology a superstition refers to any belief or ritual which has survived long after the circumstances in which it was appropriate have passed away.

It is sadly ironic that fundamentalism, which prides itself on being Scriptural, turns out to be in complete conflict with one of the chief themes of Holy Scripture, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. In the ancient world in which these paths of faith came to birth, it was not unbelief to which the founding prophets directed their attention but overbelief. The ancients, they asserted, believed in far too many gods. So the founding Jewish, Christian and Islamic prophets were iconoclasts. They destroyed the idols or tangible things which people put their trust in. The Christians of the ancient world gained a reputation for being atheists. Muhammad uttered dire threats of divine judgment against polytheists. This iconoclasm stemmed from the second of the Jewish Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of anything which is heaven, or earth or under the earth, you shall not bow down to it or serve it."

When one gives unconditional worship to any visible, tangible thing, even though it is Holy Scripture, it is this commandment which is infringed. As John Calvin shrewdly observed, the human mind is a veritable factory for the forging of idols. Fundamentalism is the modern phenomenon by which people, perhaps afraid of the uncertainties of the future, and certainly distrustful of the modern world, have raised their Holy Scripture into a tangible idol. They are doing what Aaron is said to have done by forging the golden calf when they were afraid Moses was leading them to a disastrous unknown future and they longed to return to the fleshpots of Egypt.

Christian fundamentalism and literalism

So far I have been speaking of fundamentalism generally. But fundamentalism has taken different forms in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, partly because of that which is unique to each, and partly because of the different ways in which they relate to the coming of the modern world. So from here on I shall discuss them separately. I begin with Christian fundamentalism since the Christian tradition, as we shall see, has a special relationship with the modern secular world.

As we saw in the first chapter, Christian fundamentalism first became evident when one section of Protestants, sharing a particular set of dogmatic convictions, unconsciously imposed these on the Bible. As James Barr pointed out, "Fundamentalism is the imposition upon the Bible of a particular tradition of human religion, and the use of the Bible as an instrument of power to secure the success and influence of that religion." This is illustrated by the way fundamentalists can violently disagree with one another over how particular passages are to be read and understood. Most Christian sects which emerged in the 19th century can now be judged as fundamentalist in their use of the Bible, yet one of the booklet series on the Fundamentals was directly specifically against them.

Christian fundamentalism has sometimes been equated with biblical literalism. In other words, fundamentalists are said to take the Bible literally. Indeed, they themselves often speak of being committed to the literal inerrancy of Bible. But literalism is not a very satisfactory term. It is clear that, when the Bible refers to God as Father and Jesus as shepherd, the words are intended to be taken metaphorically and not literally. Fundamentalists have no problem with metaphorical language in that regard.

It is true that up to the 19th century the six days of creation in the biblical myth of origins were taken literally as 24-hour periods. But when the immense age of the earth became clearly evident on geological grounds, most fundamentalists tried to defend the "truth" of the biblical story by interpreting the six days as six geological ages, thousands or even millions of years in length. Thus, in order to defend the Bible as true in everything it says, fundamentalists keep shifting between literal and non-literal interpretations. Fundamentalists in America have turned this mode of interpretation into an elaborate art form in what is called "Creation Science". This enterprise sets out to reconcile the sciences of cosmology and geology with the Bible, either by rejecting some scientific findings as unproven or false, or else by re-interpreting the words of the Bible to fit the new facts. Their purpose in doing so is to defend the fundamentalist dogma that the Bible, being the Word of God, is literally inerrant.

So fundamentalists are not consistently biblical literalists. They are literalists only when and where it suits them to be so. They are usually literalists when it concerns the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event, the existence of eternal punishment in hell. But when Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God they go to great lengths to interpret this in such a way that they do not themselves have to "sell all that they have and give to the poor", as Jesus directed the rich young ruler who wanted to follow him.

When fundamentalists come to the words, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell", fundamentalists are content with a figurative interpretation. Then there are whole sections of Holy Scripture which fundamentalists conveniently ignore. Yet if every part of the Bible is the Word of God and divinely inspired, then people claiming to be Bible-believing Christians should give equal attention to it all. On the contrary, fundamentalists are very eclectic in their appeal to the Bible, fastening on those passages which particularly interest them. In other words, quite unconsciously, they are looking at the Bible through the tint of their own glasses, and these effectively eliminate from sight what they do not want to see.

Questions for Dr Laura

This has been humorously illustrated in something which recently did the rounds on the Internet. It is a letter addressed Dr Laura, who provides "biblical advice" to TV and radio audiences:

Dear Dr Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how best to follow them.

a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Leviticus 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?

b. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery as it suggests in Exodus 2l:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Leviticus 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

d. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

e. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

g. Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s Word is eternal and unchanging.

This is humorous because of its apparent absurdity. The examples taken show how far we have moved from the cultural world and social mores in which the Bible was written. To attempt to observe them in today’s world is to become involved in superstition. But if it is valid to ignore these particular instructions in our day and age, why is it not equally valid to ignore the ancient prohibition of homosexuality, now that we have clearer knowledge of how sexual orientation can vary from person to person?

When one selects from the Bible just what one wishes and ignores the rest, one ceases to be a Bible-believing Christian. Instead, as Barr said, one is using the Bible as an instrument of power, by claiming apparent divine authority to support one’s own prejudices. That is what happened, for example, when people appealed to the Bible to defend slavery, to oppose the entry of women into the priesthood and, currently, to prevent practising homosexuals from being appointed as bishops.

The claim of fundamentalists to be the true guardians of their particular faith must be strongly rejected. In fact, fundamentalism is fast becoming one of true religion’s chief enemies.

The meaning of true religion

But what can be meant by true religion? Since the advent of the modern world, the term "religion" has taken on a variety of meanings. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it commonly means "human recognition of a superhuman controlling power, such as a personal God entitled to obedience". But there are religions, such as Buddhism, which do not acknowledge such a controlling power, so this definition becomes inadequate. We need to return to the original meaning of the word "religion". The Latin word religio, from which it is derived, meant devotion or commitment, "a conscientious concern for what really matters". To be religious in any culture is to be devoted to whatever is believed to matter most in life. Thus religion has been succinctly defined as "a total mode of the interpreting and living of life". And because human cultures are always changing and evolving, the "conscientious concern for what really matters" comes to expression in widely different forms.

Just because the Second Axial Period has led to the growth of a new kind of culture which is global, humanistic and secular, it does not mean it lacks any conscientious concern for what really matters. Indeed, the modern concern for basic human rights, for the abolition of slavery, for the liberation of women from male domination, for the eradication of racism, for the realisation of international peace are a few examples of today’s conscientious concerns. Moreover, they often reveal the inadequacies of the conscientious concerns of our pre-modern ancestors, Christians though they were. Indeed, it is just here that Christian fundamentalism reveals some of its basic faults. It has often found itself on the wrong side of the new issues of social justice which have been brought to light by the conscientious concerns of secular humanism.

Above all, Christian fundamentalism fails to understand how and why the new secular humanism has evolved out of Christendom in much the same way as Christianity evolved out of Judaism. In other words, the humanistic and secular world is to be seen as the legitimate product of the ever-evolving Christian culture of the West. It should not therefore be regarded as foreign to Christianity, far less the enemy of humankind. (I have described this in more detail in Christianity Without God.)

The roots of the Second Axial Period can be traced as far back as 14th century Christendom, where it was already being called the "via moderna" or modern way of thinking. (I have written more fully about them in a book published in 1981, Faith’s New Age.) The initiators of the Second Axial Period had no intention of attacking or undermining their Christian heritage. They came in successive waves – the Franciscan nominalists, the Renaissance humanists, the Protestant reformers and the leading lights of the Enlightenment. They all regarded themselves as genuine and devout Christians. Only later did it become progressively clear that the modern way of thinking was on a collision course with some of the traditional Christian dogmas, now being stoutly defended by fundamentalism. Thus in condemning secular humanism, fundamentalism is actually opposing the legitimate evolution of the very faith it sets out to defend.

Certainly there are some distinct differences between modern secular culture and the state of Christendom out of which it has come, just as there are great differences between traditional Christianity and the Judaism out of which it emerged, and of which it claimed to be the fulfilment. In each case there has been continuity as well as discontinuity.

Since every culture is a living, changing entity, we may use an analogy from biology to help explain the relationship between the modern secular world and its Christian past. Just as a butterfly develops from a larva, growing inside a shell which was once the skin of a grub, so out of the chrysalis of Christendom there is currently emerging a new kind of society – a global, humanistic and secular society. The ossified structure of Christian dogma may be likened to the hard shell which protected the growth of the larva. Having fulfilled its role, this hard shell is now increasingly becoming dispensable. Perhaps that is why the great ecclesiastical structure known as the holy, catholic and apostolic church is now fragmenting. Having brought forth the modern world, it has completed its work and is now only the redundant shell case of the chrysalis.

Certainly the global, humanistic and secular world looks very different from Christendom, just as the butterfly looks so different from the grub out of which it sprang. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Christian past and the secular present. We see signs of continuity in the way we still number our years from the supposed birth date of Jesus Christ, and we still preserve the Christian holy days as our holidays. Even Christendom reflected its own pagan past by continuing to name the days of the week after pagan gods, though we have long since forgotten why. Much more importantly, the modern or post-Christian age reflects values and aspirations which stem from its Christian past. The modern secular and humanistic world still shows the marks of the matrix out of which it has come.

Fundamentalism is blind to the fact that the modern secular world is the logical development of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. This affirmed the enfleshment of the divine within Jesus of Nazareth. But this Jesus was then said to be the new Adam, namely the new type of humankind, in which was to dwell thereafter attributes such as love, justice and compassion – attributes which constituted the very being of God. Jesus himself is reported to have said: "You must be just as completely mature as God is." As he once castigated the Pharisees for being "blind guides", so fundamentalism fails to see in the secular global world genuine signs of what Jesus once talked about in terms of the Kingdom of God. It is sadly ironic that fundamentalism, which sees itself as the guardian and preserver of Christianity, now constitutes one of Christianity's chief obstacles to its natural and logical development.

Muslim fundamentalism

When we turn to Muslim fundamentalism, we find that it has rather more justification for rejecting the modern secular world than does Christian fundamentalism. First, Islam has always totally rejected the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. It affirmed the absolute and unbridgeable gulf between Allah and humankind. Muhammad believed that Christianity by its doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity had reverted to pagan polytheism. He found evidence for this in the Christian veneration of icons and believed he was restoring religious faith to its pristine purity, as first practised by the Israelite patriarchs.

Secondly, Muslim fundamentalists concede and deplore the weakness and cultural decadence into which the Islamic world has descended in the last few hundred years, but they believe that the chief blame for this rests on the Christian world of the West. In expanding their empires, the nations of Christian Europe invaded and colonised nearly the entire Islamic world, except the Turkish Empire. They dominated the Islamic world from Algeria to Indonesia. It was during this period and continuing into the present, as Muslim fundamentalists see it, that Islamic spirituality was undermined by the evil influence of the secular West.

Just as Christian fundamentalists seek to restore the secular West to its original form of Christendom, so Muslim fundamentalists are motivated by the goal of restoring the Islamic world to its pristine purity. Both groups see the modern secular world as a materialist, consumer-driven society which has lost whatever spirituality it had in the past. One of the chief differences between the two fundamentalisms is that Christian fundamentalism is fighting against something which has its seeds within Christianity, whereas Muslim fundamentalism has set itself the task of eliminating all the evil influences which have come from the outside. Muslim fundamentalists began their fight against their fellow-Muslims, who in their view had succumbed to the West. But more recently this has brought them into conflict with the West itself.

Fuelling tribalistic nationalism

Fundamentalism, whether Muslim, Christian and Jewish, is currently having the effect of reviving tribalistic nationalism. This is something which Christianity and Islam, at their best, were always seeking to overcome. This is another way in which fundamentalism is in direct opposition to the faith tradition it claims to be defending. Rampant nationalism, when supported by fundamentalism, all too quickly turns into the fanaticism that leads to violence, terrorism and war. It constitutes one of the most serious obstacles to the evolution of a harmonious global society, both within national societies and on the international scene.

The internationalism of the coming global society calls for flexibility of thought and practice, for empathy with those who differ, for compromise in a spirit of goodwill; it requires mutual co-operation for the common good. Since fundamentalism encourages people to become blindly loyal to specific fundamentals, whether it is a Holy Book or the overcoming of a perceived injustice, all forms of fundamentalism are socially and globally divisive. Thus fundamentalism is to be judged socially and internationally dangerous. I shall discuss this more fully in the next chapter.

In sum

The aim of this lecture was to show that fundamentalism is religiously dangerous. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism each have a cultural history of which its adherents can be justifiably proud. Fundamentalists in each tradition do their cultural heritage a great injustice by making it look like a rigid, intolerant sect.

Christian fundamentalism, by capturing the mainline churches as it has been doing, is preventing Christianity from playing a positive and creative role in shaping the modern global society. The narrow and exclusive assertions of Christian fundamentalists give the impression to the modern world that theirs is the only genuine form that Christianity can assume, and hide the fact that the secular world owes its origin and character to its Christian matrix.

To make the point succinctly, let me observe that at the beginning of the 20th century most people in New Zealand would have been offended if anyone had accused them of not being a Christian. By the end of the century one could offend a person by suggesting he or she was a Christian, for the term was fast becoming identified with people close to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has brought the term "Christian" into disrepute by denying the catholicity or universality of Christianity and narrowing it down to a rigid sectarianism.

Similarly, Muslim fundamentalism is distorting the face of Islam and giving the impression to the rest of the world that Islam, far from being the religion of peace, brotherhood and compassion which it can be, is simply a seedbed for violence and terrorism.

Fundamentalism, whether Christian or Muslim, distorts and does irreparable harm to the very religious tradition it claims to be defending.

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