Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Defining Fundamentalism (for Celestial Lands)

I am well aware that there are those who view the term “Fundamentalist” as a positive label, and that they often are confused by the way that I use the term, and so it is probably appropriate that I be clear about what I mean by a fundamentalist. I have preached about this, I have included short versions of the definition in many different articles, but it is true that I have not dedicated a whole article to defining it for myself and the readers here at Celestial Lands.

As a Liberal Christian candidate minister who spends much of my time in non-liberal Christian settings, (even within my own denomination), I find that the issue of language is often one of the most compelling parts of my ministry. The post-modern aspect of much of liberal faith is affirmed by the reality of how words mean very different things to different people.

I believe that fundamentalism has little to do with what you believe, and much more to do with how you believe. In many ways, fundamentalism is the mirror image of what it means to be a liberal-for liberalism is also more about how you believe and not what you believe. Both are methodologies of belief and meaning-making, not beliefs or traditions themselves.

I also want to say that this is the definition I use for fundamentalism (I have written at length on the definition of liberalism, specifically in relation to progressivism). You are entitled to your own definition for fundamentalism in your own lives. This, however, is the definition that is operative here. I grew up in a religiously conservative family that was not overly fundamentalist, however many of those around us in church and community could have been described as fundamentalist.

First and foremost, a fundamentalist is someone who has a relationship with the concept of doubt that is negative. In other words, doubt is something that is to be feared and overcome. Doubt becomes a threat to faith, instead of an inherent aspect of faith (as in liberalism). Doubt is something to be overcome for the fundamentalist, and much of the practices and assumptions of a fundamentalist methodology are centered around this fear and need.

The primary method of fundamentalism for dealing with doubt is certainty. The spiritual practice of certainty is the personal commitment to something or things as absolute and unquestionable truth. Now, many will immediately think of those who believe with absolute conviction that every word of the Bible is literally true and the divine word of God… but there is another step for this to become a fundamentalist belief. I know many non-fundamentalists who believe with deep spiritual power in the inerrancy of the Bible. For such a belief to be fundamentalist, I believe two other ingredients are necessary.

First, the primary reason for this belief (whether understood by the individual or not) is to serve as a psychological defense against doubt. The second necessary ingredient is an inability to accept that others can and should be allowed to believe differently than yourself.

The inclusion of these three aspects of a methodology of belief is what I term to be “fundamentalist”: certainty as a defense against doubt that cannot allow for others to disagree. Often they cannot allow for others to believe other than they do (and remain in relationship to them) because someone believing otherwise reinforces the doubt that is at the center of the need for a fundamentalist methodology.

The creation of certainty requires certain tools and practices. First and foremost, it requires simplifying an infinitely complex world. The infinitely complex nature of the universe (and for my Christian readers, of God) in itself reinforces doubt in any understanding and sources of meaning that we limited humans can conceive of. Fundamentalists therefore often simplify our complex world into a binary understanding based upon the Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong paradigm. Gradiations in value are threatening to many fundamentalists, because it reinforces the doubt that is at the core of the need for both a liberal or a fundamentalist methodology.

I have used Christian Fundamentalism as an example, (somewhat reticently) because it is what would be on most readers mind in discussing this topic… but fundamentalism is by no means limited to Christianity. Fundamentalism is a way of engaging with a set of beliefs or a religious faith, and it can be operable regardless of what belief-set or faith you choose. What Fundamentalist Christians, Fundamentalist Muslims, Fundamentalist Humanists, Fundamentalist Atheists, and any other kind of Fundamentalist tradition have in common is not what they believe, but how they believe.

Fundamentalism is not limited (by any means) to religion. In truth, Fundamentalism may be more common outside of religion than within religion. Many of the most ardent activists on a variety of issues are Fundamentalists. Though in Social Justice this is most common among “Single-Issue Activists”, it is not limited to them. Some of the most ardent Fundamentalists I have ever met have been peace activists. Many activists on both sides of the abortion issue are also Fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism can move beyond religion, beyond activism, and into anything that anyone can hold a belief in, from people to sporting teams. I have seen people hold fundamentalist beliefs in their own inerrancy, or in the power of capitalism, or in a political party or in one’s racial superiority. Remember the formulae I am proposing: Certainty as a psychological defense against doubt that cannot be in relationship with those who disagree. See if you do not also see this pattern repeated in the world around you.

Though I’m sure that my opinion on this methodology of belief is clear, I am freely willing to admit that this is a bias on my part. For many, this is the only productive way they can find to deal with the fear and danger of a universe that is as complex and as filled with doubt as the one we inhabit. Just as I cannot live as a fundamentalist, I fully understand that many cannot accept a liberal methodology that calls you to “cherish your doubts”. I would not take their fundamentalist methodology away from them, even if I could, simply because it is the way they have found to make meaning in the world.

There are two problems with this stance on my part as to the need many in our society have for a fundamentalist methodology, and I will point them out before my colleagues here at Celestial Lands do. First, whatever I might wish to do, there is an inherent aspect of the fundamentalist methodology that does not allow them to issue me the same courtesy. My adoption of a different methodology of belief is threatening, as it reinforces the doubt that is at the center of all of human relationships to belief.

The second problem gets to the other definition I promised with this essay, the definition of Extremist Fundamentalism. This definition is much, much simpler, and I believe it is on the rise throughout all the different types of fundamentalist belief-sets. Simply put, an Extremist Fundamentalist is someone who resorts to violence (or plans to resort to violence) in order to suppress, stop, or terrorize those who believe other than they do.

If you want to read the writings of a fundamentalist who took to extremism, I recommend to you the Unabomber’s Manifesto. Theodore Kaczynski was a fundamentalist in his belief that technology and modern society were destroying civilization. He became an extremist fundamentalist when he chose to send bombs through the mail to draw attention to his beliefs. His Manifesto is a case study in both fundamentalism and extremism… and it has nothing to do with religion.

Yours in Faith,


6 Thoughts on “Defining Fundamentalism (for Celestial Lands)

  1. David–

    Excellent and timely analysis!

  2. Milton and Lyman Stewart wrote “The Fundamentals” in response to Liberal Protestantism, and Historical analysis of the Bible. It’s really an American Protestant thing… and the flip side of Unitarianism.

    In a sense, many UUs today rejected our own Unitarian Rationalist heritage today, in favor of restoring those fantastic stories (that Jefferson Bible is boring.. what UU Minister quotes it today?) with the understanding while fantastic, they contain metaphorical rather than literal “truths”.

    You’re using Fundamentalist as synonym for Religious Fanatic, and for the sake of clarity, it might be easier to stick with the word Fanatic. It requires a lot less definition.

    Merriam Webster sums it up nicely,

    Etymology: Latin fanaticus inspired by a deity, frenzied, from fanum temple — more at feast
    Date: 1550

    marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion

  3. Dudley Jones on Friday June 5, 2009 at 15:20 +0000 said:

    “I am well aware that there are those who view the term “Fundamentalist” as a positive label”

    Yes, but those folks will not spend much time reading UU blogs.

    best wishes

  4. Dudley,

    You’d be surprised, especially where Celestial Lands is concerned. Multiple times I have been stopped in hallways by conservative military chaplains and chaplain candidates to “discuss” things I have said here, and so i am aware that this blog has the occasional visitor for whom “fundamentalist” is a positive term and “Liberal” or “Progressive” is anathema.

    Yours in Faith,


  5. Fascinating take on defining “fundamentalism,” David! I’ve never heard it stated quite like that.

    I have always considered myself to be a fundamentalist because I absolutely believe based on many convincing arguments that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God (2 Pet. 1:21), and so take it for its plain sense meaning when it says that Jesus is God (Jn. 1:14,18; 10:30), and accept Jesus’ lifeline when He says salvation from judgment and Hell is only by belief in Him (Jn. 3:16; 14:6).

    I’m not sure how doubt plays into being a fundamentalist, though, for myself at least, I have no doubt whatsoever on the points above. I also don’t believe others must conform to my decision to accept Jesus as Savior either. We each have the right to accept or reject Jesus offer, even if we must live with the consequences.

    By your definition I guess I’m not a fundamentalist. Probably more the “evangelical” label as I follow Acts 1:8’s Great Commission to share the Good News to people?

    Your old buddy,

  6. Nathan,

    I would not call you a fundamentalist, by my definition… a Conservative Christian and Evangelical perhaps… but I agree with your description.

    Yours in Faith,


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