religious fundamentalismReligious fundamentalism has displayed a seemingly limitless capacity for simplification and hatred, which has often turned murderous.  It is easy for us in the West to condemn Islam, but throughout its long history Christianity has also merited censure. The tumultuous and destructive wars between Catholics and Protestants that extended from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century grew out of the shared conviction that diversity within Christendom was intolerable. Motivated by the quest for doctrinal purity and ideological conformity, Protestants, at least Calvinists, and Catholics alike, when compelled to admit that they could not do away with their enemies, undertook to convert them by brute force.   

Militants on both sides of the theological divide invoked the name and the blessings of God to slaughter those who opposed them and to make war on established authority. (Jean Bodin, Robert Filmer, and others, for instance, developed the quasi-religious theory of absolute government and the divine right of kings in part to render monarchy unassailable to the attacks of religious radicals. Assaults on the power or person of the sovereign, whom God had anointed to rule, became thereby both treasonable and sacrilegious.) Zealots, of course, found in religion the justification for whatever political creed favored their interests, from limited government to absolute monarchy, from aristocracy to republicanism, from democracy to communism. Christopher Dawson worried lest religion become “a servant or accomplice of the powers of this world.” The history of the European religious wars, as much as the Islamic Jihad, reveals that his concerns were, and remain, well and fully justified. It is the irony of religious fundamentalism that it often culminates in an effort to gain the kingdoms of the world, which, according to scripture, is the promise that Satan made to all who follow him.

religious fundamentalismAn even more serious danger arises from the tendency to link religion not to the apparatus of the state but to identify it with the cause of the nation. This temptation has taken many forms. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized both the Emperor Constantine and Tsar Nicholas II. But there were plenty of churchmen in the West who paid homage to a succession of monarchs and dictators, and bestowed upon them the sanction of their faiths. Despite their emphasis on salvation in the next world, fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, have too often sought to remake this world by violence. For the Tsarnaev brothers, to cite only the most recent example, “Islam” designated not only a religious faith, but also an attempt to recover and reconnect with a national identity. They challenged both the religious and the political status quo, for Allah cannot rule on earth until the infidel has been vanquished.

Behind every form of religious fundamentalism then there lies an unremitting despair, which, when freed from its spiritual moorings, can transform life on earth into a living hell. Extremists of every variety, assured of their own virtue and the righteousness of their cause, would rather transform the world into a battleground than tolerate for a moment the “wicked” and “unregenerate” in their midst. The destructive acts of purification that they carry out are the will of God, which they alone can interpret and understand. Fundamentalists have always convinced themselves that God wishes them to dominate and reform the corrupt environment in which they live, or to die trying, and worse, to take others with them. Their road the heaven is paved with bad intentions.

Religious fundamentalism may satisfy the appetite for spiritual certainty and the yearning for an intimacy with truth in a world often shockingly unpredictable and riddled with complexity and deception. Yet, in pursuit of those ambitions, fundamentalists unwittingly sacrifice the very essence of faith, which does not rest on assurance.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is, paradoxically, dangerous to draw nearer to God.  Doesn’t one find in one’s own experience that every advance (if one ever has advances) in the spiritual life opens to one the possibility of blacker sins as well as brighter virtues?…We are denied many graces that we ask for because they would be our ruin.” In its stridency, fundamentalism leaves no room for the delights and joys of life. It encourages no understanding of, and no sympathy for, creation, history, or human beings. It fosters arrogance rather than humility. It promotes unconditional belief, discouraging men and women from thinking for themselves. All that remains to it is the iron necessity of dividing the world into good and evil, and the supposition that those who are not with us are against us. For the last 500 years, nothing has proven more merciless or more deadly than efforts to discipline, oppress, punish, and cleanse the spirit in the name of religious uniformity and ideological purity.

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11 replies to this post
  1. A familiar narrative–in fact, the one we always hear. There are problems with it though. The first problem has to do with the uses of the narrative to advance agendas desirous of throwing off religious restraint. I commend, The Myth of Religious Violence–

    Another problem is the matter of of the doctrine of creation in the Abrahamic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all take the world seriously and seek to honor God through human institutions. It is because spiritual things are accessed through material things and human institutions that earthly authorities and heavenly ones are bound up in some sense one with the other. When we praise the Abrahamic faiths for the notion of linear time, or a purposeful life, or the significance of the individual, we must also accept the theological significance of politics and community. A retreat into the gnostic ghetto of personal meaning and societal free-for-all will have myriad of unintended consequences. (We’re feeling them–unless, of course, you don’t believe abortion is violence, inter alia.) I am of the conviction that crimes of fundamentalism are better located in a loss of faith in God’s sovereignty in human affairs and this largely is the fruit of the triumph of Nominalism–a movement that threw away the Neoplatonic realism of Christianity and the Aristotelian realism of Islam in the 14th century.

    • The description of purges strikes me more as a characteristic of ideology and not of religion. Fundamentalism in religion tends to be highly ideological; which would map well with the actions of the Soviets and other Communist groups. What one has to be careful of is the ideological strain within any faith, which can transform into a totalizing virus.

      Nicholas II and Constantine are saints, those whom they can be compared against make the realization clear.

      We of English descent boast a few Righteous Kings of our own; Edmund, Aelfred, and others. There’s no reason why this is wrong nor is it done indiscriminately.

      Islam is beguiled by strange contradictions, but this is because it is rooted in a bastardization of paganism, heretical Christianity, and Judaism.

      I think it is clear, however, that its modern strain is highly ideological (whether its old strains were or not, I cannot say) and is therefore susceptible to embracing the methods of dedicated, violent ideologues.

  2. I respectfully disagree that “For the last 500 years, nothing has proven more merciless or more deadly than efforts to discipline, oppress, punish, and cleanse the spirit in the name of religious uniformity and ideological purity.” It is too broad and too narrow a statement to be wholly useful:

    (a) why only 500 years if belief (secular or religious) is so lethal? did belief not exist before or did something else change? (Gibbon cites gunpowder as a more efficient means to slaughter); (b) of mass murder, some competent historians cite more than 100 million communist subjects slain by their own governments (av. 4,000+ a day 1917-1989, or one 9/11 daily) that significantly outnumber everyone ever killed by religious wars and persecutions; (c) maybe humans like to kill other humans, and if so maybe we need greater scrutiny to see what range of reasons best facilitate slaughter (ie, Mongol invasions, avoidable famine (see Amartya Sen) , colonialism and disease imported into Latin America, etc).

  3. “Christian” fundamentalism, for me, means a return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    It wasn’t this movement that generated the Catholic-Protestant wars. Islam, on the other hand, is a gnostic distortion and invites war, hatred, murder, and mayhem. A very big difference, I think.

  4. I think there are a good number of issues here that need hammering out before any discussion on this topic can go forward. For example, what do you mean by “fundamentalism”? Do you just mean “believing stuff in general”? Do you mean traditional American Fundamentalism as outlined by these guys: ? Do you mean people with whom you disagree who seem intransigent in their beliefs (or, for that matter, with whom you agree)?

    Moreover, do you draw a distinction between personal and public “fundamentalism” (whatever that means). You suggest that “For the last 500 years, nothing has proven more merciless or more deadly than efforts to discipline, oppress, punish, and cleanse the spirit in the name of religious uniformity and ideological purity,” yet it matters quite a bit whether we’re talking personal or public. Personally, one of the great strengths of traditional Christianity is its challenge to the individual to discipline and purify the soul by faith for holiness and away from sin. The same can be said for the church, which ought always to be reforming itself. I admit that when these ideas are extrapolated to the public sphere, they can be and have been abused, but that’s not the same thing as dismissing all religious fundamentalism as destructive.
    And of course, all of that is speaking within a Christian context. If you’re lumping together all religions and trying to draw broad-ranging conclusions, the whole thing falls apart. The Amish, for example, are about as fundamentalist as you can get within the Christian tradition, but there’s a massive difference between them and fundamentalist Islam or Hinduism.

    I’d love to see a follow-up piece to this post outlining the definitions to some of the terms used here and working through in more detail what you are speaking in favor of…

  5. Having had four decades to recover from Seminary, I am a mellow Conservative Christian. I have met more than my fair share of red faced Religious Zealots; I don’t like them very much. I consider myself a Conservative Christian because I have studied the Bible diligently and I believe it to be true. When I graduated from Seminary I reverenced my Professors and the line of teachers that preceded them; their particular interpretation of Scripture was as holy and untouchable as the Bible they interpreted. I now have friends with so many different interpretations I have lost count. I will state my case and leave it. I would die for Jesus but not for a doctrine; I will kill for neither. In my humble opinion, none of those who have killed in the name of pure doctrine, were Christian or knew the God in whose name they killed. He who laid down His life for the benefit of his killers has called no one to kill in His Name. I am getting old, I have no desire to be profound or deep; if you disagree with me please explain your reasons in language simple enough for an old missionary.

  6. Americans must wake up and realize that following these ancient mythos will lead to our America’s destruction. The spread of fundamentalist Islam into Europe has brought choas and will soon undermine all western freedoms. By loving our invisible “god” so much, and by prioritizing our duties to this very quiet “deity” we will be forced to make concessions for fundmental Islam and their growing number of practioners. Islam is incompatible with Western values. The idea that a dumb iron age myth will be our undoing is an insult to humanity. Stand up for AMERICA, not your religion.

  7. I echo “s masty’s” comment. The author’s closing observation is remarkably empirically off base. This is not to say the general message of the article is disagreeable; it seems as obviously true as the closing line is silly, foolish, even.

  8. There is EXTREMISM in every movement in human existence, ergo there are extremist in the religious right, that does not make the religious right extremist. I do not consider it extremist to try to keep the word marriage in its meaning and not to try to change its meaning as Clinton did to the word is, and to me murder is murder rather it is a fetus or a born baby.

  9. Terminology is murky business. In the first quarter of the nineteen hundreds, liberal teaching and preaching was called out by those who maintained a closer orthodox understanding and reading of scripture and the Christian life. We called those folks fundamentalist. It didn’t mean they wanted to go off and kill off the heretics but they spoke out against them and taught against them. Now days people try to equate “fundamentalist Islamic ” style antics with fundamentalist Christians. They arent even close cause unless its some wacko cult, the teachings of Jesus dont allow for blowing people up in the name of Christianity. I think a lot of the misguided things done in the name of “religion” in the past centuries were done when religion hooked up to political power and authority and tried to make religion accepted by laws and decrees and when the church is indistinguishable from the state it leads to some pretty unholy actions of those who really dont know God at all, calling the shots.

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