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"Fundamentalism" in Christianity & Islam

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The chaos of religious terminology:

There is no field of human study whose language is in such a chaotic state as religion. We have discovered one common religious word that has 17 distinct meanings -- some of which are antonyms. We located another word with eight meanings -- all quite different. Another term has six meanings. Within each "wing" of Christianity, there is usually a general agreement on which definition to use in a given context. But each "wing" often uses a different definition. This causes dialog and debate to be almost impossible among Christians, and even more difficult between Christians and followers of other religions.

This web site contains a glossary which explains common definitions for many religious terms.

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The term "Fundamentalist."

One of the most controversial religious terms in North America is "fundamentalist."

bulletWithin academic circles, the term is generally used in a precise manner. For example, Author Karen Armstrong defines fundamentalist movements as "embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis" - namely the fear that modernity will erode or even eradicate their faith and morality. 1 That concern is shared by Fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Sikhs, and others.
bulletWithin Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other faiths, the media generally use the term to refer to the most conservative wing of the religion. For example, fundamentalist Christianity is often described as the most conservative wing of Evangelicalism.
bulletHowever, sometimes the term is used as a general-purpose "snarl" word which is intended to denigrate a religious group, implying that they are intolerant or prone to violence.

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Fundamentalism in Christianity:

In Christianity, the term fundamentalism is normally used to refer to the conservative part of evangelical Christianity, which is itself the most conservative wing of Protestant Christianity. Fundamentalist Christians typically believe that the Bible is inspired by God and is inerrant. They reject modern analysis of the Bible as a historical document written by authors who were attempting to promote their own evolving spiritual beliefs. Rather, they view the bible as the Word of God, internally consistent, and free of error.

The term "Fundamentalist" derives from a 1909 publication "The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth" which proposed five required Christian beliefs for those opposed to the Modernist movement.

Originally a technical theological term, it became commonly used after the "Scopes" trial in Tennessee during the mid 1920s. Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. John Scopes, a high school biology teacher was on trial for contravening the state's Butler Act. It forbade the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." 4,5 Although Scopes was found guilty, many felt that he had won a moral victory.

By the late 1930's Christian fundamentalists had formed a sub-culture and had largely withdrawn from the rest of society. Following major revisions to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices during the Vatican II conferences in the 1960's, the term "fundamentalist" started to be used to refer to Catholics who rejected the changes, and wished to retain traditional beliefs and practices. Thus it became a commonly used word to describe the most conservative groups within Christianity: both Protestant and Catholic.

Back in the 1960's many theologians and historians expected that religions would become less conservative and generally weaker with time. That did not happen. Instead, the fundamentalist wings of major world religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, have grown and become increasingly dedicated to preserving religious tradition. Karen Armstrong has addressed Fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam and Judaism in her book: "The Battle for God." 1

In the U.S., the Fundamentalist-led Moral Majority emerged to challenge social and religious beliefs and practices. Today, Fundamentalists are the most vocal group, on a per-capital basis -- who oppose abortion access, equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, protection  for homosexuals from hate crimes, physician assisted suicide, the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research, comprehensive sex-ed classes in public schools, etc.

The Assemblies of God is one Fundamentalist denomination. The Southern Baptist Convention has moved towards fundamentalism in recent years. Bob Jones University, the General Association of Regular Baptists, the Moody Bible Institute, etc.are also Fundamentalist. Among the most generally known Fundamentalist Christian leaders are Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Hal Lindsey.

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Fundamentalism in Islam:

The term Fundamentalist has been extensively misused by the media to refer to terrorists who happen to be Muslim, or who are anti-American Muslims. This is not accurate. Fundamentalist Islam is simply the conservative wing of Islam, just as fundamentalist Christianity is the conservative wing of Christianity. The vast majority of Muslmi fundamentalists are pious individuals who strictly follow the teachings of Mohammed, promote regular attendance at mosques, and promote the reading of the Qur'an. Many promote the concept of theocratic government, in which Sharia (Islamic law) becomes the law of the state. Most probably view the West as secular, ungodly, decadent and obsessed with sex.

Most Middle Eastern terrorists are probably fundamentalist Muslims, but they share little with their fellow fundamentalists. They represent an extremist, radical wing of fundamentalist Islam, which is composed of people who believe that the Islamic state must be imposed on the people from above, using violent action if necessary. This movement is fueled by social, religious, and economic stressors in many of the Muslim countries: lack of democracy; autocratic, unelected political leaders; millions of Palestinian refugees, extreme wealth for a minority, and often extreme poverty for most of the public; poor human rights records; high unemployment. Perhaps the greatest stressor of all is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has lasted over five decades. It is fueling much of the anger, instability, unrest, distrust, hostility, and feelings of victimization in the region.  The U.S. is viewed as favoring and supporting Israel. They have given over three billion dollars a year in military and economic aid to Israel. The lack of a peace settlement, the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied lands, the status of the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem -- the third most sacred spot in Islam -- and the status of the Muslim section of the city of Jerusalem are major flash points. 6 Another stressor is the past presence of many American troops in Saudi-Arabia; this was seen by many radical Fundamentalist Muslims as a desecration of holy ground. The two most sacred places in Islam -- Mecca and Medina -- are located in that country. Although the U.S. has come to the assistance of oppressed Muslims as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kuwait, anti-American feelings are running high because of the invasion on Iraq.

Michael Youssef is a Evangelical Christian who was born in Egypt. On the program Focus on the Family for Friday, 2001-SEP-14, he described the extremist radical terrorist wing as believing that the world is divided into two sections: The House of Islam and the House of War. The former is composed of all devout Muslims. The latter is composed of the other five billion humans on earth with which the extremist radicals are in a state of total war.

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  1. Karen Armstrong, "The Battle for God," Knopf, (2000). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. "Fundamentalism and Islam," The Wisdom Fund, at: http://www.twf.org/Library/Fundamentalism.html
  3. "Islamic Fundamentalism," at: http://www.medea.be/en/index089.htm
  4. "Tennessee vs. John Scopes: The 'Monkey Trial,' " at: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/
  5. "Monkey Trial: Debate over creationism and evolution still with us," at:  http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/
  6. Based on an ABC interview on 2001-SEP-12 hosted by Peter Jennings, and including Haran Ashrawi, representing the PLO; Hisham Melhem, a reporter from Beirut Lebenon; David Makovsky, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Judith Kipper, an ABC Middle Eastern consultant.

Copyright © 2001 and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2001-SEP-19
Latest update: 2004-AUG-14

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