Fundamentalism is in no way restricted to religions and faiths any more : there has been a recent trend to apply the term to any group, establishment or person perceived to apply their theology-related doctrines in a strict, inflexible fashion. And that includes atheism and secularism as well.
For instance, in France, the restriction on displaying any religious icons in state-run schools has been described by some as secular fundamentalism. Institutional opposition to wearing headscarves (hijab), turbans and covering of the face in an Islamic fashion in Western contexts, has also been similarly labelled as a form of ‘fundamentalist’ discrimination.
By and large however, fundamentalism refers to a strict religious interpretation of theological doctrines. And this is where we often note the clash of culture and politics rather than a conflict of true spiritual ideology. Why people choose to adopt a hardline on the literal interpretation of texts written hundreds to thousands of years ago is far more complex than simply ascribing it to the failure of reason, as it has been sometimes portrayed by current ‘secular’ writers. The real causes are often related to cultural dynamics – groups of people united in their efforts to preserve an ideological identity which they perceive as their ‘spiritual heritage’. Any distortion of practices and interpretations traditionally handed down is often strongly resisted as a means of reinforcing such group identity.
The term fundamentalism was coined during a controversial split in the Presbyterian church in the United States beginning in 1922. In the years following, while mainstream Christianity became accommodating towards liberal Christian groups, orthodox factions, some of whom were termed fundamentalists split off from the mainstream. This is also known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Gradually the term fundamentalism has been applied to factions within other religions including Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism too.
This leaning towards orthodoxy perhaps should not be viewed as exclusively a religious phenomenon. Cultural exclusivity and the desire to maintain ideological purity is a deeply ingrained form with any tradition, theological or non-theological. Recently biologist Richard Dawkins has been accused of atheistic fundamentalism, particularly with regards to his total dogmatic conviction of correctness by Christian theologian Alistair McGrath and his wife Joanna McGrath in their book The Dawkins Delusion. While being convinced of scientific correctness cannot be really interpreted as a form of fundamentalism, it does however point out the salient fact that accusations of being a fundamentalist usually arise in cultural or political conflicts of interest. Dawkin’s attacks on Biblical creationist accounts while championing the theory of evolution is the precipitating factor here. Richard Dawkins attempts to protect the ideological purity of the theory of evolution with the same zeal as a creationist would attempt to protect an orthodox ideology not based on science.
In the bigger scheme of things, however, all ideas have limited shelf lives. Ideas run their own evolutionary course, and a forceful attempt at maintaining orthodoxy that runs counter to the mainstream indicates that it is already outside the evolutionary zone. For instance, Biblical creationism was the main stream itself in Judeo-Christian theology, until evolution came along. Any theological doctrine which steadfastly refuses to examine new evidence in an unbiased fashion is perhaps contributing to its own evolutionary endgame. It chooses to stagnate, and in the words of Albert Camus, commits a ‘philosophical suicide’, a concept he developed in his essay, ‘the myth of Sisyphus’.
And in our rapidly evolving cultural landscape, fundamentalism itself might have become an orthodox ‘heresy’.
Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), February 15, 2007
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