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Are All Fundamentalists Extremists?

Aug 13, 2008
In this article, we wish to explore the nature of two words, fundamentalism, and extremism. What connotation do we arrive at when we hear these words? Are they essentially the same? In other words, are we to construe fundamentalism as a variety of extremism? Does the equation work the other way as well? What we are about here is a definition of terms.

One could give considerable space, either directly or indirectly, to defining the term "fundamentalism." After a careful examination, some conclusions may be reached. There are two major characteristics of fundamentalism. The most apparent facet of this ubiquitous term is certainty. Fundamentalists are very certain people. Further, it is certainty that cannot be entreated. Fundamentalists know that they know that they know. Case closed. The popular bumper sticker gets at the heart of this: "God said it! I believe it! That settles it!" Evidence is largely irrelevant. In the sense used here, one might view certainty as an attitude.

The second dimension of fundamentalism to consider is the subculture. The subculture supports the fundamentalist, befriends him or her, and supplies the certainties into which the absolutist is inducted. We see this in Christianity when we consider alternative music, a closed society into which only the initiated are invited (unless others are visiting and viewed as potential initiates), and a Christian jargon, including the rhetoric of the right. Even when the adherents are separated from the subculture, the sacred memory of the teachings of the subculture help the adherent maintain membership in the society of the certain.

These components are true of all types of fundamentalism. They are true of all types of religious fundamentalism as well as political fundamentalism (often the two blend). As Alistair McGrath points out, one might even speak of an atheist fundamentalism such as represented in Dawkins's, The God Delusion. Even in this case, careful investigation indicates these two features are present.

What then is extremism? The dictionary feature available on my handy little MacBook which I am using defines an extremist this way: "a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, esp. one who resorts to or advocates extreme action." That's a mouthful! There are certainly some terms we must "unpack" if we are to make use of this definition. First, we must define what "extreme views" are made up of.

Of course, that is a question that is heavily dependent on culture, at least on one hand. Many Europeans view the United States as very (overly) religious. In reality, the US is a church-going nation. Is that extreme? Not really. In the context of the definition, extremism must drive someone to extreme actions. When we speak of "extreme sports," we know that we are all referring to sports that usually involve some danger. I propose we take the notion of extreme views as views that might be dangerous to individuals, society, or the progenitor of the views. Therefore, we will define extreme views as dangerous views.

The next term we need to get at is "fanatical." I propose that a fanatic is someone who is so consumed with something that they cannot divorce their thinking from the object of their fanaticism. They must always talk about it, practice it, and promote it.

How do fundamentalists hold up when it comes to rejecting the label of extremism? Certainly, at least in the Abrahamic Faiths, there is a missionary imperative. That is why fundamentalists cannot take no for an answer. In the case of Christian fundamentalism, adherents will spend considerable time evangelizing, even if the objects of their evangelism are not interested in what they have to offer. If they "slack off" in promoting fundamentalist Christianity, the subculture moves in with a heavy dose of guilt to enforce evangelization. Say what you will, but a true fundamentalist surely qualifies as a fanatic (somewhat akin to the sports fanatic whose team is the best and greatest and who tend to lose through poor calls and bad breaks rather than bad plays - although the analogy quickly breaks down).

Of course, there are degrees to which one adheres and embraces certainty. We have to think of it as a spectrum. Somewhere on that spectrum, folks cross the line and become fanatics. To the extent that someone is truly fundamentalist, relative to any action or belief, s/he will be a fanatic.

But, what about the "extreme" side of things? It has been stated that being extreme involves an element of danger. When has that line been crossed? What constitutes danger? Physicality? Or, can danger be psychological as well? There is little actual danger done by becoming a Yankees fan. Still, think of the rioting that often breaks out after soccer matches in otherwise civilized Europe. When is an idea dangerous? Or maybe we should ask, When is an idea too dangerous? Certainly, polygamy is dangerous. Surely, Christianity so opposed to abortion that it is willing to resort to violence against abortion providers is dangerous.

Where do we leave this question, then? Fundamentalism may fairly be called fanatical. But dangerous? That is a question that we must answer for ourselves, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. Is fundamentalism extremist? I think all that we can say is it depends.
About the Author
James C. Alexander, Ph.D. is an education professor at a church related college and a bi-vocational minister who publishes regularly in the areas of education and religion. His latest book is Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalism: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism. His blog site is located at Repentant Fundie.
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