Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Fundamentalist Danger to Modernity

I first published a version of this post almost eight years under the title A Fundamentalist is a Fundamentalist. It's time to share it again.

Karen Armstrong

If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, of self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology. ~ Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness 

Several years ago I received an email that included a photograph of a sign that was, I believe, in front of a church. The sign made some rather nasty comments about The Qur’ān (Quran, Quraan, Koran, Koraan, Qoraan, Qoran or however you want to transliterate the Arabic), the Holy Book of Islam. I can only assume that whoever put that sign up had never read The Qur’ān—or if they had, they read those selected excerpts that I have seen distributed to “prove” something negative about Islam.

I also suspect that the one who created that sign was a Christian fundamentalist. Only a religious fundamentalist could feel so threatened by a faith different from their own. Of course, where fundamentalists are concerned, they feel most threatened by those followers of their own faith who are not threatened by the present age.

Click to Enlarge

When it comes to religious fundamentalism, I firmly believe that a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist! It doesn’t matter whether the fundamentalist is a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Christian. The basic driving consideration of all fundamentalist is a fear of modernity—a fear that their beliefs are threatened, that their lifestyle may be obliterated.

a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist

I first came to this understanding when I read Karen Armstrong’s insightful book, The Battle for God. I think I have probably recommended Armstrong’s book to more people than any other book I have read, except for certain books of the Bible, such as the Gospel According to St. John. I’ve recommended The Battle for God to so many people because in it Armstrong discusses one of the most powerful and potentially destructive forces in our world today: religious fundamentalism.

She points out that fundamentalism has risen in every faith movement for the same reason: a fear of modernity. These fundamentalists perceive their way of life as being threatened—and often for compelling, historic reasons. Their “enemies” are not usually the practitioners of other faiths, but their co-religionists who they perceive as having been co-opted into the ways of the modern world. Like most conservatives, they long to return to what they believe was a simpler and less complicated time, that probably never existed outside their fantasy. As June Reizner’s song, Barry’s Boys, proclaimed:

Back to when the poor were poor and rich were rich, And you felt so damn secure just knowing which were which.

In an interview published on, Karen Armstrong discusses how all fundamentalists are alarmed by their perception that their way of life is being annihilated:

Dave: But in regards to fundamentalism, as differently as it may have manifested in each religion, something all fundamentalists share is the fear of annihilation, the fear that their way of life will not survive. And it's a legitimate fear.

Armstrong: It's true. In the Muslim countries, that has been immensely true. In Judaism, fundamentalism took major leaps forward, first just after the Holocaust, then again after the 1973 war when Israel suddenly felt vulnerable again and felt its isolation in the Middle East. Then look at Muslims whose modernizers were aggressive and mowed you down in a mosque if you didn't wear modern dress; or took women's veils off in the street and ripped them to pieces in front of them with a bayonet; tortured mullahs; abolished Sufi orders and forced them underground This is experienced by the ordinary Muslim in the street as an assault against religion, and yet what are these modernizers supposed to do? They've got to modernize fast. They've got to secularize. Somehow we've got to see that this has been counterproductive.

What we know from the past is that when fundamentalists are attacked, whether they're Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, they become more extreme. Certainly that happened in this country at the time of the Scopes trial. The ridicule they faced at the hands of the secular press led fundamentalists to go from the left of the political spectrum to the right, where they've remained.

And so I feel comfortable in saying that a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist! And to deal with the fundamentalist forces behind what is being called “the War of Terrorism,” we had better be aware of the dynamics of fundamentalism or we shall certainly pay a very heavy price! And I commend to you The Battle for God; it is well worth the time you will spend reading it.

For further reading, I suggest:

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