What is Fundamentalism

Brekke, Torkel: Hva er Fundamentalisme

What is fundamentalism?

What is fundamentalism? is a synthesis of many years of research on the relations between religion in politics in the early modern and modern periods. It addresses one of the most controversial issues of our times and is written for a general readership.

The book has two goals. Firstly, the author wants to show that fundamentalism is found in most major religions of the world, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Many other books on the subject limit their perspective to the three first religious traditions because few authors know enough about fundamentalism in Asia. In order to broaden the picture, the author presents first-hand knowledge of fundamentalist leaders in South Asian traditions – Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus. Secondly, this book offers a new definition of fundamentalism. There is a long academic debate about the essentials of fundamentalism and to cut the Gordian knot this book offers a clear definition on the very first page. In short, What is fundamentalism? is both a broad survey of fundamentalisms and a new theory of what fundamentalism is, how it arose and how it continues to develop.

The book is divided into chapters after the major struggles that fundamentalists engage in. Thus, the first chapter is entitled The struggle against modernity taking Chaplin’s classic movie Modern Times as a metaphor of the fragmentation experienced in many Western societies from the late 1800s onwards. Modernity differentiates society into more or less independent spheres and through the process of secularization religion looses authority in areas of politics, economics, science and law. Fundamentalists across the globe wish to reverse this process.

The second chapter is called The struggle for the word. Here the reader is taken on a brief tour back to the Reformation with its emphasis on the word. Every believer should be his or her own priest, according to Luther. The book explains how fundamentalism first arose among American conservative Protestants as a reaction against the liberal theology and its relativization of Biblical truths. In a an important sense, fundamentalists in other religions have the same “protestant” attitude to religion; they feel it is every individual’s right to read the Quran or the Vedas without priests telling them what the texts really mean. Thus, fundamentlists struggle to take holy word and the holy texts out of the hands of traditional religious authorities.

The third chapter is called The struggle for the family. The traditional roles of men and women were transformed by processes we call modernity. Women have increasingly engaged in public life and in the workforce. This has undermined the traditional authority of men in the family and the local communities in many parts of the world – both East and West. However, for conservative believers, the traditional family, with members who take their rightful place in a hierarchy of authority, is an institution created by God. Women is primarily mothers, fathers are leaders and bread-winners, while children must obey parental authority. Fundamentalists in all religions strive to restore the traditional family.

The struggle for the child is the fourth chapter and starts out with one of the defining issues of modern American fundamentalism, i.e. the fight against abortion. The reader is taken on a brief tour back in the history of Christianity to see where and how ideas about the unborn child originated. The Christian ideas about abortion is put into perspective by looking at the major positions on the issue among Muslim legal scholars and Buddhists in East Asia. The main focus of this chapter, however, is schools. Schools are the places where the ungodly secular state brainwashes children with evolutionism and feminism, according to Christian fundamentalists. Not surprisingly, many fundamentalists across the world take the training of their children into their own hands. One result has been the heated debates over religious schools like Muslim madrasas and Jewish Yeshivas.

The fifth chapter is called The fight over the sciences. From the 1850s there were strong reactions in conservative Christian circles in Europa and America against the existential implications of the rapid developments with geology, palaentology and other sciences. In the second chapter, the author showed how the new history and philology relativized all religious books and their claims to truth. The sciences showed that a literal reading of religious creation-stories were no longer possible. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection placed man on a branch of a tree of evolving species. In the Christian world, the struggle against evolution, on behalf of creationism, took place in schools with The Scopes Trial as the most famous case. Surprisingly, the sciences, including evolution, took on rather different meanings in other religious traditions. These reactions are hardly known to the western reader and here the book presents new and exciting material without getting lost in detail. It is of particular interest that conservative religious leaders in the Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist worlds embraced science because they felt that Western science dethroned the religion of the imperialist powers, i.e. Christianity. Many fundamentalist leaders in Asia would also look to science for vindication of their own traditions.

The sixth chapter is called The struggle for the nation. Here the book explores the important but often ambiguous relations between nationalism and fundamentalism. In the definition of fundamentalism offered on the first page of this book, I claim that fundamentalism is a result of secularizing processes forced on societies in many parts of the world by the modern nation state. Only the modern state has the capabilities, through its control of schools, armies, universities, courts, and other institutions, of forcing religion out of the public and into the private sphere. When fundamentalists believe they have the duty to reverse the ungodly work of the secular state, they engage in politics. In some instances, this results in violent clashes with the authorities. At this point, the issue of terrorism is treated with examples from many religious traditions, including Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Buddhism. The section is flavored with brief extracts from the author’s interviews with activists in Asia. A tentative theory is offered about under what circumstances fundamentalists turn to violence. It is the contention of this book that fundamentalism is found in all religions. However, fundamentalism in Christianity is a reaction against developments that are perceived to be home-grown, whereas in Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, processes of modernity were almost always perceived to be brought by Europeans through the rapid colonial expansion from the mid-1800s. Even the modern state was grafted onto local societies and cultures in Asia and Africa by colonizers. Therefore, the fundamentalist struggle for the nation against the state takes different forms in the West and outside.

The book ends with the sober contention that fundamentalism will not be among the major threats to humanity, as one often feels when reading popular books on the subject. On the other hand, fundamentalism is an extremely interesting phenomenon because it puts into perspectives the powerful ideologies and institutions that shape our lives but are taken for granted: nationalism, secularism and the modern state.

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