Defining Fundamentalism

Earlier this month, I encountered a rather disturbing social media post. It was by someone I used to view as a friend, who was calling loudly for the death of all homosexuals.  If there was ever a good example of fundamentalism at work, that would be a good one. However, I find that when trying to define fundamentalism, it is difficult. After all, how do we tell the difference between someone with strong beliefs and someone who is a fundamentalist?  I compiled a list below of traits that appear often among fundamentalists.  I should mention early on that fundamentalism is not limited to one political viewpoint, religion, or nation. It runs the gamut and is more defined by certain characteristics than beliefs.

1. Won’t change their minds and won’t change the subject

This is essentially a paraphrase of a Winston Churchill quote on extremists, but I think it applies to fundamentalists very well. They hold a very stringent set of beliefs very strongly and they are highly motivated in sharing these beliefs, regardless of whether it is the best time to share these thoughts. Many people have that “crazy uncle” who brings up some conspiracy theory at family gatherings, and others have seen those street preachers calling down fire and brimstone. The goal is to bring about submission through sheer tenacity.

2. The details are more important than the whole picture

The fundamentalist’s greatest enemy is not actually moderates but actually other fundamentalists from different groups. This is because both groups are coming from similar mindsets but yet the details of their beliefs are different. If you have ever seen a tract from a independent fundamentalist Baptist church, you will notice the group tends to have fairly specific beliefs about certain topics, such as Bible translations, proper behavior, proper dress, and other elements. Opposition to one element of the message is considered opposition to the entire message. This is why the greatest threat to fundamentalists groups are other fundamentalists, because they have similar mindsets but different details.

3. Compromise=Evil

Compromise is evil with a capital E. Because of the detail orientation mentioned above, any change is regarded as a slippery slope to something horrifying. This can be seen in both secular and religious fundamentalists. For example, a hardcore secularist lawmaker might not wish to work with or compromise with a religious lawmaker who brings any of her or his beliefs on morality into the picture. Compromise dilutes or drains the potency out of fundamentalist belief, which leads into my final point.

4. Fundamentalism’s greatest enemy: Empathy

Empathy is immensely powerful. Once you start seeing something from someone’s else’s perspective, it’s hard to view them as absolutely evil. This creates a key problem for fundamentalism. One key notion of the ideology is that almost everyone outside your group is intellectually or morally inferior, whether you call them “the world” or “idiots” or “brainwashed religious lunatics.” This is why to a certain degree, fundamentalism discourages empathy. If you are too buddy buddy with someone outside the group, you might be accused of fraternizing with the enemy. Demonization is an important tool of extremism, and empathy is the antidote to this tactic.


Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and I haven’t covered the isolationist tactic or others. However, with any topic, you have to define your terms first before you can begin to discuss its implications.

(Image via Wikipedia. Chosen since Pensacola is a fairly well known fundamentalist college. You can learn more about the crazy stuff that goes on there, at SoulNation)