Fundamentalism usually has a religious connotation that indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. However, fundamentalism has come to be applied to a tendency among certain groups—mainly, though not exclusively, in religion—that is characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which advocates believe members have strayed. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established "fundamentals" and their accepted interpretation within the group is often the result of this tendency.
Depending upon the context, fundamentalism can be a pejorative rather than a neutral characterization, similar to the ways that calling political perspectives "right-wing" or "left-wing" can, for some, have negative connotations.
Christian fundamentalism has been defined by George Marsden as the demand for a strict adherence to certain theological doctrines, in reaction against Modernist theology. The term was originally coined by its supporters to describe what they claimed were five specific classic theological beliefs of Christianity, and that developed into a Christian fundamentalist movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Fundamentalism as a movement arose in the United States, starting among conservative Presbyterian theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 19th century. It soon spread to conservatives among the Baptists and other denominations around 1910 to 1920. The movement's purpose was to reaffirm key theological tenets and defend them against the challenges of liberal theology and higher criticism.
The term "fundamentalism" has roots in the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897), which defined those tenets it considered fundamental to Christian belief. The term was prefigured by The Fundamentals, a collection of twelve books on five subjects published in 1910 and funded by the brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, but coined by Curtis Lee Lawes, editor of The Watchman-Examiner, who proposed in the wake of the 1920 pre-convention meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches USA) that those fighting for the fundamentals of the faith be called "fundamentalists." The Fundamentals came to represent a Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that appeared late in the 19th century within some Protestant denominations in the United States, and continued in earnest through the 1920s. The first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs traces to the Niagara Bible Conference and, in 1910, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which distilled these into what became known as the five fundamentals:Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture as a result of this
Virgin birth of Jesus
Belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin
Bodily resurrection of Jesus
Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
It did not (yet) become associated with tenets such as Young Earth creationism.
By the late 1910s, theological conservatives rallying around the five fundamentals came to be known as "fundamentalists". They reject the existence of commonalities with theologically related religious traditions, such as the grouping of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism into one Abrahamic family of religions. In contrast, Evangelical groups (such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association), while they typically agree on the theology "fundamentals" as expressed in The Fundamentals, are often willing to participate in events with religious groups who do not hold to the essential doctrines.
Jewish fundamentalism has been used to characterize militant religious Zionism, and both Ashkenazi and Sephardic versions of Haredi Judaism. Ian S Lustik has characterized Jewish fundamentalism as "an ultranationalist, eschatologically based, irredentist ideology."
Extremism within Islam goes back to the 7th century to the time of the Kharijites. From their essentially political position, they developed extreme doctrines that set them apart from both mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Kharijites were particularly noted for adopting a radical approach to Takfir, whereby they declared other Muslims to be unbelievers and therefore deemed them worthy of death.
The Shia and Sunni religious conflicts since the 7th century created an opening for radical ideologues, such as Ali Shariati (1933–77), to merge social revolution with Islamic fundamentalism, as exemplified by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Islamic fundamentalism has appeared in many countries; the Wahhabi version is promoted worldwide and financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Pakistan.
The Iran hostage crisis of 1979–80 marked a major turning point in the use of the term "fundamentalism". The media, in an attempt to explain the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution to a Western audience described it as a "fundamentalist version of Islam" by way of analogy to the Christian fundamentalist movement in the U.S. Thus was born the term Islamic fundamentalist, which became a common use of the term in following years.
Scholars identify several politically active Hindu movements as part of the "Hindu fundamentalist family."
Buddhist fundamentalism has also targeted other religious and ethnic groups, such as that in Myanmar. As a Buddhist dominated nation, Myanmar has seen recent tensions between Muslim minorities and the Buddhist majority, especially during the 2013 Burma anti-Muslim riots, alleged to have been instigated by hardliner groups such as the 969 Movement.
There are historic and contemporary examples of Buddhist fundamentalism in each of the three main branches of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. In Japan, a prominent example has been the practice of shakubuku among some members of the Nichiren sect—a method of proselytizing involving strident condemnation of other sects as deficient or evil. Similarly, some members of the New Kadampa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Shugden Society have appropriated the controversial and fiercely sectarian protector deity Dorje Shugden as a symbol of maintaining the purity of the Gelugpa sect from contamination by teachings of other sects, condemning the Dalai Lama's eclectic approach (see Dorje Shugden controversy).
"Fundamentalist" has been used pejoratively to refer to philosophies perceived as literal-minded or carrying a pretense of being the sole source of objective truth, regardless of whether it is usually called a religion. For instance, the Archbishop of Wales has criticized "atheistic fundamentalism" broadly and said "Any kind of fundamentalism, be it Biblical, atheistic or Islamic, is dangerous". He also said, "the new fundamentalism of our age ... leads to the language of expulsion and exclusivity, of extremism and polarisation, and the claim that, because God is on our side, he is not on yours."
In The New Inquisition, Robert Anton Wilson lampoons the members of skeptical organizations such as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal as fundamentalist materialists, alleging that they dogmatically dismiss any evidence that conflicts with materialism as hallucination or fraud.
In France, the imposition of restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in state-run schools has been labeled "secular fundamentalism". In the United States, private or cultural intolerance of women wearing the hijab (Islamic headcovering) and political activism by Muslims also has been labeled "secular fundamentalism" by some Muslims in the U.S.
The term "fundamentalism" is sometimes applied to signify a counter-cultural fidelity to a principle or set of principles, as in the pejorative term "market fundamentalism", used to imply exaggerated religious-like faith in the ability of unfettered laissez-faire or free market economic views or policies to solve economic and social problems. According to economist John Quiggin, the standard features of "economic fundamentalist rhetoric" are "dogmatic" assertions and the claim that anyone who holds contrary views is not a real economist. Retired professor in religious studies Roderick Hindery lists positive qualities attributed to political, economic, or other forms of cultural fundamentalism, including "vitality, enthusiasm, willingness to back up words with actions, and the avoidance of facile compromise," as well as negative aspects, such as psychological attitudes, occasionally elitist and pessimistic perspectives, and, in some cases, literalism.
In December 2007, the Anglican Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan criticized what he referred to as "atheistic fundamentalism", claiming that it advocated that religion has no substance and "that faith has no value and is superstitious nonsense." He claimed it led to situations such as councils calling Christmas "Winterval", schools refusing to put on nativity plays and crosses removed from chapels. Others have countered that some of these attacks on Christmas are urban legends, not all schools do nativity plays because they choose to perform other traditional plays like A Christmas Carol or The Snow Queen and, because of rising tensions between various religions, opening up public spaces to alternate displays rather than the Nativity scene is an attempt to keep government religion-neutral.
Sociologist of religion Tex Sample asserts that it is a mistake to refer to a Muslim, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalist. Rather, a fundamentalist's fundamentalism is their primary concern, over and above other denominational or faith considerations.
A criticism by Elliot N. Dorff:
In order to carry out the fundamentalist program in practice, one would need a perfect understanding of the ancient language of the original text, if indeed the true text can be discerned from among variants. Furthermore, human beings are the ones who transmit this understanding between generations. Even if one wanted to follow the literal word of God, the need for people first to understand that word necessitates human interpretation. Through that process human fallibility is inextricably mixed into the very meaning of the divine word. As a result, it is impossible to follow the indisputable word of God; one can only achieve a human understanding of God's will.
Howard Thurman was interviewed in the late 1970s for a BBC feature on religion. He told the interviewer:
I say that creeds, dogmas, and theologies are inventions of the mind. It is the nature of the mind to make sense out of experience, to reduce the conglomerates of experience to units of comprehension which we call principles, or ideologies, or concepts. Religious experience is dynamic, fluid, effervescent, yeasty. But the mind can't handle these so it has to imprison religious experience in some way, get it bottled up. Then, when the experience quiets down, the mind draws a bead on it and extracts concepts, notions, dogmas, so that religious experience can make sense to the mind. Meanwhile religious experience goes on experiencing, so that by the time I get my dogma stated so that I can think about it, the religious experience becomes an object of thought.
Influential criticisms of fundamentalism include James Barr's books on Christian fundamentalism and Bassam Tibi's analysis of Islamic fundamentalism.
Political usage of the term "fundamentalism" has also been criticized. "Fundamentalism" has been used by political groups to attack their opponents, using the term flexibly depending on their political interests. According to Judith Nagata, a professor of Asia Research Institute in the National University of Singapore, "The Afghan mujahiddin, locked in combat with the Soviet enemy in the 1980s, could be praised as 'freedom fighters' by their American backers at the time, while the present Taliban, viewed, among other things, as protectors of American enemy Osama bin Laden, are unequivocally 'fundamentalist'."
A study at the University of Edinburgh found that of its six measured dimensions of religiosity, "lower intelligence is most associated with higher levels of fundamentalism."
The Associated Press' AP Stylebook recommends that the term fundamentalist not be used for any group that does not apply the term to itself. Many scholars have adopted a similar position. Other scholars, however, use the term in the broader descriptive sense to refer to various groups in various religious traditions including those groups that would object to being classified as fundamentalists, such as in The Fundamentalism Project.