One of the aspects of religion that has come to general attention in recent
years is the upsurge of fundamentalism that has occurred in many different
religions and countries of the world. The split between fundamentalists
and liberals appears to affect almost every religious community to one
extent or another. This paper explores a number of questions regarding
this phenomenon. Are the various social movements popularly called
fundamentalism in different cultural contexts all truly different
expressions of the same social phenomenon? What are the features
distinguishing fundamentalism from its putative counterpart, liberalism?
Can we distinguish any underlying basis for the fundamentalism-
Some may prefer to use the term "traditionalist" or
"conservative" rather than "fundamentalist". I have preferred not to use
"traditionalist" because this would seem to exclude those
fundamentalists, such as most Protestant groups, who tend to be radical
and opposed to tradition. I am aware of the counter-argument that the
term "fundamentalist" has historically been closely identified with
radical Protestantism and may therefore seem to some to be inappropriate
in a more general context. Overall, it seems to me that the term
"fundamentalist" is now, in popular terms being used in a more general
way about other religions and is therefore the more suitable word.(1)
Historically, many authorities date fundamentalism
from the publication of a series of radical Protestant pamphlets, The
Fundamentals, in the United States in 1910 to 1915. Although it is from
this that the name is derived, this is a very limited view of a phenomenon
that has a long history in religion. Nor would I accept the position of those
who would see fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity and thus would
limit its occurrence to modern times (although it must be admitted that
modernity has brought fundamentalism very much to the fore). Nor indeed
would I limit fundamentalism to Christianity or even to the western
religions.(2) As fundamentalism and
liberalism are defined in this paper, the split can be seen to have been
operating at many times in the histories of different religions. In the
Islamic world, for example, we can see elements of it in the Ash'ari-
Mu'tazili disputes in 'Abbasid Empire in the ninth century; in the dispute
between the philosopher-mystics and the orthodox jurists in Safavid Iran
during the sixteenth and seventeenth century; in the opposition to Sufism
and "religious laxity" by such persons as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and Ibn
'Abdu'l-Wahhab (d. 1787); as well as in the upheavals of the present-day
The original definitions of fundamentalism made by writers such as
Niebuhr included what has since become the stereotype of the popular
view of fundamentalists: that they take the words of their Holy Scripture
literally and are opposed to science. This is a view that dates back to the
time when Christian fundamentalists were trying to fight the
implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory. However, as with all
stereotypes, it has become less and less valid as the years have passed.
Fundamentalists have changed and adapted since that time. They no longer
oppose science, and indeed take great pride in the extent that they can
advance scientific proof for their positions, nor are they strictly bound to
a literal interpretation of the Bible.
I will here try to present the main features of fundamentalism and
liberalism and where they differ. Of course, in order to show up the
differences, it has been necessary to depict the extremes of the two
positions. I may characterise the differences as follows:
The fundamentalist looks to the Holy Scriptures of the religion as
absolute and unchanging truth. The first concern of the fundamentalist is
to establish that the Holy Scripture is "the Word of God". Therefore, it is
impossible that there be any error in it. All laws and commandments in
these texts are to be applied inflexibly and to the letter. Even religions
that have no concept of a Scripture revealed by God - Theravada Buddhism,
for example - may nevertheless have a similar attitude towards their
Scriptures. The liberal looks to the Holy Scripture of his or her religion
more as a source of guidance for how to lead one's life. As such, the
liberal accepts that the meaning, the "truth", of the scriptures may change
as the circumstances of the individual and society change, i.e. it is a
relative, rather than an absolute, truth.
However, the usual idea of the fundamentalist's literal understanding of
the Scripture requires some degree of elaboration. Where the text is
clearly meant to be symbolic, in the parables of Christ for example, even
the most extreme fundamentalist does not, of course, believe that these
parables actually occured physically. In addition, where there are
inconsistencies in the text, the more sophisticated fundamentalist (the
fundamentalist scholar for example) is willing to allow for symbolic or
other interpretations. But the important point is that the fundamentalist
always regards the Bible as referring to real existent situations and
facts. The main criterion for scriptural truth is correspondence with
empirical reality. For example, even if heaven and hell are acknowledged
not to be physical places above and below the earth, these two words
nevertheless do refer to existent realities. Barr has pointed out that the
importance of preserving the first principle, the inerrancy of the text,
will often compel the fundamentalist to relax the second principle and
allow some degree of non-literal interpretation. The liberal, on the other
hand, is prepared to see other types of truth - typological, metaphorical or
mythological - in the Scripture. The truth lies in the significance of the
statement rather than its correspondence with any external actuality.
The principal concern of the fundamentalist appears to be to extract an
exact meaning from the text of the Scriptures. The millenialists of the
mid-nineteenth century were certain that their calculations pointed to the
return of Christ in 1843 or 1844. When the "Great Disappointment"
occurred and there was no literal fulfilment of their expectations, the
group that became the Seventh-Day Adventists resolved the problem by
formulating an explanation that the prophecy had ben fulfilled but that on
that date, Christ had entered the Most Holy of the heavenly sanctuary, and
that he had a work to perform there before coming to earth. This is a
clearly non-literal explanation of a prophecy that most other Christian
denominations expect to occur literally and on earth. The Seventh-Day
Adventists are nevertheless a fundamentalist denomination. Their
interpretation of the "Great Disappointment" has the ability to give an
exact meaning to the Scripture when a literal meaning has been ruled out
in their history. Another instructive example relates to the question of
Noah's flood. Some Christian fundamentalist scholars are willing to accept
that this may have been a local flood in Mesopotamia rather than a world
flood (which the literal text would imply), as this would be less
problematical scientifically. Nevertheless, the story of the flood does, for
these scholars, refer to an actual physical event - any non-physical
interpretation is ruled out.
Much modern Christian fundamentalist literature is taken up with detailed
explanations of how the events of the Bible can be explained
scientifically. Scientific explanations are desirable as they are
considered to provide a guarantee of certainty and exactness of
interpretation. The liberal, however, is willing to allow that the texts of
the books are open to more than one interpretation. External factors in
society may influence the way that the Scriptures are interpreted.
Allegorical and symbolic interpretations may be used particularly of
passages that appear to contradict human reason. Traditional
interpretation may be examined for whatever useful insights it may
present but has no binding force on the present.
The liberal is much more willing to acknowledge that the Holy Scripture is
a historical document. This often means that it has been written down by
fallible men sometimes many years after the events portrayed. Therefore
almost certainly errors and myth-making have crept in; almost certainly
theological ideas current at the time of writing have been read back into
the past. If the fundamentalist does accept the historical nature of the
Scriptures, he will insist that they were divinely protected from the
intrusion of alteration or error. Certainly no external factors, such as the
social conditions at the time that the Scripture was written down, can be
allowed to influence the understanding of the texts.
Another characteristic fundamentalist attitude is that the whole of the
scripture stands or falls together. This view maintains that since the
scripture is the word of God and therefore infallible, the inerrancy of
every single sentence of the Scripture must be maintained. Otherwise, the
slightest error in even the smallest part casts doubt on the whole. The
liberal will, on the other hand, be much more willing to accept that parts
of the scripture are more "true" - in the sense of being more likely to have
actually occured physically - than other parts.
Another way of expressing the difference between fundamentalists and
liberals would be to say that for fundamentalists the meaning of the
Scripture is inherent in the text and can be apprehended directly without
interpretation, while for the liberal, the Scripture is something that must
be applied to one's life, i.e. it must be interpreted in accordance with the
context in which it is being applied.
The traditions of the religion are looked at differently by different types
of fundamentalists. In this paper, I propose to describe two types,
although others have identified more sub-groups.
The first group of fundamentalists are conservative and traditionalist.
These regard tradition as an element in the religion that is as
authoritative as the Scriptures themselves. In Christianity, there is very
little in the Bible to act as a basis for most of the Church structure and
ritual, and therefore the major source of authority for this is tradition. In
Islam, the concept of the Sunna, the deeds and words of Muhammad as the
perfect example for all Muslims to follow, and the doctrine of ijm'a, the
concept that whatever the whole of the Muslim world agrees upon as a
consensus view must be correct, act as powerful forces for maintaining
traditional attitudes and positions. If any of the religion's structures or
doctrines seem to be in conflict with society then it is society that must
change to conform with what is perceived to be the Divine. These
fundamentalists are very concerned with building up bodies of doctrine
and dogmatic statements as well as elaborating the Holy Law and its
provisions. This enables the true believer to be sorted out from the
waverer and the potential heretic. Doctrines and dogmas must, like Holy
Scripture, be understood literally, while the Holy Law must be followed to
The second group of fundamentalists are of the evangelical, radical,
revivalist type. These regard the traditions of the religion as the main
obstacle to a return to the "pure" original religion which they consider can
be reconstructed from the texts of the Holy Scripture. They would like to
see all traditional structures swept aside in favour of the Scriptures
Radical and traditionalist fundamentalists only differ in the boundary of
what they consider to be unalterable and inerrant - the radicals place the
boundary around just the Scriptures while the traditionalists extend this
to the traditions of the religion also. Whether fundamentalists are of one
type or the other appears to depend on the basic tendency of their
religious background. Thus, for example, a religious background that
stresses tradition seems to produce fundamentalists mainly of the
traditionalist kind. In the Christian world, Roman Catholicism holds that
the traditions of the Church are of equal authority to the scripture and the
fundamentalists among the Catholics tend to be traditionalist. At the
extreme of the fundamentalist wing among the Catholics we find the
followers of ultra-traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Radical
fundamentalists in the Christian world are to be found among the
Protestant sects, Protestantism being a movement that arose as a
reaction to the traditionalism of Catholicism. In the Muslim world, most
fundamentalists are traditionalist since Islam is a religion in which
tradition plays an important part, but there are a few modern radical
groups - for example, the followers of Rashad Khalifa and of 'Ali Shari'ati
Fundamentalists tend to blame liberals for allowing into the religion
dubious ideas and doctrines which have no basis in the religion itself but
are accommodations to the secular world, the intrusion of secular views
or ideas from other religions. In the context of the modern world, a good
example is the liberation theology which originated in Latin America and
which fundamentalists regard as being no more than a back-door method
for introducing Marxism into Christianity. Similarly, fundamentalists tend
to blame liberalism for a moral laxity in society in general.
A more basic criticism levelled by fundamentalists at liberals concerns
the arbitrary nature of those parts of the Scriptures that liberals regard
as being the religious core, and therefore to be preserved, and those parts
that are culturally determined, and therefore can be dispensed with or
interpreted liberally. From a fundamentalist viewpoint it appears that the
line dividing the two is not defined by any discernible logical rules but
rather by whatever happens to be the current social fashion. In one decade,
feminism is to the fore and so the liberals dispense with those parts of
the Scripture which seem to give a low status to women; the next,
championing gay rights is fashionable and so the liberals jettison that
part of the Scripture too. Are fashion and current secular sensibilities to
be the arbiters of the stand-point of faith? If so will the inevitable result
not be to jettison everything eventually?
Liberals consider that the harsh, intolerant attitudes of the
fundamentalists are both contrary to the true spirit of religion and doing
religion a great deal of harm in the modern world. The liberal tends to see
the traditions and structures of the religion in relation to society and is
always asking the question: does the religious tradition and structure
serve the needs of society? If any part of religious structure or doctrine
is not relevant to society, then it is necessary to see how it can be
adapted in order to become relevant. The traditions, doctrines and dogmas
of the religion, as well as the Holy Law, are all guidelines for action that
can be interpreted according to circumstances.
religious diversity within the religion
The fundamentalist is intolerant of wide divergences of religious
expression within his or her own religion. All divergence from the main
orthodox tradition is suspect. There is an ever-present prospect of heresy
insidiously creeping in under various seemingly-innocent guises. The
religion must be protected from it at all costs. The history of religion
points to numerous episodes in which much suffering and bloodshed has
been caused by those wishing to impose a narrow interpretation of their
religion on their fellow-believers. In Christianity, this was seen in the
past in the Inquisition and the numerous bloody suppressions of heresies.
It also operates in the present. In Islam, there have been periodic
persecutions of marginal sects as well as such groups as Sufis.
The liberal will tolerate the existence within the community of a wide
variety of viewpoints. As long as a viewpoint does not explicitly deny the
veracity of the Prophet/Founder or the Holy Scripture, it can usually be
accommodated within the community of believers. Even if a viewpoint is
considered too extreme to be acceptable, the preferred method for trying
to counter it will be argument and persuasion rather than compulsion.
Attitude towards religious pluralism
The fundamentalist sees other religions as being the result of error. Since
they are in open competition with the true religion, the usual response is
to regard them as the work of the devil, to be strongly opposed to and even
persecute them if necessary. The only possible exception to this is those
religions which the Prophet/Founder himself showed respect towards -
these must, by definition, be religions that preceded the Prophet/Founder.
Thus, for example fundamentalist Christians will tolerate Judaism but
reject Islam; fundamentalist Muslims will tolerate Judaism and
Christianity but reject the Bahá'í Faith. But even this toleration wears
thin at times and merges into persecution - as witnessed by past
persecutions of Jews by Christians, and Jews and Christians by Muslims.
A related phenomenon in modern times is the linking of a xenophobic
fundamentalism to a strident nationalism in many parts of the world. This
can be seen in Arya Samaj Hinduism in India, in some forms of Nichiren
Shoshu Buddhism in Japan, among Sinhalese Buddhist supporters of the Sri
Lankan Freedom Party, in the Gush Emunim movement in Israel, and in the
Moral Majority in fundamentalist Christianity in the United States.
The fundamentalist's conviction of possessing the truth leads to a strong
tendency to try to correct the errors of the unbelievers. Thus, the inter-
religious activity of the fundamentalist is typically evangelicism and
missionary work. The inter-religious activity of the liberal, on the other
hand, tends towards ecumenicism and inter-faith dialogue. The
fundamentalist has no time for such activities. Since his own religion
already possesses the absolute truth, there is no point in looking
elsewhere for it.
The liberal will look to other religions as alternative views of religious
truth. Many liberals will give their own religion some form of priority. An
example is the Catholic theologian Rahner's concept that truly religious
persons of other religions are "anonymous Christians". Nevertheless, they
are willing to admit some legitimacy and "truth" in other religions. Other
liberals are willing to go even further and regard other religions as being
of equal validity as their own but, perhaps, more suited to their own
cultures. A liberal society such as Muslim Spain in the medieval period,
allows the efflorescence of intellectual and artistic excellence from
whatever quarter, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
With regard to social and political differences, we are treading on the
most difficult ground in our enquiry. This is because there appears to have
been some degree of change in the modern period, compared to the
characteristic features of these groups in former times. Historically,
there does not appear to have been any characteristic political stance
from either fundamentalists or liberals. If anything, both parties often
tended to political quietism. Socially the majority of fundamentalists
have tended to be isolated either by forming separate communities, such
as the Hutterites in North America, or by minimising contact with the rest
of the society through associating as much as possible only with fellow
fundamentalists (fundamentalist trade and vocational associations, clubs,
colleges, holiday centres, etc.). Personal asceticism and rejection of
wealth characterised many fundamentalists, while liberal views were
often found among the wealthy. Recently, much of this has greatly
changed. Both sides have taken on characteristic political attitudes and
fundamentalists have left their social isolation and entered social and
political life in every part of the world.
During the modern period, fundamentalists have tended to be found at the
right of the political spectrum, encouraging individual self-reliance, and
stressing such social teachings of religion as justice. Some
fundamentalist groups have even reversed the previous trend by tending to
adopt a positive, encouraging attitude towards the accumulation of
wealth. These groups have become actively involved in politics, advocating
capitalism and a laissez-faire social philosophy while raising communism
to an almost mythological level of evil. The best known example of this is
the Moral Majority movement in the U.S.A., which contributed to Ronald
Reagan's electoral success.
An important social and political feature of fundamentalism is the
tendency to promote a traditional role for women in society , i.e.
confinement to home and children rather than coming out to work and
taking a political role. This tendency to try to control women applies as
much to Christian fundamentalism in the U.S.A., where the Moral Majority
campaigned against the Equal Rights for Women Amendment , as it does in
the Islamic and Jewish world.
Liberals, on the other hand, have politically tended to the left in modern
times, due to their concern with social issues. Some groups have even
engaged in Christian-Marxist dialogue. They tend to stress such religious
teachings as showing love towards one's fellow human beings. They have
also reversed their previous tendency and are now inclined towards
asceticism and have a negative attitude towards the accumulation of
wealth. They are supportive of the emancipation of women.
The extreme wing of fundamentalism holds the view that existing
political structures, because they are products of man's thinking and
efforts rather than divine revelation, should be overthrown in favour of a
political structure based on the Holy Scripture. Khomeini advocated such a
programme and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was intended to inaugurate
such a theocracy. It should not be thought, however, that it is only in
Islam that such positions are being advocated. In Christianity, there are
groups such as the Christian Reconstructionists in the United States
which, under the leadership of Rousas J. Rushdoomy, advocates an
overthrow of democratic institutions in order to establish a theocracy
under Biblical Law. In Israel and India there are several extreme Jewish
and Hindu religious parties that advocate a similar position.
Bruce has pointed out that the social manifestations of fundamentalism
and liberalism are, to a large extent, a consequence of their doctrinal or
ideological positions. The fundamentalist rejection of all doctrinal
positions outside their own leads to highly demarcated, tightly knit,
highly committed, socially isolated communities. Liberals, on the other
hand, consider the beliefs of the rest of the world sympathetically and are
socially much more integrated. The great diversity of beliefs amongst
them, however, hinders the formation of coherent groups and also reduces
the possibility of a high degree of commitment.
definition of Fundamentalism
Put succinctly, we may characterise the fundamentalist as having turned
inwards to the centre of the religion - the Scripture, doctrines and
traditions - and seeking to protect these from the intrusions of the
modern, secular world, while the liberal has turned outwards, seeking to
break down the barriers between the religious world and the secular
world. For the fundamentalist, the secular world must adapt to and come
under the control of the religious world, while the liberal considers it the
job of the religious world to adapt to and become relevant in the secular
world. For the fundamentalist, religion is addressed to the individual and
individual salvation comes first; social salvation and ordering may then
result from a collectivity of individual salvations. Liberals, on the other
hand, are primarily concerned with society as a whole. Religion is for
social salvation; individual salvation is best achieved within an
enlightened society. To strive for individual salvation when society itself
is not saved is egotistical and reprehensible.
The above differences between fundamentalists and liberals have
purposely been wide-ranging because the same phenomenon re-appears in
slightly different ways among the different religions. None of these
differences is sufficient by itself to identify an individual as a
fundamentalist or a liberal. With Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, the
inerrancy of Scripture is not an important issue. On the other hand, among
Muslims almost all believe in the inerrancy of their Scripture, the Qur'an,
but this does not make them all fundamentalists. To differentiate between
fundamentalists and liberals in the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim worlds,
one must go to the sphere of social relations and examine the attitude
towards modernity and religious diversity. This may also account for the
phenomenon that, in the nineteenth century, when an uncritical acceptance
of the inerrancy of the Bible was much more in the main stream of
Christianity (i.e. a similar situation to Islam today), it was possible for
individuals to hold to Biblical inerrancy while at the same time
advocating liberal social principles. It would appear that our ideas about
fundamentalism and liberalism should be sufficiently flexible to allow for
such individuals not to be classed as fundamentalists. Thus the arguments
presented in this paper appear to be moving towards a position wherein
fundamentalism and liberalism are defined not in any absolute terms but
in terms that are relative to the particular situation of the individual
religiously and in time. In other words, fundamentalism and liberalism
must be identified through a pattern that changes from one religion to
another (partly as a result of the different emphases within each religion)
and also changes with time.
It would seem therefore that a satisfactory definition of fundamentalism
or liberalism at the social level can only be achieved on a multi-factorial
Fundamentalism and Modernity
Although I have in the above presentation given examples of the way that
liberalism and fundamentalism have manifested themselves in the past, it
should be borne in mind that the contrast between the two has been
emphasised and brought into stark relief only in modern times. This is for
First, in most of the world until the present century and in the West until
the Age of Enlightenment, the religious and secular worlds were not
sharply defined and separated. Religious metaphysical assumptions and
ethical values pervaded all aspects of society: family life, social mores
and customs, intellectual life and politics. Therefore, there was not so
much opportunity for the secular world to challenge the religious.
Second, we can postulate that the complexities of modern life and the
mass of problems that face mankind (the nuclear threat, drug/alcohol
problems, environmental threats, the North-South divide, etc.which are
brought to the immediate attention of all through modern means of
communications) have induced great uncertainty and anxiety. One response
to the fear induced by this state is to retreat into the greater certainty
offered by fundamentalism. It presents a retreat from the confused
maelstrom of modernity.
Third, until the nineteenth century, the religious world was not so acutely
challenged by genuine competition from other religions. At that time, the
colonial powers took Christianity to every part of the world, while during
the present century, we have seen an increasing flow in the opposite
direction, both as a result of migration and of missionary activity by
Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.
Therefore previously, the fundamentalist was rarely challenged with
intrusions into the religious world while the liberal had only occasional
opportunities for seeking to adapt the religious world to new external
circumstances. Thus it has been the phenomenon of secularisation and
religious pluralism in the modern world that has brought the liberal-
fundamentalist split to the fore of religious life. In country after country,
the arrival of modernity resulted in a traditionalist fundamentalist
backlash. In the United States, the challenge laid down by modern science,
and the theory of evolution in particular, was one of the most important
factors leading to the rise of fundamentalism. In Iran, in the early years
of the twentieth century, the liberal reforms advocated by the
Constitutionalists were opposed by the fundamentalist traditionalist
'ulama led by Shaykh Fadlu'llah Nuri.
It is perhaps in India that we find the best example of this pattern. Under
attack from the Christianity of the colonial power as well as the
challenge of Western science, a number of liberal reform movements arose
among India's Hindus in the nineteenth century - the Brahmo Samaj
founded by Rammohan Roy in 1828 and the very similar Prartharma Samaj.
These movements adopted many of the ideas of the Christian West into a
Hindu framework. This development produced two types of reaction among
Hindus corresponding to the two types of fundamentalism described above.
The radical fundamentalists, such as Dayananda Saraswasti, who founded
the Arya Samaj in 1875, felt that Hinduism could best be revitalised by
returning to its Vedic roots. Thus they opposed the inclusivist social
reform movements that accommodated Christian Western ideas and
rejected what they considered to be the accretions of ritual and tradition
(such as idol-worship) that had been added to "pure" Vedic Hinduism.
Secondly, there were traditionalist fundamentalists who rejected both the
inclusivism of social reform movements and the radicalism of the Arya
Samaj and wanted to maintain Hinduism as it was with all of its rituals,
traditions and social structures, such as the caste system. They formed
themselves into numerous groups (such as the Sanatana Dharma Sabha)
which came under an umbrella organisation, the Bharata Dharma
Mahamandala in 1902.
Social and Intellectual Basis
Although little research has been done on the psychological and social
bases of the fundamentalist-liberal dichotomy, those that have observed
these categories are agreed that we must go beyond the old view that
fundamentalism represents an anti-scientific backlash of the old rural,
agriculturally-based communities against the urban, scientific culture. In
the next few paragraphs I shall review the evidence that, first,
fundamentalism is not necessarily anti-scientific and, second, the
sociological observations tend to discount any significant social
differences between fundamentalists and liberals.
Fundamentalist writers often go to great lengths to show that their
positions are in accordance with science. However, critics would maintain
that this is a veneer of pseudo-science applied in order to increase the
plausibility of the fundamentalist worldview and that fundamentalists
remain inherently opposed to the inductive approach of the scientific
method. Among many fundamentalists there remains a strong advocacy of
anti-evolutionary (anti-Darwinian) positions under the name of
Creationism. However even this position bows to science, in that it claims
to use scientific method to prove its case. Indeed, religious critics of
fundamentalism argue that by striving to adapt the Bible stories so that
they conform to science, the fundamentalist is in fact effectively
adopting a materialistic stance and placing science above God's word. But
whatever the strengths or weaknesses of fundamentalist science, it
remains true that fundamentalists no longer see themselves as
intellectually opposed to science. Their argument, as it has been re-
formulated in recent decades, is at least with historical and literary
Even outside the Christian West, where fundamentalism is often centred
on a reaction to the intrusion of modernity into traditional societies, the
fundamentalists are not against science and technology itself. They are
quite happy to utilise these. Ayatu'llah Khomeini's success in
overthrowing the Shah, for example, owed a great deal to the skill of his
supporters in utilising such modern inventions as the telephone and the
cassette recorder to disseminate the Ayatu'llah's speeches. What they are
against are the alien values and morals (and in particular the sceptical
and critical approaches to religion) being imported along with the science
We may also state that there is no justification for the commonly held
view that the fundamentalist is against logic and rationality. On the
contrary, the fundamentalist mentality is much predisposed to using very
precise logical argumentation. Shi'i Islam is an interesting example to
consider further in this respect. Both the theology (kalam) and the
jurisprudence of Shi'i Islam are built on foundations of rationalism and
logic. From the ninth century onwards, Shi'i scholars have prided
themselves on being able to derive their doctrine, as well as their legal
judgements from logic as well as from the traditions. Indeed, the study of
logic forms an important part of the academic curriculum at the religious
colleges of Qumm and Najaf. This then is the intellectual background of
such persons as the Ayatu'llah Khomeini.
Also to be questioned is the view of fundamentalism as mainly a
phenomenon of poor rural areas. In fact both fundamentalists and liberals
are likely to come from similar social and educational backgrounds. Many
modern fundamentalists appear to arise from educated middle class
backgrounds - precisely the same background from which the majority of
liberals come. This has been asserted for British fundamentalist groups,
and for Americans. Similar conclusions have also been drawn about the
Muslim world whether in Egypt, Iran or West Africa.
It is as yet premature to dismiss social factors entirely but the evidence
certainly does not support a blanket association of fundamentalism with
any particular social category or factor. These findings, if confirmed by
further research, point to the likelihood that the fundamentalist-liberal
difference comes not so much from social differences as from differences
in psychological types.
In psychological terms we may characterise fundamentalism and
liberalism as two different ways of thinking, two cognitive styles.
Cognitive style refers to the individual's characteristic and consistent
manner of organising and categorising perceptions and concepts. It is a
value-free term in that the variety of cognitive styles are not judged to
be good or bad in themselves, although any particular style may be more or
less favourable in a given situation or for the purpose of achieving a given
The fundamentalist mentality is characteristically one that sees things in
terms of black-and-white, in terms of clear-cut boundaries which
determine what is and what is not acceptable belief, who is and who is
not in the community. Any person, situation or object belongs either
within the orbit of the "saved" or is outside it; there are no intermediate
stations. No matter how good a life a person may lead, if he or she is not
among the "saved", then he or she must be among the "damned". The lines
between good and evil are clearly drawn and there are no intermediate
positions. The liberal is more inclined to allow for "grey areas",
intermediate situations. Although a person may not be a believer, if his
actions are good then he cannot be totally bad. In pursuing this line of
thought, we are gradually coming to the point at which it is possible to
see that the fundamentalist-liberal split is not something that affects
religion alone but rather is one facet of a much larger phenomenon in the
psycho-social life of mankind.
Another way of describing this would be to say that one of the underlying
differences between fundamentalists and liberals is that the former are
driven by a desire for certainty. Hofstadter has called this the "one-
hundred per cent mentality". Such a person will "tolerate no ambiguities,
no equivocations, no reservations, and no criticism". For the
fundamentalist, certainty is only to be found in objectivity. The indecisive
world of the liberal who is willing to see some truth in all opinions, the
uncertain field of historical and literary criticism where different
opinions abound, are all tainted by personal opinion, and therefore by
subjectivity. This is deeply unsatisfactory to the fundamentalist psyche.
The only way of achieving objective truth is to take a standard that lies
outside of the human subjectivity. While a liberal Christian would be
happy to accept just a statement of belief in Christ from someone, this is
not sufficient for a fundamentalist. It is too liable to the whims of
subjectivity. It might include all sorts of doctrinally objectionable
positions. Acceptance of the Bible as inerrant, however, is considered by
fundamentalists to constitute objectivity, for one is not forming a
personal view of the Bible but rather accepting the Bible's own view of
itself. This, the fundamentalist considers, gives one a standard of
absolute truth and hence objectivity, and hence certainty.
This desire for certainty probably accounts for the enthusiastic adoption
of scientific (or, as their critics would maintain, pseudo-scientific)
approaches by fundamentalists. Scientific method acts, for the modern
mind, as a guarantor of the correctness of one's conclusions. It also
accounts for the fact that fundamentalists are often very keen on building
up elaborate logical arguments. The mathematical certainty of logic
appeals to such minds. The fundamentalist favours absolutes while the
liberal favours relativistic styles of thinking.
One cognitive style that has been described appears to be of particular
interest with regard to the fundamentalism-liberalism dichotomy. It is
called "field-dependence versus field-independence". It relates to the way
that an individual relates a figure in his or her perceptual field to its
background. Field-dependents tend to see the figure only in relation to its
background while a field-independent tends to isolate the figure and
extract it from its background. There seems to be some provisional
similarity here between field-dependence and liberalism (in that liberals
tend to see religion only in terms of its social background) and field-
independence and fundamentalism (in that fundamentalists tend to see
religion as an absolute isolated from its social background).
There are also some similarities between what psychologists call the
convergent style of thinking and fundamentalism while divergent thinking
corresponds with liberalism. Convergent thinking focuses down from the
general to the particular, dissecting and analysing. It prizes rational,
deductive thought and aims towards certainty. It tends to be found among
certain types of scientists and engineers in particular. Interestingly, we
find that when scientists (especially from the physical sciences) and
engineers become religious, they often tend towards fundamentalist
religion. Divergent thought, on the other hand, goes from the particular to
the general, integrating the particulars into a general picture. It prizes
inductive, intuitive thinking and aims towards inclusivity rather than
certainty. It tends to predominate among artists and social scientists.
These two modes of thinking have, in experimental psychology, been linked
to the two halves of the brain. This paper is not the place to give a
detailed account of the research leading to these findings, but suffice it
to say that evidence from patients who have had damage to the brain or a
division of the corpus callosum (which joins the two halves of the brain)
have shown that analytical, rational thought is associated with what is
called the dominant or verbal (usually left) hemisphere, while spatial and
other non-verbal experiences as well as intuitive thought are associated
with the other.
Although fundamentalism can be defined in terms of a particular cognitive
style, there is a problem as to which phenomenon causes which. Does a
particular cognitive style cause a person to be attracted to the
fundamentalist worldview or does the ideology of fundamentalism and the
pressures of a fundamentalist community induce a particular cognitive
style? This is probably a question of the chicken-and-egg variety that has
The main conclusions that the analysis presented in this paper tends
towards may be summarised as follows:
1. There is no simple definition of fundamentalism and liberalism at the
sociological level. There appear to be different manifestations of this
phenomenon in different cultural and religious contexts and also at
different times within the same context.
2. But there does appear to be an underlying unity behind the differing
manifestations of the phenomenon. Therefore the only satisfactory
definition at the social level requires a multifactorial analysis based on
attitudes towards Scripture and tradition, attitudes towards diversity of
opinion within the community and towards those of other religions, and
certain political and social attitudes.
3. The indications thus far are that there are no consistent social factors
predisposing to either fundamentalism or liberalism. The old picture of
fundamentalists as tending to be poorer, less educated and from rural
backgrounds no longer appears to apply.
4. The definition at the psychological level is more straightforward and
depends on identifying different cognitive styles. Fundamentalists tend to
require a narrow certainty of their religious life; they view reality in
terms of absolutes. Liberals prefer openess and inclusiveness; they tend
towards relativism in their thinking.
These results would seem to indicate that further scholarly analysis of
the phenomenon of fundamentalism and liberalism would be best pursued
at the psychological level.
Fundamentalism, Liberalism and the
What has all this to do with the Bahá'í Faith? It must be clear from the
above that both fundamentalism and liberalism are wide-spread
phenomena. They are part of peoples' constitutional make-up. While a
cognitive style may not be as fixed a thing as the colour of one's eyes, if
it changes, it only does so very slowly.
Therefore if the Bahá'í Faith is to be truly a universal religion, it must be
able to incorporate people of all types; not just all types of races, and
cultures but also all types of cognitive styles. The Bahá'í community has
to be wide enough in its outreach and flexible enough in its workings to
enable it to contain both types of person without fragmenting into
schisms and conflict.
There are a number of features of the Bahá'í Faith that favour it in its
approach to this problem:
First, the concept of the Covenant means that what ties Bahá'ís together
is not acceptance of a set of theological proposals - which the
fundamentalists and liberals will always disagree about - but rather
loyalty and obedience to a central figure or institution - which is a matter
that will not divide fundamentalists and liberals.
Second, because the Bahá'í Faith is of relatively recent origin, it has been
able to take on board many of the features of the modern world which have
caused so much pain and discord in the other religions. Since there are
scriptural endorsements of such matters as the equality of men and
women and abolishment of extremes of wealth and poverty, these matters
cause few problems of principle - whatever problems they may cause are
with regard to their implementation. Even the most fundamentalist Bahá'í
is forced to take up these positions which in any other religion would be
seen as liberal - indeed it is his very fundamentalism that forces him to
take up this position.
Third, the Bahá'í Faith has no real dogma. There are a number of
statements regarding Bahá'u'lláh, His station and relation to previous
prophets as well as the concept of the Covenant which may be regarded as
being dogmatic positions but these are in fact matters of establishing
authority rather than establishing theological dogma. And whatever dogma
one may consider that exists today in the Bahá'í Faith, it is unlikely to
increase as there are no mechanisms for establishing any new dogma.
Bahá'ís are and remain Bahá'ís not so much because they share the
theological position of other Bahá'ís but because of their common vision
of the direction which humanity is taking as well as their obedience to a
central framework of authority.
And yet despite these protections, it cannot be denied that the presence of
fundamentalists and liberals does cause a certain amount of tension
within the Bahá'í community. There have been numerous episodes and
situations known to the author of this article, and no doubt to any other
person who has been a Bahá'í for any length of time, where this tension
has caused problems and even damage to the Bahá'í Faith.
Historically, it could be said that the situation in the time of Abdu'l-Bahá
in the West tended to favour the liberals. The cultic milieu out of which
many Bahá'ís came was a tradition in which a very liberal interpretation
of religion was inherent. However, there was also a fundamentalist
tension present, possibly as a result of those who came into the Bahá'í
community as a result of Millenialist thought - i.e. because they
considered that Bahá'u'lláh had fulfilled the prophecies of the Bible.
During Shoghi Effendi's time the balance swung in favour of the
fundamentalists. Shoghi Effendi's concentration in the early years of his
ministry on building up the Bahá'í administration would have tended to
favour the tidy administrative mind of the fundamentalist. The
concentration on missionary expansion in the later years of Shoghi
Effendi's ministry would also have favoured those with a fundamentalist
stance - the fundamentalist is one who wishes to convert others to his
view since he knows that it is the correct view and there can be no other
In more recent times, we may discern the beginnings of a swing back in
favour of the liberals. The recent emphasis from the Universal House of
Justice on qualitative goals, social and economic development and
dialogue with other religions and organisations is likely to bring people of
a more liberal stance to the fore in the community.
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1. W. Shepard, "'Fundamentalism' Christian and
, vol.17 (1987): 355-378; and "Islam and Ideology:
Towards a Typology", International Journal of Middle East Studies
vol. 19 (1987): 307-336, suggests the term "rejectionist neo-
traditionalist". One feels that whatever advantage such a term may have is
more than counter-balanced by its unwieldiness.
2. For a survey of fundamentalism across the world
in eastern as well as western religions, see Lionel Caplan (ed.), Studies
in Religious Fundamentalism.
3. For accounts of these, see G.
Makdisi, "Remarks on Traditionalism in Islamic Religious History" and
Osman Amin "Some aspects of Religious reform in the Muslim Middle East"
in The Conflict of Traditionalism and Modernism in the Muslim Middle
East; M. Momen, Introduction 115-6. See also, E. Sandeen, The Roots of
Fundamentalism. Sandeen has shown how the Fundamentalist movement in
the early twentieth century grew out of, and represents the continuation
of the concerns of, the millenarianism of the nineteenth century.
[Some endnotes not included in this online version of the paper.]