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What is Fundamentalism?

December 17th, 2006 by Matt

A recent speaker at a University of Otago graduation ceremony (not mine fortunately) warned the graduates of the dangers of ‘rampant fundamentalism’. Seeing warnings of this sort have become quite common. I thought a definition of fundamentalism was in order.
I think the most insightful definition comes from Alvin Plantinga in his monograph Warranted Christian Belief, published by Oxford University Press in 2000. On page 245 Plantinga responds to the ‘charge’ that his religious epistemology is a form of fundamentalism

But isn’t this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’. It is therefore hard to take seriously the charge that the views I am expressing are fundamentalist; more exactly, it is hard to take it seriously as a charge. The alleged charge means only that these views are rather more conservative than the objector’s, together with a certain distaste for the views of those who express them. But how is that an objection to anything, and why should it warrant the contempt and contumely that goes with the term. An argument of some kind would be of interest but merely pointing out that they differ from the objector’s (even with the addition of that abusive emotive force) is not.

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