Religious fundamentalism is the uncritical adherence to ancient, allegedly inspired religious writings or oral traditions as an exact guide to what has happened in the past and to what will happen in the future, as well as viewing such writings or traditions as an infallible and ritualistic guide to behaviour in the present, characterizes one aspect of fundamentalist or revivalist creeds in the major religions. Although revered authorities in the world religions have from ancient times insisted on approximately four levels of interpretation to be given to scripture (historical, literal, allegorical or metaphoric, and anagogical or inwardly spiritual) fundamentalists disregard such exegesis and use only the first two levels.
As an ideological and organizational process fundamentalism entails the selective retrieval of such religious doctrines and practices for the purpose of building a viable political movement. "Traditional," is not synonymous with "unchanging" or "timeless." Fundamentalist leaders want their followers to believe that the political message they preach is also grounded in unchanging and absolute authority and that the leader holds this authority from God. The particulars of his message may change according to the concrete circumstances; but if the source of religious authority is secure, the act of adaptation will not undermine the leader's status.
The shared characteristics or "family resemblances" of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists are found in a shared attitude toward religion itself, and in a specifiable process of using religion to construct ideologies and organize movements. As a distinctive attitude or habit of mind, fundamentalism divides the world into realms of absolute good and absolute evil, claims exclusive possession of divine truth, and thrives on the identification and unmasking of the enemy. In particular, religious fundamentalists deeply mistrust secular or "godless" ways of knowing. And they oppose the ideas and practices that gain favor as a result of secularism, including pluralism (the acceptance of the existence of many different types of belief and practice, religious as well as nonreligious), relativism (the conviction that no belief is inherently superior to any other), and radical individualism (the idea that the individual rather than the community is the final arbiter of belief and practice). Finally, fundamentalists see revived, militant religion, characterized by absolutism and moral dualism, as the best defense against the threatening encroachments of secularism.
All religious fundamentalism is anti-intellectual. Fundamentalism renders a religious belief absolute, excluding respect for the opinion of others and strives to force this belief onto others, with or without the use of violence. A literal and absolute understanding of one's own holy scriptures renders any dialogue impossible, especially between religions. Worship tends to be emotional, searching for ecstatic and charismatic experiences. Large followings are built quickly and sometimes subverted to political ends. Over-zealous and sometimes violent behaviour can arise within a religious community, particularly a community which maintains that the book of laws on which it is founded is literally and uniquely divine and authoritative and thus encompasses all human behaviour with its infallible laws. Examples are Christians with the New Testament of the Bible, and Muslims with the Koran. Such an intense focus on the laws of one book leads to fundamentalist rigidity, intolerance and anti-social acts against non-believers. Another condition which predisposes to extremism is adherence to ritualistic behaviour, whether such behaviour is specified in the accepted book or not. When rituals are given the status of binding commandments their practice can lead to discrimination against those who are non-conformists, and to extremist acts against them. Rituals may encompass not only ways or worship but also dress, diet, language, social contact and the use of special symbols or body marks. Religious extremism and fanaticism may be turned as much toward members of the same faith, as it is towards non-members. Religious language is frequently used to justify sophisticated forms of terrorism in which violence is considered a sacred act.
Religious fanaticism has never been restricted to one group. Judaism provides examples of stoning to death in ancient times, of ostracism in mediaeval times, and nowadays of the violence sometimes associated with modern Zionism. Christianity has a long and bloody record of conversion by force which includes the Crusades and the Inquisition and such current secret terrorist societies as the Klu Klux Klan. Islam provided the origin of such terms as Holy War, fanaticism and assassination. Equal examples of extremism can be found in other religions. It is noteworthy that the quasi-religion of Nazism exhibited the same aberrant psychology. Modern ideologues in every country, who have replaced a theocentric religion with a nominally anthropocentric philosophy, are susceptible to the same weaknesses, as is seen in some revolutions.
There has been a notable upsurge in religious fundamentalism of which the most dramatic examples are Islamic and Protestant. Other current manifestations religious fundamentalism include: Jewish fundamentalists in Israel; both Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka; Sikhs in the Punjab; and an assortment of syncretists cults throughout sub-Saharan Africa. These are enormously powerful cross-national forces. Both, despite important differences between them, are capable of inspiring large numbers of people to make radical changes in their lives.
Fundamentalist simplicities are being embraced not by an oppressed and persecuted minority, but by some of the wealthiest, most comfortable, most powerful and best educated people in the world. This in effect endangers much of what civilization has learned in Biblical and evolutionary study and perhaps more important in humanity and tolerance. Not since Cromwell's Protectorate in Britain and the witch trials of America and Europe has religious fanaticism and bigotry been allied with wealth and power on so large a scale. Except, of course, for the Third Reich.
The strict adherence to a received religion, to its texts, to its traditions and to its teachings assures the continuity and coherence of a culture, high moral and altruistic ideals, and a mutually-supportive environment in which spiritual and personal development can be fully realized. In fundamentalist faiths the family is preserved against the decadence of the surrounding society, and its physical health is apt to be at a higher level because of the cleanliness of its life. Fundamental faiths have founded nations, and are the bulwark against the flux of contemporary confusion and national fragmentation. It has provided a consolation for the helpless, counselling resignation while at the same time proffering hope. In this capacity it performed a therapeutic role for nineteenth-century Jewish ghettos in eastern Europe and for black communities in the 19th century American South. Devout Islamic revivalist should not be confuse with fanatics or extremists who use this devotion for political ends.