Monday, 25 February 2013

Is "Fundamentalist" the best word to use?

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. If Mr. Emerson was right, I’m about to demonstrate the size of my mind because I’m also going to demonstrate a lot of inconsistency.

It began a few years ago at a Rotary meeting. One of my fellow-Rotarians asked me what I thought of a TV documentary in which Professor Richard Dawkins made an aggressive attack on religion in all forms. My response was that the documentary only proved “you don’t have to be religious to be a fundamentalist”.

My little one-liner later found its way into the “letters” page of the Melbourne Age’s “Green Guide” and launched a debate in the "letters" page that lasted a few weeks.

But, in a real sense, I think that “fundamentalist” is the wrong word to use to describe the sort of narrow-minded religious ultra-conservative that most of us have encountered at least once in our lives.

The word “fundamentalist” has been around since 1910, when a series of books called “The Fundamentals” was published in the United States.  As a result of these books, the word “fundamentalist” was used to describe a religious ultra-conservative in the specific context of the "Protestant" stream of Christianity.  From 1910 until the late 1970s, the word “fundamentalist” was only used to describe a ultra-conservative religious person in a "Protestant" context.

In the late 1970s, at the time of the Iranian revolution, the media started to use the word “fundamentalist” to refer to religious ultra-conservatives in an Islamic context. This was the first time the term “fundamentalist” was consistently used to describe people outside the context of the "Protestant" stream of Christianity.

By the late 1980s, “fundamentalist” was used to describe any person in any religious context who combined an ultra-conservative approach to their faith, a puritanical approach to personal conduct, a sympathy for authoritarian political movements, and a contempt for people of other faiths, non-religious viewpoints, and less “intense” versions of their own faith.

By the beginning of the 2000s, “fundamentalist” was used to describe anyone who had a particularly one-eyed approach to reality. People were speaking of “secular fundamentalists”, “scientific fundamentalists”, “economic fundamentalists” (a far better term than “economic rationalists”), and even “Carlton fundamentalists” and “Collingwood fundamentalists”.     (Note, for readers outside Australia, Carlton and Collingwood are two Australian football clubs whose fans are regarded as particularly aggressive in their support for their teams.  Think of the fans of the New York Yankees or Manchester United, and you have the idea.)

However, I believe “fundamentalist” is really the wrong word to describe a narrow-minded religious ultra-conservative in any faith tradition. “Fundamental” comes from the Latin word for a building’s foundation. “Fundamental” means “basic”. The “fundamentals” of mathematics, for example, are basic addition and subtraction. When we use the term “fundamentalist”, we imply that the people we so describe are concerned with the bedrock “basics” of their faith. 

But if you look at the “basics” of any faith tradition, we come to values such as forgiveness, compassion, mercy, generosity, and hospitality. These values are not exclusive to those whom we call “fundamentalists”, are often found in abundance among people whom we would never call “fundamentalists”, and are frequently in short supply among those whom we call "fundamentalists".

So, in a real sense, I believe “fundamentalist” is the wrong word. But still, please excuse me if I occasionally refer to fundamentalists of the secular, scientific, economic, Carlton, or Collingwood varieties.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.