Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalists have been grabbing news broadcasters’ attention rather a lot since 9/11.  However, religious fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon and Buddhism itself is not immune from it, or so it seems. In this post I outline what sociologists have to say about the apparent rise of religious-inspired hatred…



According to Symon Hill, fundamentalist groups can be found within most religions. They tend to believe that their religion’s leadership has sold out (to secularists and liberalists) and they have a duty therefore to preserve their faith. Only their religion or worldview has the truth – other religions are false and evil. Likewise, atheist fundamentalism or ‘New Atheism’ refuses to see anything good or truthful in any religion. New Atheists accuse moderate atheists of being ‘soft’ on religion; their comments are very similar to the rhetoric used by religious fundamentalists to attack other faiths. Fundamentalism has a tendency to develop whenever people fear that their religion is losing its political power and social status.  In the same way, New Atheism has developed because secularists are worried that religion is regaining lost ground.  [1]

Religious Fundamentalism (

Religious Fundamentalism
(Image source:

Some important additional factors that facilitate religious fundamentalism have been identified by Steve Bruce. Religious fundamentalism is more likely to appeal to people who feel marginalised, impoverished and disenfranchised by modernisation. Moreover, ‘ideological cohesion’ makes it easier for some religions than others to mobilise people and claim their allegiance. Religions having a single sacred text like Christianity and the Bible and Islam and the Quran, for example, are more likely to develop fundamentalist movements than a diverse religion with no central sacred text like Hinduism and Buddhism (where fundamentalism is less prominent and more an expression of nationalism). Centralisation of religious authority (as in Roman Catholicism with the Pope and the Vatican) makes a religion less vulnerable to fundamentalism than one where authority is less centralised and any good orator with a persuasive knowledge of scripture can claim with conviction to know ‘God’s Will’ (as in Christian Protestantism or Islam). [2]

Atheist Fundamentalism (

Atheist Fundamentalism
(Image source: Atheist

Gabriel Almond et al argue that fundamentalism only thrives when the right combination of factors come together at a specific time and place.  The factors they see as accounting for fundamentalism include: structural conditions (e.g. secularization, social and economic inequality, migration and nationalism), contingency and chance (e.g. economic disaster or regime change) and leadership (e.g. charismatic ideologists, organisers and coalition makers). [3].

According to Karen Armstrong, religious fundamentalists and New Atheists tend not to recognise ‘non-factual truth’. They both have a literal approach to religious texts and they fail to distinguish between reason and science on the one hand and myth, art, imagination on the other.  Modern society has forgotten the need for mythos and is treating religion as though it were a scientific theory. [4] She also emphasises specific political and economic circumstances rather than the nature of the religion itself as contributing to the emergence of fundamentalism.  All religious fundamentalists believe they are fighting for survival and can lash out violently if they feel backed into a corner, however the vast majority of fundamentalists do not engage in acts of violence.  Moreover, there are actually very few circumstances in which the Quran permits a declaration of war and so she sees no essential reason why Western and Islamic civilisations should clash. [5]




[1] Symon Hill, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, New Internationalist, 2010.

[2] Steve Bruce, Fundamentalism, Polity Press, 2000.

[3] Gabriel Almond et al, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

[4] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, Vintage, 2010.

[5] Karen Armstrong, ‘September Apocalypse: Who, Why and What Next?)’, 2001.
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