The Many Errors of Religious Fundamentalism

There is a misconception that fundamentalism is necessarily accompanied by the use of violence. Some Muslim fundamentalists are violent extremists. But religious fundamentalism does not always advocate, nor result in violence. A Muslim can prefer a fundamentalist version of Islam, without ascribing to any extremist group or violent ideology. And the same is true for Jewish and Christian fundamentalism; violence is not inherent to a fundamentalist approach to religion.

In general, religious fundamentalism has three main features:
1) oversimplification
2) dogmatization
3) villainization

These features apply to any form of religious fundamentalism in any belief system.

1. Oversimplification

On the first point, it might seem acceptable for a believer to have a simple understanding of his or her religion; every believer need not be a theologian. But fundamentalism offers severe oversimplification. And in any area of human knowledge, oversimplification distorts the truth. Any religion based on a search for truth must acknowledge religious and moral truths are subtle and complex.

Oversimplification allows the fundamentalist to seem to understand the entire religion. This appeals to insecure persons, who are uncomfortable with unresolved theological controversies and differing views among members of the same religious group. It also appeals to pride, since the fundamentalist can present himself or herself as if they understand the answer to every question on faith and morals. Any question that they cannot answer, is treated as unimportant or as if it were unknowable by anyone. In this way, the fundamentalist presents himself or herself as if they are experts on religion and morals, without any substantial study or work in the field. Every fundamentalist thinks himself qualified to teach, on every topic in religion, because the whole religion is treated as if it were all very simple and clear: no misunderstandings are possible once everything is severely oversimplified.

2. Dogmatization

On the second point, the set of oversimplified ideas is treated as absolutely certain to be true, as a religious dogma. Now there is nothing wrong with a religion holding certain truths on faith or morals to be certain. Every sincere religion includes a search for objective and transcendent truth. When you find that truth, you hold to it. But the error of fundamentalism is to dogmatize every idea, every answer to every question, every theological opinion. Nothing of any importance is considered to be open to faithful disagreement among believers. Over-dogmatization closes minds to new truths and to correction of error.

The second point flows from the first. If the ideas of a belief system are very simple, then it seems to the fundamentalist that these ideas cannot possibly have been misunderstood. For oversimplification prohibits any complex or subtle interpretation, which might propose a different understanding of any concept. Oversimplified ideas are treated as absolutely certain because only a greater level of complexity could challenge the fundamentalist interpretation of each concept. In fact, fundamentalists say that their understanding is not an interpretation, but simple clear truth.

As a result of these first two points, fundamentalists are uncorrectable. When religious ideas are held to be nothing but a simple understanding of absolute dogma, no correction, revision, amplification, or change is possible. Any attempt at correction, via a theological argument, is rejected on the grounds that the accepted ideas are so simple they cannot have been misunderstood, and must therefore be absolutely certain. As for Catholic fundamentalists, they will not accept correction even from a Pope or the body of Bishops, or an Ecumenical Council. They think that anyone who disagrees with their fundamentalist conclusions must have gone astray, because every idea is very simple and entirely dogmatic.

Theological arguments to the contrary are rejected by the fundamentalist, regardless of their content, because simple dogmatic truths cannot be wrong. The field of theology itself is viewed with distrust, because theological arguments are complex and subtle, and their conclusions often conflict with fundamentalist tenets. Any proposed answers or theological conclusions, which conflict with fundamentalist tenets, are treated as heresy, since all those tenets are considered to be dogmas. Any attempt to disagree, no matter the basis or argument, is met with immediate unthinking condemnation of the idea and the person.

3. Villainization

The third point flows from the other two. Fundamentalism villainizes the opposition. If the important truths of religion and morals are so very simple that they can’t possibly have been misunderstood, then why do so many persons refuse to accept these ideas? The fundamentalist answer is that these persons must be bad. They must deserve eternal punishment in Hell, and they must deserve to be ridiculed and denigrated in this life. So one of the marks of fundamentalism is the villainization and mistreatment of all who disagree.

The result is that the fundamentalist group becomes isolated from other believers in the same religion, from believers in other religions, and from all persons of good will outside their group. The villainization of all who disagree results in isolationism. Praying with persons who hold different views is seen as fraternizing with the enemy, or as a sign of unfaithfulness. If you associate with them, then the fundamentalist thinks you have betrayed the truth, or will be influenced by them to betray the truth.

Fundamentalism treats potential converts in a condescending, paternalistic, and oppressive manner. The convert is seen as someone who is bad, having not accepted the religion in the past. And as he or she converts, there is no room for discussion or disagreement. It is thought that absolute truths are being imparted, with no possibility of error, so the new convert is not permitted to think for himself or herself. Any questioning or disagreement with any fundamentalist tenet is considered unfaithful, sinful, and a sign of intellectual weakness. The fundamentalist acts like an arrogant expert, and he treats the new convert as a foolish student.

{23:15} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you travel around by sea and by land, in order to make one convert. And when he has been converted, you make him twice the son of Hell that you are yourselves.

Fundamentalism exalts its teachers and leaders. They are seen as the guardians of a set of important truths which cannot err in any way. But since most human persons do not accept any particular fundamentalist religion, the relatively few teachers and leaders are given exaggerated importance. They imagine that they alone have understood all the truths, without any admixture of error. They imagine that without them, the whole world will be consumed with error and never find the truth. So the fundamentalist is often filled with pride at having found dogmatic simple truths while most others have fallen into error.

{23:5} Truly, they do all their works so that they may be seen by men. For they enlarge their phylacteries and glorify their hems.
{23:6} And they love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues,
{23:7} and greetings in the marketplace, and to be called Master by men.

Fundamentalists tend to believe that only the members of their own sect are saved. They think that all important truths on religion and morals are very simple and clear, with no possibility of error. So they conclude that all who reject these truths, or who fail to find them, must be at fault and therefore must be condemned. The more fundamentalist the religion, the fewer the number who are said to be saved.

{23:13} So then: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you close the kingdom of heaven before men. For you yourselves do not enter, and those who are entering, you would not permit to enter.

Religious fundamentalism is found among some of the believers in every religion, including Catholicism. And in recent years, I’ve noticed an increase in the popularity of Catholic fundamentalism. Is this error found among liberal Catholics or conservative Catholics? Both. Fundamentalism is not necessarily conservative or liberal. Both ends of the spectrum have a tendency toward oversimplifying and dogmatizing their favored ideas, and toward villainization of the opposition.

But why is fundamentalism so popular?

It requires less of you. It ends confusion and controversy. It allows you to claim to fully understand every important truth on faith and morals. It allows you to speak with claimed authority, since you fully understand the religion. In some cases, an overly-simplistic view of sin permits acts that are immoral, allowing the sinner to justify certain sins. And an overly-simplistic view of sin lets the fundamentalist denigrate others, while exalting himself:

{18:9} Now about certain persons who consider themselves to be just, while disdaining others, he told also this parable:
{18:10} “Two men ascended to the temple, in order to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector.
{18:11} Standing, the Pharisee prayed within himself in this way: ‘O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of men: robbers, unjust, adulterers, even as this tax collector chooses to be.
{18:12} I fast twice between Sabbaths. I give tithes from all that I possess.’
{18:13} And the tax collector, standing at a distance, was not willing to even lift up his eyes to heaven. But he struck his chest, saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’
{18:14} I say to you, this one descended to his house justified, but not the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Fundamentalism is reassuring in its simplicity, definitiveness, and self-approval. It appeals to fallen human nature’s worst traits: pride, belittling others, self-justification, self-exaltation, and laziness.

Fundamentalism is on the increase among Catholics, on the far right and the far left. Be careful whom you accept as a teacher of the faith. For many incompetent teachers are using the internet to preach and teach a false version of Catholicism. And often their approach is that of the fundamentalist.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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