Fundamentalism claims to be traditionalist, and opposed to modernity. It is actually modernist, and opposed to tradition—and to postmodernity.
Fundamentalism remade hundreds of millions of people’s mode of relating to meaning when it exploded out of obscurity four decades ago. Any account of the future of meaningness must, at minimum, understand fundamentalism as background. The Christian version is still hugely influential in America, although waning. Islamic fundamentalism is the worst memetic threat the world faces currently—although I will suggest it too is on its way out.
Misunderstanding fundamentalisms as “traditional” and “anti-modern” makes it impossible to respond coherently. Recognizing them as modern, anti-traditional, and anti-postmodern is the necessary starting point for understanding.
This page explains how fundamentalist movements:
- are modern in the sense of “recently invented”
- are modernist in the sense of providing a systematic structure of justification
- arise because traditions can’t defend against “why?”; only modernist systems can
- are anti-traditional in rejecting cultural specificity in favor of abstract universalism
- are anti-traditional in rejecting complex customary beliefs, practices, and institutions in favor of someone’s new and radical explanation of a supposed clear and simple Ultimate Truth
- are countercultural: “new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems”
- originally opposed rational modernity but now mainly oppose postmodernity, i.e. the end of the possibility of systematic eternalism
- require extremism because modernity is over and eternalism can no longer work
- are failing, and being replaced with atomized postmodern alternatives.
I sympathize with fundamentalists: postmodernity has frightening defects and dangers. I end the page by recommending that religious people find other, more effective strategies than fundamentalism for opposing postmodern threats to meaning.
Fundamentalism is modern
Fundamentalism is just over a century old. The word “fundamentalism” itself was coined only in the 1920s. It was also only in the 1920s that fundamentalism became a significant force—and then only for a few years, before going underground for decades.
World War I (1914-18) was a profound shock for eternalist certainty in meanings. Social, cultural, and psychological systems began to disintegrate. Fundamentalism seemed to promise their restoration; and this accounts for its 1920s popularity.
However, the movement began just before WWI,1 as a reaction against “modernist” theology. This explains why it still claims to be anti-modern, although that was (we will see) not exactly true in the 1920s, and became altogether untrue in fundamentalism’s second phase, beginning in the 1970s.
Modernist theology developed in the late Victorian era as a response to the twin challenges posed to Christianity by Darwinism and historical criticism of the Bible. The modernists’ goal was to adapt Christianity to the new scientific and historical consensus, and to maintain the relevance of faith in an intellectual climate suddenly grown dismissive of the authority of Scripture. To this end, they stressed ethics rather than eschatology; social reform rather than confessional debate; symbolic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible rather than more literal readings.2
The 1920s fundamentalists rightly recognized that Christian modernism was a slippery slope to humanism, secularism, atheism, and nihilism. Half a century later, starting in the late 1960s, the modernist Mainline Protestant denominations imploded. They had eliminated nearly everything from religion except ethics, and then adopted mainstream secular ethics, and so had nothing distinctive to offer anyone.
Fundamentalism suffered a grievous blow in 1925 when its prosecution of the Scopes “monkey trial” (over the teaching of evolution) made it look ridiculous to most Americans. It retreated into a marginal subculture for many decades.
A second wave of fundamentalism emerged in the 1970s, as the innovative memetic core of one of the two great countercultures. This was another period of visible shakiness in the systematic mode of meaningness. The “hippie” monist counterculture challenged mainstream systems, with surprising success. It was also a time of rapid cultural globalization; the mass media suddenly exposed Americans to unfamiliar images and ideas from afar. Within the West, the postmodern era was just beginning—“postmodern” here meaning the condition in which all systems have been discredited. Fundamentalism again offered a bulwark of certainty against the disintegration of meaning.
Islamic fundamentalism has a similar history. Although it has roots in 1700s Wahhabism, the movement began only in the early 20th century, and remained mainly marginal until the 1970s, when it formed the innovative memetic core of the Islamist counterculture. The same pattern holds true for Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist fundamentalisms.
Fundamentalism is modernist
Fundamentalism describes itself as traditional and anti-modern. This is inaccurate. Early fundamentalism was anti-modernist, in the special sense of “modernist theology,” but it was itself modernist in a broad sense. Systems of justifications are the defining feature of “modernity,” as I (and many historians) use the term.
The defining feature of actual tradition—“the choiceless mode”—is the absence of a system of justifications: chains of “therefore” and “because” that explain why you have to do what you have to do. In a traditional culture, you just do it, and there is no abstract “because.” How-things-are-done is immanent in concrete customs, not theorized in transcendent explanations.
Genuine traditions have no defense against modernity. Modernity asks “Why should anyone believe this? Why should anyone do that?” and tradition has no answer. (Beyond, perhaps, “we always have.”) Modernity says “If you believe and act differently, you can have 200 channels of cable TV, and you can eat fajitas and pad thai and sushi instead of boiled taro every day”; and every genuinely traditional person says “hell yeah!” Because why not? Choice is great! (And sushi is better than boiled taro.)
Fundamentalisms try to defend traditions by building a system of justification that supplies the missing “becauses.” You can’t eat sushi because God hates shrimp. How do we know? Because it says so here in Leviticus 11:10-11.3
Secular modernism tries to answer every “why” question with a chain of “becauses” that eventually ends in “rationality,” which magically reveals Ultimate Truth. Fundamentalist modernism tries to answer every “why” with a chain that eventually ends in “God said so right here in this magic book which contains the Ultimate Truth.”
The attempt to defend tradition can be noble; tradition is often profoundly good in ways modernity can never be. Unfortunately, fundamentalism, by taking up modernity’s weapons, transforms a traditional culture into a modern one. “Modern,” that is, in having a system of justification, founded on a transcendent eternal ordering principle. And once you have that, much of what is good about tradition is lost.
This is currently easier to see in Islamic than in Christian fundamentalism. Islamism is widely viewed as “the modern Islam” by young people. That is one of its main attractions: it can explain itself, where traditional Islam cannot. Sophisticated urban Muslims reject their grandparents’ traditional religion as a jumble of pointless, outmoded village customs with no basis in the Koran. Many consider fundamentalism the forward-looking, global, intellectually coherent religion that makes sense of everyday life and of world politics.
Fundamentalism is anti-traditional
Traditional culture is a colorful muddle of customary, local beliefs and practices. The diverse styles of traditional women’s clothing from different Muslim societies, in the illustration at the top of this page, is a fine example. Lacking a system of justification, there is no basis for arguing that other people’s customs are wrong.4
Fundamentalism rejects cultural specificity in favor of abstract universalism. There can only be One Ultimate Truth, which must be the same everywhere, so women everywhere must wear the same clothes. Fundamentalism dismisses actual traditions as “inauthentic” on the pretext that they are degenerations from the authentic, original religion, which fundamentalism claims to represent—thereby inverting the actual order of history.
Traditional cultures have a structure of authority: if you want to know what God wants, you ask a priest; and he knows because he was told by an older or superior priest. There are sometimes quarrels over who gets what position in the hierarchy, but the structure itself is unquestioned and so requires no justification.
Fundamentalism rejects customary authorities in favor of a supposed clear and simple Ultimate Truth. It says the traditional hierarchy is “corrupt” and must be swept away. The structure of justification should replace the structure of institutional authority. Fundamentalism is hostile to ritual, because that reinforces traditional authority rather than simply expressing the Truth.
Sayyid Qutb’s 1964 manifesto Milestones founded modern Islamic fundamentalism. The book’s central claim was that Islam had been entirely extinct for several centuries. All existing “Islam” was actually Jahiliyyah, “paganism,” because (he said) it was not based on Shariah. Or at least not the true Shariah, which only he could discern. All existing fake-Islamic institutions must be destroyed by violent jihad. Somewhat less dramatically, “the absence of strong traditions and institutional ties in [American] Evangelicalism, and its high level of organizational mobility, made it a distinctly modern phenomenon.”5
The Ultimate Truth is to be found in the scriptures, supposedly.6 But the scriptures are pervasively vague, self-contradictory,7 and say lots of things fundamentalists want to ignore. So fundamentalists claim special interpretive insight that gives them the authority to determine what scripture really means. But “this is where the basic contradiction between fundamentalism and true tradition lies. There is no tradition that permits the individual or group, solely on the basis of its own assertion, to proclaim its own knowledge to be infallible and absolute.”8
Fundamentalism is countercultural
Fundamentalism, everywhere, became a significant cultural force only during the countercultural era (1960s-80s). In America, 1970s fundamentalism claimed to be a reaction to the hippie/monist counterculture, which was partly true. However, there was no monist counterculture in the other places where fundamentalisms burst forth, at about the same time. In fact, modern fundamentalism is mainly a reaction to the disintegration of secular systematicity. Each second-wave fundamentalism arose as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to hold meaning together in the face of postmodern nihilism.
Recall that I defined a counterculture as a “new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational system.” I’ve explained how the American “Moral Majority” counterculture of the 1970s-80s fit this definition. Here I’ll briefly point out how fundamentalisms in general are countercultural.
Fundamentalisms are new (and anti-traditional) because they are recent and innovative. I’ve described American fundamentalist innovations in “Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self” and “Countercultures: modern mythologies.” I gather the fundamentalists of other religions are similarly inventive, but don’t know details.
Fundamentalisms are all oppositional (alternative) by nature. The early-20th-century ones opposed modernist branches of their religions. The post-1970 ones originated as political responses to secular political authorities. Recently, fundamentalists have taken control of some states; but they continue their oppositional attitude even when they exert totalitarian power. Having vanquished the internal enemy, they organize their rule—rhetorically, at least—around jihad against religious enemies outside their state.9
Fundamentalisms are all universalist, claiming that their Truth applies equally to everyone, and so everyone must behave the same way.10 Fundamentalisms are all eternalist: they claim every tiny thing has a definite meaning, given by the Cosmic Plan, of which they have unquestionable knowledge and understanding. Fundamentalisms are all anti-rational: they oppose secular rationality, and claim to ground all meaning in non-rational transcendent revelation, as given in scripture. They are all systems, in the sense of networks of justifications.
Fundamentalism is losing to postmodernity
Fundamentalism was originally devised as a weapon against liberal Christian modernism: one system of meanings to fight another system of meanings. In the mid-1970s, it was re-deployed as a weapon against two other systems of meanings: the anti-rational monist counterculture and secular rationalist modernism. But, by that point, all three enemies were already dying at the hands of a fourth, more powerful force: postmodernity.
“Postmodernity” means simply that no eternalist system can work any longer. Starting from about 1980, we live in a shattered world: navigating storm-tossed seas among fragments of meaning, mixed up flotsam and jetsam of numerous broken systems. All eternalisms are defenseless against postmodern skepticism.
So, we need to find ways to live without them. Some people built new, smaller, sea-worthy boats—the post-eternalist subcultures—and adapted to postmodernity reasonably well. (At least until atomization hit.) Others—those who found postmodernity most difficult—turned to fundamentalism, for its promise of certainty, of solid dry land. They hoped to preserve a world that makes sense, against the firehose torrent of jagged insanity spewed by the media, and now the internet.
If you understand the defects and dangers of postmodernity, you can sympathize, even if not actually agreeing. Unfortunately, fundamentalism doesn’t work; it can’t work. The deluge is global, and there is no terra firma anywhere.
Most fundamentalists don’t understand the difference between secular modernism and postmodernity. Mostly, they are stuck fighting the last war, with the wrong weapons, against a dead horse. In America, it is way too late to oppose evolution, or sex violence and nasty noises in music, or liberal bias on broadcast TV, or even abortion. Postmodernity doesn’t care about any of that. (Increasingly, conservative Millennial voters say that they don’t consider abortion an important issue.) In fact, polls in the past few years show a sharp decline in fundamentalism, especially among younger, more-atomized, generations. Older fundamentalists recognize, resentfully, that they have lost the culture war.
Third-world fundamentalisms think they are fighting “Western influence,” “neo-colonialism,” or even “Christian crusaders”; but actually the enemy is the atomized global culture, which is as much Asian as Western, and far more capitalist than colonial or Christian. The West can adapt to the breakdown of systems of meaning because we had well-functioning systems for a couple centuries, and spent the twentieth century figuring out why they can’t work anymore. Left behind by modernity, and then by postmodernity, much of the third world never had a working systematic mode, and so now doesn’t understand why that can’t work. As in the West in the 1930s, the obvious response is to try to make eternalism work by force. Fundamentalism and totalitarian nationalism—fused in every third-world version—are attempts. As these fail, they become ever more desperate, and therefore ever more extreme and violent.
Islamic extremism—originally devised as a coherent system—is atomizing. The things young Islamists say and do make no sense in any conceptual framework, traditional or modern, Islamic or Western. Many Millennial-generation Islamists know the global internet culture better than they know Islam. They are not fundamentalists—following a religion based on scripture—just extremists.
In an upcoming page, I’ll explain how ISIS, the “alt-right,” and “tumblr SJW” all promote politics in the atomized mode—just as the Yippies and the Taliban both pursued politics in the countercultural mode. Since ISIS is pretty much the worst thing in the world now, understanding how this works may be important to fighting it. I’ll suggest strategies for memetic warfare.
My advice to fundamentalists (and others)
As a highly religious person, although not a fundamentalist, I share your concern. The atomization of meaning could result in complete cultural and social collapse.
I suggest that you identify your enemy clearly. If you want to preserve your meanings, you need to come to grips with atomizing postmodernity, which is the current reality, instead of wasting your effort fighting obsolete modernisms.
I suggest that it is more important to find ways of preserving some coherent meanings than fussing about details. I would rather see a competent fundamentalist theocracy that kept civilization running than an anti-systematic social collapse—even though you would burn me as a witch in the first week after you took power. I hope you would prefer living in a competent atheist rationalist state that kept civilization running than see an anti-systematic social collapse—even if it banned all public practice of religion.
“How do we rescue meaning from nihilistic atomization?” is a more urgent question than whether God exists. Scriptural literalism has definitively failed. You and your former secularist enemies might do well to join forces. I realize a fundamentalist-atheist alliance sounds implausible—but before Francis Shaeffer united them in the 1970s, the idea that fundamentalist Protestants, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews would join to fight secularism sounded absurd.
Ross Douthat, a conservative but not fundamentalist Christian, sees a “postmodern opportunity.”11
The Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilization as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age.
“Radical orthodoxy” and the “emerging church” movement are attempting to rebuild Christianity from the ground up—bypassing failing institutions, avoiding culture-war flashpoints, and casting the faith as a lifeline for an exhausted civilization rather than just a return to the glories of the past. Both have a particular interest in reaching the urban, the academic, and even the cool—which points to the possibility of a kind of revolution from above, in which our cultural elite is reconverted and the country comes along.
- 1.One cannot say exactly when a movement began; that is generally somewhat nebulous. You can trace antecedents as far back as you like; fundamentalism does take inspiration from Luther’s sola scriptura. It would be reasonable to say it began with the publication of The Fundamentals, which became the movement’s manifesto, in the 19-teens.
- 2.Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, p. 27.
- 3.“And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination.”
- 4.This doesn’t mean traditional cultures are particularly tolerant, just that they don’t use systematic logic to denigrate each other.
- 5.Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right, p. 28.
- 6.Alternatively, in capital-T Traditionalism, the Ultimate Truth is manifest in monist mystical revelation. Capital-T Traditionalism is almost perfectly parallel to fundamentalism, except that its religious core is monist rather than dualist. The “hippie” counterculture of the 1960s-70s was also monist, and Traditionalism manages to combine some of the worst features of both the American countercultures. Perhaps because it’s bizarre and repellent at first glance, Traditionalism has had limited success. However, Sedgewick’s Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century argues that it has significantly influenced Islamic extremism. Currently, it is also influential in new Russian and Eastern European far-right movements.
- 7.Genesis 9:3: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” How about shrimp?
- 8.Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, p. 162. This book casts considerable light on fundamentalism; see my summary here.
- 9.My guess is that, in each case, state jihadism will gradually become less effective as a way of motivating and controlling the populace. That seems to have happened in Iran, which was the first fundamentalist state.
- 10.Or, at minimum, everyone within a large religious, national, or ethnic group. Many versions of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism claim dominion over everyone in the world; Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist fundamentalisms may only demand obedience from all Jews, Hindus, or Buddhists.
- 11.Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, pp. 278-80.