The Fear of Fundamentalism

By | April 16, 2019

In this article I continue with the theme of fear, describing how I see it in fundamentalism. Before I go further, the type of fundamentalism I have in mind is that within the Christian realm. In my mind, I see conservative evangelicalism, especially the best known branch of Southern Baptists, as being very closely related to if not fundamentalist. (I am not familiar enough to say what the distinction is or isn’t. I also don’t claim to have significant familiarity with specific denominations or movements labeled fundamentalist.)

The foundational paradigm or worldview of fundamentalism is, “We’re under attack! Those outside of fundamentalism, if they encounter it, are likely to be frustrated at their perceived lack of reasonableness. Many people try to reason with them and to point out how they are irrational, illogical, and go against evidence in too many cases. This may convince a few, but it hasn’t led to the end of fundamentalism. Why?1

Many people (like me) grow up in a fundamentalist environment (or something close to it). It’s routinely reinforced that it is of the upmost importance to uphold the values and beliefs of the group (of course this is stated as being “biblical” and “God’s truth”, etc.). Those outside the group are routinely (though perhaps subtly) described as dangerous. It’s clear to those in the group that if they question or disagree with any of this, the group would almost certainly turn on them and expel them. And this very thing has indeed happened to many people. Fear (even if no overt) keeps people in line.

If you believe you are under attack, it makes sense that defense would be your primary posture. And this is what we see in fundamentalism. Nothing can be questioned or challenged (at least from within) because weakness might be revealed and this weakness could lead to the whole system collapsing. And what then?

The paradigm of fundamentalism is one of survival. If you believe you are under attack, you fear for your very life. Life here may not be physical, but one’s sense of well-being and the “rightness” of one’s world are nearly as important. If, as I theorize, that many if not a majority of people prefer what is familiar and possess a core temptation of fear, then it’s not surprising that many people still cling to fundamentalist denominations. (This also aligns with many people’s belief that men are made to fight; the paradigm of being at war gives clear sides to fight for and against. But this would be another article.)

It takes a great deal of work—time and energy—to question and potentially change a core belief. If your hope in life rests on believing that Jesus is in control, and if your belief in Jesus is based on the Bible being true, and if you have been continually told that the Bible must be literally true and consequently, for example, there must have been a literal seven day creation, then it is understandable why one would defend this, refusing to consider other possibilities, no matter how much reason or evidence is provided.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism, by its very nature, is deeply entrenched. It will continue to exist for quite a long time I suspect. So there will continue to be a need to expose its harms and counter its misguidance. Yet as we interact with fundamentalists, I hope understanding will help us to be gracious. And if we understand they already have a defensive posture, it should also help us to understand that directly attacking them will likely not be effective save for getting them to be more entrenched and defensive.


  1. It’s worth noting that the roots of Christian fundamentalism came about in response to the enlightenment. Before this time, leaders (of which religious leaders were an important part) effectively defined reality, much based on tradition. The enlightenment sought to shift this so that reason and scientific evidence were the definers of truth. The enlightenment was at least in part a reaction against authorities who said, “You have to believe what we tell you.” But as reactions often do, it over-reacted to some degree, saying that God was no longer needed (as an explanation) and therefore must not exist. Certainly there has been plenty of superstition and imagining spiritual forces behind everything throughout history, and Christianity has not been immune from this. So it is certainly understandable why people would say these explanations were no longer needed. Yet this created an unnecessary divide between faith and science. Into the early twentieth century, Christians understandably felt attacked. Since many Christians hadn’t yet developed or embraced more rational synthesis of faith and science, many simply rejected intellectualism and academia outright. The thinking was effectively, “We believe in God and since you (skeptics, scientists, etc.) say he doesn’t exist, you must be entirely wrong and therefore harmful, so clearly we must fight against these forces of science and modernism.” Unfortunately, many Christians have not yet given up this paradigm nor recognized it as unnecessary. And unfortunately, people on both sides continue to make the mistake of thinking that science can make definitive statements about the supernatural. Science is the study of the natural and as such, can’t speak definitively to the supernatural. Unfortunately, many on the side of science would say that there can’t be a God because he/she/it is scientifically intangible. (Though it’s right for science not to use “god” as a reason behind a difficult problem, this is significantly different than saying that science disproves the existence of a god.) On the other side, Christians equally are mistaken if and when they try to use science to prove the existence of God.

photo credit: mtigas via photopin cc

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