10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism

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by Neil Godfrey

Fundamentalism is a term applied to various Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Judaic groups, and even to some secular (economic and environmental) groups. All different.

Yet Tamas Pataki in his newly published Against Religion lists what he sees as “criss-crossing similarities — family resemblances — in certain basic beliefs, values, and attitudes” (p.27) that characterize the various religious groups labelled “fundamentalist”.

1. They (fundamentalists) are counter-modernist. It (fundamentalism) manifests itself as an attempt by “besieged believers” to find their refuge in arming themselves with an identity that is rooted in a past golden age. And this identity is acted out in an attempt to restore that “golden past”.

This is not in Pataki’s book, but the following Hindu example is copied from here

In India they established the Hindu Golden Age described in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This great age came to an end with the Bharata War, the beginning of which is dramatically described in the Bhagavad-gita and the result, according to the text, was over a million deaths. Hindu civilization then descended into a long decline that was exacerbated by the pacifism and nihilism of Buddhism and Jainism, which were seen as failed off shoots of Hinduism and not separate religions from Hinduism. During the Second Millennium CE a weakened Hindusim was easy prey for first the Mughal invaders and second British imperialism.

To return, in part, to Pataki’s examples — Most of us know of the idyllic kingdoms of David and Solomon for a Jewish example:

Judah and Israel were many, as the sand which is by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking, and making merry.And Solomon reigned over all kingdoms from the river unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt: they brought presents, and served Solomon all the days of his life. . . . For he had dominion over all region on this side the river, from Tiphsah even to Azzah, over all the kings on this side the river: and he had peace on all sides round about him. And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon. (I Kings 4:20-25)

Hence the “right” of Jews to the biblical lands of the West Bank, along with the consequent bloodshed.

The Islamic golden age was the time of Mohammad and shortly after; for many American Christians it was the time of the Founding Fathers or “relatively wholesome 1950’s suburban America”. (Pataki does not address it here, but of course the Book of Acts was written to portray a “pre-heretical” golden age in its earliest chapters at least.)

2. They (fundamentalists) are “generally assertive, clamorous, and often violent”.

  • Hence the Hindu destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 and its consequent bloodshed;
  • the “right” of Jews to the biblical lands of the West Bank (and eventually beyond?), along with the consequent bloodshed;
  • the militancy, threats, intimidation and sometimes violence on the part of America’s “Christian Right”;
  • and of course the Islamic bombings.

3. They are “the Chosen”, “the Elect”, “the Saved”. And as such, they are “privileged” or “burdened” with a special mission on behalf of their deity and for the benefit of the world.

Pataki notes that this attitude “is not restricted to fundamentalist groups but is a prominent mark of all of them.” (p.29)

He sees its head among Ulster Protestants, Buddhist Sinhalese, the religious nationalism of Russia’s Dostoevsky, and of course American exceptionalism from its roots in Puritanism.

“To be chosen is to be marked for a superior fate; one is marked by virtue of being superior“. (I would qualify Pataki here by saying that some groups see themselves as having their superiority “imputed” to them by God and they would never let themselves think their superiority is innate in themselves.) Pataki points to the obvious examples in St Augustine, Calvin, and now in pre-millennial Protestants who are “burdened” with knowing they will be saved while the rest of the world goes to hell.

4. Public marks of distinction are needed to maintain their sense of superiority and distinctive identity. Not only for the purpose of maintaining that distinctive identity, but also as “part of the narcissistic struggle to be considered unique and special.” (p.30)

Skullcaps, turbans, hijab, crosses, skin markings, circumcision, initiations, baptisms, rituals, food taboos, holy times, etc etc

The point is to “be separate” so where there are similar groups the slight differences are exaggerated — the heretic being more of a threat than the infidel!

5. There is only one true religion and one correct way of life; and these must be defended against inroads from other religions and secularism.

Religious pluralism is a problem for the fundamentalist. The fundamentalist, whether Christian, Judaistic or Islamic, will accept all but only into one exclusive “truth”.

Narcissism feeds on differences, and these differences are accentuated, intensified.

Since there is only one true way, it is under constant threat. The world is thus a place of persecution. A place where there is a black and white, a Manichaean struggle between absolutes, good and evil, truth and error, God and Satan. There is no middle ground. “You are with us or against us.”

6. There is an inerrant holy book, prophet or charismatic leader to whom literal obedience is mandatory.

The Indian holy books, the Vedas, are said to contain even scientific as well as spiritual truths; many Christian fundamentalists believe the same of the Bible.

Literal interpretations and obedience leave no room for uncertainty, no matter how uncertain the real world.

7. Law and authority come from God.

Even civic law must derive from the holy books. “God’s law always trumps human law.” (Pataki does not directly say it, but we know democracy is not a value of the fundamentalist.)

8. Female sexuality must be controlled and clear impassable boundaries must be established between men and women.

Sexuality is controlled within the structure of the patriarchal family. Women are subordinated in marriage, reproduction, abortion, ordination, access to or emphasis on education. Female sexuality is associated strongly with “animalism” and pollution — giving rise to taboos on certain sexual practices. (p.32)

“The control of female sexuality is sometimes linked with the fear of emasculation and homosexuality.” The fear of men being led to become like women is expressed in Islamic and Christian writings.

9. Sexual behaviour is a major concern of all fundamentalists — Christian, Jewish, Islamic — without exception. Especially the fear of and opposition to homosexuality.

10. Fundamentalism and nationalism converge. The moral life according to the will of God can only be fully lived in a society of fellow-practitioners of the belief. This can only be achieved through God’s rule — through the national executive and legislature itself. Hence the importance of bringing about a government that will prioritize the right morals and right culture for the nation — relegating other (economic) functions to a secondary place.

As Pataki comments, this notion of government has a medieval tincture to it.

Pataki’s conclusion

Pataki’s conclusion to his list of 10 points is really his introduction to the rest of the book. He notes that the above attributes cluster in patterns that point to something quite possibly independent of cultural variables — a certain set of psychological traits that he sees bound inextricably with narcissism. (But the notes and comments elaborating that will have to wait — will be quicker for most to locate and read his book yourself.)

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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism”

  1. I don’t have a problem with fundamentalists. I have a problem with what some of them believe is fundamental. I think it’s entirely correct to call someone like Mother Theresa or M. L. King a fundamentalist, extremist and a radical. They don’t necessarily display all of the behaviour above but would correctly be described as those words.

    “The fundamentalist, whether Christian, Judaistic or Islamic, will accept all but only into one exclusive “truth”.”
    Everyone ultimately believes this. It is also exclusive to state that there is no truth or even that they are all true or that we can’t know truth. All are truth statements and make claims of absolute truth.

  2. i am disturbed that you seem quite willing to admit that you have no problem with people who display all of the above 10 characteristics, and that your only apparent concern is that they display those 10 qualities in respect to the “correct beliefs”.

    you seem to be incapable of thinking that anyone thinks differently from you — to a fundamentalist everyone is a fundamentalist. #5 above. seems if you see only black and white you assume everyone else is colourblind too. and that the only alternative to fundamentalism is another form of “fundamentalism” that holds only one of three alternatives (no truth, all true, cannot know truth).

    but hopefully i have misunderstood you.

  3. Sorry. As I was typing I was aware of this problem. I was going with a common or dictionary definition of fundamental instead of the 10 points above. Some of them I agree with, others I do not.

    Actually I did say that in my first post. I don’t think the ten are a fair representation of all fundamentals. They are a correct representation of the particular groups he has chosen to characterise (or perhaps caricature).

  4. Pataki lists these 10 as the main commonalities found among groups generally laballed today as fundamentalist (the Taliban, the Wahhabis, the Moslem Brotherhood, Sayyed Qutb inspired movements, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Exclusive Brethren, ultra-Orthodox Haredi groups, the Gush Emunim, apart from the obvious (to us) well-known evangelical movements based in the US.)

    There are differences — Ayatollah Khomeini is religious innovator who rejects the literalist interpretation of the Koran, for example. The Gush Emunim embrace modernity.

    All of the above 10 features, Pataki proceeds to argue, are symptoms of an unhealthy narcissism. He in part supports this psychological interpretation of fundamentalist movements with the fact that the same psychological symptoms (evidenced in those 10 characteristics) are found across widely divergent cultures. May attempt to explain a little more in a future post.

  5. Pataki is referring to groups commonly referred to as fundamentalist today. There is no attempt to impose idiosyncratically his own labels on his pet subjects. He refers to the common contemporary use of the word “fundamentalist” as used commonly by people and in the media. We (and Pataki) know the world fundamentalist is also applied today to certain economic and environmental groups, but for the purposes of his book he is discussing those religious groups to which society widely and commonly applies the term “fundamentalist”. There is no attempt to surreptitiously caricature or artificially or idiosyncratically “label” this or that group contrary to widespread public acceptance of the term.

    Does anyone dispute that there are many Islamic and Jewish and Christian movements that can generally be described (with widespread agreement) as fundamentalist despite their differences in specific dogmas? I doubt it. It is the psychology (not the dogmas) of those groups that Pataki is discussing.

    Ironically, your apparent defensiveness about this points to the “persecution syndrome” implicit in #5’s “Since there is only one true way, it is under constant threat.” — yes? 😉

  6. They may well be commonly referred to fundamentalist. This common use though isn’t correct. The majority commonly misuse a lot of words. My point was mainly that while these groups may well be referred to by a majority as ‘fundamentalist’ and they display these 10 ‘problems’ we should still be cautious about how we use the word fundamentalist. These days it is a term given to groups we (the majority) don’t like but it isn’t the correct use of this word. Its just away to write off groups without engaging with them or their issues. We should be debating their ideas and beliefs, instead of just writing them off as fundamentalists/intolerants/extremists/radicals etc…

  7. Words are what people understand them to mean and their meanings alter as usage changes. Patik discusses the changes in usage and application of the word ‘fundamentalist’ in the last few decades. If we don’t use fundamentalist to refer to those groups, then you are free to suggest another word for them, and we can discuss them under that term if you wish. But it IS useful and valid for purposes of understanding and studying certain social phenomena and movements, especially cross culturally, to find a word that is understood by the majority. Patik is not discussing their ideas and beliefs — he explains they differ in their beliefs — but nevertheless there is an array of religious movements across cultures that do demonstrate common pyscho-social characteristics — and they are making controversial impacts — so they are a phenomena worthy of study and understanding. That is what psychology and sociology is about. (I’m reminded in particular of a famous study some decades ago of millenialist movements in the middle ages, “The Pursuit of the Millennium“.)

    Are you wishing instead that there be theological debates so that the one group you favour has a chance to prove their beliefs and disprove the others? (That is a pointless task that can never succeed. No group will ever admit basic error or change their views like that because they are based on “beliefs” and “faith”.) If so, you are expressing part of the black and white problematic phenomenon that Patik is attempting to help us understand — at a psychological level. Patik is challenging the whole mentality of those groups that see themselves as unique, elect or chosen, and the rest of the world as somehow lost, benighted. In an earlier post you suggested everyone thinks that way. But that is simply not true. Groups who clearly do think that way have a problem understanding that anyone else could think differently.

    One of the 10 points says these groups fear losing their distinctness — they have to maintain their distinct identities and cannot abide being confused with others, especially those who appear to outsiders as the most similar. In other words it is anathema to them to be branded as part of a larger collection of groups under the same label. Your objections point to this very fear — of losing distinctness of identity.

    These groups are also insecure in the face of plurality and doubts — they can only function with absolute certainty. They are still children psychologically. And they even admit this in many cases, being proud to become “as children” and remain “a child of god” etc.

    And it is their childish demands (and even tantrums) for their own ways (competing as they are across different cultures) that poses a threat to societies aspiring to democratic and enlightenment values.

  8. What you’re saying is that I should just read the book instead of hassling you about it. 😉 . And you’d be right.

    I think people can be convinced though. People do change their beliefs. People do convert to and from Christianity/Atheism/Islam/Buddhism etc.. Some groups shy away from debate (the Christian fundamentalists mainly) but others won’t respect you unless you’re willing to aggressively debate (Muslims mainly). I believe people can be convinced by reason.
    I would suggest Patik’s view/system might be just as black and white as the one he is investigating though. They have the “elect”,”chosen” and “unique” and he has his “enlightened”, “reasonable” and “tolerant”. It’s just as “black and white” to lump them all together and dismiss them.

    But as I said above… I should just read the book.

  9. No doubt individuals can be convinced. There are many reasons for people converting to this or that religion, credulity and need for belonging not being the least of them. But it is also surely clear I was addressing not individuals but religious movements, another matter entirely, and it goes without saying that none of these will disappear via “rational” debate.

    But Pataki is addressing psychological and social studies. To suggest that “tolerance” and “reasonable” and “enlightenment” (ie understanding) are “black and white” views of the world, or in any sense the equivalent of “elect”, “chosen” or “unique” is simply nonsense and a facile perversion of what is meant by “black and white” etc. Pataki is not “dismissing” anyone — he is attempting to understand the psychology of an array of movements that demonstrate common characteristics. He is not “lumping” people together illegitimately or in any personal dismissive sense, he is classifying social movements and groupings, ….. just as another social psychologist might classify and study groups with other characteristics, such as attitudes towards public education, capital punishment, environmental consciousness, etc.

  10. The above is just (bad) human nature though. British football fans, inner-city gangs and others could fit a lot of the above characteristics. I think the danger is for the people that think they are tolerant, enlightened etc to write them off instead of believing there can be real change in people’s lives. As you’ve gathered I’m far from a determinist.

    I think that people need to be engaged with and ideas need to considered and judged. As Francis Schaeffer would say: I wholeheartedly disagree with you but I’ll die for your right to say it.

  11. Fundamentalists are the worst kind. Sad that the US of A is more becoming a theocracy. Scary. As an Atheist and gay male, I cannot believe the lies and crap that millions of bible believers are taught in sunday school and in church. They also have an agenda to convert all children to their religion by brainwashing them with more crap.

    1. It is not hard to see a large portion of the US population being a large-scale version of the Pitcairn Islander descendants of Bligh’s Bounty mutineers. Their ancestors came to America to preserve their 17th century religious prejudices and today’s descendants have remained isolated as the rest of the world has long since moved on.

  12. Too bad the link to Pataki’s article still isn’t working. But his analysis is still relevant, and actually corresponds to Freud’s, who thought that what he described as “excessive religiosity” (as opposed to simply a “spiritual” sense), is basically infantile Narcissism. And what could be more narcissistic than thinking God “speaks” directly to you, that you’re “special” (aka, “Saved”), and that you’re “entitled” to proselytize and convert the whole rest of the world into thinking exactly like you?!

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