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LostInParadise's avatar

Is religious fundamentalism a modern movement?

Asked by LostInParadise (27952points) October 12th, 2014

I have seen statements made that in the past people were more easy going in their religious beliefs, willing to accept biblical statements in a metaphorical sense. The advent of science gave explanations that did not require the presence of God and therefore forced some religious believers to dig in more strongly and to interpret things literally in order to have a countervailing argument.

I am skeptical of this point of view. The idea of the universe being several billion years old is fairly recent as is the idea of evolution. My guess is that people just assumed that the universe was a few thousand years old and was the creation of God. If they did not get worked up about this, it was only because nobody was arguing to the contrary.

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12 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

Fundamentalism is evolutionary. In the early days of mankind, everyone believed in much the same thing and there was no such thing as liberal thought or fundamentalist thought. But as people got smarter, and moved from subsistence living to a more comfortable lifestyle, they had the ability to not work as hard, giving them time to think about what their beliefs were.

Some people chose to be free thinkers, while others took a more literal / fundamentalist line. But the ability (and the luxury) to even have that freedom of thought evolved from mankind’s progress in creating a city/town culture.

So fundamentalism as an extreme evolved.

So to answer your question – it’s modern only in the sense that it came AFTER mankind was created and as a result of mankind’s ability to meet essential subsistence needs.

But it’s not modern in the sense of 1800 and newer. You can see fundamentalists in the history of Ancient Israel (pharisees, Saducees), Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece. etc.—where not all people looked at the world the same way.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

No it’s been worse or as bad. Probably been this way since the beginning. Look at the inquisition, the Salem witch trials and general brutality of Christianity throughout the middle ages.

ragingloli's avatar

today’s fundamentalism is yesterday’s mainstream

Thammuz's avatar

It comes and goes. There are moments in history when this religion or the other take prominence in a community and people of sub-par smarts but great faith get put into positions of power, unwittingly opening the door to all sorts of shit or, even worse, people of great cunning and no remorse in exploiting people use religion as a means to get power and control.

Religion is, and in the and always was, a way to keep the little people in check. For most of history the elite has not proved itself to be a very religious lot, but most of the higher ups of any faith belong to the elite, themselves.

One scarcely wonders why people of scholarly backgrounds, who are otherwise perfectly capable of spotting a logical fallacy, spout them constantly when faced with the inconsistencies of religion: there is undoubtably something to gain, for a member of any sort of elite, from perpetuating a system that keeps the weak and the small in their place, by coddling them or by chastising them depending on the specific faith. (See: God helps those who help themselves, Blessed are the meek, Propsperity theology, and so on)

So, in short, religious extremism is just the symptom of the fact that you’ve got some extremely proficient manipulator building his livelyhood on the lives of the morons who fall for it.

Ken Ham, Ted Haggard, Kent Hovind, Ray Comfort and their ilk are not stupid. They are evil. They know they are lying, they know they are peddling bullshit for the simple minded, and that’s precisely why they act the way they do.

Selling smoke is an artform, and it takes a good eye for weakness to be its Picasso, or its Leonardo

Being a person capable of manipulation on an almost subconscious level myself (as in, i don’t realise that i’m doing it until after the fact, sometimes), I curse the fact that my parents raised me not to take advantage of others, because if they didn’t I would be set for life, living as some sort of guru or preacher.

On the other hand, the jaded side of me tells me that it’s all for the best, that most people are not smart enough not to need something that keeps them in check. For many it is the law, for some, like my dog, it needs to be the terrible all-seeing skydaddy, because without the fear of retribution and the guarantee of getting caught they’d fuck you over in a hearbeat (See: my dog who sleeps on the couch, even though he’s been punished for it before and knows full goddamned well that he is not supposed to, but only after he knows we’ve gone to sleep).

In the end, we’re animals, and some of us are more animalistic than others. It takes training a dog to fully blossom a healthy contempt for underhandedness and crocodile tears.

Darth_Algar's avatar

“Is religious fundamentalism a modern movement?”

Not at all. People have been slaughtering others because they worshiped a different god (or because they worshiped the same god, but in the wrong way) for thousands of years.

SavoirFaire's avatar

First, I think you are misrepresenting the position. For one, religious fundamentalism and Biblical literalism are not the same thing. Fundamentalism is—by definition—a recent movement because it is the name given to a particular brand of American Protestantism (which was later extended to other groups, such as particular brands of Islam). For another, “people were more easygoing in their religious beliefs” and “people were willing to accept Biblical statements as metaphorical” are not the same thing. In fact, one can be extremely passionate about one’s religion while still rejecting Biblical literalism. Catholicism has never embraced literalism—the official doctrine is that the Bible is inerrant, but not literal—yet that hasn’t prevented Catholics from passionately upholding their faith (whether it by through the Crusades and the Inquisition or through less contentious acts such as martyrdom or charity).

Second, nothing about Biblical literalism being relatively new requires anyone from the past to have believed that the universe is several billion years old or any other modern scientific view. Not believing that the Bible is literally true does not automatically entail having correct scientific beliefs, and it is absurd to think that having correct beliefs about the age of the Earth is a necessary condition for Biblical non-literalism. Indeed, one can be a Biblical non-literalist and still believe that the Earth is around 6,000 years old. That’s not the only claim put forward by Biblical literalists, after all. In short, you don’t really have any argument at all. You just have unfounded skepticism and resistance to the evidence you’ve been given in the past. (And that’s why this will be my last word on the subject here. You’ve already demonstrated yourself unwilling to entertain the contrary view.)

LostInParadise's avatar

Several of you have equated religious intolerance with fundamentalism. The two are not necessarily the same. You don’t have to be a fundamentalist in order to be a religious bigot, though it does seem to help. Similarly, it is possible for someone to be a fundamentalist and tolerate other views.

@SavoirFaire , I have great respect for your opinions, so I am a bit surprised by your reaction. My expression of skepticism is just that, not an unwillingness to be corrected. One possibility is that it was not strictly necessary to be a literalist in the past because the prevailing view coincided with the Biblical one. This is no longer the case. Can you think of any case where a person believes the Earth is 6,000 years old for any reason other than Biblical literalism?

The position of the Catholic church is worth noting. They went from condemning Galileo for the heliocentric theory to complete acceptance of the theory of evolution and Big Bang theory. Did this represent a major change in position, an accommodation to science that was not previously permitted? Christian fundamentalism appears to be associated only with certain branches of Protestantism, which coincidentally came into being just prior to the Enlightenment.

stanleybmanly's avatar

Religions arise as plausible explanations for the “unexplainable”. There is apparently a fundamental (as well as universal) need in human beings to understand the world and their place in it. To my mind, there are those who search for explanations, those who invent them, and crowds devoted to either and sometimes both. While it might be tough and unfair to categorize fundamentalists, it would seem that a reasonable definition of a fundamentalist would be a person committed to the fundamental (or basic) concepts on which his or her religion is footed. Until relatively recently in the history of civilization, the inventors of explanations swept the field, and hair brained religions abounded, since the plodding “searchers” were outstripped by the galloping imaginations of those ready to invent answers. But nowadays, that balance has shifted precipitously, and the inventors find themselves sharply on the defensive. The days of worshiping the sun, rain or manure are behind us, but some recalcitrant “faiths” doggedly persist in a rear guard struggle to adapt to the headlong “revelations” tumbling from “the searchers”. So great is the deluge of knowledge on the scientific front, that torrents of “believers” find themselves stranded in the nether world of hypocrisy between their fundamentals (the Bible as literal truth) and scientific facts. Placed in the untenable position of being compelled to deny reality as a requisite to the achievement of heaven, these folks have chosen rather to invent their own science as well as their own fantasy logic to underpin it. The plight of these poor people is more tragic than laughable. Just as with conservatism, fundamentalism is at bottom about resistance to change, and as such is both rigidly regressive and doomed in the end to irrelevance.

Paradox25's avatar

I don’t think religious fundamentalism is a modern construct, but fundamentalism does not need to be confined to just religion either. Many authoritarian cultures throughout history have used secular-based ideologies to oppress and harm/torture others too.

There are a couple of things that I wanted to address concerning this question’s details though . Firstly, knowledge is not absolute, and humanity will always be making new discoveries, changing the way we think, paradigm shifts occurring, and basically, always evolving. What we accept as a fact today might be discarded in the near or distant future.

Secondly, we can never know everything, and there might even be some concepts that in our current stage of evolution we can’t even conceive of, let alone to be in a position to evaluate and analyze them. People never have raw knowledge of anything, so we end up relying on our senses, in turn we create metaphors as the result of apprehending our environment with our senses, then we do the next best thing we can, speculate, wonder and many times create fantasies that help to shapeshift us. Ultimately, whether these thoughts are ‘rational’ or not, nevertheless, they are vital in how they play their part in how we obtain knowledge and advance ourselves by making new discoveries, pleasures and inventions that ultimately benefit humanity. The slippery slope here is bias, because since the reasons for this can vary, and if the bias becomes too strong, this is what ultimately will create fundamentalism.

Thirdly, we can’t be masters of everything, and even the most intelligent people lack knowledge concerning many subjects. Even some of the basics of certain scientific fields require at least several years of college education. Ironically some creationists, like Behe, probably know more about evolutionary theory than many of those who accept evolutionary theory as a fact (I’m not a creationist myself).

We are more advanced and evolved then we were in the past, but the thought mechanics are still the same. We laugh at the absurdities of mankind’s past. In two thousand years from now humans will be laughing at our own paradigms, and the pattern will likely repeat itself. Religion to me only becomes a problem when it becomes absolute, and scepticism to me only becomes a problem when it reaches the point of eliminating the metaphors that naturally accompany the human mind, and like I’d posted above, the metaphors which are ultimately vital for advancement. Dogmatism can take up many forms, and I even get into scuffles with those on ‘my side’ of the fence, especially concerning the new age drivel.

I’ll try to directly address your question now. I’ve found that there are basically two types of people who exist, and the divide isn’t political, or even religious. The real divide in my opinion is between people who are freethinkers vs those who are authoritarians (namely the authoritarian followers, the leaders are a different cat). What I mean by authoritarian (going by Altemeyer’s definition of the term) is that the approval of others is more important to them over anything else. Anyone who tells me this does not have a drastic effect on the way people think and process information is kidding themselves in my opinion. The war between authoritarians and freethinkers has existed before, during and after biblical times, and will likely continue to do so. Even indifference is the product of the information cascades that authoritarianism creates, even if the offenders themselves are not considered to be authoritarians per se.

Not all freethinkers will agree with each other on every topic either, but there’s still a drastic difference between a freethinker and an authoritarian in my opinion. All of us have biases though, and I’m also sure that none of us are freethinkers or authoritarians in an absolute form. Like today, the thought mechanics that existed ‘back in the old days’ are really not too much different, so I actually agree with the OP here, though my reasons are probably different for doing so.

LostInParadise's avatar

I go along with your idea of two types, but I would express it a little differently. There are two conflicting desires that all people have, security and novelty. We like a little variety in our lives, but too much of it can be risky and disconcerting.

Conservatives emphasize the security part. They want strict rules on how to behave. They prefer associating with their own kind and see outsiders as a threat. They are intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty. In general they resist change.

Liberals seek out novelty and different ways of looking at things. They resist being restricted by narrow sets of rules. They are comfortable with uncertainty. They eagerly make contact with people with different backgrounds and different points of view.

These two viewpoints go back a long way, but I think that in the past the conservative viewpoint was highly dominant. Since the Enlightenment the rate of change in society has been unlike anything in the past. There are definite advantages to embracing change, but there is still the countervailing force of conservatism trying to create stability.

Paradox25's avatar

I felt I had to explain the reasons for what and why we believe (or not) in what we do to properly address the question, so my post was a bit long. We didn’t know about evolution or atoms 2000 years ago, so the null hypothesis was crude. Even back then though, I think there were always dissenters among the traditional thinkers. I see this as being no different today too.

I’m not a fan of classifying the divide among people as being conservative vs liberal, because each of these terms are not in the same political category, so you can’t really compare them. This would be like trying to compare communism to democracy. The opposite of conservatism is progressivism, and the opposite of liberal is authoritarian. Theoretically progressives can be authoritarian, and conservatives can be liberal. Moreover, conservatives can vary from each other as much as liberals can.

I think the true divide comes from thinking patterns themselves, where authoritarians find the safety net you mention by conforming and being accepted by others. However, many progressives display these characteristics too on many grounds. This isn’t a left/right divide to me, but a way of thinking. A great deal of my opinions come from very respected sources. I’m also not the biggest fan of the way sceptical atheists have hijacked the term ‘freethinker’, because many of them are not in my opinion, but that is for another thread. On a side note, maybe my definitions of the terms authoritarian and freethinker are not the same as others.

LostInParadise's avatar

Like I said, I think we are mostly in agreement. Disregarding political labels, my main point was to talk about security and novelty as opposing motivations. There is something to be said for both sides, with the optimum somewhere in between. Authoritarian is a bit too harsh of a description. You have to look at the motivation for the behavior, which is to create order and stability and to minimize risk. There is another aspect, which is that the group that is currently in power will resist any changes that may disrupt the social order. They are willing to sacrifice gains they might receive in order to maintain a relative superiority.

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