Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Let’s Retire the Word “Fundamentalist”

posted by David Klinghoffer
It sometimes happens that a word outlives its usefulness and has to be put out to pasture along with other terms like “Negro,” for example, or “Oriental.” Or maybe the preferable metaphor would be partial retirement. We can still appropriately use Oriental to refer to a rug but not to a person.
I bring this up because I was surprised and a little disappointed to read my estimable Beliefnet senior colleague Steven Waldman, in the Wall Street Journal, relegating doubts about theistic evolution to “fundamentalist Christians.” The context was Steve’s interesting piece on Francis Collins, Obama’s pick to head the National Institutes of Health:

Because he’s advocated “theistic evolution” — the idea that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection — there are some more fundamentalist Christians who may sniff at Mr. Collins.

Steve’s formulation would put me, an Orthodox Jew, in the category of a fundamentalist Christian.
There are a number of issues here. First, I personally know lots of people who would have a problem reconciling theistic evolution with their own religious beliefs, whether Jewish or Christian. None of those people are fundamentalist Christians — if the term is defined in any kind of meaningfully restrictive sense. 
A helpful dividing line between a fundamentalist and everyone else might be that a fundamentalist believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, so that creation really took only 6 days of 24 hours each and happened less than 10,000 years ago. By that definition, in my total circle of friends and acquaintances, I know exactly one person who would count as a Christian fundamentalist. He’s a professional airline pilot — I won’t say with which airline, lest a witch hunt ensue. He cheerfull calls himself a “fundamentalist.” Not one person other than him that I know would use the term to describe his own beliefs.
Second, if that’s what Collins believes —  “that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection” — it would sound like he’s a deist. And maybe that’s what he is. But in that case, lots of people who clearly aren’t fundamentalist Christians — anyone who’s a theist — would have to disagree with him and potentially “sniff” at his beliefs.

Third, Collins as a self-identified Evangelical Christian would himself be labeled a fundamentalist by many otherwise serious people today. Several years ago I did a little interview with Karen Armstrong in which, responding to my question, she defined fundamentalists as “those who think that only one religion is right.” I don’t see how anyone could possibly be defined as a conservative, Evangelical Christian and not believe that only his religion possesses the truth about “getting right” with God.
Pope Benedict had it about right when he said back in 2005 (upon being elevated to the papacy):

Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching,” looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

Too often, “fundamentalist” is used to refer to firm believers in whatever whose beliefs we don’t like. For years I’ve been called “a smug proselytizer for Jewish fundamentalism” and variants thereof by people who have little concept of what I actually believe or how I live my life. 
Yet at the same time we on the traditionalist side often speak of “atheist fundamentalists,” “secular fundamentalists,” and “liberal fundamentalists.” In general, the word has become a sort of all purpose insult term. I plead guilty, by the way. I’ve probably used it this way myself.
But not about myself, except ironically, and that is the nub of the matter. It has reached the point where most people who in public life are called “fundamentalists” would not accept the term as a fair description of their own religion or philosophy. It has become a term that carries little information other than about the feelings of the person using it. Language is supposed to inform us about what it designates. By that test, the word “fundamentalist” as typically used has got to go.
What to replace it with? As a default, at least, why not call people what they call themselves? If you want to know how to describe me, then why not ask…me?

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posted July 13, 2009 at 10:20 pm

The term “fundamentalist” is problematic and is used in hopelessly confusing and contradictory ways. It probably should be retired.
However, I’d like to see a careful, properly worded survey done to see how many of those who disbelieve in evolution also believe the Earth is 5000 years old or so. I could be wrong, but I’d bet that the majority of those who disbelieve in evolution (Jewish or Christian) also believe in the Genesis account literally.
Frankly, I never have understood people who believe in an ancient universe but who reject evolution. I mean, if a person is a biblical literalist, while I think he’s wrong and disagree, at least it’s logical for him, given his adherence to a literal reading, to reject evolution.
Look at someone like Michael Behe, though. He believes in a multi-billion-year-old cosmos. He believes in evolution actually, having said that the evidence favors common descent and that humans and chimps come from common stock. Given these beliefs, he already is logically committed to a very non-literal hermeneutic in reading the Bible. But then he goes and says (against all existing evidence) that at certain points God interfered in evolution. This is weird and illogical.
If you want to say God made the Earth and all therein in six literal twenty-four hour days, I think you’re wrong, but you’re consistent. If you say that God lets evolution run while directing it through what seems to us to be chance, that’s consistent, too, and what I’d tend to say. But to say that God let’s 99% of the evolutionary process go as normal except stepping in for flagella or protein synthesis mechanisms?! Puh-leeze! That would be like Minnesota Fats executing some fantastic shot to drop several balls in the pockets, then picking the next two or three up by hand and dropping them in, and then returning to trick shots! Non-literalist anti-evolutionism makes about as much sense as that!
I might point out, David, that you’re in the minority even among Orthodox Jews (a few Haredi groups excepted, and the ones in question are literalists) in rejecting evolution. Not that truth is decided by majority vote, but obviously your take on the Tanakh regarding evolution is obviously not the normative one. In any rate, I’d challenge you to name a few other Jews who are non-literalists but also anti-evolutionists.
Finally, you’re setting up a false dichotomy by implying that a believer in God either rejects evolution, or/i> becomes some sort of deist. Theistic evolutionists don’t think that God is uninvolved in the cosmos. He merely acts through what to us appear to be random or chance–just as Minnesota Fats is so good that he could make a shot in which it seemed that one ball barely went in by accident, when he planned it that way all along.
I don’t know what the Jewish take is, but the traditional Christian view is that God is active in the cosmos every instant. God does not create the universe and then “walk off” to let it do its own thing, as a sculptor might make a statue and sell it off, its existence no longer depending on him. Rather, God constantly sustains the cosmos in existence, instant to instant. The late philosopher Mortimer Adler uses the term “exnihilation” for this in his excellent book (which you really should read) How to Think About God.
To use a crude analogy, the universe is like God’s dream. When I dream, even if not dreaming about myself (even if I’m not “in” my dream), I am nevertheless holding the dream in existence. Wake up, and poof! there goes the dream. Likewise, apart from God the cosmos could not exist. He keeps it always in His mind, and if He stopped this constant mindfulness, this constant creation, for a moment, poof! No more universe. Thus, to say that God is not involved it the world if only ordinary processes are observed is absurd–if He weren’t involved, I wouldn’t be here to write this, and no one else would be here to read it!

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posted July 13, 2009 at 10:47 pm

I would define a “fundamentalist” as anyone who creates a false god out of a narrow world view. There are the Christian fundamentalists who think that the Bible explains everything, and then there are the secular fundamentalists who think that science and “reason” explain everything. The world would be better off if everyone just gave up their sacred cows. The Buddha said it best when he said “under no conditions become attached to anything.”

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posted July 13, 2009 at 11:11 pm

As we lawyers say when winkling out the correct interpretation of a statute: If the legislative commentary is inconclusive, go read the actual words of the statute.
As to what is a fundamentalist, the defining documents are “The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth,” published 1910-1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now born again as Biola University). Maybe it would be of benefit to at least skim some of them before commencing a bout of cenocranial logorrhea.

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Your Name

posted July 14, 2009 at 2:39 pm

“Fundamentalist” has, like “neocon” in the world of foreign policy, has come to mean, “whatever position I don’t like”. Hence Karen Armstrong, who makes her living fighting the idea that any religion holds meaningful truth, defines it to mean anyone who believes there is exclusive truth in their religion. How someone defines the word is probably more a mirror into their own thought process than a meaningful statement regarding the person they are describing.
As for finding a replacement, since it is usually meant as an insult, why don’t people have the courage of their convictions and just substitute the word “jerks”? Then everyone knows where they stand.
Great blog, btw. I’m a new reader (as of yesterday) and I already enjoy it.

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posted July 14, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Sorry, meant to include my name on that last comment.

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posted July 14, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Sorry yet again. I was claiming the 2:39 PM comment. It was the “last” comment being displayed on my screen. The second unnamed comment popped up when it refreshed after posting.

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Glen Davidson

posted July 14, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Because he’s advocated “theistic evolution” — the idea that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection — there are some more fundamentalist Christians who may sniff at Mr. Collins.

Steve’s formulation would put me, an Orthodox Jew, in the category of a fundamentalist Christian.

Really? Because he said “some more fundamentalist Christians…may sniff at Mr. Collins,” you were included with them? What’s the logic for that? What kind of language do you speak, that you think that when pointing to “fundamentalist Christians” you were being included?
Was he implicitly or explicitly stating that only fundamentalist Christians would “sniff at” Collins for being a theistic evolutionist, leaving out fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims, or even the odd confused New Ager or some such thing?
What he apparently was doing was bringing up major constituencies, secularists and fundamentalist Christians, and discussing the political repercussions of Collins’ appointment. That he may have left out Klinghoffer is simply the nature of the discussion.
OK, that’s all pretty obvious, in fact, something that I shouldn’t even have to say. I find it difficult to see why Klinghoffer felt the need to cavil over a statement that wasn’t at all intended to include every anti-evolutionist in existence, but only to discuss the politics of an event.
I also fail to see why “fundamentalist” doesn’t fairly well convey what he is, since he’s oddly literalistic about being “created in god’s image” while also denying that it means anything like “appearing in the same form as god.” What could be more fundamentalistic than insisting on the literal interpretation of the word, even though he knows that his own religious tradition denies such literalism?
What’s interesting is that he includes himself with Christian fundamentalists when there was nothing in Waldman’s article that did so.
The fact is that I can see no word that can substitute for “fundamentalist” at present, hence there is no excuse for asking that it be retired, simply because many abuse the word.
At present it largely means hard-line religionist who generally won’t accept the conclusions of science or other means of knowing where these conflict with their religion, usually with a concomitant disconnect with present-day knowledge. This fairly well covers Muslim hardliners, certainly some in the Jewish community, and many Christians, some of whom would not be averse to calling themselves fundamentalists. There may even be some reason to call certain atheists “fundamentalists” by analogy, even if they could hardly fit the usual meaning of “fundamentalist.”
I can see why David might not want to be associated with other fundamentalists, given differences in theology. Yet, what except the somewhat fuzzy notion of “fundamentalism” would cover his rejection of scientific conclusions due to his adherance to hardline religious conceptions?
So until there is another word that means a person who won’t reason from the evidence when it conflicts with preconceived religious ideas, we’re going to have to continue to use “fundamentalist” for such a person, at least where such shorthand labels are needed for brevity.
While the term might be abused at times, it should be noted that it is not the explicitly tendentious sort of label that “Darwinist” is in the mouths of IDists. And still David objects to “fundamentalist” while using the tendentious term “Darwinist” for people who merely do not prejudicially oppose the conclusions of the life sciences.
Glen Davidson

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posted July 18, 2009 at 4:17 pm

DK has a point, I think. The term “fundamentalism” almost always censures the phenomenon that it conjures up. In this respect, “fundamentalism” has something in common with “papistry,” “the primitive” and “sexual deviance.”

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