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Study Notes

Fundamentalism

Level:
AS, A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 17 Jul 2018

A major trend in contemporary religion is the growth in fundamentalism. On the face of it, this would seem to be an almost directly contradictory trend to secularisation, but there are significant connections between the two. It is also argued to be a reaction to globalisation.

Almond (2003) defined fundamentalism as “a pattern of religious militancy” led by “self-styled true believers” and identified their cause as being directly opposed to secularisation.

Anthony Giddens, the late modernist, argues that globalisation has caused significant levels of insecurity for people and that fundamentalist religion offers very simple answers. In a world of confusion and uncertainty, faiths with very clear rules and absolute truths have proved very attractive.

Fundamentalist religion is where religious texts are taken entirely literally, and provide a strict set of rules which people should live by. Because such a view clashes with the norm in contemporary society (pluralistic, liberal, etc.) fundamentalist religion is also often highly political.

Issues relating to fundamentalism were raised in an earlier section when discussing whether religion acted as a conservative force or as engine of social change. This is because fundamentalism is highly conservative and yet proposes significant social change. Fundamentalists want to change contemporary liberal, pluralistic society into a conservative and traditional society.

The examples previously discussed (in relation to social change) were the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the New Christian Right in the USA and ISIS/Daesh. All these examples can be used to develop a discussion about fundamentalism or about the impact of globalisation on religion.

Fundamentalism, as well as potentially causing social change, is a significant cause of conflict, both with other religions and with other followers of the same religion who do not support the fundamentalist interpretation.

Evaluating the view that globalisation has led to fundamentalism

  • Some sociologists point out that fundamentalist religion is nothing new, it is just that it is more noticeable as a result of globalisation and in contrast to the largely secular liberal beliefs in western Europe today.
  • While undoubtedly certain countries have witnessed “desecularisation” where fundamentalist movements have replaced more secular norms (such as 20th century changes in Afghanistan and Iran) there are many other places which have seen largely fundamentalist religion in place for many years. Furthermore, what is now considered fundamentalist Christianity, for example, would have historically been seen as quite mainstream Christian views.
  • Karen Armstrong (2000) rejects this idea however and points out that fundamentalist movements are not throwbacks to medieval religion but thoroughly contemporary. Whereas medieval religion was mysterious and often elitist, most contemporary fundamentalist movements are populist make use of technology and the methods of modern social movements to achieve their goals.
  • If a growth in fundamentalism is a reaction to globalisation, it is also a reaction to secularisation. The two go hand in hand. There is an almost inevitable local, parochial and traditional reaction to globalisation as local and particular cultures are eroded and replaced with global and universal ones. Alongside political developments, such as the growth of nationalism, this development in religious beliefs is quite a predictable response. However, just as wanting to retreat into a traditional belief system is one response to globalisation, wanting to embrace secular western culture with its popular stars and high-tech gadgets is another and may ultimately prove the more powerful.

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