By Rob Harle

Religious fundamentalism is a touchy subject both in lay and academic circles. Why this should be so is no mystery, the emotive factors that make fundamentalism an emotionally touchy subject to discuss are inherent in fundamentalism itself. In this essay I explore the root causes of religious fundamentalism, with particular reference to the Protestant and Islamic faiths. These two are the most visible and reasonably representative of the less vocal fundamentalisms.

Fundamentalists may be secular or religious, part of major organisations or minor cults and observe their beliefs quietly in private or try to convert others through high-powered public performances. Secular fundamentalisms such as: that in China under the rule of Mao Tse-Tung; Messianic Capitalism; Marxism-Leninism and Eco-Apocalyptics; although similar in many respects to religious fundamentalisms are not within the scope of this paper.

There are a number of secondary ’causes’ of religious fundamentalism such as; economic, cultural, the threat of modernity, technocratic and so on. Although I discuss all these, I believe the most important cause is of a psychological nature, strangely this is not especially emphasised in the various works on fundamentalism. It is from this radical psychological perspective that this paper is orientated. Any discussion of fundamentalism or religion without looking at psychological factors will necessarily be incomplete.

Marty seems to suggest otherwise. In his “preliminary qualifying statements” he makes two statements which I find astonishing (Marty (a), 1992. pp.17-18). The first is, “…fundamentalisms have little or nothing in common which each other”, I discuss this a little further on. The second is that individual psychology (e.g. poor toilet training, Oedipal complexes etc.) do not explain why whole populations, “…on one side of a mountain…” are fundamentalist whilst those on the other are not. This glib tongue-in-cheek dismissal of possible psychological factors seems to give the impression that Marty believes psychological factors to be either completely irrelevant or unimportant in explaining fundamentalism.

 Whole populations do not “just exist” as fundamentalist, without people moving in and out of the group and area. A personal anecdote will illustrate my point. Cooranbong is a small town in NSW, it is largely a Seventh-Day Adventist town. The Adventist University, Sanitarium Food Factory and so on are all located there. Once an area establishes a specific orientation it attracts people who empathise with its philosophy. Most Adventists migrated to Cooranbong, then their children stayed on, most rebels move away. Some atheists and anti-Adventists do still live there. I personally know people from each category. The important psychological question is; Why are these people attracted to the Adventist faith and why so strongly as to move from areas around the country and world to be together? I consider Adventism to be a passive fundamentalism.

Before discussing the causes of fundamentalism, I try to provide a sort of working definition of this rather ambiguous term, which has become a popular and generally derogatory stereotype. The mass media tend to lump all radical religious groups or individuals together under this one stereotype of fundamentalist. The term fundamentalism was coined by the editor of the New York “Watchman-Examiner”. He wrote, …”fundamentalists are those who mean to do battle royal (my italics) for the fundamentals”. The Fundamentals were twelve volumes, published between 1909-15, to confirm the fundamentals of Christianity (Herbert, 1957 pp.9-10). The Fundamentals were written to reverse the liberal Christian’s failure to counter the forces of democracy, industrial and scientific progress which was undermining the Church authority (Cole, 1931 pp.52-54). Fundamentalism was the organised determination of conservative churchmen to continue the imperialistic culture of historic Protestantism within an inhospitable civilization dominated by secular interests and a progressive Christian idealism.

At this time the term Fundamentalist was one of honour, today however, as mentioned it is generally used pejoratively. As Shepard points out the term fundamentalist is not used by Muslims, the word does not exist in Arabic or any other Islamic language (Shepard, 1987 p. 358). There is no space to discuss a more appropriate term to describe Islamic fundamentalism in this essay so I will take Shepard’s lead and use fundamentalist in quotation marks when referring to Islamic (or Hindu) “fundamentalism”.

 Clearly the term fundamentalist no longer has its original meaning, it like the movements it seeks to describe, has evolved. As Barton mentions even if we were to use a new word, it too given the sensationalist nature of the media, would be, “misused and misunderstood in exactly the same way” (Barton, 1996. p.55). I do think we could perhaps use a descriptive, qualifying word with fundamentalist such as; orthodox-fundamentalist, militant-fundamentalist, active, passive and so on, this would at least help change the stereotype and provide more information. The Macquarie dictionary defines fundamentalism as: “…any movement which stresses the literal application of the text, as the Koran, Bible etc.” This is only one facet of a complex phenomena and is actually deceptive, “…it would be clear on semantic, literary and linguistic grounds alone that the fundamentalist position did not follow from scripture but frequently goes against it.” (Barr, (a) 1984 p.175).

 The use of the term fundamentalist in this essay, is qualified by the above, and embraces the following characteristics: (a) A belief in the inerrancy of a sacred text such as the Qur’an, Torah or Bible; (b) Intolerance of other belief systems; (c) A willingness to kill or be killed in upholding the truth;(d) A desire to be one of a group– to be obedient; (e) A personality easily swayed by charismatic leaders; (f) A desire to return to an imagined golden age’ a dislike of modernity; (g) Combining religion and politics to achieve aims; (h) A strong sexist, sometimes racist bias. (i) Obsessional, fanatical quest for purity. (j) A tendency towards anti-intellectualism or at least uncritical acceptance of a specific version of the sacred book.

 Not all fundamentalist movements have all of the above characteristics but they have a majority of them in varying degrees of intensity. After Marty’s insistence, (in capital letters) that fundamentalists have nothing in common, he goes on to list characteristics which they do have in common (Marty, (a), 1992. pp.17-18). Some of these are similar to those listed above. It should be noted that I am not making value judgements in presenting these characteristics. These attributes which help define fundamentalism also in a general way hint at its causes which I will now discuss. It is my contention that there is one root cause of fundamentalism and a number of secondary causes. The primary root cause is fear, this trait underpins all secondary causes. We human beings, from ancient cave dwellers, to contemporary sophisticated urban residents, are aware of our vulnerability. That is, how fine a line it is between being alive one minute and dead the next. Even those who refuse to acknowledge consciously, this tenuous hold on life, cannot escape the subconscious pressure of the inevitability of their own annihilation. In addition to this fear or perhaps more an extension of it, is the fear that after the demise of the psycho-physical organism there will be no afterlife. Fear of these two absolutes are the two most important reasons that have driven humans to develop religions and then to explain and control the natural environment. The above is in accord with, Fear of Death, as the most sound and plausible psychological theory of religion yet offered (Argyle, 1985. p.12). Religions developed in a way that most satisfactorily allayed the inherent human terror of insignificance and the prospect of non-existence. With this security, human psychological development takes place steadily and results in a confident, well adjusted adult, adjusted that is to the norm of the society in which they live. I contend that the active fundamentalist is not well adjusted. The cause of this maladjustment has two possibilities, either the majority of fundamentalists have some form of arrested psychological development or the fundamentalist finds it difficult, or unacceptable, to adjust to what they perceive to be a sick society.

 Shinn has suggested that typical fundamentalists, I believe he is referring to the American protestant variety, are stuck at Stage 3, “Synthetic-conventional” on Fowler’s scale of psychological development. This stage is the forming of identity and shaping of personal faith. People stuck at this stage tend to accept uncritically that which their peers tell them, they feel secure in a group and tend to become parochial and fanatical (Shinn, 1984 pp.91-98).

 I believe there is much more involved psychologically than Shinn suggests. Regarding, “acceptance of what our peers tell us”, most normal adults accept unquestioningly what scientists or our doctors tell us, (much to our detriment it seems), so either most of us have arrested development or it is not a significant characteristic of fundamentalists. Regarding “feeling secure in a group”, even the most cursory glance at anthropological studies show that group security is how we have survived since the dawn of civilization. To paraphrase Fromm, choosing not to be adjusted to a sick society is an attempt to achieve psychic wholeness, showing neurotic symptoms in this respect is a sign that there is still hope. Despite Freud’s insistence that, “…scientific psychology would replace the neurotic anachronism of church and clergy” contemporary opinion sees, “…religious activities as perhaps satisfactory social means of achieving psychological goals” (Hutch, 1983. p.13). So perhaps the active fundamentalist, driven by the same fear of not existing as the rest of us, is trying desperately to gain or regain a state of psychic wholeness, individually, and a resultant society more conducive to survival, generally. Allport sums up this drive;

                        A man’s religion is the audacious

                        bid he makes to bind himself to

                        creation and the Creator. It is

                        his ultimate attempt to enlarge

                        and to complete his own personality

                        by finding the supreme context in

                        which he rightly belongs (Allport,

                        1950. p.142). Whether the various different fundamentalist doctrines, if implemented on a large scale, would create a more sustainable future for society, is highly problematic and not within the scope of this essay. I will now discuss, what are generally considered, to be the major causes of fundamentalism, but which as I have attempted to show are really secondary causes to the root cause of fear.

Whether fundamentalists belong to major religions or minor cults, they see external events which threaten the way they believe life should be lived, as a major evil force. These forces may be connected with economic, moral, religious, cultural, social or political oppression (Shepard, 1987 pp.355- 377). It is at this point that Marty’s exhortation, that fundamentalisms have nothing in common, perhaps becomes relevant. Although the Protestant fundamentalists have aligned themselves with political parties at various times their main cause for concern is “the moral disintegration of society”. In their eyes this is created by popular music and movies, overly intellectual Biblical criticism and the increased visibility and acceptance by society generally of; gays, promiscuity, abortion, women’s liberation and so on (Marty (b), 1990). What they believe to be a literal interpretation of the Bible, that is God’s word, clearly tells them these things are evil (Barr (c), 1991 p.38). This situation is indirectly connected to a further cause of fundamentalism, failure of the Church (or the relevant institution in non-Christian religions) to enforce the true meanings of the sacred scriptures. This involves the increasing awareness that religious institutions are becoming ineffectual. The true meanings of the scriptures is a matter of often violent debate in Christianity and has resulted in the vast number of branches of Christianity.

Muslim “fundamentalists” are in a slightly more secure position regarding basic scriptural interpretation. The Hadith (Sunna of the Prophet) and after that Shari’a (Islamic Law) are a little more problematic as these were not dictated by God. All Muslims accept the absolute authority of the Qur’an and the Hadith, but that which constitutes Shari’a is disputed by the Shi’ites. Muslims are equally, if not more concerned than the protestants, about the moral disintegration of society. In addition however, the Muslims see Western imperialist superiority as the greatest threat to their culture. This arrogance and insensitivity to the traditional Islamic way of life is one of the reasons religion and politics are so closely interwoven in Islamic “fundamentalism” (Lewis, 1990 pp.47-60. It cannot be stressed enough that Muslims see the encroachment by Western colonialism as an all consuming force, which if unresisted, will destroy the very fabric of Islam. This is an important cause of Islamic “fundamentalism” and the basis of jihad or Holy War (Lawrence, (b) 1989. p.189). As an example of this fear of colonialism, the recent assassination of Tahar Djaout, an Algerian writer and journalist, was an attempt by Algerian Muslims to stop this man’s progressive ideas undermining their culture. Basically Djaout favoured the Westernisation of Algeria, he wrote in French rather than Arabic. French is still the official government language, even though the French have supposedly, officially left Algeria. He was repeatedly warned about his disrespect for traditional Muslim society but he took no notice (Compass, 1995). For fundamentalists, of most persuasions, the “moral disintegration of society” not only raises the fear of physical annihilation through increased crime, rampant sexually transmitted diseases, breakdown of the family and lack of nurturing and moral discipline for children, it also involves the vitally significant concept of sin. Fear of no afterlife is far more formidable than fear of earthly demise, so this drive to reduce the amount of temptations to sin is paramount for fundamentalists. Connected with moral decay as a cause of fundamentalism, though with separate problems, is Modernism. Fundamentalists fear the dominance of scientific reason, the mass media, innovation in scriptural interpretation, secularism, liberalism and permissiveness because they undermine the eternal truth of the scripture. Modernism sees truth as a condition of social and cultural factors, “…fundamentalists see the truth as unchanging and substantive…” (Caplan, 1987. p.21). Interestingly many fundamentalist groups use the despised mass media and promiscuous areas of society to promote their causes. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, uses the media and magazines such as Penthouse to shape moral consciousness in both citizens and politicians (Towne, 1984.p.31). Another aspect of Modernism as a cause of fundamentalism is the scientific reductionism of humans to spiritless bunches of molecules and chemicals. Science has failed in many peoples eyes, not only fundamentalist’s, to provide that which it’ originally promised but has also caused grave doubt about creation, eternal life and so on. Although racial prejudice is evident in many fundamentalist groups I do not believe it is actually a cause, it is more of a consequence of other causes such as cultural and socio-economic. However, one wonders when confronted with the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the south of the USA. Similarly patriarchal dominance and anti-feminism are strong traits of many fundamentalist groups, I think rather than being an actual cause are more of a co-cause. This is certainly the case today, however as Schmidt notes; The spirit of fundamentalism has an ancient history, especially with respect to sexist theology. Whether it was the Hebrew priests or rabbis       before and during Christ’s time, the Church fathers in the early church, Luther or Calvin of the Protestant Reformation period, or the sexist fundamentalists today, they all have one thing in common – they ignore or reject data and observations that do not fit their preconceived view of women (Schmidt, 1984 p.105). Socio-economic problems are never far behind other causes of fundamentalism. Just as Marx told the workers of the world to unite, many communities call on their citizens to unite. And to use religion as a basic creedal platform, to combat oppressive social or economic forces. A good example of this combination of causes can be shown with the Sikh problems in India. Sikh peasants are denied sufficient access to Punjab water supplies and unequal benefits of the green revolution. Coupled with decreasing employment opportunities for Sikh young people and the non-Sikh power in Deli, this situation poses a threat to the very survival of the Sikh people and their way of life (Caplan, 1987. p.7). This example is instructive because it shows the complexity of the secondary causes of fundamentalism, driven by the root cause of fear. I must point out that I do not use fear (of external forces) as the root cause of fundamentalism in a deprecatory way. Fear, resulting in fight or flight is a well known biological survival mechanism. I believe the difference between the normally religious person and the religious fundamentalist is that the fundamentalist is either more sensitive, or alert, to threatening forces, or is far more oppressed and therefore becomes sensitised and consequently takes action. There are over three thousand cults in America all of these have fundamentalist traits (New Internationalist, 1990). There are over thirty five different Christian sects in Australia alone, many of these also exhibit fundamentalist traits (van Sommers). As McNeill points out there have been reform groups operating for at least the last two and a half thousand years. However, there seems to be an increase in the number and activity of fundamentalist groups in contemporary society (McNeill, 1993. p.561). Distress caused by privation on a massive scale, personal uncertainty, isolation and extreme oppression;…can and often does find expression in fundamentalist movements that counteract uncertainty by emphatic affirmation of eternal truths… and    by forming supportive communities of fellow believers (ibid.). This is both true in rural villages of peasants and crowded urban slums, quite often created by peasants who have been lured to the cities. This lure may be in the form of government coercion, genuine desire for a better sustainable lifestyle (because rural possibilities are becoming more limited) or greed. The intrusion by the mass media into what were, not so many years ago, isolated villages, has presented traditional villagers.

with the extraordinary affluence of the West (ibid. p.563). The Taj Mahal might be extravagant but there is only one of these. The Indian peasant sees all Westerners portrayed in the various media as owning a kind of Taj, together with the high-tech luxury gadgets and cars to go with it. However much greed may figure in the cause of fundamentalism, I speculate that it is insignificant compared to the basic fear of starving to death or becoming a human machine in an urban slum to satisfy the dictates of an irresponsible, inhuman bureaucracy.

Obviously not all fundamentalists belong to the downtrodden of third world countries. Protestant American fundamentalists are largely from Middle America, with its attendant wealth and privileges. Fundamentalism exists in all countries and in all religious faiths, its members have many common traits and as separate movements have some quite disparate secondary causes. I hope I have shown that regardless of these secondary causes, which exist either separately or in complex combinations, the root cause of all fundamentalisms is the fundamental human fear of ceasing to exist either physically, psychologically or spiritually.


Bibliography & References:

Ahmed, I. Fundamentalism and Islam. World Focus. March-April, 1995. in, Religion and Modernity: The Case of Islam. 1996. Deakin University. Victoria.

Allport, G.W. The Individual and His Religion. 1950. Macmillan, New york.

Argyle, M. New Directions in the Psychology of Religion, in, Brown, L.B. (ed.) Advances in the Psychology of Religion. 1985. Pergamon Press, Oxford.

Barr, J. (a) Escaping From Fundamentalism. 1984. SCM Press, London.

Barr, J. (b) Fundamentalism. 1977. SCM, London.

Barr, J. (c) Fundamentalism – A Challenge to the Church. Quarterly Review 11/2. 1991.

Barton, G. Religion and Modernity: The Case of Islam. 1996. Deakin University, Victoria.

Caplan, L. Studies in Religious Fundamentalism: Introduction. 1987. Macmillan, London. in Religion and Modernity: The Case of Islam 1996. Deakin University, Victoria.

Cole, S.G. History of Fundamentalism. 1931. Greenwood Press, Connecticut.

Compass, ABC Television. Shooting The Writer 1995. (intro.) Salman Rushdie.

Hebert, G. Fundamentalism and the Church of God. 1957. SCM London.

Heisig, J.W. Imago Dei. A Study of C.G. Jung’s Psychology of Religion. 1979.

Associated University Presses, New Jersey.

Hutch, R.A. An Essay on Psychotherapy and Religion. 1983. Journal of Religion and Health. vol.22, no.1, Spring. 1983.

Lawrence, B.B. (a) Muslim Fundamentalist Movements: Reflections Towards a New Approach. in, Stowasser, B.F. (ed.) 1987. The Islamic Impulse. London.

Lawrence, B.B. (b) Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. 1989. Harper & Row, San Francisco.

Lewis, B. The Roots of Muslim Rage. 1990. The Atlantic Monthly, September.

Ling, T. A History of Religion East and West. 1968. Macmillan, London.

Marty, M. (a) Fundamentalism. 1990. Deakin University, Victoria.

Marty, M. (b) Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

in Kaplan, L. (ed.) Fundamentalism in Comparative Perspective. 1992. University of Massachusetts Press.

Marty, M.E. & Appleby, R.S. Fundamentalisms and The State. 1993. University of Chicago, Chicago.

Marty, M.E. & Appleby, R.S. Fundamentalisms and Society. 1993. University of Chicago, Chicago.

Marty, M.E. & Appleby, R.S. Fundamentalisms Observed. 1991. University of Chicago, Chicago.

McNeill, W.H. Epilogue. 1993. in, Marty, M.E. & Appleby, R.S. Fundamentalisms and Society. 1993. University of Chicago, Chicago.

New Internationalist. August 1990.

Pelikan, J. Fundamentalism and/or Orthodoxy. Cohen,N.J. (ed.) The Fundamentalist Phenomenon. 1990. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids.

Saeed, A. and Weeks, I. Sacred place and Scared Life in Islam. 1990. Deakin University, Victoria.

Schmidt, A.J. Fundamentalism and Sexist Theology in, Selvidge, M.J. (ed.) Fundamentalism Today. 1984. Brethren Press, Elgin.

Shepard, W. ‘Fundamentalism’ Christian and Islamic. Religion vol.17 October 1987.

Shinn, R.W. Fundamentalism as a case of arrested development. 1984. in Selvidge, M.J. (ed.) Fundamentalism Today. Brethren Press, Elgin.

Towne, E.A. Fundamentalism’s Theological Challenge to the Churches. 1984. in Selvidge, M.J. (ed.) Fundamentalisn Today. Brethren Press, Elgin.

van Velzen, H.U.E. `Bonno’ and van Beek. W.E.A. Purity: a greedy ideology. The Quest for Purity. 1988. van Beek, W.E.A. (ed.), Mouton, The Hague.

van Sommers, T. Religion in Australia. 1966. Rigby, Adelaide.


About the Author: Rob Harle is a writer, artist and reviewer. He writes poetry, short stories, academic essays and reviews. His work is published in journals, anthologies, online, and in books. He is on the editorial board of a number of international literary journals. Please see





  1. The trend towards textualism continued to spread with monotheism, almost becoming a defining feature. But literalism and centralisation led to fundamentalism and intolerance of diverse beliefs, as religious purists can use the texts to justify and expound very narrow definitions of what is acceptable.

  2. O K R Sivagnanam says:

    A deep analysis indeed of so vague a concept as religious fundamentalism, coming as it does from Rob Harle, the Writer, Artist, and Reviewer, all rolled into one!
    Varied and innumerable are the references he took to deal with the subject matter in detail.
    He abundantly made it clear that no one particular religion is the exclusive domain of fundamentalism, but pervades through all religions across the world.
    He cited psychological fear out of external factors like social, economic, moral, cultural, political and the like as the root cause behind fundamentalism.

    We can face the real fear by modes, fight or flight as he said.
    But fear of ‘existence of fear’ is purely psychological and it needs to be alloyed by the assumed forces for the better.
    That all religions strive for peace and harmony is a fact beyond controversy and every religion has its own way of achieving the goals.

    So good ,so long as they do not interfere with the methods adopted by others!
    We have to provide space for changes,favourable, for change is permanent in this world!

  3. O K R Sivagnanam says:

    It’s ‘ allayed ‘
    And not ‘ alloyed ‘
    Error is regretted.

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