Nope, not that word. Shame on you for thinking it. I’m thinking of another word that can be nearly as effective as that one. Let’s turn our attention to another “F” word, a word that likely halts more meaningful conversations than the four letter one. I’m very familiar with this word, as I grew up in a culture where this term was tossed around as a badge of courage, but I’ve come to see this term has become a useless pejorative that derails most every political and religious conversation in which it appears. I’d like to suggest that, if we are interested in meaningful dialogue with others of opposing points of view, we ought to retire this word from our discourse.
The word is fundamentalist.
This term jumped into the American consciousness as a result of the theological backlash against “Biblical higher criticism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conservative Christian scholars coined this term to refer to a simple and strict adherence to a (more or less) plain text reading of the Bible, standing by the “Fundamentals of the Faith” as expressed in the (loosely) Reformed tradition of Biblical interpretation (1). Throughout the 20th century, however, this term took on a much larger descriptive meaning, and-nearly universally-it has come to be regarded as a pejorative. While there are some exceptions (which I will discuss below), few people want to be regarded as a “Fundy.”
“Fundamentalist” is increasingly being used to refer to more than a simple religious literalism. In a lot of our discourse, atheists, progressives, and libertarians are frequently referred to as fundamentalists, the implication being “if you don’t want to be a fundamentalist, you should avoid these beliefs-or at least, don’t act like those guys.” Fundamentalism is a negative term that-for most of us-has come to mean “dogmatic.” I’ve even used a cute variation of the term in my discussions with strong gun advocates, referring to them as “Secondamentalists.” Lately, though, I’ve come to regard such descriptors as harmful and inaccurate, as I’ll describe below. Let’s put “fundamentalist” away for a while, for the following reasons:
It’s Ineffective as a Strategy for Argument
There’s a rich history in American political debate of avoiding argument in favor of ridicule. As an argumentative strategy, mockery can be really effective. In Frederick Douglas’ speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” delivered to a group of women’s suffragettes in 1852, Douglas powerfully resists arguing against the evils of slavery in favor of merely deriding anyone who holds the opposing view. The argument against slavery is over, so now is the time for a new rhetorical strategy. He asserts,
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
Douglas’ strategy is one that is frequently employed by politicians, pundits, and activists, and it does have a powerful payoff. If one can make her opponent seem absurd though ridicule and derision, one can effectively silence her opposition, many times without actually engaging her opponent’s claims.
Of course, in formal argument, one cannot simply make fun of her opponent’s position and assume she has won the argument. However, some ideas are so ridiculous that it does rational dialogue a disservice to actually address them, and one’s time can be put to better use than debating flat-earthers, for example. Still, there are good reasons, in most dialogues, to avoid ridicule in favor of good, engaging argument. Primarily, If you are committed to good citizenship, it does fellow citizens a moral and intellectual disservice to try to bully them out of their beliefs. The realty is, all you will likely win in such an exchange is your opponent’s silence instead of changing your opponent’s mind, and by using such a strategy, you’ve (at least in part) told the person you ridicule that their (sometimes deeply held) convictions amount to a punch line. Additionally, an often unforeseen consequence of this strategy is that absurd ideas continue to persist, and their strident defenders are more than happy to point out that their arguments have not been defeated. See below for a dramatic example of this phenomenon. Even if you regard an idea as foolish, more often than not, ridicule will not defeat foolishness.
In our discourse, if we wish to change other people’s minds, we cannot afford to merely write off and ridicule an idea or a person as “fundamentalist” as it will not accomplish our desired result, and-many times-this will do damage to our own position. People we see as fundamentalists are citizens, as are we, and despite the damage that their dogmatism might do, we ought to regard them as worth engaging.
Another significant problem with using the term “fundamentalist” to label an idea or person with which we disagree is that, in most cases, it’s a poor use of the term. As with many labels we use in day-to-day speech, “fundamentalist” refers to more than the Westboro Baptist or suicide bomber types. If you are interested in specificity in your dialogue, you must recognize that fundamentalism has a far narrower meaning than it connotes in its current informal usage.
Fundamentalisms, regardless of their individual religious or ideaolgical distinctives, share a number of common characteristics. For a nice survey of these characteristics, one might take a look at Jakobus M. Vorster’s excellent survey article in The Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, (Winter 2008). Vorster presents the standard characteristics that ideological and religious fundamentalisms share. When one considers this list of characteristics, it becomes clear that many of the people we call fundamentalists are not fundamentalists in even the loosest sense:
- The literalist use of central texts-Christian fundamentalists, for example, believe that the world is literally 6000 years old, and that the historical events depicted in the Old Testament, actually happened. Fundamentalist Muslims, hold that jihad refers to a literal, physical command to battle infidels.
- Traditioning-Often, fundamentalisms rely heavily on the historical past, glorifying pivotal historical events and defending liturgy and practices based upon historical precedent.
- Casuistic ethics-Fundamentalisms possess a legalistic ethical system that is rigid and enforces an outwardly strict lifestyle.
- Reactionary in nature, prejudice, and intolerance.
- Formation of the “in-group” or “inbreeding”-Fundamentalists of all stripes are well-known for discouraging marriage outside the fold, starting denominationally specific schools and colleges, and practicing exclusive politics.
- Reliance on strong leadership-fundamentalist ideologies are authoritarian in nature, so in fundamentalist circles, important ministers and clerics hold tremendous influence over their followers. Disobeying the leadership of a conservative Christian church, for example, is often described as tantamount to disobeying God.
- Inclination to violence-It’s easiest to see this characteristic in Muslim fundamentalism, but because of the militaristic nature of Christian fundamentalism, this sometimes manifests itself in violent acts such as attacks on abortion clinics and providers.
Given these characteristics of fundamentalist ideologies, it is clear that many of the ideologies we refer to as “fundamentalist” are not fundamentalist at all. It is a misnomer to refer to “Atheist fundamentalists,” for example, because atheists don’t privilege a literal reading of some sacred text and are generally opposed to traditional clerical authoritarian structures.
If we value accurate language in our descriptions of others and their belief systems, we need to carefully use terms like “fundamentalist.” Most of the time, what we mean when we describe someone as a fundamentalist is that they are too dogmatic, and it would be more accurate to characterize them as such.
For Fundamentalists, it’s a Badge of Honor
The final reason it might be a good idea to stop describing people and ideas as fundamentalist is that actual fundamentalists are proud to be fundamentalists! If you intend this label to create suspicion of an idea or a group of people who hold that idea, using this term may have the inverse effect. Actual fundamentalists label themselves as such, and if we attempt to ridicule that position by labeling it in a way we regard as pejorative, we inadvertently contribute to the reactionary nature of their belief system, and strengthen their feeling that they are being persecuted. Better then, I think, to avoid using this term.
All in all, I think that we ought to merely avoid using the term in our dialogues in the marketplace of ideas. It’s ineffective, inaccurate, and it reinforces fundamentalism’s persecution complex when we label people this way. We might be better off not using the term for a while.
(1) For more on this, the reader might consult James Barr’s book Fundamentalism, (London: SCM Press, 1981).