Blog Post

What is fundamentalism?

Used to describe a particular variant of religious belief, the concept of fundamentalism has its origins in relatively recent US Protestantism, where it was positively connoted by those who identified as fundamentalist in reaction to liberal theology and biblical criticism. Scholars have pointed out that its widespread use as an epithet for Islam is somewhat misplaced, although it has now been translated literally into Arabic. In the context of Islam the term is used to designate extremists who resort to violence, not how different believers interpret scripture, although adherents to different denominations of Islam obviously emphasize different parts of the Qur'an and interpret Islamic law differently. In "An Uncertain Faith," I redefine fundamentalism as an underlying attitude toward the world that can support either of these religious usages, or indeed many other non-religious usages. The essential point is that what one believes, while obviously important, is often not as influential on behavior as how one believes. Any number of different faiths or creeds can and do provide the content for the former; whether one can be called a fundamentalist would depend on the latter. A fundamentalist, to wit, implicitly holds that what he believes corresponds to a single, underlying code that explains everything about the world, in its totality. The alternative to that position, what I call moderation, implicitly understands its beliefs to be at times competing but not necessarily exclusive interpretations of the world. This distinction is what explains the fact that there are vast numbers of believers in faiths that ostenisbly require of them strict adherence to the "word" of their sacred text, who nonetheless coexist with members of other communities and function perfectly well in societies and even in a physical world that would seem to be hopelessly at odds with the claims of that text.

William Egginton's picture
William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).