What is fundamentalism? Is it all bad? Can the term ‘fundamentalist’ be applied to Pagans?
What is fundamentalism?
The term fundamentalism originated in Christianity, when a series of books called The fundamentals was published, outlining five beliefs that the author considered it essential for Christians to hold. In that context, the term originally meant someone who adhered to these five beliefs. The movement was created in response to liberal theology and higher criticism; so in that sense it is essentially conservative.
Since then, the term has been applied to other religions (notably Islam), where it is characterised by a tendency towards literal belief in a particular interpretation of the scriptures or tenets of that religion.
There have been movements to take scriptures literally in the past, though whether we can back-project the term “fundamentalist” onto them is open to debate.
A commenter on this blog has argued that fundamentalists are not all bad, but are passionate in their beliefs. I am not sure that this is true — I think that fundamentalism is characterised by fear and insecurity.
Mystical and experiential religion is characterised by direct experience of the Divine or deities. The mystic recognises mystics from other traditions, and assumes that they have a similar experience with a different mythology (or with a different being or beings). Someone who experiences their religion in their heart usually has no need for rigid dogma and doctrine (unless the need to conform to a doctrine is imposed on them from outside).
Conversely, a person who does not have an inner experience of the Divine or deities may resort to fundamentalism to give them a structure or a sense of certainty. (I am not saying this is always the case, just that it is a frequent occurrence.)
Is fundamentalism all bad?
Well, not all fundamentalists are necessarily bad people, but if we define fundamentalism as a fearful response to critical engagement with doctrine and dogma, then the fundamentalist tendency can’t really be seen as a good thing.
If your faith is strong enough (because it’s rooted in an inner experience of your deities or deity), it ought to be able to withstand criticism, either from atheists, or from other traditions. It is possible to be a passionate adherent of your tradition, and still open to other views and to criticism.
Can Pagans be characterised as fundamentalist?
Where there is a tendency to be rigid and dogmatic about tradition or belief (e.g. “we’ve always done it this way, so it’s correct, even if it hurts you”, or “we believe this, so we act in a certain way, even if the belief is contrary to evidence and the action hurts people”), then yes, it is possible to be a Pagan fundamentalist.
Recently, Pagan Studies academic Sabina Magliocco wrote a guest post at The Wild Hunt, in which she discussed fundamentalist tendencies in Pagan traditions.
She defines fundamentalism as:
a form of ideology, religious or secular, characterized by a black-and-white, either-or, us-vs.-them morality that precludes questioning. It generally involves insistence on belief in the literal truth of some canon, as well as a concern with identity politics and boundary-setting. Fundamentalisms are inflexible and have difficulty adapting; they have a strong need for certainty and a clear sense of belonging, and anyone who disagrees is labeled an enemy or heretic.
She goes on to discuss whether this is applicable to contemporary Pagans, and finds that a certain rigidity has emerged around two particular topics: the historicity of Wiccan foundational narratives; and the reality of deities. She cautions against defining our community belonging by belief, because belief is provisional and changing. I recommend reading the whole article, and the paper when it becomes available.
I have also noticed a tendency towards rigidity when discussing gender roles in ritual. When I have questioned why a thing is done a particular way, and suggested changing it, people have responded with “but that’s the tradition”. Well, traditions evolve and change in an organic way; they are not fixed. They change in response to circumstance, and people’s needs.
A further indication of fundamentalist tendencies is the way in which some people have spread rumours about academics studying Pagan traditions that they are out to discredit Paganism and undermine it. This seems to me to be a fearful and insecure response, which is a characteristic of fundamentalism. In fact, as Sabina Magliocco points out, many Pagan academics have risked opprobrium from other academics by even writing about Pagan traditions and taking them seriously. They are also bound by a code of ethics; and in most cases, the academics who study Pagan traditions are also practitioners (either of a Pagan tradition, or of another tradition).
Whether or not we apply the label “fundamentalism” to these tendencies towards rigidity and dogma, we do need to guard against developing an us-versus-them mentality, and labelling people who disagree with us as enemies. We need to be flexible, open-minded, and inclusive.
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11 thoughts on “Fundamentalism”
I want to play devil’s advocate a bit here and suggest that the term “fundamentalist” is also applied to those who create and hold firm boundaries about beliefs or practices, regardless of their emotional motivations or whether they are trying to force anyone else to change their ways. Pagans are rabid individualists and don’t like being told what to do, and anyone who looks like they might possibly be saying something prescriptive tends to get tarred with that term.
I think many people in the Pagan community advocate for very loose definition of Paganism because they’re weary of conflict and just want everyone to tolerate and get along with one another. And while I’m sympathetic with that, I can’t help but think that such an approach, when taken too far, lends itself to theological incoherence and impedes community cohesion in the long run. If no one is trying to hold any kind of center, if no one is willing to be strict about what their group does or believes, then it becomes difficult to determine what Pagan identity is all about — and so we risk simply being absorbed into the New Age spiritual marketplace, which is almost entirely individualistic and because it sets no boundaries, also has no real group cohesion.
I’m a big advocate of interfaith work, and I find resonance in many world religions. And yet, I really do think there is a place in Paganism for hardasses, people willing to declare a set of fundamentals and stick to them, to help create a center for those of us who prefer blurrier boundaries. The world needs strict and conservative voices as much as it needs expansive, liberal ones — there’s a balance that’s struck in their dialogue that allows the creation of flexible structure.
There’s definitely places for people and trads that are hardass or meticulous reconstructionists or who have a very particular sort of theology and ritual interpretation. I think the problem only comes in when they try to assert that they are the only valid measure for what a “real” pagan is or when the eclectics try to define them out from under the umbrella. I think that’s the line one has to cross before you’ve gone over from traditionalism to fundamentalism. The former are valuable contributors to the diversity we have. The latter we stand nothing to benefit from.
I think, if there is no force involved (physical or political — i.e. no attempt made to take away others’ rights), I prefer the term “dogmatic” to “fundamentalist,” as Nicole suggests below.
Well, the reason that Cthonioi-Alexandrian Wicca is now its own thing is because after decades of peaceful inclusion in the Alexandrian family, there was a vehement disagreement over what constituted the “fundamentals” of Alexandrian Wicca–and what we do didn’t, apparently, count. I thought it was pretty amazing that things could be set in stone as “orthopraxic”, so much that a family that dates from the early decades of Wicca, and who descend directly from Alex, could be excluded, for reasons that I think Alex would have thought were ridiculous. But it’s all worked out–the fundamentalists are free to run in their packs, and we run in ours. I think we’re both allowed to howl at the moon. I haven’t actually asked.
I understand the argument you and Sabina are making but I’m very much against applying the term to Pagans. Fundamentalism is also a reaction to secularization and modernity, and as such is motivated by a desire to convert everyone else to its religious perspective (by force or persuasion, depending). Fundamentalists, particularly dominion theologists/Christian reconstructionists, believe that all of society’s other institutions (family, economics, law, education, etc.) should be subservient to their interpretations of Biblical “morality” and that only the right kinds of Christians should be allowed to hold public office, etc. Pagans simply don’t have anything comparable–we don’t even proselytize. I think we’d do better to describe the people you’re discussing as “dogmatic” or “traditionalist” (or “pains in the ass,” depending on your perspective ;)).
In my observations, people come to paganism with the tools that they have. In many cases, those are the tools of fundamental Christianity. Although they take on new religious beliefs in paganism, they do so using the tools that they know how to use. Thus, the large feeder of disgruntled fundamentalist Christians becomes fundamentalist pagans.
In hindsight, this is 100% rational and predictable. Fundamentalism in the US isn’t just an approach, it’s a set of cultural norms that extends to many aspects of life. These norms are so ingrained that the person has no idea that they even exist or that there are other norms.
This actually explains a whole lot of the various pathologies we see in the pagan movement. I think/hope as we get into second and third generations that paganism will flourish on its own terms and become less of an evangelical/Catholic PTSD encounter group.
What is fundamentalism?
From the oxford dictionary, http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/fundamentalism
“Definition of fundamentalism
a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.
strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline:free-market fundamentalism”
Is it all bad?
No, it’s only bad when coupled with zealotism.The definitions cited in the original post are definitions of fundamentalism coupled with zealotism as the template.There’s nothing bad about strict adherence to BASIC principles.
Can the term ‘fundamentalist’ be applied to Pagans?
Yes, it’s a noun and can be preceded by any relevant adjective which describes the type of fundamentalist being spoken about. The adjectives denote the BASIC principles which are adhered to.
The thing I characterise as a fundamentalist tendency is when someone asks if a custom or tradition can be changed because it hurts x group, and loads of people respond by saying “but we have always done it that way” and then someone asks “but why?” and they go, “because it’s traditional”, and refuse to change it, even though it is hurting some people.
I am all for trying to clarify the basic principles — as a collaborative enterprise, naturally.
I think Paganism as a movement will always be pluralist, but there’s definitely room for traditions within it that are more specific.
Even in its original, positive sense as a term of self-reference used with pride, “fundamentalist” nevertheless objectively referred to people who held extreme, reactionary beliefs. These were people who explicitly, and quite proudly, rejected science whenever it contradicted their narrow, literal interpretation of the Bible. Does anything remotely resembling this exist in modern Paganism?
When the word “fundamentalist” is used to refer to Christians or Muslims I think it is reasonable to challenge that usage unless specific groups and individuals are being referred to, and there must also be factual evidence that these groups and individuals have either explicitly promoted fundamentalist ideas (in which case there should be some kind of citation to where they have made such statements in their own words), or they have engaged in some kind of action that clearly demonstrates fundamentalist tendencies (and, again, some kind of reliable sources must be provided to support such a characterization).
But Maggliocco, Aburrow, & Co. never say who the fundamentalist Pagans are, nor do they provide concrete examples of what this “fundamentalism” is supposed to consist of. Instead they simply make vague McCarthy-esque insinuations about an “internal threat” within Pagandom.
“Pagan Fundamentalism” is a value laden term with extreme negative connotations for common people. I have documented in the below linked article how results of existing Pagan scholarship are already being misrepresented on Christian blogs with a distinctively negative agenda towards Paganism. I am very concerned that the present discussions about Pagan Fundamentalism will be used against Pagans in the same manner. See my article on this important issue entitled:
“Pagan Scholarship and anti-Pagan Propaganda” at:
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