beliefs in society: fundamentalism


Religious fundamentalists

Religious fundamentalists are those who take their faith to an extreme that most worshipers do not. They believe that their holy texts are literally true and they are, therefore, blind to rational or scientific arguments. 

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Religious texts are seen as perfect

As such they must be read literally – be it the Bible, the Qu’ran or the Torah.  One consequence of this is that fundamentalism rejects religious pluralism.  This has important implications for what schools teach, with some religious schools not treating all belief systems equally or actively choosing to focus the majority of religious teaching on one faith.

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There is a profound rejection of modern society

Modern society is seen as morally corrupt, evidenced in the family, for example, where sex outside of marriage and lone parenthood has become the norm.  Living in the modern world is seen as problematic because of the variety of choice. Fundamentalists reject the idea of choice and assert the value of tradition.

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Activism is strongly encouraged

Fundamentalists are vocal in their struggle of good against evil. Media images often focus on fundamentalists protesting against modernity, for example, it’s not uncommon to see activists campaigning about the right for certain religious groups to have their dress codes respected.

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Fundamentalists have a political agenda

Absolute opposition to homosexuals, abortion and birth control. New Right thinkers are implicated here; they believe family values are key to stable society and condemn all alternatives that threaten this.


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Fundamentalists favour a world in which control over women’s sexuality, reproductive powers, and their social and economic roles is fixed.

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Use of modern technology

While rejecting modern culture, fundamentalists often make use of modern technology to achieve their aims.  This may include computers, the internet, televangelism and military weaponary.  

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Giddens argues that the growth of fundamentalism has been a response to and product of globalisation.  Giddens contrasts fundamentalism with cosmopolitanism, a way of thinking that embraces modernity and is tolerant of new ideas; where individuals are constantly reflecting on their beliefs in light of new information.  Bauman argues it’s a response to postmodernity with its increased freedom of choice leading to heightened levels of risk and uncertainty.  While some embrace cosmopolitanism, others are attracted to the claims of absolute truth and certainty that fundamentalism offers.

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Bruce believes that fundamentalism is found in monotheistic religions (where there is one God); he argues that polytheistic religions (multiple Gods) offer more scope for different interpretations and no-one has an overriding claim to absolute truth.

While fundamentalists share the same characteristics, Bruce argues that there are different causes.  The first is found in the West and is often a reaction to the changes taking place (think New Christian Right).  The second is often found in the Third World and is a response to changes being thrust upon a society from outside and people see Western values as being forced on them.

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Davie examines forms of secular fundamentalism and uses France banning pupils from wearing religious symbols and making it illegal for women to wear the veil in public. Therefore, it can be argued that fundamentalism can be both religious and secular.

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Certainty in a world of choice

Certainty in a world of choice:  Fundamentalist groups appeal to those who seek a moral anchor in a world of unlimited choice.   Modernity creates moral ambiguity – a profusion of choices and a lack of guidance. Fundamentalist religion is an antidote to this.

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Personal transformation

Personal transformation:  Fundamentalist groups have drawn in members from all social groups because of its promise of a direct spiritual experience.  Salvation and communion are at the heart of a fundamentalist’s life. 

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Huntington argues that religious differences are causing an ‘us and them’ mentality and conflict is often the result, for example, 9/11.  Competition between civilisations for economic and military power can be resolved more easily than religious differences that are deeply rooted in culture and history. However, Casanova is critical of these claims, arguing that they ignore clashes between civilisations, for example, between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

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