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Religious Fundamentalism. An Ambivalent Phenomenon of the Modern Age

by Carla Herrmann
The conclusion that Thomas Meyer repeatedly puts forward is obvious: "Fundamentalism proves to be an indeterminate negation of the foundations of Enlightenment and modernization."
Religious Fundamentalism. An ambivalent phenomenon of the modern age
Bachelorarbeit, 2019
52 Seiten, Note: 1,7
B.A. Carla Herrmann (Autor:in)
[This paper posted in 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

1. religious fundamentalism - the ghost of modernity?

"A specter is haunting the modern world - the specter of fundamentalism. Those who insist on the legacy of enlightenment and modernization have allied themselves to chase the specter away. "1

This is how the political scientist Thomas Meyer gloomily describes the object of investigation and intention of his 1989 anthology, Fundamentalism in the Modern World. The International of Unreason" in its blurb.

Since the late 1970s, the "specter" of religious fundamentalism has increasingly been pushing its way into the (Western) media public sphere: In 1977, the Labor Party suffered a bitter defeat in Israel, and Menachem Begin from the Likkud bloc became the new prime minister, which gave a particular boost to Zionist movements that emphasized Jewish-religious rather than Israeli-national aspects and pushed ahead with the controversial construction of settlements. In 1978, Karol Wojtila is elected head of the Catholic Church; many see this Pope John Paul II as the conservative answer to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Finally, in 1979, fundamentalist Islam becomes the focus of media debate: Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Tehran early in the year to proclaim the Islamic Republic; in November 1979, armed Islamist groups of various nationalities occupy the Great Mosque in Mecca to protest against the Saudi ruling family, which controls the holy sites of Islam.2 3 4

What happened 40 years ago by now continues to influence how we think about religion, especially in its fundamentalist guise, to this day.

In the context of religious fundamentalism, a threat scenario is often drawn up: First of all, religious communities that display a seriousness about their faith that is unusual in secular society appear fundamentally suspect. It seems as if fundamentalist movements were the exact counterpart of a society that considers itself "modern" - even if this modernity, which in the ideological context is often equated with secularism or even laicism, initially remains vague.

Not only in the everyday context, but also in the academic context, there is often analytical vagueness. The term "religious fundamentalism" often remains underdetermined or is avoided altogether because of its negative connotation.5 This cannot be a satisfactory solution, since the phenomenon remains the subject of ongoing and sometimes far-reaching public debate, in which this paper also participates in the broadest sense.

Religious fundamentalism is a highly complex phenomenon that also poses a problem for social science, since its occurrence contradicts the basic modernity-theoretical assumption of secularization theory, which is sometimes dogmatically put forward, and which is already laid down by Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.6 It states that modernization processes have a negative influence on the stability and vitality of religious communities and religious beliefs and practices in general; in a nutshell: The more modernity, which implies increasing secular structures, the less religion.7 This is clearly contradicted by the current presence and diversity of religious fundamentalisms.

This insight also feeds the epistemological interest of this paper, as well as the following guiding question:

Why does the complex phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, which at first glance appears to be the very antithesis of modernity, occur in just such societies that are considered modern?

This question will be approached by first outlining the eventful conceptual history of religious fundamentalism, which is closely related to the genesis of religious fundamentalisms, and by presenting various attempts to define it.

Subsequently, various characteristics of religious fundamentalism are discussed, on the one hand those that would correspond to the character of the phenomenon as traditionalism or anti-modernism, and on the other hand subsequently characteristics that clearly contradict this image due to their specifically modern character.

Subsequently, the theoretical constructs of the social scientists Georg Simmel, Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, all of whom deal with the topics of modernity, ambivalence - a central explanatory pattern with regard to the central question - as well as religion, are discussed. Certainly, these three are not the only theorists who can be consulted on the topic at hand, but due to the limitations of this work, a representative selection had to be made. In addition to Georg Simmel, who can be considered a 'classic' and co-founder of the scientific branch of sociology, the choice fell on Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck, who are already closer to the present due to their life dates. Moreover, both pursue concepts that already divide modernity into several 'sub-epochs', namely modernity and postmodernity (Bauman) and first modernity and second, reflexive modernity (Beck), respectively. Although these distinctions should by no means be blurred - they will be clearly elaborated in the conceptions of the theories in 2.2 - they are ultimately approaches to show that the concept of modernity is highly complex and should be understood critically. This work follows this view, however, in the diction at a later point will no longer distinguish in detail between the individual terms; instead, mainly the term 'modernity' will be used against the previously described theoretical background.

By answering the research question posed above, this paper attempts to mitigate, at least to a small extent, the analytical vagueness mentioned above. It is noticeable, for example, that in the relevant literature religious fundamentalism is often described as a predominantly traditional to a clearly anti-modern phenomenon. The more precise connection with the epoch of modernity, in which it appears in its present form, is partially neglected or undercomplexly elaborated.8 The concept of ambivalence, which is applied here to the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, can offer a further explanatory approach to the connection between fundamentalism and modernity. Thus, this thesis hopes to contribute to a sharpened and explanatory analysis of the occurrence of religious fundamentalism within modern societies.

2 Religious Fundamentalism as an Ambivalent Phenomenon in Modernity

As just outlined, 'fundamentalism' is currently one of the most frequently used terms in the field of tension between religion, politics, radicalism, extremism and other current phenomena, which are discussed not only in everyday or media contexts, but also in academic contexts. In the following chapter, the subject of study will be approached first through its conceptual history, various attempts at definition, and an explanation of various traditional as well as modern characteristics of religious fundamentalism.

2.1 Religious Fundamentalism - Conceptual History and Attempts at Definition

The etymological origin of the term 'fundamentalism' - derived from the Latin fundare (to lay a foundation) or fundamentum (the foundation) - points first and foremost to a construction context. From the 14th century on, intellectual phenomena such as 'fundamental' ideas and principles were also covered by the word field. The "positive-emotional sense component "9 of the solid and secure remained. The 'foundation' with its positive connotation is contrasted with the suffixed 'fundamentalism', which now almost always has a negative connotation.10

This change in meaning is reflected in the historical genesis of the term 'fundamentalism':

Its origins lie in the U.S. evangelical sphere. Between 1910 and 1915, the twelve-part series "The Fundamentals. A Testimony To The Truth', in which fundamental dogmas of the Christian faith were to be laid down. More than 2.5 million copies were distributed free of charge to pastors, professors, and theology students throughout the United States, yet the immediate impact initially remained limited.11

Certainly also a response to the Fundamentals was the National Federation of Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptist, which spoke out against liberal tendencies in Protestantism. The theologian and editor of the Baptist magazine Watchman-Examiner, Curtis Lee Laws, cited the Fundamentals in an essay in 1920 and thus for the first time used the term with the suffix -ist (German: -ismus) in writing. Here, 'fundamentalists' still functions as a positive self-description within a theological argument.12

All in all, a conservative, Protestant collective movement developed, which presented its position in the Fundamentals and described itself - quite positively - as "fundamentalists", who wanted to orient themselves according to the fundamentals of the faith.

This grouping appeared, among other things, in the famous Scopes trial, in which supporters of precisely this fundamentalist movement demanded before a court in Tennessee that a state law be upheld that prohibited the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in school lessons. The lawsuit was won from the fundamentalists' point of view, but their position was largely discredited in public opinion. The image of an 'eternalist', aggressive and intolerant movement remained attached to the fundamentalists and certainly shapes their image to this day.13

After its origins in the religious, or more precisely the U.S. Protestant milieu, the term "fundamentalism" was successively applied to other groups. At first, it seems obvious to apply it to movements within other religions as well. However, this extension of the term also includes the transfer to other phenomena outside the religious framework, for example, to political groupings.14

This paper, however, will deal exclusively with religious fundamentalism, although none of them will be considered separately, despite the recognition of significant differences between the individual religions and groupings.15 'Fundamentalism' or 'fundamentalist' is hardly used today - here the analogy with etymology becomes apparent - as a positive self-designation as it was at the beginning of the century, but mostly as a foreign designation with thoroughly pejorative intent. Moreover, an increasingly arbitrary application can be observed for phenomena that are in themselves very different.

This poses the problem of definition for researchers - although there is no lack of attempts to find one. Karsten Fischer notes in this context, not only in everyday language but also in the academic context, an "exuberant boom of the concept of fundamentalism [...], which is at the expense of its analytical potency "16. In the following, three attempts at definitions will be briefly touched upon: Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby with their Fundamentalism Project have done pioneering work in the field of research to be discussed and should not remain unmentioned. Partly more recent are the approaches of Thomas Meyer and Martin Riesebrodt, which diverge significantly on certain points and for this very reason offer an interesting insight into the broad spectrum of fundamentalism research.

A well-known definition, which also influenced subsequent research to a significant degree, comes from Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, who, together with numerous colleagues, conducted the groundbreaking Fundamentalism Project in the 1990s and published five comprehensive anthologies on the subject. In order to grasp the phenomenon of 'fundamentalism', they use the concept of family resemblances, following Ludwig Wittgenstein. These include - among many other characteristics - a religious idealism, a dramatizing eschatological understanding, and a certain rhetorical and/or actual extremism.17 At first, the relation of fundamentalism to modernism may be surprising: the initiators of the Fundamentalism Project note that the relation of fundamentalism to traditionalism is less close than that to modernism, which is observed with a mixture of envy and appreciation. This is matched by the fact that the means of modernity are certainly used to achieve one's own objectives.18

In general, the term 'fundamentalism' describes, according to Marty and Appleby, "a kind of habitus of thought and pattern of behavior [...] found within modern re- ligious communities and embodied in certain representative personalities and movements. Fundamentalism is, in other words, a religious way of being that manifests itself as a strategy by which believers, seeing themselves as under siege, attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group. "19 20 In the 1980s, the German political scientist Thomas Meyer was one of the first in the Federal Republic to draw attention to the phenomenon of fundamentalism.

For him, fundamentalism is "a political ideology of the 20th century, as a rule with ethical-religious pretensions. "21 Here Meyer turns away from the genuinely religious understanding of fundamentalism, as it prevails with Marty and Appleby, and thus also recurs to the already mentioned extension of the term "fundamentalism. "22 Religion functions here only as a means to the end of enforcing political interests.23 By politicizing cultural differences, a specific identity policy and the supremacy of one's own culture are propagated in addition to a closed worldview.24 Finally, according to Meyer, its character as an "escape movement "25 from or before 'modernity' and its attributes is a salient feature of fundamentalism:

"Fundamentalism is the self-inflicted exit from the impositions of self-thinking, self-responsibility, the obligation to justify, the uncertainty and the openness of all claims to validity, legitimations of rule and forms of life, to which thinking and life are irreversibly exposed by enlightenment and modernity, into the security and closure of self-knowing absolute foundations. "26

For Meyer, the paradox of the relationship between fundamentalism and modernity consists in the fact that the foundations and consequences of modernity are fought with modern means. Here, the special relationship of fundamentalism to modernity already emerges, which will be an elementary component of the present analysis in the following.

Following Marty and Appleby, and in contrast to Thomas Meyer, Martin Riesebrodt presents a definition that again focuses predominantly on the specifically religious nature of fundamentalism.

For him, fundamentalist groups are "religious revitalization movements. "27 The latter can be understood as an expression of perceived crises; one such crisis can be "modernity. However, the movements are not directed against modernity as a monolithic whole, but only against certain partial aspects. This perceived crisis can be overcome by returning to one's own religious tradition. Fundamentalist movements thereby strive for a form of tradition that is as unchanged and unadulterated as possible.28

For Riesebrodt, specific characteristics of fundamentalism as a religious revitalization movement are, on the one hand, a comprehensive critique of contemporary society, which is accused of a religious loss of identity and a general moral decline. Furthermore, fundamentalist groups tend to "formulate and realize ultimate values and ideal social relations "29 according to a fundamentally patriarchal principle as well as to a "dogmatization of modernity based on the history of salvation "30.31

Contrary to Meyer's thesis, Riesebrodt does not consider the fundamentalism he describes to be political per se. Although the politicized form is only a phasic trait, it is often only in this form that it is actually perceived.32

Since this paper deals with a specifically religious fundamentalism in distinction to possible other forms of fundamentalism, it seems advisable to fundamentally follow Riesebrodt's definition of fundamentalism as a genuinely religious phenomenon that does not use religion solely as a means to a political end. Moreover, the characteristic of fundamentalism's special relationship to modernity, noted by Marty and Appleby as well as by Meyer and Rie- sebrodt, will be used as the pivot of the following analysis.

In order to further substantiate this understanding of religious fundamentalism and make it useful for the following analysis, traditional and modern aspects of the phenomenon will be discussed below.

2.1.1 Religious Fundamentalism - a Traditional Contrast to Modernity?

In the public perception, fundamentalism is often equated with religious traditionalism or even with a sharp contrast to a construct labeled with the catchword 'modernity'. Although this is usually too short-sighted, such attributions are not unfounded. In fact, religious fundamentalism exhibits a variety of characteristics that can certainly be counted as specifically tra- ditional or even anti-modern. To illustrate this, a few selected characteristics that point to this traditional character are explained below.

If we look at fundamentalist groups of different religious persuasions, we find that their actual coexistence is often characterized by a pronounced gender dualism and rigid sexual morals as part of a patriarchally shaped family and social structure.33

Another characteristic is a closed worldview according to one's own understanding of faith; this is accompanied by the propagation of clear and (as far as possible) unambiguous values and norms that structure the way of life of the followers.34 Such absolute truths, which in the case of religious fundamentalism go back to a transcendent authority that cannot be questioned,35 naturally seem outdated and outmoded in a 'modern' society that - at least in theory - tolerates ideological diversity or even strives for value pluralism - a first indication of non-modern aspects of religious fundamentalism.

Due to the absolute claim to truth that religious fundamentalists necessarily display on the basis of their transcendent ultimate justification, they must inevitably reject and criticize other 'truths' and principles derived from them. Particularly popular as a vanishing point for the (social) critique of fundamentalist movements is 'modernity', the starting point of which is often located in the thinking of the Enlightenment.36 If one generalizes these findings, the conclusion that Thomas Meyer repeatedly puts forward is obvious: "Fundamentalism proves to be an indeterminate negation of the foundations of Enlightenment and modernization. "37 Religious fundamentalism thus becomes the explicit antithesis of modernity and its principles, anti-modernism par excellence. However, this thesis can already be qualified at this point, since anti-modernist tendencies often show themselves only selectively. Martin Riesebrodt, for example, points out - also in a rebuttal to Meyer - that fundamentalist movements are often directed only against individual aspects of modernity. This point of view can prevent one from idealizing 'modernity' as a monolithic whole on the one hand and from understanding fundamentalism as a holistically bad and 'evil' antithesis on the other.38

Even if fundamentalism is not a holistically anti-modern phenomenon, it is nevertheless unmistakably characterized by a reference to tradition.39 In fact, it "falls back on dogmatized stocks of pre-modern traditions "40 in order to distinguish itself from modern tendencies on the one hand and to fight them on the other; the fact that it also uses modern means for this purpose and thus distances itself again from a pure tra- ditionalism41 will be discussed in the next point.

Nevertheless, traditions - in accordance with the background of the religious - "have the rank of an unquestioned authority in their fundamentalist reception "42.43 According to fundamentalist understanding, this tradition is carried through time as unchanged as possible, whereby it is largely immune to 'harmful' influences of the modernity to be rejected. Here, too, a restriction must be made: Fundamentalist groups of the present day no longer move in a - often indeterminate - pre-modern time, but within a contemporary society for which these traditions are, on the one hand, no longer self-evident and, on the other, represent merely one of many possibilities for orientation. Fundamentalists are thus no longer bound by the self-evidence of traditional religion, as earlier generations supposedly were; instead, a conscious decision must be made in favor of certain traditions.44 This act of decision already represents a modern trait that will be examined in greater detail below.

Thus, in summary, several characteristic features can be identified that attest to a - at least partially - traditionally influenced nature of fundamentalism: In addition to patriarchal structures in the communities, the closed worldview and the absolute claim to truth, which, however, can only be understood against the specifically religious background, appear to be extremely conservative, if not unfashionable. It was also shown that the criticism voiced by fundamentalist groups is often aimed at 'modernity', which was shaped by the Enlightenment, although it was pointed out that 'modernity' as a whole is usually not meant, and thus the designation of fundamentalism as pure 'anti-modernism' is misleading. Finally, the important role of traditions within religious fundamentalism was shown. On the one hand, they serve to establish and secure identity; on the other hand, they serve as a bulwark against undesirable modernist tendencies. In this context, an understanding of tradition is sometimes held that negates the change of traditions depending on their social and historical context. In fact, the literature points out that the selection and integration of traditions no longer happen automatically as in pre-modern contexts, but are now dependent on a more or less conscious decision-making process.

Now that reference has been made again and again in restrictions to aspects of fundamentalism that appear modern, these very aspects will be named and examined in more detail below.

2.1.2 Religious Fundamentalism - a Modern Phenomenon?

One limitation of the supposedly purely traditional or anti-modern character of religious fundamentalism that has just been named is the use of means that are generally considered 'modern'. In addition to the use of medical care or telecommunications, the dissemination of one's own views via mass communication media such as television, radio, or the Internet can also serve as an example.45 In general, modern techniques can be extremely helpful to fundamentalist groups for their own organization.46 According to Thomas Meyer, fundamentalism uses "the technical and organizational means that modernity has produced in order to combat its cultural foundations. "47 Ultimately, according to him, the motive for using these techniques thus lies not in the conveniences associated with them, but again in the aversion to the fundamental principles of the epoch in which these techniques emerged.

In contrast, Martin Riesebrodt notes that these same techniques are evaluated by fundamentalist movements in part neutrally with regard to their sociostructural implications, meaning that technicism is not necessarily equated with modernism, which is considered worth fighting.48

In summary, it can be stated that fundamentalist movements do indeed use such (technical) means of modernity that serve to achieve their own goals.49 If this goal consisted solely in overcoming modernity by fighting its basis, then it could be stated with Meyer that fundamentalists do indeed use the means of modernity solely to fight the latter. Contrary to this, the present analysis assumes that contemporary fundamentalist groups rather like to use its conveniences and technical possibilities to achieve their goals. However, the latter exhibit such diversity that the assumption of a sole focus on combating a monolithic 'modernity' must be considered an abridgement.

With regard to the modern aspects of religious fundamentalism, it is also worthwhile to look at the social structure of the respective groups. First of all, it is noticeable here that the composition can certainly be described as cross-class,50 which is reminiscent of the fact that the dissolution of rigid social classes is also generally postulated in contemporary societies. This heterogeneous milieu is homogenized by a shared worldview and value system and subsequently by common practices.51

Even more important in the present context is that fundamentalist movements recruit followers precisely from those strata that are considered "modern," such as students and graduates of various (partly Western-influenced) universities.52 An example of this would be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s, which became attractive to those who had gone through a Western-secular school system but ultimately did not experience socioeconomic progress or advancement in the bureaucratic system.53 Fundamentalist movements thus appear to be quite attractive to well-educated and 'Westernized' strata, whose members are at the same time unconvinced by modern system logic.

Recruitment from the educated population points to another interesting connection, namely that between fundamentalism and science. These form a partly peculiar connection. Within fundamentalist groups, for example, there is a tendency to recognize as (religiously) true "that which holds up in the forum of scientific provability. Creationism can be taken as an example here, and it occupies a prominent position in fundamentalist Protestantism in the United States within its critique of society, especially of the education system. By acknowledging (natural) science, which is actually rational and at times enlightened, and by making partial use of its repertoire of arguments, religious fundamentalism shows a tendency that clearly contradicts the claim that it is clearly traditional or even anti-modern in character.

Something similar can be said for the relationship between fundamentalism and politics, although again this can only be done very briefly. In order to achieve their goal of reshaping the social order, fundamentalist groups often use the channels and force of politics55 - even if the latter is at least as often the focus of their critique of society. In doing so, their politics are not justified in secular terms, as in other well-known ideologies, but are explicitly religious. This lends their political actions an absolute moment due to the underlying sole truth of their own beliefs, which may well be successful.56 Once again, the genuinely religious nature of fundamentalism is evident here, which nevertheless does not exclude an incorporation of modern modes of action.

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