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What is Religious Fundamentalism?

The early 21st Century has seen the rise of various Fundamentalist groups, for example:

  • The increasing influence of the New Religious Right in the United States
  • The rise of Zionism in Israel
  • The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steve Bruce: Communal and Individual Fundamentalism

  • Communal individualism is that usually found in less developed countries and is primarily concerned with defending communities (or nations) against what are perceived to be ‘modernist’ threats such as western materialism, individualism, multiculturalism, and human rights. These are typically seen by ‘communal fundamentalists’ as secularising forces which undermine religion.
  • Individualist fundamentalism is more likely to be found within developed nations and is mainly associated with the New Christian Right in the United States – it is concerned with maintaining traditional values within the context of a stable liberal democratic nation state.

Five Key Features of Fundamentalist Movements

According to Chapman et al (2015) Fundamentalist movements share the following characteristics:

  1. A literal interpretation of religious texts, which are seen as infallible – they take their ‘moral codes’ straight from their sacred texts. A good fundamentalist is supposed to lead their life in accordance with the original sacred text of the religion, and there is little room for flexibility in this. However, one of the major criticisms of Fundamentalism is that religious texts are often obscure and they have been interpreted at some point by whoever is in power, so there is no such thing as a ‘literal interpretation’.
  2. They regard all areas of social life as sacred – Fundamentalists tend to impose their views on others in a society, and police people’s day to day behaviour closely to make sure that day to day life is being lived in line with their interpretation of the sacred text.
  3. They do not tolerate other religions – they have a monopoly on truth, and when Fundamentalists take power, they tend to purge the symbols of other religions from their area and persecute people of other faiths.
  4. They have conservative beliefs – Fundamentalists tend to support traditional gender roles and are against ‘progressive’ liberalisation, such as women playing a greater role in work and politics and they tend towards tolerance and even celebration of sexuality diversity.
  5. They tend to look at past religious eras with nostalgia, and sometimes want to change society back to how it used to be, before secularisation, when society was more religions

 Sources

Chapman et al (2015) Sociology AQA A-Level Student Book 2

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Explaining the Growth of the New Age Movement…

Steve Bruce points out that the New Age mostly appeals to successful, highly educated, middle class individuals, especially those working in the creative and expressive professions. The kind of individualist beliefs espoused by the New Age Movement fit in well with the world view of such individuals. The doctrine of self-generated success fits their experience of life so far, as they believe they have driven their own success through their own efforts, and New Age practices are a means of achieving even further success.

Bruce further points out that most New Age practices have been stripped of the need for any significant level of self-discipline – all that is required to develop one’s potential is to attend a weekly class, or engage in 20 minutes of yoga or meditation every day. There is no requirement to make any drastic life-changes (like many of the World Rejecting NRMs) and so this fits in well with the busy life styles which most people lead.

In short, Bruce argues that the New Age Movement fits the extremely individualistic nature of late modern societies.

Paul Heelas suggest four reasons why the the New Age Movement has grown in popularity in the Late Modern era:

  1. Modernity has given people a multiplicity of roles, many of which contradict each other, and many people as a result have fragmented identities. The New Age Movement offers people a chance to construct a coherent identity
  2. Consumer culture has created a ‘culture of discontent’ as people fail to find satisfaction in the products and services they consume – the New Age Movement offers an alternative way of seeking perfection, but still offering a choice.
  3. Rapid social changes associated with modernity lead people to seeking security.
  4. The decline of traditional religion has meant people have little alternative.

Ultimately the New Age offers a balance of solutions to those who both experience modernity as an iron cage and a crumbling cage – it offers people freedom, but within a structure they themselves construct.

It also offers people the chance to pursue both ‘utilitarian individualism’ and ‘expressive individualism’, just in different and potentially more satisfying ways than those options offered through consumer culture.