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My Problem(s) With Fundamentalism: A Blast from the Past

What are fundamentalists, and why don’t I like them?  Here is a post I published almost exactly four years ago now.  My views have not changed!



You note that fundamentalism is dangerous and harmful. How do you define fundamentalism and why do you think it’s dangerous?


There are of course actual definitions of “fundamentalism” that you can find in scholarship on religion, but I sense that you’re asking more for a rough-and-ready description. Years ago I started defining fundamentalism as “No fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.

When I was a fundamentalist myself (yet to be described) I understood it in a positive way. Originally, in Christian circles, it referred to believers who held on to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which for us included such things as the inspiration of Scripture, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, and, well, probably a collection of other doctrines. Fundamentalism, for us, was to be differentiated from liberalism, which had sacrificed these basic fundamental doctrines to the gods of modernity. And we would have nothing of it.

Some scholars today understand fundamentalism to be an inordinately conservative branch of a religion (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, for example) that stresses that it alone has the truth, that insists that everyone agrees with its perspective, and that focuses exclusively on religious issues with no interest in for broader concerns of society such as social justice.  I don’t agree with that last bit.  But I do think that…

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  1. Avatar
    Judith  January 15, 2017

    The grandmother who reared us insisted on never showing our knees when in dresses but then we were in shorts and halter tops all summer.

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    Vern Koers  January 15, 2017

    Bart, would you “please” explain to me what you mean by “nuggets” in the Bible? Also would you please give me many examples so I can see more clearly? I hope all is well with you and yours! Thanks so much!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re referring ot.

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    Silver  January 16, 2017

    You speak from time to time of your young students and how sometimes they bring very fixed ideas (perhaps from a fundamentalist background) to their studies. How important in your life, filled with so many interests and commitments, is your undergraduate teaching programme? Do you sometimes gain fresh insights from your young students which set you off in a new direction? I do not believe that you set out to ‘convert’ them but do you see them develop a more open-minded outlook as a result of your work together?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      My undergraduate teaching is terrifically important for me personally and professionally. But no, I almost never get new insights into my fields of expertise from undergraduates. They simply don’t know enough yet. And yes, I do want to guide them to become more open-minded to views they do not personally hold.

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    drussell60  January 16, 2017

    Great explication of the nature of funDAMentalism Dr. Ehrman. I grew up with that demon haunting my mind and ended up writing about in my doctoral dissertation as a way to exercise it out of my life ( I was interested in it historically as well). I focused on the intellectual agenda of the new evangelicals who attempted to reform fundamentalism. Ha! What a joke! Anyway, I really wanted to say that my entire perspective on fundamentalism changed forever after I consumed James Barr’s classic work, ‘Fundamentalism.’ He cut right the core in that book. Biblical/textual studies took care of the rest.

    BTW, looking forward to hearing you speak and my PhD alma mater MSU next week.

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    llamensdor  January 17, 2017

    To attempt to understand the 2d Amendment it’s necessary to utilize the same kind of critical thinking and historical investigation that you use, Dr. Ehrman, in understanding and interpreting Jewish and Christian scripture.. I doubt that there was a single founding father who didn’t believe that every person in the United States, adult and young adult, didn’t have the individual right to bear arms, although Quakers like Franklin wouldn’t for religious reasons exercize that right, and violent criminals might lose that right. And it was essential for the freedom of all that from that body of people, “a well-organized militia” could be formed. In effect, the entire population of individuals able to use weapons — is the (potential) militia, from which a “well organized militia” may be formed. But without the population in general having the individual right to bear arms, there would be no-one to be organized at any given moment into a “well-organized militia.” Madison, for example, would never have believed that his state, Virginia, had the right to designate who could bear arms; that would only be another possible form of tyranny. And there were local militias, area militias ans well as state militias. I don’t say there is no other possible interpretation–the woods are full of them, I state my own credentials as a member of the bar of Illinois, California and the U.S. Supreme Court. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court got the conclusion right. But I don’t really understand why this is a religious issue.
    And by the way, the phrase “social justice” doesn’t appear in the Constitution–this is a much later invention.

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    rburos  January 17, 2017

    As mentioned above the Catholic church is making a huge effort at stamping out fundamentalism. Classes I have been taking have been putting out stuff I would never have thought would come from a church–Adam and Eve weren’t real people, we have no real clue what the Exodus was (probably a bunch of slaves who escaped with an Egyptian leader named Moses?), there wasn’t a “conquest” of Canaan, Jonah didn’t live in the belly of a fish, etc. etc. The Church is not afraid of the work of archeologists, anthropologists, textual scholars, etc. But I do still see a big divide between what is taught in seminaries (which doesn’t differ very much at all from your teachings or the authors you brought us to), and the views of the rank-and-file. For some reason, priests aren’t coming out of seminary and teaching the latest and greatest to their congregations.

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  January 18, 2017

    Excellent post!! I have found that Fundamentalism also has a psychological appeal in that it provides certainty in an uncertain world. No need to think or fear anything all answers are in the book!! As a practicing Buddhist I actually encountered a Fundamentalist Buddhist on the internet. This person believed if you’re not a practicing vegetarian then you’re not a Buddhist!

    One area that bothers me about Christian Fundamentalism is its placing their biblical Fundamentalist views over that of empirical science. One such Christian Fundamentalist, whom I referred to before, rejects evolution, the age of the earth, all in favor of Intelligent Design. He recently joined the Flat-Earth crowed. Frightening thing is that he is an educator!

    When I was completing my Master’s Degree a Christian Fundamentalism got upset with me because I wasn’t going to use the Bible in my therapy sessions!

    I feel your entire work refutes Christian Fundamentalism, but if you ever do write a book about Christian Fundamentalism I would assuredly read it!

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    RonaldTaska  January 19, 2017

    Great post! Thanks for sharing it. I agree that what they teach children is very harmful and destroys minds.

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    john76  January 21, 2017

    “Reconstructing God’s Answer To Jesus’ Prayer In Gethsemane:”

    From Jesus’ desperate prayer in Gethsemane, we learn that Jesus, fundamentally, didn’t want to die, and on top of that did not believe he needed to die for God’s plan/goal to be realized:

    36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

    Jesus desperately begged God to spare his life. Whatever Jesus thought God said in response to this prayer, Jesus gained the courage to carry out his mission.

    Jesus probably thought God told him that God would send a divine being to save him from the cross. Once he was on the cross, however, Jesus became convinced that God had abandoned him, and called out:

    “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34)

    Jesus was desperate for God to send him a divine rescuer, who he thought might be Elijah, the great prophet of old:

    35When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” 36Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” (Mark 15:35-36)

    The divine rescuer never showed up and Jesus died. Had God broke his promise to save Jesus? No!

    Just as the masses didn’t understand the message of Jesus because he spoke in parables, Jesus didn’t understand that when God said in answer to his desperate prayer He would save him, it would not be through divine intervention, but rather glorious resurrection.

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    madi22  January 24, 2017

    Bart is it true that the early church actually banned believers from reading the bible for themselves? If so was there a punishment if they got caught with one?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      No, not the early church. But it did become an issue in later times.

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