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Belief with its back to the wall

28 July 2009

Alan Billings reflects on fundamentalism in all its varieties

Religious Fundamentalism: Global, local and personal
Peter Herriot

Routledge £14.95 (978-0-415-42209-3)
Church Times Bookshop £13.45

THE word “fundamentalist”, like the word “fascist”, once had a precise and not a pejorative meaning. Both have been stretched to encompass types of religion and politics that liberals find disagreeable.

Although “fundamentalist” has mainly retained a religious reference, and “fascist” a political one, there can be crossovers: people speak of “Islamo-fascism” and “Marxist fundamentalism”. The first religious fundamentalists were those conservative Christians around the turn of the last century in the United States whose response to modern biblical criticism was to urge people back to the “funda­mentals” of the faith as they saw them: in particular, the idea that the Bible was the infallible word of God.

“Religious fundamentalism” took its cue from this as it went beyond the Christian context to embrace any faith that passes five tests: it feels threatened by the modern world and is fighting back; it con­ceives the world in sharply dualistic terms, such as good and evil; it be­lieves in the final authority of a holy book in all matters of human conduct; it is highly selective in its use of scripture, prioritising key texts; it is millennialist, looking for the breaking in of God’s rule which some believe can be hastened by human action now, such as jihad. Peter Herriot’s book is concerned with religious fundamentalism in this more stretched sense.

The principal aim of the book is to develop a theoretical under­standing of a very complex subject. Herriot is a psychologist whose method of approach is to take common themes and subject them to close, theoretical analysis, princi­pally from a social-psychological point of view — relating social-structural questions to the beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviour of individuals. He is particularly exer­cised with questions of culture and identity.

As religious fundamentalism is a global phenomenon, he concludes each themed chapter with a case study illustrating the theory with an example drawn from a number of the world’s major faiths in different parts of the world. These quite de­tailed studies will be of most value to the general reader and, as the author says, may be the best way in to the more theoretical discus­sion.

So there are accounts of al-Qaeda; civil Evangelical funda­mental­ism in George Bush’s Amer­ica; Gush Emunim — a form of Jewish religious nationalism; the home-school movement of the American religious Right; Islamic terrorist cells; the influence of Sayeed Qutb in the near east; the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta; and the controversy in Britain after Jack Straw’s com­ments on the wearing of the niqab by Islamic women.

The book is primarily aimed at academics. Although Herriot hopes for a more general reader, as he says himself, lively and opinionated polemic this is not.

Canon Billings’s new book, God and Community Cohesion, is published by SPCK.

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