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09 January 2015

IT IS wise to beware of religious qualifications, by which we mean phrases that attempt to quantify the amount of faith that a believer has. A few adjectives have their uses, such as "Catholic" or "Evangelical", since they correspond to a preference for particular styles of worship or theological views. Other phrases, however, imply a degree of commitment. Into this category we place such adjectives as "sound", "committed", "staunch", "born-again", even "devout". Apart from being hopelessly subjective, they imply that there exists another class of believer who is judged not to be religious enough.

Another term is used for those deemed to be too religious. This newspaper has long been wary of the term "fundamentalist". Although used loosely as a synonym for "extremist", it is a relatively precise term, referring to a believer who wishes to assert the historic core of his or her faith in opposition to modernising or liberalising interpretations. A commonly accepted definition comes from "Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, quest and prejudice", a 1992 article by Altemeyer and Hunsberger, describing it as "the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contains the fundamental, basic, intrinsic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity; that this essential truth is fundamentally opposed by the forces of evil which must be vigorously fought; that this truth must be followed today according to the fundamental, unchangeable practices of the past; and that those who believe and follow these fundamental teachings have a special relationship with the deity." Elements of this definition are familiar to most religious adherents, even enviable. Those who have this strength of hold on their faith reap the benefits of hours spent in prayer, and often display self-sacrifice in their service.

The test is their attitude to those outside the fold. Piety is often measured in relation to the failings of others. Those who claim a "special relationship with the deity" are not good at recognising that the deity may have catholic tastes when it comes to those whom he/she loves. Professor Ruud Koopmans bears this out in his work with Islamic migrants in "Religious Fundamentalism and Hostility against Out-groups: A comparison of Muslims and Christians in Western Europe" (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies; Routledge, Taylor & Francis). He found depressingly high levels of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and general paranoia among respondents who match the fundamentalist criteria - so much so that hatred of non-believers might be part of the definition of fundamentalism. It was for this reason that Christ asked the devout believers of his time: "Who is my neighbour?" The one who had the greatest claim to a special relationship with the deity chose to consort with outcasts and those judged to be unclean by the religious authorities.

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