Recently I overheard an excerpt from a conversation between a couple at the beach: “they’re fundamentalists; they can be dangerous people.”

I don’t know what kind of fundamentalist he was talking about because any person can be a fundamentalist about any topic.

The tone in which anyone says “fundamentalist” nowadays is invariably negative, because fundamentalism of any kind has come to be equated with intransigence, intolerance and judgmentalism.

It was Christians in the USA who first became known as fundamentalists because they agreed on particular propositions that one should believe in order to truly be a Christian. This was in reaction to the teaching in theological faculties such as that in the University of Tuebingen. Some of these schools, having been shaped by the Enlightenment, took an antisupernatural attitude to the Bible, considering that understanding, obtained through scientific methods, of how the world worked meant
that supernatural influence could be discounted. In other words, if there was a “natural law” that could account for a phenomenon, God could not be reponsible for it.

In response, fundamentalists held about 20 beliefs that they considered essential for Christians; such as that God is the primary author of the Bible; that Jesus was raised physically from the dead. In holding to these foundational beliefs, their apparent refusal to accept as Christians others who rejected these beliefs, seemed unkind and intolerant to others. (NB Intolerance doesn’t equal hatred; intolerance equals unacceptable.)

So intolerance, intransigence, and extremism came to be considered as attitudes concomitant, or even synonymous, with the word “fundamentalist”.

The problem with this is that the original denotation of the word applied to the basics, the essentials, the
foundation information about a topic. Thus, it is necessary to learn the fundamentals of, for example, physics – such as about the four elemental forces – before you can go on to knowledge that is built on that foundational knowledge. As the saying goes, “You have to walk before you can run.”

It isn’t necessarily bad to be a fundamentalist. It is fundamental to a civilised society that both order and justice should be maintained, and that the weak should be protected. it is fundamental to human health that we eat healthfully and exercise. It is fundamental to scientific study that we hold to the axiom of uniformity of natural laws, that what we perceive through our senses accurately
reflects what actually happens in the world and that when we think about what we have perceived, our thought processes are trustworthy; which, if the human mind is the result of a huge number of undirected events, is highly improbable.