Fundamentalism, differentiation and the decline of religious authority

The word “fundamentalism” has been widely used in public debates over the past decade or two. In the same period it has become rather unfashionable among academics because they feel its meaning has become too fuzzy for the word to have any value. Many scholars believe we need to restrict our use of the word to the original fundamentalists of early 20th century US Protestants reacting against liberal theology, historicism and evolutionary theory. This raises important philosophical questions regarding the relationship of the scholarly language of the scholar of religion to the everyday languages of the groups and organizations that we study.

Reactions to modernity and globalization

The key argument in the book Fundamentalism: Prophecy and Protest in an Age of Globalization (2012) is that we can identify movements and ideologies and styles of religious leadership and mobilization in the world religions that may meaningfully be called “fundamentalist”. Fundamentalism is a reaction - or a plurality of related reactions - to modernity and globalization found in the world religions. Fundamentalism includes movements, organizations and people in many different religious cultures and I take examples that I believe are important from Protestant Christianity in the US, from Islam in South Asia and the Middle East, from Buddhism in South- and Southeast Asia, and from Hinduism in India.

I argue that we may use the word “fundamentalism” about them because they are the results of the same global historical processes. My goal in the first part of the book is to outline some of the main elements in these processes. To outline the early global history of fundamentalism in the world religions I look at the great political and cultural transformations that took place in almost every part of the world from the mid-19th century as the result of the global spread of Western modernity. In many parts of Africa and Asia, the transformations came as the result of colonization, while in other societies – I point to Turkey, Thailand and Japan as important examples – modernity was self-imposed in order to face a new and competitive international environment.

Differentiation and the loss of authority

One important aspect of modernization was that element of secularization that is often called differentiation. This is the process whereby the spheres of society – law, politics, science, education, religion – become independent of each other and develop clear boundaries towards other societal spheres. This is a necessary part of any modernizing process if that process is to include the setting up of bureaucracies, the framing of modern legal codes, the establishment of nation-building educational systems and so forth. Fundamentalists everywhere struggle to make religion regain some of its lost authority in other societal spheres, like politics, law, science and education, and it was the goal of the second part of this book to give some examples of how such struggles are fought.

The process of differentiation was closely linked to other important processes of change for religion in the modern world. From the 19th century we can see the start of a process in which traditional religious authority was being challenged and undermined in many societies. The undermining of religious authority started in Western Christianity with the Reformation in the 16th century. Protestant ideas about individual religious authority and the universalization of priesthood surely had some effect in several Asian and African societies as a result of the global spread of Protestant Christianity starting with the explosion of modern missionary activity in the early 19th century and continuing today with the Charismatic movements across the globe.

However, there were several other very important reasons why traditional religious authority has been challenged globally. The great political changes starting in the 19th century severed old ties between political power and established religious elites. The changes left religious elites without the status and support they had enjoyed in premodern times. States often nationalised the religious establishment and forced it into complete submission. There was a global shift in the relationship between political and religious institutions that can be observed in Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, as well as in Christian societies. In most places, the modern states severely curtailed the privileges of the religious elites and states implemented regulations and state control over religious institutions and their activities.

The end of religious monopolies

Everywhere the religious elites lost their position in society, and they lost their role as theological, moral, legal, educational, medical and scientific authorities taking part in a complex division of labour with political elites. The process of differentiation was a fundamental cause of the loss of status and authority because it boxed religious elites into their limited societal sphere and denied them any say over the affairs of other areas of society. The undermining of traditional religious authority was exacerbated by the diffusion of new technology, like printing, which contributed to breaking the old monopoly of the priesthood over religious and other texts. Through the 20th century, more and more people have access to the sacred scriptures, and other treasures of the world religions, and with growing access to the internet the process is probably accelerating.

Most importantly, religious elites have lost much of their status in the eyes of lay people. Details vary enormously, of course: in a country like Thailand, the Buddhist monkhood still commands respect, while in many Christian countries of Western Europe the priesthood finds itself in a crisis with declining prestige and failing recruitment. The fact is, however, that the position of priesthoods in all the world religions have taken a very severe beating and there is no sign in today’s world that this trend will be stopped or reversed. Both religious specialists and lay followers today know that the authority of the priest or monk is generally not backed by special links to real political power, nor is it grounded in a monopoly on religious truths, and if the lay followers wants, he or she may simply withdraw support or even establish a new sect and claim the status of a pastor, or a monk or nun. The recognition of such a claim comes down to how the environment perceives it: it comes down to charisma.

Objectified religion

From the late 19th century a new type of religious actor appeared on the scene. These are the middle-class people with some modern education who feel that their societies and their religious traditions are under threat from modernization and differentiation and who engage in political and religious activity to counter the threat. These new actors all share the modern concept of religion as an object that the believer should relate to in a conscious and active way. The process that we may call the objectification of religion took place in elite circles of educated people from the late 19th century and can easily be observed if one reads the thoughts of intellectuals in Egypt, India, Thailand, and many other places.

Religion in premodern times could not be extracted from the cultures in which it was embedded and its borders with law or science were fuzzy or non-existent. A religion today is something that one belongs to exclusively, consciously and unambiguously. The new middle-class people who took the responsibility to save their religious cultures from the destruction of modernity perceived clearly that their traditional religious elites had been sidelined and lost their authority. This led to the construction of new social and religious roles and one of these new roles is that of the fundamentalist. The fundamentalist is somebody who realizes the impotence of traditional priesthood and steps into the vacuum with a new message of religious regeneration.

Mimickry of Protestantism

One important aspect of the global spread of Protestant Christianity and its institutions was a particular style of doing religion. This style emphasized the urgent message communicated by preaching. Many fundamentalist leaders in all world religions engage in preaching in ways that mimic the styles of Christian missionaries. We see examples of the early beginnings of this new religious style in the late 19th and early 20th century in the innovations of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka as well in itinerant Muslim preachers in India. In southern Africa, too, the transformations brought by colonialism produced a large number or new preachers and preaching-movements.

Preaching is also a hallmark of modern Buddhist movements in Japan, and the mimicry of Protestant preaching styles is evident today in global televangelist, Muslims, Buddhist and Hindus. Fundamentalist leaders are often lay religious leaders taking on the role of prophets, preaching against impotent priesthoods, against lukewarm co-religionists, and against state power, in a struggle to halt or reverse modernism and its values and especially the process of differentiation, which has stripped religion of its influence over other societal spheres. Fundamentalism is the result of global processes that started in the Western world and spread, at different speeds and with different local adaptations, to all societies starting in the 19th century.

Torkel Brekke is professor of the History of Religions at the University of Oslo (UiO)

By Torkel Brekke
Published Mar. 27, 2012 10:51 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:47 PM