.Visit to Osaka, Japan


If words have precise defnitions, the Dalai Lama is a fundamentalist.

In new media as in old, “fundamentalist” stars alongside “conservative”. The often incompatible positions the word “conservative” lumps together pigeonhole an old Soviet like Leonid Brezhnev with libertarian Paul Rand, Darwin-doubting African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Does anything really unite these people that would predict a broad range of views?

Also, “liberal” has morphed out of all recognition today. People are sometimes carelessly described as “liberals” when they are in fact “progressives,” that is, people who are prepared to sideline the very civil liberties that gave liberals their name in order to create an ideal state (in their view).

Paul Marshall, a religious freedom expert with the Hudson Institute, notes that the term “fundamentalist” is meeting the same fate. In 2006, he told an interviewer,

I think the term fundamentalist is a useless word. It doesn’t take people seriously. Fundamentalism treats a person’s beliefs as if they were a psychic condition. Also, if you still want to use the term, then you need also to talk about fundamentalist secularism and fundamentalist an awful lot of things. The key question is: what is a person fundamentalist about? What does someone actually believe? If people have very different beliefs, lumping them together as fundamentalists becomes well nigh meaningless. You can call Osama bin Laden a fundamentalist; you can call [the] Amish fundamentalists, but where does that get you? Their goals and way of life are very, very different. The question is: what do people actually believe?

Responding to an outpouring of hostility against “fundamentalists” after the 2004 U.S. election, he likewise noted,

Despite academic efforts to give it content, in practice the word signifies only “someone firmly committed to religious views I do not like.” It’s an epithet depicting people as abject objects to be labeled rather than listened to, dismissed rather than engaged in discussion.

It originated as a description of a series of Christian booklets called “The Fundamentals” published between 1910 and 1915 and focused on the nature of biblical criticism. They did not spring from the American South.

Canadians, usually Episcopalians, wrote many of them, with additional contributors from Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and England. The first, on “The History of the Higher Criticism,” was by Canon Dyson Hague, lecturer in liturgics and ecclesiology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, and examining chaplain to the (Anglican) bishop of Huron. It was followed by “The Bible and Modern Criticism” by F. Bettex, D.D., professor emeritus, Stuttgart, Germany.

The author of “Christ and Criticism” was Sir Robert Anderson, KCB, LLD. As a Knight Commander of the Bath (the third-highest British order of chivalry), he seems a far cry from the fundamentalists H.L. Mencken vilified in the 1920s as “halfwits,” “yokels,” “rustic ignoramuses,” “anthropoid rabble,” and “gaping primates of the upland valleys,” or even the people the Washington Post maligned 70 years later as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”

My work monitoring religious freedom and religious persecution around the world often brings me into contact with “fundamentalists” and “religious extremists.” Some of them are indeed the monsters that secularists portray: I have seen enough prisons, killing fields, and bodies, lost enough friends, colleagues, and cases, and fallen asleep in tears on enough silent nights, to have few illusions about the terrors produced by perverted religion (or, for that matter, perverted secularism, which in the last century piled up vastly more corpses than did religious extremism).

But there are also “religious extremists” I remember fondly. One I had the privilege of meeting believes he is the reincarnation of generations of religious leaders and was destined to lead his people. I don’t share his views, but I find him wise, with a delightful sense of humor. He is the Dalai Lama.

Jehovah’s Witnesses annoy many people by ringing our doorbells while we’re having dinner. But the growth of religious freedom in almost every Western country owes much to the Witnesses’ peaceful quest to be allowed to be conscientious objectors to military service.

Marshall goes on to cite many examples of religious extremists who do not seek to impose their views by force (the concept may well feel meaningless to them), and are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

Rhetoric against “fundamentalists” today is driven by hostility to the participation in public life of anyone who is guided by values that transcend their own or their group’s well-being (and therefore are hard to bribe, threaten, or coerce), not by concern about a specific, uniform threat.

The term “fundamentalist” might be salvageable if that were made clear, but it won’t be. The implications of spelling out the belief that people who do not vote with their wallets or their gut constitute a threat are not promising.

One real advantage of new media is that if we want to hear thoughtful comments free, instead of the stuff marketed by major advertising-driven outlets, promoting an unadmitted progressive viewpoint, we can do so easily and for free. (See, for example, Are traditional media dying? Who will they take down with them?)


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...