Critics of religion often warn against the danger of
fundamentalism. Without doubt, many philosophical convictions and worldviews
carry a risk of exaggeration and narrow-mindedness that may result in political
extremism. But that is equally true of secularist movements – perhaps even more
than for religious ones. It is therefore regrettable to observe how the term
“fundamentalism” is being turned into an instrument of demagoguery by certain
secularist movements, which themselves are much more extremist than any of the
religious groups they are targeting with such critique.
With such labels extreme secularists seek to discredit the
very idea that religious believers should have the right to manifest their belief
through practical observance. In that sense, they term as “fundamentalist” any
genuine religious belief (that is, any belief that has practical consequences)
and attempt to subvert the right of all citizens to act according to their
An example of this tactic came to the attention of the
Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe
recently, in the form of an unsolicited submission from a group calling itself
the European Humanist Federation (EHF) to the European Commission research
project, RELIGARE. The purpose of RELIGARE is to explore adequate policy
responses to religious and cultural diversity as a social reality in Europe.
The purpose of the EHF, however, seems to be evict religion from the public
square and seriously curtail the freedom of citizens to act according to their
religion and their conscience.
There are two important points that seem to escape the “humanists”
attention: firstly, that decisions of conscience (such as “conscientious
objection” against abortion and euthanasia) are usually based on well-founded
reasoning rather than on religious belief, and, secondly, that, even if the
conscientious objection were religiously based, there would still be the “right
to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and
observance”. This is explicitly recognised as a human right in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the
European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights.
This is not to discount the risks of (religious and secularist) of fundamentalism. But
there is a need for all participants in this debate to understand what
fundamentalism is, and what it is not. The term has its origin within the
Protestant community of the United States in the early 20th century, where
those who disputed certain irreducible theological beliefs (the “fundamentals”)
were considered to stand outside the Christian community.
Today, the term “fundamentalism” describes a blind and
uncritical observance and a disregard of facts in favour of one’s faith or
This reproach does not hold true with regard to mainstream Christianity.
The basis of Christianity — as, for example, laid out in the authoritative
teaching of the Catholic Church — is generally not an interpretation of
Scripture in which every word must be taken literally, but a living tradition
which integrates divine revelation, classical philosophy and modern science.
An openness to adapt philosophical and theological positions
to scientific findings is a characteristic trait of Christianity. This explains
why the Catholic Church has always promoted and sponsored scientific research.
Indeed, some of the most important scientific discoveries were made by
practising Catholics, among them many priests (such as Nikolaus Kopernikus and
Gregor Mendel). However, scientific research should not be carried out in a
moral vacuum: the purposes and methods of research have moral implications one
needs to be aware of. At the same time, moral judgements should be based on scientific
One example of this is the Church’s doctrine on abortion.
Paradoxically, some pro-abortion advocates today call on the Church to revert
to a position some theologians held during the Middle Ages, according to which
a foetus was not to be considered a human being until the second month of
pregnancy. This corresponded to an opinion held by many scientists of the time
who drew a parallel between the conjugal act and the sowing of a seed into
fertile soil. This view had to be revised when it was discovered that women
produce ovular cells, and that a new human being with a unique genetic identity
comes into being at the moment of conception, when an ovular cell and a sperm
merge into one. Contrary to a stereotype often found in the mass media, the
Catholic Church forms its moral judgments on the basis of the newest scientific
research – which, by contrast, is often ignored by “progressive” and
“enlightened” secularists whenever it comes into conflict with their own
Indeed, it is precisely the Church’s teaching authority that
protects Catholics from subjectivism, fideism or fundamentalism. Other faith
systems, including irreligious ones, are far less secure from such temptations.
This is easily seen in the case of Islam (which is based on a holy scripture
that must be understood in its literal sense), but it is also true for the
secular ideologies of the last century which had “scientific” pretensions (such
as the “dialectical materialism” underlying communism, and the Nazi concept of
a biologically superior “Herrenrasse”) which nobody was allowed to call into
The uncritical — and hence unscientific — belief in
evolution (as opposed to a critical stance that would view any scientific
theory as merely preliminary, and which would be mindful of the natural limits of
empirical science) can, in that sense, also be described as a secular
Dr Gudrun Kugler is a lawyer in Vienna, Austria, founder of
the Observatory on
Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and an advisor for the Fundamental Rights
Platform of European Union’s Fundamental
Rights Agency. The above article is an edited excerpt from her submission
to RELIGARE: Roadmap
Towards Freedom of Religion in Europe.