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Fundamentalism as a contested concept

19 February 2024

Fundamentalism is a contested concept. In ordinary language and public discourse, it is applied to actions, beliefs, or groups that we condemn, disagree with, or wish to delegitimize. Highly mediatized examples include Hamas, the Taliban, and the Iranian government and clergy, but also Hindu nationalist RSS, Jewish settlers, and Trump supporters. Such groups are characterized as violent, hateful, dangerous, as irrational fanatics having ‘their own truth’. Due to the negative charge of the concept, it is contested who should be called ‘fundamentalist’, and on which grounds. In the social sciences too, we find ongoing disagreements about how to conceptualize fundamentalism, which groups and people qualify as fundamentalists, and, more radically, whether to use this concept at all for research. One reason for these disagreements is that, although academic discourse on fundamentalism is more nuanced, we encounter negatively valanced conceptualizations there as well. The question is whether this infringes on the concept’s fruitfulness for research. This post shows why reflecting on the contested nature of the concept fundamentalism matters, and how considering the concept’s history can help with that.[1]

In the social sciences, fundamentalists have been characterized as irrational, dogmatic, militant, aggressive, and violent.[2] Sometimes the evaluative judgements are more subtle, for example when fundamentalism is defined as seeking simplified solutions to complex problems, and as holding on to an idealized picture of the past.[3] However, even seemingly neutral conceptualization of fundamentalism as anti-modern or reaction to modernity[4] reflect normative assessments. As pointed out by Williamson (2020) and Watt (2017), such characterizations present modernity and modernist values as standard, and fundamentalism and fundamentalist values as deviation.[5]

Do such negative evaluations and normative assessments encoded in the concept fundamentalism stand in the way of a fruitful scientific conceptualization? Some argue that they don’t.[6] If the evaluations and assessments are correct and help us to accurately represent significant aspects of the social world that we seek to understand, then these conceptualizations are fruitful. Others worry that such evaluations and assessments do stand in the way of a fruitful scientific conceptualization. They worry that the concept is denigrating and othering, and that it is Western-centric.[7] To substantiate these worries, scholars point to the concept’s history and the influence of the concept’s past functions on the concept’s development.

Why worry that the concept is denigrating and othering? In the beginning of the 20th century, the term was coined as a positive self-ascription by U.S. American Protestants who were willing to fight the ‘battle royal’ for the fundamentals of their faith.[8] Within few years, however, in public discourse fundamentalists were described as out of touch with progress, rural, and lagging behind cultural developments. Early scholarly conceptualizations[9] prominent in the 1930s reflected these negative evaluations, depicting fundamentalists as conservative, aggressive, rural, unreasonable, and anti-scientific opposing the progressive, rational, reasonable modernist.[10] While scholarship on early U.S. fundamentalism became less denigrating and othering in the 1970s,[11] the concept’s extension to include neo-evangelical movement in the U.S. after WWII was eyed with suspicion. Considering the concept’s history, some scholars suspected that the concept encodes the perspective of a dominant progressive and liberal viewpoint, depicting those opposing the view as abnormal, problematic, and in need for explanation.[12] Once we get rid of the negative evaluation and normative assessments, can we meaningfully distinguish fundamentalists from evangelicals? Is the concept accurate in denoting a real and relevant social phenomenon?[13]

In the late 1970s, in the light of global political developments, most notably the Iranian revolution in 1979, the concept fundamentalism was extended to include global religious revivalist movements. It started to mean a religiously motivated, militant resistance to modernity and, above all, to modern secularism.[14] Again, scholars worried that the extension of the concept’s scope was primarily motivated by the interests and assumptions of a dominant group, this time by liberal and oftentimes secular Western officials, journalists, and scholars who were suspicious of the revival of political religion.[15] Why is this problematized? Simplifying a little, the argument is the following: notions like anti-modernism and militancy had a specific meaning in the context in which fundamentalism emerged in the U.S.[16] When extending the concept to include non-Christian religions – an extension motivated by the concerns of Western actors – those specific, context-dependent meanings were unreflectively exported to other religious, cultural, and political context. To fit many different phenomena, the notions became vague – starting to mean different things for different movements. Scholars started to question whether it was possible to conceptualize global fundamentalism in an unambiguous, yet informative way. In addition, they started to wonder what justifies the focus on broad and abstract similarities between movements rather than the scrutiny of the many differences that come into view when zooming in on specific phenomena. Is it really informative to understand local and context-dependent phenomena through the lens of global fundamentalism? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to understand, for example, Khomeini’s movement in relation to local and specific conditions?[17]

Even if the concept is accurate, and if it is informative to understand specific phenomena through the lens of global patterns, its negative connotations may still hinder producing useful scientific knowledge and understanding. Several studies show their negative effects. First, they discouraged research projects that seek to understand the fundamentalists’ own perceptions, experiences, and meaning making practices.[18] Second, much research focusses on the connection between fundamentalism and problematic phenomena, such as terrorism, radicalization, extremism, authoritarian worldviews, dogmatism, and prejudice.[19] Few studies research fundamentalists in relation to positively valanced phenomena. And even though most fundamentalist movements are not violent, quietist varieties receive little scientific attention.[20] Third, the strong association of global fundamentalism with Islam in the public discourse has gone hand in hand with an excessive scientific focus on Islamic fundamentalism.[21]

What do we learn from the history and development of the concept of fundamentalism? At the very least we can learn from how the concept was applied. Knowledge about past applications of the concept and their effects, should make us reflect on the evaluations and assessments encoded in the concept and how they influenced research. More radically, we can ask how current conceptualizations are shaped by the functions the concept had throughout historic, cultural, and political contexts. [22] What then comes into view is the question why we conceptually represent fundamentalists the way we do. How did historic, cultural, and political contexts and power relations shape our conceptualizations of fundamentalism? How are they still reflected in what we classify as fundamentalist, how we represent it, and why we find it relevant to study? Such matters inform which knowledge and understanding we seek, how we frame our research questions, what does (not) come into view.

Reflecting on the concept’s history helps us to reflect on the origin, adequacy, and effect of the evaluations and normative assessments encoded in the concept fundamentalism. While there may not be one single answer to the question, which, if any, conceptualization of fundamentalism is fruitful for research, such reflections help us substantiate and assess different answers to that question.


This blog is the second post of the series “Extreme Beliefs and Behavior.” With thanks to the Extreme Beliefs Project (, especially Naomi Kloosterboer, Jakob Ohlhorst, Chris Ranalli, Nastja Tomat and Rik Peels. Research for this post has been made possible through the project Extreme Beliefs: The Epistemology and Ethics of Fundamentalism, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) in the program Horizon 2020 (851613) and by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.



Antoun, R. T. (2010). Fundamentalism. In B. S. Turner (Ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion (pp. 519-543). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Berger, A. L. (2018). Religious fundamentalism and political extremism. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 53(4), 608-615.

Blankinship, K. Y. (2014). Muslim “Fundamentalism,” Salafism, Sufism, and Other Trends. In S. A. Wood & D. H. Watt (Eds.), Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History (pp. 144-162). University of South Carolina.

Brasher, B. E. (1998). Godly women: Fundamentalism and female power. Rutgers University Press.

Bronstein, M. V., Pennycook, G., Bear, A., Rand, D. G., & Cannon, T. D. (2019). Belief in fake news is associated with delusionality, dogmatism, religious fundamentalism, and reduced analytic thinking. Journal of applied research in memory and cognition, 8(1), 108-117.

Bötticher, A. (2017). Towards Academic consensus definitions of radicalism and extremism. Perspectives on terrorism, 11(4), 73-77.

Campo, J. E. (1995). The ends of Islamic fundamentalism: hegemonic discourse and the Islamic question in Egypt. Journal of Contention, Debates in Society, Culture, and Science, 4, (3), 167-195.

Cole, S. G. (1931). The History of Fundamentalism. R.R. Smith, Incorporated.

Crawford, D. C. (2014). The Idea of Militancy in American Fundamentalism. In S. A. Wood & D. H. Watt (Eds.), Fundamentalism: perspectives on a contested history (pp. 36-54). University of South Carolina Press.

Desjardins, G. A. (2017). From Rallying Cry to Pejorative: The Taxonomical and Lexical Development of “Fundamentalism”. The Journal of the School of Religious Studies, 45, 121-150.

Dutilh Novaes, C. (2020). Carnap meets Foucault: Conceptual engineering and genealogical investigations. Inquiry, 1-27.

Erlenbusch-Anderson, V. (2018). Genealogies of terrorism: Revolution, state violence, empire. Columbia University Press.

Euben, R. L. (1999). Enemy in the mirror: Islamic fundamentalism and the limits of modern rationalism: a work of comparative political theory. Princeton University Press.

Furniss, N. F. (1950). The fundamentalist controversy, 1918–1931. Yale University.

Gregg, H. S. (2016). Three theories of religious activism and violence: Social movements, fundamentalists, and apocalyptic warriors. Terrorism and Political Violence, 28(2), 338-360.

Gregg, H. S. (2018). Religious resources and terrorism. Numen, 65(2-3), 185-206.

Harding, S. (1991). Representing fundamentalism: the problem of the repugnant cultural other. Social research, 373-393.

Harris, H. A. (1998). Fundamentalism and evangelicals. Oxford Theological Monographs.

Herriot, P. (2008). Religious fundamentalism: Global, local and personal. Routledge.

Hill, P. C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. Guilford Press.

Juergensmeyer, M. (1993). Why religious nationalists are not fundamentalists.

Kirby, D. (2019). The rise of religious fundamentalism. In K. Larres & R. Wittlinger (Eds.), Understanding Global Politics: Actors and Themes in International Affairs. Routledge.

Lawrence, B. B. (1989). Defenders of God: The fundamentalist revolt against the modern age. Harper and Row.

Marsden, G. M. (1980). Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Oxford University Press.

Moghissi, H. (1999). Feminism and Islamic fundamentalism: The limits of postmodern analysis. Zed books.

Nera, K., Leveaux, S., & Klein, P. P. (2020). A “conspiracy theory” conspiracy? A mixed methods investigation of laypeople’s rejection (and acceptance) of a controversial label. International Review of Social Psychology, 33(1).

Niebuhr, H. R. (1931). Fundamentalism. In E. R. A. Seligman & A. S. Johnson (Eds.), Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences.

Orekhovskaya, N. A., Volobuev, A. V., Kosarenko, N. N., Zakharova, V. L., Shestak, V. A., & Sushkova, Y. N. (2019). Religious fundamentalism salvation or a threat to the modern world. European Journal of Science and Theology, 15(4), 60-70.

Sandeen, E. R. (1970). The roots of fundamentalism; British and American millenarianism 1800-1930. University of Chicago Press.

Srinivasan, A. (2019). VII—Genealogy, epistemology and worldmaking. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,

Stańczyk-Minkiewicz, M. (2020). Interdependencies between religion, fundamentalism and terrorism. European Journal of Science and Theology, 16(4), 101-113.

Varisco, D. M. (2007). The tragedy of a comic: fundamentalists crusading against fundamentalists. Contemporary Islam, 1(3), 207-230.

Watt, D. H. (2010). Muslims, fundamentalists, and the fear of the dangerous other in American culture.

Watt, D. H. (2017). Antifundamentalism in modern America. Cornell University Press.

Williamson, W. P. (2020). Conjectures and Controversy in the Study of Fundamentalism. Brill research perspectives in religion and psychology, 2(3), 1-94.

Wood, S. A. (2014). The Concept of Global Fundamentalism: A Short Critique. In S. A. Wood & D. H. Watt (Eds.), Fundamentalism – Perspectives on a Contested History (pp. 125-143). The University of South Carolina Press.



[1] This blog post zooms in on fundamentalism, but similar considerations apply to concepts such as extremism, terrorism, and conspiracy theory. See Bötticher (2017) and Nera et a. (2020).

[2] For examples, see Berger (2018), Furniss (1950), and Niebuhr (1931).

[3] See Gregg (2018) and Orekhovskaya, et al. (2019).

[4] See, for example, Herriot (2008) and Kirby (2019).

[5] In addition, it has been pointed out that the Western trajectory of modernity has been normalized and seen as a prototype for the development of other regions. See Taylor (2017). Scholars then presume that the West is ‘further along the road of progress’. By understanding the West as more modern, developed, and rational, scholars again construct fundamentalists, and especially Islamic fundamentalists, as anti-modern, backwards, irrational, and dangerous other.

[6] See, e.g., Moghissi (1999), for a brief discussion see Watt (2017).

[7] See Blankenship (2014), Campo, (1995), Harding (1991), Juergensmeyer (1993), Varisco (2007), and Watt (2010).

[8] See, e.g., Desjardins (2017).

[9] See Cole (1931), and Niebuhr (1931).

[10] See Harding (1991).

[11] E.g., Sandeen (1970), Marsden (1980)

[12] See, e.g., Harding (1991), Watt (2017), Williamson (2020).

[13] See Harris (1998).

[14] See Lawrence (1989).

[15] See Blankenship (2014), Campo (1995), Harding (1991), Juergensmeyer (1993), Varisco (2007), Watt (2010).

[16] See Crawford (2014), and Williamson (2020).

[17] See Wood (2014).

[18] With a few examples such as Brasher (1998), Euben (1999), and Hill & Williamson (2005).

[19] E.g., Bronstein et al. (2019), Gregg (2016), and Stańczyk-Minkiewicz (2020).

[20] See Antoun (2010), and Williamson (2020).

[21] See Blankinship (2014), and Watt (2017).

[22] As Srinivasan (2019, p. 10) notes, some philosophers hold that “such effects are just issues of ‘implementation’ that tell us little of interest about the normative standing of the representation.” They will want to use genealogical insights to improve the application or implementation of the concept. Other, for example also Dutilh Novaes (2020) and Erlenbusch-Anderson (2018), take genealogical reflections to inform us about “the normative standing of the respresentation,” to use Srinivasan’s words.

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