Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

October 23, 2001


            The biggest problem in religion today is fundamentalism.

It makes faith the province of fanatics.  It discredits the thought and the work of believers.  It reaffirms the prejudice of secularists, who see religion as foolish at best and dangerous at worst.

            After the recent terrorist attacks, we are keenly aware of Islamic fundamentalism.  But fundamentalism exists in all religious movements.  There are Christian and Jewish fundamentalists as well as Islamic ones.

There are also Catholic “fundamentalists.”  Today, for example, the followers of deceased Archbishop Lefevre are a sort of Catholic fundamentalism.  They cling to a wooden reading of church documents, rejecting what Cardinal Newman called the “development of doctrine.”  In past centuries other Catholic “fundamentalists” silenced Galileo and held the trials of the Inquisition.  

Fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon.  But fundamentalism has grown into a world-wide force in religion in the last century. English author Karen Armstrong has outlined this development of fundamentalism in her book “The Battle for God.”

The common denominator of fundamentalism is fear.

Fundamentalists are afraid. They are afraid of new ideas, afraid of the modern world, afraid of the challenges of science and afraid of the future.  They are also very much afraid of interaction with (and contamination from) other religious groups. 

I think that secretly their greatest fear is that they might be wrong. 

You know how when people are in a discussion and they fear they might be wrong, they often just shout louder.  That is what fundamentalists do. The modern world is a threat to their ideas.  They cannot isolate themselves from it in this global electronic village. So, they have to shout it down.

Fundamentalists hide behind what they falsely think is “orthodoxy.”  It is not orthodoxy but rigidity.

One thing that all the fundamentalists of every faith have in common is a wooden and literal reading of their scriptures.  In a sense they close their minds when they open their books, whether the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament or the Koran.

Because they think that outside world is contaminated with error, fundamentalists feel the need to withdraw to isolated compounds to maintain their purity. Remember David Koresh and his “branch Davidians”, on their ranch in Waco or Jim Jones and his followers withdrawing to Guiana.

Osama bin Laden withdrew to the mountains of Afghanistan to get away from and to battle the “contaminated” version of Islam found in his native Arabia.

When people are afraid, their defensiveness sometimes turns to violence.

Not all fundamentalists are violent, but every type of fundamentalism has its violent groups. Christians have the “Army of God” who discredit the pro-life movement by their murder of abortionists.  It was a Jewish fundamentalist, a rabbinical student, killed Yitzhak Rabin, because he thought Rabin was betraying Jews.  Moslems, threatened by a dominant western culture, have their violent fundamentalists who strike out at the world.  Often the violence is directed “within”.  It was Moslem fundamentalists who killed Anwar Sadat in Egypt because they thought he had sold out to Israel and the U.S.

Fundamentalism is a big problem, especially for believers because it is so seductive.  People want certitude.

They want to think that they know the absolute truth.  They want to think that they know all the answers. That there are no shades of gray, no questions, and no doubt.  

The problem is that the kind of certitude that fundamentalists want has nothing to do with faith.  Faith accepts what it cannot prove. That is why it is faith.

Faith recognizes that God is beyond our ability to express.  That is why we need liturgy, sacraments, music, poetry, and art.  Faith is about infinite mystery.  It is much more about the heart than the head.

The problem is that fundamentalism misunderstands faith.  It thinks that faith can be proven and that they have God as their captive. Fundamentalists are not obedient to God, they make God obedient to them.

True faith requires humility and leads to real peace, not violence. 

It is the meek, not the violent, who will inherit the earth.  That is fundamental but it not fundamentalism.