How will these resources help you? 

In the 20th century, many thinkers in the social sciences predicted that as societies became more industrialised and developed, they would become less religious. However, while secularisation has occurred in many countries, this does not mean that people are less religious. One approach to religion has emerged as a direct reaction to societies changing. Religious fundamentalism has emerged from different religious traditions but has striking similarities wherever it is found. Typically, religious fundamentalists believe that their scriptures are without error and to be read as literally true, which can cause conflict in the modern world. How and where fundamentalisms have emerged, as well as the characteristics of fundamentalism as an approach, make a fascinating study topic. Fundamentalism can show us how religions adapt, and change in response to modernity, as well as help students understand more fully some of the world events happening around them. These resources will help teachers and students alike understand fundamentalism’s nature and how it manifests in different religious traditions. 

What is fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning

by Malise Ruthven, published by Oxford University Press, (2005), 9780192806062

In this concise and manageable guide to fundamentalism, Ruthven traces its roots back to the publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910) and brings us up to the aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Towers Attack in New York, 2001. Through clear and simple explanations, he covers broad similarities and themes that fundamentalisms hold and the contexts in which they are found. Through using the term ‘Family resemblances’, the author puts fundamentalisms together as a category while recognising that there will be differences in how they play out in a faith or setting. Key themes of fundamentalism are explored in the book around a literal approach to scripture, a need to be ‘set apart’ from other groups in a religion, the status and control of women, and the interplay between religion and politics through his final chapters on fundamentalism and nationalism. With its focus on real-world examples, this book is a good way to start to engage with the topic of religious fundamentalism. 

What fundamentalism isn’t


by R. Scott Appleby and Martin E. Marty, published by Slate Group, (2002)

The term ‘fundamentalist’ is controversial, and people are often reluctant to use it about themselves. This summary article unpacks the term using the extensive empirical research they have conducted as evidence. In addition, the authors dispel some common misconceptions about and misappropriations given to fundamentalism. Often, common narratives around fundamentalism are that it draws people from a lower social status into membership, that it is always violent, that it will oppose change and that it is centred around certain personalities as charismatic leaders. The authors show many examples of how this is not what fundamentalism is. They also explore issues around the term ‘fundamentalist’ and why many members of a fundamentalist approach do not adopt the word for themselves, encouraging scholars of religion to choose their language with care. This is a skill needed throughout the study of religion and worldviews, and the authors’ discussion around this term will encourage careful thought of our use of language in any area of study. 

Fundamentalism as a modern phenomenon

The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

by Karen Armstrong, published by HarperCollins, (2001), 9780006383482

In his book, Armstrong argues that while fundamentalism may seem to want to establish a purer form of a religion before secularisation and the dilution of modern approaches, fundamentalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon. First, Armstrong illustrates two ways within religion of approaching 'truth': mythos and logos. Mythos is concerned with timeless truths of ultimate meaning, and Armstrong shows that this was how the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were intended to be understood. A logos approach to truth arose during the Enlightenment, and, as a result, scientific searches for the truth have permeated the world. Fundamentalism is an approach to religion that applies a logos lens on a mythos truth, which is mistaken, and only possible due to modernity. Armstrong proceeds to illustrate this with in-depth, readable examples. These chapters would benefit students and teachers alike to gain a deeper understanding of how religion has evolved due to not only key historical events but also modernity itself. 

Debating fundamentalism through disciplinary approaches

In Our Time: Fundamentalism

by Melvyn Bragg, Karen Armstrong and Tariq Ali, published by BBC Radio 4, (1999)

Applying different disciplinary approaches to fundamentalism can lead to fruitful debating on its emergence and longevity in modern society. While this was recorded before some of the most influential events in recent history that shape our discussions around fundamentalism, the themes that scholar of religion Armstrong and political activist Ali debate are as current today as they were in 1999. Armstrong suggests that the attack of secularisation and rationalism on religion has caused fundamentalism to emerge. At the same time, Ali counters that states’ failure to democratise caused people to turn to religious groups for a sense of power and agency in their lives. A discussion of the rise of the Taliban at a time before 9/11 and the Allied invasion of Afghanistan places this podcast at a pivotal moment in the history of fundamentalism - a moment which is still relevant today for those studying religion and worldviews. 

Further Materials

Zaoui: Religious Extremism and Our Response by Ahmed Zaoui, published by Scoop Media, (2005) Read this article
On sexuality, gender and the ‘true nature’ of women in fundamentalism: An interview with Dr. Maxine Margolis by Gabriel Leão, published by Women's Media Center, (2019) Read this article
The Reith Lectures: Runaway World – Tradition by Anthony Giddens, published by BBC Sounds, (1999) Listen to this podcast
The Secularisation Thesis by Linda Woodhead and David G. Robertson, published by The Religious Studies Project, (2012) Listen to this podcast
Ruth Marx teaches Religion and Worldviews, is a Consultant for Religious Studies and PSHE, a Farmington Fellowship Scholar and a published blogger on Re:Online.

Text © Ruth Marx, 2023.