| Human Nature Review ISSN 1476-1084 | Table of Contents | What's New | Search | Feedback | Daily News | Submit A Manuscript |
PDF of this article
Download Adobe Acrobat Reader
Email the author
Author's web site
Send a response to this article
Search the web for related items
Contact the Editor

The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 469-482 ( 30 October )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/history.html

Original Article

The Origins and Nature of Fundamentalism in Society


Niccolo Caldararo, PhD., Department of Anthropology, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Ave., San Francisco, Ca. 94132, USA. 


The current debate on the nature of fundamentalism is outlined in this paper. Ethnohistorical materials are used to define the origins of this concept and to describe the function and structure of such movements in past societies. The relationship of identity, religion and global economy and hegemony are discussed as formative elements of fundamentalist movements. Some prospects for the future are presented.

Keywords: Fundamentalism, identity, legitimacy, hegemony, modernity, Islam, Religion, Christianity, Judea, fanaticism, traditional society, complex, Society, Roman history, social collapse, revitalization movements, Revivalist movements.

In the winter 1990/1 issue of Foreign Affairs, an article appeared written by Fouad Ajami, “The summer of Arab discontent”. It expressed the unique discomfort posed to the Arab world by modernism and Western political hegemony (as represented by the Gulf War). The article sketched the traditional well-springs of legitimacy which rest on rather fragile balance created by oil wealth and related commerce. The “wells of resentment” Ajami described have, in the past decade now passed, exploded on the world scene in blood and bitter conflict across the face of Islam. The form in which this explosion has expressed itself is often now termed “fundamentalism”.

In reading Judith Nagata’s article in the June 2001 American Anthropologist on Fundamentalism, I was taken by several parallel experiences. One relates to the fact that this is an article on a topic which all but ignores two of the major religious scholars who have published recent works on this topic, e.g., Karen Armstrong, who is not mentioned, and only one reference to Mark Juergensmeyer or any reference to one major anthropologist who has produced an important critical work on the subject (e.g., R. Firth 1996). On the other hand, it is curious that Armstrong’s book on this subject, Battle for God (2000) lacks references to anthropologists on religion (though she cites Said, Geertz, and Foucault, on other topics which is especially awkward when she discusses theories of the origin and function of religion). But while Nagata establishes the origin of the concept of fundamentalism in the USA, Armstrong and most religious scholars (as well as Firth) trace its origins to the Industrial Revolution or European Colonialism in the 15th century, or like Redfield (Transformations of Primitive Society) to agriculture.

We may dispute the importance of discerning the origin and precise use of the term, “fundamentalism”, but it seems more useful to describe the behavior in a manner that allows for practical comparison cross-culturally. One can certainly argue a species of Spencerian organismic evolution (Spencer, 1885) and trace a cycle from Rome’s rise to world domination and defeat of her Eastern contenders to America’s domination of the current political stage. One can even see parallels in the outline; a period of romanticism for the virtues of rustic life after its destruction by war and monopoly (see Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, etc.), and the struggle to pacify an unruly corner of the world beset by fanaticism and civil war (Palestine in both cases). We then could argue that it is the rise of complexity in society and the reduction in the traditional affections and duties which bind people into traditional community, which stimulates fundamentalism. This also was the theme of Ibn Khaldun’s, The Muqaddimah. The fanaticism which beset the Roman Empire is aptly described by Julian Augustus (better known as Julian the Apostate) and demonstrated by St. Augustine.

But we have long moved beyond believing that history must be philosophical, that it must have its basis in universal principles. The idea that there are parallels in the development of complex societies died with the positivism of the 20th century and its technological triumphs and the victory of the West in WWII, and certainly in the collapse of Communism. All of this buried the views that societies might have chronohistorical structure as Spengler proposed in his natural laws (1926-8) or as Toynbee (1935-61) argued (an elaboration in many ways of Ibn Khaldun’s ideas) in his lines of causation which he thought rule the course of cultures and civilizations. Nevertheless, events produce tantalizing parallels. Some new interpretations of similar trends in complex societies have been mentioned by Coe (1992) and discussed by Tainter (1988). The conflict between sections of society undergoing change, as in the Near East today or as described by Tacitus from the time King Antiochus (176 B.C.E.-164) attempted to introduce Hellenism to the arrival of Vespasian and Titus nearly two hundred years later, seem quite parallel. In fact, comparisons are striking in some cases, for example the relationship between the USA and Iran in the post-WWII period with the rise of Mossadeq, his suppression and the ensuing installation of the Shah and the eventual rise of an organized resistance movement which produced today’s religious state. Another parallel is that in 70 C.E. there were more people of Jewish extraction living outside Judea than within its borders, as is true today. Many of these people had become Hellenized, and in Judea the globalism of the Roman Empire threatened the idea of traditional life producing a violent response. What is different, other than the technology, is that the Roman state had no interest in the continued existence of Judea. Its main concern was to maintain the undisturbed transit of wealth through the Near Eastern corridor. The continued unrest within Judea constantly threatened commerce. However, this is quite different from the situation today, and adds considerable complexity to any resolution to the crisis in the area. The U.S. does have considerable interest in the continued existence of Israel, both due to the relationships with U.S. populations of people of Jewish extraction who support the state of Israel and the strategic value Israel brings to oil politics. But Rome crushed several rebellions in Judea, each led by more fanatical sects, each punctuated by acts of terror on both sides. However, the legitimacy of these sects to speak for a religion and a people has never been clear (Kahle, 1959; Schonfield, 1965). Diaspora or the complete removal and resettlement of peoples was a common policy of the Roman Empire and utilized by the Byzantine emperors later. It was a radical act of pacification and secondarily promoted integration. The struggle between tradition and assimilation in Jewish history is paralleled by that of the Basque.

In this regard, the role of a central government to local resistance in order to provide security and order often encompasses concepts of contested legitimacy, national or group identity. Sometimes these local resistances evolve into secret societies which become powers to themselves, like the Mafia. An example of resistance taking on a secret form is found in that of the Assassins. To understand this, an examination of what was the relationship of the Caliphate to the Assassins (1090-?C.E.) is instructive. The word originates from the Arabic, under the influence of hashish. They were also known as the Hashishiyun. They flourished in Syria and Persia, and under the Grand Master Sheikh al Jabal (or Hasan as-Sabah) who was known in Western Europe as the Old Man of the Mountain. They killed their enemies, sometimes in just acts, often in simple retribution for disobedience according to some authors. They are mentioned in narratives like that of Joinville's Memoirs of the Crusades (written in the 13th century) and called the "killers of kings" by Joinville's sources as well as followers of Ali (Ismaili sect) who held to a belief similar to the transmigration of souls, especially when one had killed in the service of the Grand Master. According to Steven Runciman (1962), murder in the interests of religious belief already had a long history among the orthodox sects of Islam by this time. Islamic and Christian rulers failed to defeat them, even Saladin was forced to make an accommodation. Their fortunes waxed and waned until the arrival of Hulagu Khan and the Monguls, during his conquest of Persia and Syria every castle and village they controlled was reduced to dust according to Gibbon.

It is interesting that the rule of terror caused by individual fanatic belief rooted in a subservience to one man could be destroyed by the fanatical mass of the hordes rooted in their mass hysteria of murder. It seems to be the alpha and omega of human, and in a way, primate behavior - the small group and its control dynamics vs. the mass in hierarchical execution. The key consideration, however, is the role: were the Assassins guardians of purity or contenders for power? This is a constant theme in Nagata’s discussion of Malaysia and it certainly plays a major role in any analysis of the secular regimes of Turkey and Algeria and their internal conflicts. But Nagata clouds the issue by her several references to the Luddites in her argument that fundamentalists do not reject technology – Medieval robed men using computers is her image – when she perhaps is trying to convey a more comprehensive rejection of the world like that of the Anabaptists who Luther found extreme in their faith. Or rather the Amish or Mennonites, their contemporary kindred in rejection of the order of what we call progress. It is unlikely that Ned Lud, whom the Luddites where named after (but perhaps never existed as a person, see Thomis, 1970), had carried his protest against working conditions to a theological position. But this clouding of the belief system with rebellion leads to considerations of other revivalistic movements which were authoritarian as well as fundamentalist, for example, Nazism. Can we theorize that the end result of a successful fundamentalist movement does not necessarily produce a throwback in time as many consider Iran and certainly the society created by the Taliban? What Nagata has shown us, perhaps, is that there is no consistent outcome in the multitude of cultural aspects that can be controlled by fundamentalist movements. The outcomes may be characterized by a reformation of the moral code without any significant change in economic activity or the basic function of other aspects of society. Theoretically this raises a number of central issues in socio-cultural anthropology and in the case of sects like the Mennonites the effects are quite systematic. Nevertheless, the key point here is again one of prediction. If fundamentalist movements can be characterized, if they are responses to certain stresses in societies, then can we predict the form these movements will take and the outcomes they will have? Can they reform societies, do they always result in violence or are they simply random responses of religious fanatics which are dissatisfied and maladapted discontents?

The rise of elites and the collapse of traditional values can be seen as a point of origin for restorative movements (one might also say, “revivalistic”). In this sense, the rise of the Arabian preacher Carmath A.H. 277 (see Gibbon, 1776) nearly coincides with the blossoming of the Cathars. In both cases these movements were critical of the established social order, one in Islam the other in Christendom. Both attempted the purification of a society they deemed not only wrong in the context of legitimacy (the defeat and murder of Ali being a central element in the success of Carmath and his followers), but contemporary society was, in their estimation, evil and religion was debased on the altar of materialism. Their destruction, in both cases, was a part of a process of establishing new forms of legitimacy and normalizing traditional ideas within a form of religious sanction which would evolve to create modern states. Firth (1996) has produced a brilliant discussion of how this has resulted in continued stresses both in the West and elsewhere. The challenge to power elites, to the concentration of wealth and to modernization gave rise to increasing stresses in the 19th and 20th centuries which fed to a certain extent Communist movements in the Third World. Firth, Armstrong and Juergensmeyer recognized that with the fall of the Soviet Block the expression of these responses to exploitation and modernization have fallen back to more traditional means of expression. Therefore, where Nagata attempts a genealogy of fundamentalism she may be simply confronting the process of production of a kind of social entropy within the present cycle of social evolution. A new form within a species specific system of adaptation. This adaptation elicits a response of repression every bit as forceful as that exercised by Rome two thousand years ago, but today the form of this repression whether by Russia in Chechnya or the USA in Mesoamerica conforms to a system called by Noam Chomsky, “the culture of terror” (1988). And I think it is apt to follow Chomsky in regarding the Reagan Revolution as a millenarian movement of a revivalistic type.

It is unfortunate that Nagata uses the Scopes trial as a vehicle to “epitomize” American Protestant fundamentalism, especially in light of evidence that the trial was a ruse by the town’s leaders to increase business (Gould, 1983). The trial was less an example of fundamentalism than of old fashioned capitalism. Certainly the point Nagata is trying to make here is a valid one, there has been a rising confrontation between a culture of science (as John Brockman has demonstrated in his collection of essays: The Third Culture, 1995) and that of religion. Nagata is right that what is developing is a mind-set immune to dialogue or alternatives, described also by Firth (1996) but strangely similar to that of the early Christians which so frustrated Greek and Roman intellectuals of the 2nd and 3rd century of the current era. Haywood (1958) attempted to counter one of Gibbon’s theories on why Rome fell, that Christianity disorganized and sapped its strength. Haywood argues that there were more profound administrative and cultural reasons, including the continued waste of resources in civil war. But he recognizes, in describing the career of Julian, that the early Christian Church engaged in a new form of organization and behavior which was new to Rome’s experience and which proved impossible to counter. This organization and energy was directed both against paganism and against factions of Christian groups, producing the Other as described by Nagata in a series of horrific sectarian wars which eventually led, in time, to the wars of the Reformation.

But Nagata is correct that the definition of fundamentalism as it is applied today has more to do with legitimacy, power, and identity than religion. We see this in the reaction to Hellenism which was similar in Judea as the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate with regard to the Essenes, Zakodites and others as we read in Josephus (Antiquities) and the documents themselves (Kahle, 1959; Caldararo, 1994a). Therefore one has to ask if fundamentalism is a theological problem or primarily a social one. William Greider in 1979 wrote for the Washington Post a piece which equated the aims of Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly with those of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran considering both part of a “New Fundamentalism”. The structure of this fundamentalism emanates in Nagata’s view from sacred texts common to the Judeo-Christian tradition and sets it within Gellners’ (1992) analysis of the creation of hegemony of the word as a weapon to motivate in contending with modernism. Kahle (1959) has shown this to be true in the past as does Armstrong (2001). Texts play an important role in legitimizing resistance and their destruction has been an essential part of conquest in ancient and modern times (Caldararo, 1994b). Walton (1992) has shown how important documents are as a part of a tradition of resistance which was also true in Mesoamerica, especially surrounding water and land rights (Caldararo, 1996, Hunt, 1972, 1978).

What is also remarkable is that while Nagata complains that fundamentalists are too often talked about and “…rarely do they speak for themselves,” she fails to allow them to speak in her piece. Nagata refers to Malaysian Muslim scholar Muzaffar, stating that this person would reject the concept of revivalism over the idea of resurgence, preferring a context of “past glories” of Islam. This is a constructed perspective, of course, seen differently from the plain of Siffin in the defeat of Ali, than from the siege of Arles and the triumphs of Abderame or Mohammed II. In the post-Soviet world Kaplan (1990) has placed war as a facet of survival in a world dominated by images of wealth and power associated with the West. He has borrowed from the analyses of Thomas Frazer Homer-Dixon who argues for environmentally driven wars based on increasingly degraded ecosystems and Martin van Creveld whose book, Transformation of War describes a culture of war developing today which is similar to that which existed in the Europe of the Thirty Years War.

Armstrong argues, (from Hodgson, 1974), that the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire and the Moghul Empires all achieved cultural renewal on a par with the Renaissance, and that in the 16th century these empires were the most advanced states of the early modern period but were formed in the conservative spirit of the pre-modern society. In this Burckhardt (1860) agreed, noting that in the evolution of the modern state as a “conscious creation, as a work of art.”, the modern despot (like Frederick the II) drew from the Saracen monarchs for methods and a “thoroughly objective treatment of affairs”. But here we find the basis for a departure in the comparative study of society. Burckhardt has been used for more than a century as a model of the origins of the modern state. He used, however, the despotic states as his guide and since his text lacks a timeframe, he confused the benefits of order and security which were the foundations for achievement in both commerce and art with the despotic state. The conditions for the great innovations of art, science and commerce which we associate with the Renaissance began in the late Middle Ages as Heer (1961) and Pater (1873) argue, with the democratic movements which installed republics in numerous cities in both Italy in parts of Europe. The destruction of these conditions, and the creation of the despotic states occurred at the end of the 15th and then throughout the 16th centuries in a process Burckhardt called “Spaniardization”, had a ruinous effect on Italy which Burckhardt felt continued to undermine political processes there to his time. This was characterized by a ruthless destruction of opposition and institutional corruption (1860:301-315). It is obvious that Burckhardt derives the process on subjugation typified by Frederick II and the House of Aragon from the same character which was engaged in the struggle against Islam and which resulted in Spain with the expulsion of both Jews and Moslems. At the same time Burckhardt describes how the Renaissance borrowed from Islamic traditions ideals of nobleness, dignity and pride exemplified by such heroes as Saladin. In fact, according to Burckhardt, Italian tolerance of the period was patterned after a perceived concept of Islam, but that it was a rejection of religion given the sordid history of sexual crimes, violence and materialism produced by the clergy, which led to the social revolution that made the Renaissance possible.

In this context then, the ruthless construction of the state and centralization of power was a characteristic of the 16 and 17th centuries. Armstrong tries to understand why Islam did not develop an economic and governmental structure similar to Europe and concludes it is the continuity of a traditional form of social life which had been obliterated in Europe. Given her argument, one might suggest that in reference to the transformation of Europe described by van Creveld, that this transformation was driven by a state of war, enflamed by religious fervor, but executed by pre-national formations which set the stage for nation-states. This scenario can be seen in the social wreckage today produced in civil wars which have gone on with increasing intensity and number since the 1960s (see publications by World Priorities). This is the expression of both the injustice of resource use and depletion and the resulting inequalities of social life. Upon these arises the fuel for contests of both legitimacy and identity which leads to fundamentalism. Todd Gitlin referred to this process of national inclusive identity disintegration in his book, The Twilight of Common Dreams, where he predicted increasingly bitter devolution of society into ongoing culture wars, though he was focused on the USA and its race and gender issues. Thus this process of fundamentalism and violence can be seen as a process to revitalization as occurred in Europe after 1648, according to Carl von Clausewitz.

Nagata decries the failure of the fundamentalism project, by Marty and Appleby, to produce common definitions or classifications and seems disappointed in their conclusion regarding the pervasive aspect of anti-modernity (see Eisenstadt, 1973 for a definition and discussion of the uses of this term). But again, I agree with Nagata that fundamentalism is more about identity than opposition to modernity. In this, however, I cannot agree with her dismissal of the work of Mark Juergensmeyer that he equates fundamentalism with terrorism. Here Nagata falls into the trap of essentialism that she claims has undermined others’ attempts to define acts and behaviors associated with this concept. “Terror” is as subjective a term as “fundamentalism”, and Juergensmeyer, like Kaplan, views the expressions of identity as formulated within the post-Soviet era as means of establishing a new sense of community. Nagata struggles with the expression and chastises some for characterizing it as Medieval and she is correct in rejecting the Luddite comparison as I have mentioned, though her use of the term is confusing. Nevertheless, terror, as Chomsky (1988) points out, can be state directed and a policy of action, or it can be as Juergensmeyer and Armstrong discuss, a means of identity by resistance whether it is by the anti-abortionists in America or the Irgun, IRA or the assassins of Rabin in Israel.

Nagata and most of the writers she cites are focused on the post-WWII period. Armstrong sets the 16th century as the beginning of an entirely new kind of civilization, bearing on the transformation of the West and the foundations of our present modernity. This is a minor point, but such people as Walter Pater (Studies in Art and Poetry: The Renaissance, 1873) and, Friedrich Heer, argue for an earlier beginning before the now more often cited seeding of Western Europe with antiquities and literature from the fallen Constantinople in 1453. Of course, this is the turning point for Burckhardt who romantically used Raphael to symbolize his thesis that the Renaissance was a break with the history of the Middle Ages, yet confines his first chapters to describing the creation of a type of systematic government based on the accumulation of ruthless chieftains in the service of centralizing dynasties. He begins this process, strangely in the 14th century, however. On the other hand, Adam Smith (1776) argues that the invention of a new form of money by the Bank of Amsterdam in 1609 was the signal event which led to the modern world. I tend to agree more with Dols (The Black Death in the Middle East) and people like William McNeill (Plagues and Peoples) and Johannes Nohl (The Black Death) that the Bubonic Plague had a significant effect on the reorganization of life in Europe which leads to the end of Feudalism and the rise of independent city states and then nations. Dols remarks on the different responses to the Plague of Europe and the lands under Islam. In one the control of belief was shattered, beginning the formation of a new world of thought and action, in Islamic countries the reaction was a retreat, and the creation of a perimeter from which thought and action have not ventured for nearly 800 years. Dols asks, why does an empire with the greatest universities and thinkers, scientists and writers withdraw into a closed vision of an earlier world? For Armstrong, who begins her explanation of fundamentalism with the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, it is the search for a reason for the form of a world identity shattered and lost which sets the outline of fundamentalism as a journey for a people. And again we return to the idea of identity.

Armstrong uses the concept of an association between agriculture and monotheism that some scholars call the “Axial world”, a term also used by Nagata. There is, however, no relationship between monotheism and agriculture in the anthropological literature. Paul Radin has produced a most cogent, but for some, rather crass analysis of the varieties of religious adaptations human society has produced in his Primitive Religion. Instead of a transition with agriculture to a putative monotheism, these monotheistic appearances were almost all peripheral to the major agricultural areas. And as Jung has pointed out in his Answer to Job (1960), even Judaism was not monotheistic until late in its history, perhaps after the Babylonian period. The glaring contradiction to this proposal of an Axial Age is that none of the great early agricultural areas were monotheistic, accept in one case, late in its collapse - the Classical Greek and Roman culture. Egypt certainly cannot be classed as monotheistic, nor any of the empires of Persia or Mesopotamia, though perhaps Zoroastrianism. Of course, if one accepts Hans Jonas' analysis (in The Gnostic Religion), Christianity is also not monotheistic since its foundations seem to require a necessary twin god of good and evil. Hinduism is really more of a polytheistic evolved system of ancestor worship transcended into clan-associated totemism (Weigrau, 2000) and shares some aspects in this with traditional Chinese religion (McCreery, 2000). It may be rather that what can be associated with the increasing complexity of modern societies and their monotheistic religions and ideologies is a personality type made famous by Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951). It is this kind of closed mind that both Nagata and Firth eventually focus on when all other metaphors fail.

Armstrong dives into a long analysis of the role of myth and logos in society, but her pages lack any reference to anthropological material. She attempts by this diversion to build an framework to understand the journey of a person to a fundamentalist mentality. We can rely, however, on Frantz Fanon to trace this transformation when he tells us, 

Under the colonial regime, gratitude, sincerity, and honor are empty words. During the last few years I have had occasion to verify a classic fundamental idea: that honor, dignity and respect for the given word can only manifest themselves in the framework of national and international homogeneity. From the moment that you and your like are liquidated like so many dogs, you have no other resource but to use all and every means to regain your importance as a man. You must therefore weigh as heavily as you can upon the body of your torturer in order that his soul, lost in some byway, may finally find once more its universal dimension. 

Thus Fanon informs us that the response to the force of oppression, as it is perceived by the subject in the power relationship, is to test the oppressor. Certainly he is not suggesting this as an intellectual dialogue, but one which is framed and punctuated in action and reaction to violence. The form that this can take is like that we see today between the Israeli state and the Palestinians. It can become a dialogue locked within its own logic. But it can also begin to disintegrate as we have seen in Northern Ireland where many of the members of the extremist parties follow the mass of the public which has tired of this sterile and empty language of fundamentals. Indeed, in the period from the 14th to the end of the 16th century, Europe, and especially Italy, was racked by such feuds, with assassinations common and the landscape aflame with schism and counter schism. In the midst of this terror Petrarch and his student Rienzi attempted to remind humanity of the order, if not dignity, of human life among the ancient Romans. This idealized history had some effect, if not to stem the immediate social discord permanently, to produce a general desire for a more orderly world. But Fanon relates to us not only a question of this identity of juxtaposition of humanity, but one of legitimacy and the justification of suffering. His response is not only for the West, and we see this in the words of bin Laden, this is a cry for justice within the Third World and Islam as well. Today this voice resonates as did Carmack’s in the villages of Algeria and the streets of Cairo, and it is focused on the fruits of society. The oil wealth of Saudi Arabia was seized by the kings and their family members just as the spoils of the conquests of the faithful were wasted by the caliphate following the death of the Prophet. The people of Islam live in the shadows of the billions spent by the royal families. Thus far the agony for change has focused on the West, and secular state governments like Algeria’s. We might expect this to change especially as these regimes continue to support the West against fundamentalists and others (like Iraq) who challenge the status quo.

Armstrong (2001) spends much of her chapter on the exiled Spanish Jewish community developing the idea of how the basis of a European secular society was created. But other means can be addressed to the same ends, it can be argued that the arrival of Classical texts from the looting of Constantinople in 1204 (Caldararo, 1994) had a considerable effect. The roots of doubt and alternative vision of reality found expression in people like da Vinci, who thrived in this context. Yet even these Classical sources, many derived from the apex of Greek civilization represent the conflict between doctrine and dogma, both ideological and religious. This conflict did result in suppression of ideas and views as well as behavior (e.g. Socrates ) and the burning of books instigated by not only conservative elements of a religious nature but of a dogmatic zeal, as in Plato’s suppression of the natural historians as Wendt (1956) so aptly illustrates. Certainly this discussion is important to understanding the evolution of modern society, yet it ignores the long history of classical study and reference. We also need to discover what role religion plays in human society. Firth addresses this also, but his general conclusion is one of explanations. While we might find solace in some of the heated arguments Evans-Pritchard makes in his Theories of Primitive Religion, especially that surrounding Levi-Bruhl. I think we would be on sound ground by referring to some of the other respected field researchers like Levi-Strauss, Fortune, Mead and Boas. Armstrong’s reflections on logos and its use would benefit from reference to Malinowski's work, especially Magic, Science and Religion. But the contemporary discussion about religion never turns to this core issue. There are some interesting and valuable passages in Freud's work, but it is more critical to assess the first hand gems collected and noted by Roheim. The pre-modern world Armstrong and Nagata are attempting to use as a foundation is much more complex and varied than they give credit and this is based on more than 200 years of very diligent anthropological and ethnohistorical work. The struggle over the role of myth and knowledge (logos) is apparent in almost all traditional societies and played a central role in the moral conflict in Greco-Roman society which produced a number of legends, tales and mythic epics to give them flesh. Edith Hamilton has produced a number of very interesting commentaries on this but Wilhelm Schmidt and John H. King can be referred to in an enjoyable ramble in these fields. Nevertheless, I must argue that the modern problem is that the dominant religions do not regard man as equal or allow for the idea of democracy despite what Luther had to say (especially since he defended slavery). Armstrong notes this problem in her discussion of Spinoza and we can see this contradiction earlier in other contexts as in that of Socrates’ dilemma. Freedom has no place in religion, but subservience does and this is what I think really fuels the fundamentalist engine and is the source of human despair today. The project of the post-WWII philosophers, especially the Existentialists carried the examination further, but the conclusion may lie in Wallace’s typology of religions (1966) and Bellah’s (1978) definition of the character of the major religions as “world-rejecting”. Firth, Nagata and Armstrong all are generally in agreement that the essence of religion is rooted in an identity which is essential to human community and functions to give meaning to life. Granting Armstrong’s attempts to demonstrate it was necessary prior to the stage of human society which produced Spinoza, then we can rely on Durkheim (1915) to show that this web of meaning is profoundly part of the functioning of society. However, we have seen in the Classic societies of Greece and Rome and others of antiquity that the ability for individuals to function outside of this context of belief and to thrive is not unusual. It also ignores the role of “logos” – reason, (or action from knowledge) in other societies and traditions, for example, China. J. R. Ware (1955) in his discussion of Confucius describes how rationalism was an essential element to Confucius and his tradition. Again we see that as complex societies evolve certain features become central functional agencies – rationalism being one. This is true whether it be Plato’s Athens, Cicero’s Rome or 16th Europe.

The collapse of complex societies follows exhaustion of resources, climatological change and/or increasing levels of entropy. The fact that these factors act differently within different technological and cultural frameworks does not undermine the theory. In the past, evolutionary theories of society were too rigidly defined (Lowie, 1937). But broader views of societal complexity have given us a better understanding of the variations in development and structure that lead to complex social formations (Ehrenreich, Crumley and Levy, 1995). The collapse of complex societies result in simpler social groupings with decreased rationalism (logos) although one must keep in mind Malinowski’s (1954) discussion of the “primitive philosophy” of pre-industrial society and the trap of ethnocentric opposition of concepts of reason, logic and science. The persistence of tradition in societies where the Judaic-Christian tradition is not strong (e.g., China and Japan) is of particular interest here, especially in China where rationalism has been an essential part of tradition.

In the same way it is difficult to accept the idea Armstrong proposes that Spain in 1492 was a new kind of society. The descriptions of the court as late as the early 1520s by Peter Martyr demonstrate the same kind of interactions described for every small duchy during the 14th and 15th century by Gibbon. Gibbon notes also that Spain fell into economic chaos after the defeat of the Moorish states and expulsion of them and the Jews from which she had not recovered by his time (1770s) or even today. The collapse of agriculture is well documented (see Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War) but so are the figures for industry and trade which Gibbon and Adam Smith reflect on and on which Jugo Unamuno blamed the petrified structure of the oligarchy of the Reconquista. Interestingly, the rise of Capitalism in Spain was motivated by the Basque, a group whose social history contradicts Armstrong’s thesis about the relationship between a new social order and Capitalism as the basis of modernity (Kurlansky, 1999). Basque agriculture was democratically held without large latifundias . The Basque example gives us an insight that identity may be the more important element in the struggle over modernity than legitimacy and religion.

I think the motivation for the fundamentalist movements can still be found in the apparent failure of religion to defend its teachings and traditions from science, especially in the West, and for the Islamic world to reconcile the powerlessness of Islamic nations in comparison with Christian ones and the cultural hegemony of the West. I cannot agree with Armstrong that the Council of Trent was a modernizing movement which responded to the Reformation by becoming more centralized. Gibbon clearly shows how the Church was mired in the struggle with the German princes and French kings leading to popes and anti-popes and the struggle over elections and primacy of Italian bishops and cardinals. As Heer states the wide-ranging eclecticism of the Medieval period was due partly to the open-mindedness of the Church, the puritanical change was a reaction to the plague as was the shattering of trust in hierarchy given that good and bad died, high and low, priest and pope. A new extreme position was forged, and the time period, the Council of Trent in 1545-1565 leads to this inflexibility on both sides which feeds the religious wars culminating in the 30 Years' War and such atrocities as the destruction of Magdeburg so vividly described by Defoe. It is the exhaustion of a century of terror and barbarism of which the Classical world had no equal, that we enter upon the Enlightenment and the Positivist project. Certainly Artaud is addressing the fact when he howls that humanity is doomed by the terrible myths which rule the mind of man in every culture. This theme is expressed best in Armstrong’s discussion of the Inquisition as a process to create the ideological conformity necessary to the modern state. However, the process of appointing an abhorrent minority to victimize as a means of mobilizing and identifying a majority is not a modernizing process unless you include Nazism in that as well as Stalin's trials and the USA's HUAC hearings. The creation of a "modern, absolute state" in Spain in the 15th century is described by most authorities as an oligarchy not different from those of the past but on a larger scale and little different in behavior from the Visigoth kingdoms of pre-Moorish Spain.

Armstrong argues, using the USA model of the “Second Great Awakening” in the 19th century, that fundamentalist movements will follow technological change in societies and will not be passing “madness”. The problem with her description of this period of American history is that she makes it appear as if this was a unified phenomenon and she ignores the great movements of rationalist social philosophy at the same time. In fact, fears of the success of rationalism, defined as atheism by many at this time can be seen in various writings of the period, e.g., S. G. Howe (1834). The labor movement, IWW, the Socialist Parties, Communism, anarchism, etc. and religious combinations like the Catholic Workers all expressed a rationalist approach to human adaptations to industrialism. She argues that the religious movements of the “Great Awakening” were democratizers and aimed their vitriol at “the establishment” that she defines as the rationalist inheritors of the Founding Fathers. She never clearly identifies these 19th century “establishments”, but one has to wonder who other than the Morgans, Huntingtons and Stanfords, could she be referring to? The targets of her USA religious fundamentalists of the 19th century were often blacks, Jews, immigrants, communists, etc. not an Eastern establishment. She also ignores the union movements that were a significant part of a great percentage of the American public of the 19th and 20th centuries and were democratizing in both their philosophy and actions. Armstrong makes the outrageous statement that “…it is difficult to find a popular movement in America today that is not associated with religion in some way.” This may reflect a confusion many have over the difference between religion and ideology (see Firth, 1996) and in this one is compelled to compare movements like the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban.

Is what we are seeing so different from the social life of the mass of the people in Roman times? Is the phenomenon we are viewing simply a process of the evolution of complex society in humans? So, perhaps, again what we see is a process of the evolution of complex societies and that the period of transition between traditional belief systems and new ones related to changed economic and technological conditions produces stresses in these societies which create fundamentalist movements. These movements either change the society, are destroyed or seize control. They are either the last hurrah of a culture whose members are in the transition of acculturation or the signal for reorganization which leads a people to revitalize a society. Or, are they simply disturbances in the great system of societies, like the entropy of Norbert Wiener (1950).

The real question that Nagata elicits is not really about religion, but about anthropology. Can anthropology be predictive, do we make ourselves blind by ignoring historical analysis? In the November 2001 issue of Anthropology News, Ronald Stade raises this point. He charges that American anthropologists have a disregard for cultural, large-scale historical transitions, that we are seen as producing ethnographic anecdotes rather than analytical models. This is, perhaps, because of the history of American anthropology and its attempts to separate itself from speculation and grand theories at the turn of the century. However, for our understanding of fundamentalism and its importance to the evolution of society, we must integrate history to our analysis. This integration allows us to consider parallels like that of how the Roman world was changed by the Diaspora of the inhabitants of Judea in 70 C.E. and that change created a new religion which challenged and then supplanted those which had preceded it. Today we see the destruction of the Taliban and a new diaspora, not so such much a diaspora of people, though millions have been displaced from Afghanistan. The important diaspora is that which spreads as ideas, as Richard Dawkins (1976) has termed it, the spread of memes. We must regard the change in the West which will be brought about by the images and explanations of what is Islam, Arabic and most of all, Fundamentalism. A new means of translating ideas exists, and a rain of these ideas in images and words has covered the globe since 9/11/01. The transformation of our world is on. Will that transformation be followed by a new Pax Romana, a new Renaissance or the terrors of a world war of religions embraced by a culture of war? Can the struggle for identity and justice tolerate a world of differences? We can hope that within the enigma of persistence that characterizes the struggle of modernity (which is what Redfield described as the reaction to technological change) a balance can be achieved. Perhaps it will have the vision which was the theme of the Basque Nationalist Party leader Jose Antonio Aguirre’s address to the USA at the end of WWII. Aguirre expressed the belief that a democracy of refugees could see the reason to aid the world’s oldest existing democracy. That may be the vision of a new world of multiculturalism. 


Ajami, Fouad, “The summer of Arab discontent”, Foreign Affairs, Winter 1990/1, v. 69, n. 5, pp. 1-20.

Armstrong, Karen, The Battle for God, Knopf, N.Y., 2000.

Bellah, R. N., “Religious Evolution”, in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, 4th ed., eds., W. A. Lessa and E. A. Vogt, New York, Harper & Row, 1978:36-50.

Blackmore, S., The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford U. Press, 1999.

Brockman, J., The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Burckhard, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860, Revised Edition by Irene Gordon, Mentor Books, 1960.

Caldararo, N., 1994a, “The lost libraries of the Americas”, Library History, v. 10, pp. 9-18.

Caldararo, N., 1994b, “Storage conditions and physical treatments relating to the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls”, Radiocarbon, v. 37, n. 1, pp.21-32.

Caldararo, N. “New information on the Harkness 1531 Huejotingo Codex and the Codex Fernandez Leal”, Anthropos, v. 91, 1996:190-199.

Chomsky, N., The Culture of Terror, South End Press, Boston, 1988.

Coe, M., Breaking the Maya Code, Thames & Hudson, N.Y., 1992.

Creveld, van, Martin L., The Transformation of War, Free Press, N.Y., 1991.

Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene, New York, Oxford U. Press, 1976.

Dols, Michael, W., The Black Death in the Middle East, Princeton U. Press, Princeton, 1977.

Durkheim, E., The Elementary forms of the Religious Life, 1915, Macmillan, N.Y (1965 ed.).

Ehrenreich, R. M., Crumley, Carole, L., and Levy, J. E., Editors, Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies, Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Number 6, 1995.

Eisenstadt, S. N., Tradition, Change and Modernity, 1973.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E., Theories of Primitive Religion, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford, 1965.

Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth, Evergreen Books, N.Y., 1963.

Firth, R., Religion: A Humanist Interpretation, Routledge, London, 1996.

Gellner, E., Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, London, Routledge, 1992.

Gibbon, E., The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Modern Library, New York, (1776-83), 1932 ed.

Gitlin, Todd, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked with Culture Wars, Metropolitan Books, N.Y., 1995.

Gould, S., Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, W.W. Norton, N.Y., 1983.

Hayward, R. M. , The Myth of Rome’s Fall, Thomas Y. Crowell, N.Y., 1958.

Heer, Frederick, The Medieval World, Mentor Books, 1961.

Hoffer, E., The True Believer, Time Books, N.Y., 1951.

Howe, S. G., “Atheism in New-England, I”, New England Magazine, December 1834.

Hunt, Eva, “Irrigation and the socio-political organization of Cuicatec Cacicazgos” in Frederick Johnson, The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley: v. 4, Chronology and Irrigation, Austin, U. of Texas Press, 1972:162-261.

Hunt, Eva, “The provenience and contents of the Porfirio Diaz and Fernandez Leal Codices: some new data and analysis”, American Antiquity, v. 43, 1978:673-690.

Jonas, Hans, The Gnostic Religion, 2nd ed., Beacon Press, Boston, 1958.

Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, Wars of the Jews and Against Apion, etc., World, Syndicate Press, Phil. 1900, 10 v.

Jung, C., Answer to Job, Meridian Books ed., N.Y., 1960.

Juergensmeyer, Mark, Terror in the Mind of God, The Global Rise of Religious Violence, University of California Press, 2000.

Kahle, P., The Cairo Geniza, 2nd ed., Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1959.

Kaplan, Robert D., “Coming Anarchy”, This World, (reprinted from The Atlantic Monthly), March 13, 1994:5-11.

Khaldun, Ibn, The Muqaddimah, 1377 (1967 ed.) Princeton U. Press.

Kurlansky, M., The Basque History of The World, Walker and Co., N.Y., 1999.

Lowie, R. H., The History of Ethnological Theory, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1937.

McNeill, William, H., Plagues and Peoples, Anchor Books, Garden City, 1976.

Malinowski, B., Magic, Science and Religion, Doubleday Books, N.Y., 2nd ed., 1954.

Martire d’Anghiera, Pietro, De orbe novo: the eight decades of Peter Martyr D’Anghiera, trans. By Francis Augustus MacNutt, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, N.Y., 1912.

Marty, Martin and Appleby, Scott, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed, Chicago, U. Chicago Press, 1991.

Marty, Martin and Appleby, Scott, eds., Fundamentalisms and Society, Chicago, U. Chicago Press, 1992.

Marty, Martin and Appleby, Scott, eds., Fundamentalisms and the State, Chicago, U. Chicago Press, 1993.

McCreery, J. L., “Traditional Religions in China”, in R. Scupin ed., Religion and Culture, an Anthropological Focus, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2000:275-293.

Nagata, Judith, “Beyond theology: toward an anthropology of ‘Fundamentalism’”, Amer. Anth., v. 103, n. 2, June 2001:481-498.

Nohl, Johannes, The Black Death, Ballantine Books, N.Y., 1960 ed.,

Pater, Walter, Studies in Art and Poetry: The Renaissance, Mentor Books, N.Y., 1873 (1963 ed.).

Redfield, R., The Primitive World and Its Transformations, Cornell U. Press, Ithaca, 1953.

Runciman, S., A History of the Crusades, Cambridge U. Press, Cambridge, 1962.

Spengler, O., Decline of the West, 1926-8, Knopf, N.Y., 1950 ed..

Schonfield, H.J., The Passover Plot, Bantam Books, N.Y., 1965.

Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations, 1776, (Penguin Books, ed. 1986).

Spencer, H., Principles of Sociology, 3rd ed. 1885.

Stade, R., “A matter of relevance”, Anthropology News, v. 42, n. 8, November 2001:7.

Tainter, J. A., The Collapse of Complex Societies, New Studies in Archaeology, Cambridge U. Press, Cambridge, 1988.

Thomas, H., The Spanish Civil War, Harper Colophon Books, N.Y. 1961.

Thomis, Malcolm, I., The Luddites; Machine-Breaking in Regency England, Newton Abbot, David & Charles, Hamden, 1970. (See also, The Luddites; Three Pamphlets, 1812-1832, Arno Press, N.Y. 1972.)

Toynbee, A., A Study of History, Oxford U. Press, Oxford, 1935-61.

Wallace, Anthony F. C., Religion: An Anthropological View, N.Y., McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Walton, John, Western Times and Water Wars, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992.

Ware, James, R., The Sayings of Confucius, Mentor Books, N.Y., 1955.

Weigrau, Maxine K., “Vedic and Hindu Traditions”, in Robert Scupin ed., Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, Upper Saddle River, 2000:225-248.

Weiner, Norbert, The Human Use of Human Beings, Doubleday Anchor Books, N.Y., 1954 ed.

Wendt, H., In Search of Adam, 1956.

Computer-generated translation of this page French français German deutsch Spanish español Portuguese português Italian italiano Russian Russian JapaneseJapanese Chinese (Traditional) Chinese (Traditional)Arabic Arabic― also try this alternative fast translation service.

© Niccolo Caldararo.


Caldararo, N. (2002). The Origins and Nature of Fundamentalism in Society. Human Nature Review. 2: 469-482.

US -

Amazon.com logo

UK -

Amazon.co.uk logo

The Human Nature Review