I’ve gone back and forth on how to approach the topic of fundamentalism. Alvin Plantinga correctly points out that the way a lot of people use it, it turns into an perjorative and indexical term, i.e. you’re more conservative than me, so you must be a fundamentalist — or, as Plantiga puts it, a “stupid sumbitch” (excuse his French). That’s really quite unhelpful. If we really want to use the word constructively, it needs to describe a particular sort of behavior, not just insult the people we use it to describe.
Reacting to what we might consider a sort of secular fundamentalism (logical positivism and similar philosophies), philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein criticized what we call knowledge and described it as more of a language game we play. We pick up on rules, we figure out what we’re supposed to say or do in response to certain phrases, etc. Knowledge, he suggests, is a social construction, an elaborate system of rules.
He’s more right than we would like. While I disagree with him on the whole and believe there is truly such thing as knowledge (and every non-philosopher said, “Duh!”), a lot of the things we do and say are determined by their social function. Fundamentalism, if I may suggest, is when social function becomes so important so as to discourage or even forbid real knowledge.
“That’s great, Chris! What the hell does that mean?”
In practical terms, it means that the games we play are more important than growing as people. Don’t say the wrong thing, even if right and wrong are arbitrary and inconsistent. Being a “good person” is just a matter of memorizing the right phrases and gestures. Raise your hands in worship — or don’t, depending on the church. Oppose gay marriage. Or, try this: support gay marriage! Support of legitimate civil rights movements can be just as much a hollow social language game as speaking against them.
Truly bad examples of fundamentalism end up playing like real-life Unfair Mario (go play it for just 15 seconds and you’ll see what I mean): the obstacles are random, the consequences for failure are harsh, and “beating the game” just means that you memorized a long list of “do”s and “don’t”s. Heck, fundamentalism is tough! But it’s totally empty and meaningless. You haven’t figured out what it truly means to be good; you’re just following along with the social construction, with no rhyme or reason behind your actions. Fundamentalists will try to make excuses for their behavior, but ad hoc reasoning doesn’t count.
It’s not just a conservative phenomenon. Fitting into a social context is important, but it is very easy to mistake social context as being goodness in and of itself, rather than pointing toward goodness. This is true even of Christianity itself, which Nietzsche recognizes when he writes that “the accidents of environment, of language, of background determine a certain sphere of concepts: the earliest Christianity uses only Jewish-Semitic concepts.” In other words, if Christ had come to India, Christianity would look like post-Hinduism.
Fundamentalism is the result of a philosophical mistake. We favor our way of doing things rather than the why which lies behind them. They become a set of taboos, still in practice but with their significance long forgotten.
If we’re ever going to achieve any real semblance of peace, justice, or any of those wonderful values that Christians and people of all stripes like talking about, then we’re going to have to set aside differences of culture, practice, and so forth to seek what is essential behind them. Until we do that in full, those values are just shadows of what they could be, held back by our prejudice.