Recently there have been some fun and casual tossings around of the horrific epitaph, “fundamentalist.” Fundamentalist is one of those lovely words like “liberal” or “stupid ugly butthole” that people often apply to others with whom they disagree in the hopes of shaming them into submission in the course of an argument. Now, given my impassioned revulsion at over-ambitious rhetorical flourish, needless redundancy and unclear obfuscation, I think it is in all of our interests to clarify the nature of what a fundamentalist is. The entire future of theological discourse depends on what you’re about to read.
There are three kinds of sensible uses of the term fundamentalist. First there is the historic Christian notion of a fundamentalist. This is the image that people generally want to conjure up and associate with you if they are calling you a fundamentalist. Historically, Christian fundamentalists believed in biblical innerancy (the Bible is a science book that is utterly precisely factual about everything), hated evolution, loved the virgin birth, and had an unnatural fixation on being able to control the hortatory practices of the public school system. Today the remnants of these kinds of fundamentalists can be found protesting homosexuality, arguing with Mormons and such, and erecting monuments of the ten commandments on state property whenever possible.
The second type of fundamentalist is far worse and far more ethnic than the first. This is contemporary terrorist fundamentalist. The terrorist fundamentalist is usually Muslim, wants nothing more than to blow himself up taking as many people with him as possible to secure a blissful eternity. Terrorist fundamentalists are distinguished from historic Christian fundamentalists by 1) being Muslim, 2) being irrationally violent all the time as opposed to just most of the time and 3) by not being white 99.9% of the time. Usually people aren’t going to try to bludgeon you out of a theological argument by literally calling you a terrorist. But if they do let me know and I’ll mail you a dollar for being awesome (depending on my evaluation of the context of the epitaph).
The third kind of fundamentalist is what we might call the ubiquitous fundamentalist. This sort of fundamentalist is someone who strongly believes a fairly large number of things and, as such, gets in arguments with other such fundamentalists who believe different things. The reason this sort of fundamentalist is termed ubiquitous is because every single person in the world is one of them. You, me, that guy over there. Her? Her.
There is no way to avoid being this sort of fundamentalist. Now, people who disagree with you will see that you believe stuff they don’t believe and this will piss them off. Depending on how much it pisses them off they will try to make other people think that you are either a historic Christian fundamentalist or even a terrorist fundamentalist if they are particularly threatened or unsettled by your beliefs. The proper response at this point is to refer back to the above description of the ubiquitous fundamentalists, and then remind your interlocutor that in fact, you are both fundamentalists and now that we’re clear on that we should get about the business of learning how to have reasoned and meaningful arguments. This is the hardest job in the world. You’ll probably never succeed at it. I almost did once. Then I called the other guy a terrorist. It was awesome. I totally felt good about myself afterwards.