Fundamentalism vs Relativism in a Modern Society

Essay, 2015
10 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Fundamentalism VS Relativism In A Modern Society

At first glance we seem to know what fundamentalism really means. We hear it on the radio, watch it on TV and read about it in the newspaper. Fundamentalism is nowadays often connected to Islam or religion in general, often to terrorism. Nonetheless, the question remains: where does this word come from and what exactly does it mean? Relativism is another big word often connected to philosophy and great thinkers of the past like Nietzsche. The problem with relativism is the same as with fundamentalism. It seems that there is no real answer to what fundamentalism or relativism actually refers. Therefore, both of them are divided into several subcategories, and because of that, it is not possible to throw light on every little detail. For an example, one can visit the German Wikipedia entry about ‘Fundamentalismus’ (English: fundamentalism). The authors of that entry started a discussion about how it should be written to make absolutely clear that it gets the true sense of fundamentalism. Even the English Wikipedia entry is not to everyone’s satisfaction and lacks improvement. On the other hand, relativism at first sounds easy to understand, but it is hard to grasp. Mainly because it is rarely used and for that reason, there are fewer sources for definitions than for fundamentalism. In the modern times we are living in now, both of these movements, one could almost say, developed rapidly. This is another reason for setting those two words in direct comparison, but the outcome also depends on the sources available. Referring to the book Communication Between Cultures, the two terms have rather short explanations towards the connection to culture, so this work will give a detailed explanation about the terms, the historical background up until today and at last, the direct comparison in a cultural context.

In Germany there are several parties establishing themselves, like the Salafisten, which became considerably popular recently, maybe due to clear rules. It is mentioned that they are fundamentalists, but what does it really mean, and where does the word come from? Fundamentalism means “that there is a timeless absolute morality that applies to everyone everywhere and is independent of the conventions of individual cultures” (Communication Between Cultures), but can one really claim that this is the full explanation of fundamentalism? For deeper investigation, we have to go back to the year 1910. The first time the word fundamentalism was used was in a protestant announcement in the US where the four fundamentals were published. Those four unshakable rules say that the Holy Scripture is the absolute truth and must be interpreted literally; there is no other truth that contradicts the Bible; everyone who does not follow the rules of the Scripture cannot be a true Christian, and the separation of church and state must be put aside when political interests go against fundamentalist religiosity (Brockhaus Bd.7). Therefore, the word fundamentalism became connected to the four fundamentals. However, this refers only to the Christian religion. So it has to be generalized because today, after all, fundamentalism is more often used in the context of Islam, which has almost nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible. The Oxford Dictionary says that fundamentalism is “the practice of following very strictly the basic rules and the teachings of any religion” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). Combining this definition and the explanation from Brockhaus it becomes almost clear: the “basic rules” (Oxford) of a religion, referring to the world religions, is always written down somewhere. The Christians have the Bible; Muslims have the Quran; Jews have the Torah; Hindus have the Vedas, and Buddhists have the Tripitaka. So every religion has some kind of book of rules they follow. Fundamentalists indeed follow those rules in exactly the way it is written down, but the problem is that all of those texts are originally written in another language or a language that is not used anymore. That is to say, the translation can also be a matter of interpretation and, consequently, even fundamentalists have a bit of flexibility. In conclusion, fundamentalism always refers to a written Scripture that must be followed literally, and nothing besides this text is true.

In the year 1096, Christians went on a crusade against the East to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims for the first time. The Pope Urban II needed a reason to fight them, because most of the writings in the Bible prefer peace, and war is not mentioned as a tool to spread Christianity. In times where Latin was mostly used by the Church, it was easy to interpret things the way one wanted. So Urban II justified it by declaring holy war, where it is no sin to kill non-Christians; he exploited the Bible for his purposes (Fundamentalismus 36). Hence, fundamentalism existed even before the creation of the word itself. Even despite of a lack of a Scripture that supports the theory, it seems that sometimes a leader also has an important role in fundamentalism, but we will explore that in other examples.

The Cruzada in Spain is another fundamentalist Christian Catholic occurrence. The word looks almost the same as the English crusade, and there is a deep connection, because Cruzada means crusade. In Spain there was another crusade against Muslims, since Muslims conquered a part of Spain and the justification was the same as hundreds of years ago. The Spanish crusade was more successful than the original crusade, because nowadays the Cruzada is still glorified (Fundamentalismus 36-37).

In Russia, the Russian orthodox belief is another example for Christian fundamentalism. The secret police stirred Russians and Ukrainians up against Jews in a time where the West reconsidered Anti-Judaism (Fundamentalismus 59). The Russian Orthodox Church has still not once approved the universal value of human rights and human dignity (Fundamentalismus 69). In contrast, the other world religions have or had fundamentalist movements. The most famous world religion that is commonly known for a connection to fundamentalism is Islam. The news gives us a feeling that fundamentalism is usually directly connected to terrorism. However, the other examples already showed that there is not always a connection to terrorism, but, if there is a general agreement, even states can use violence because of fundamentalism.

Jihad is the most common word in connection to fundamentalism after 9/11. Although jihad does not mean holy war as the terrorist’s interpret it, but rather “struggling or striving” ( It can be interpreted as holy war, but only considering the context (Fundamentalismus 71). Islam seems to be very dangerous, but there is an important difference between Islam and Islamism. Islam means the religion whereas Islamism means the ideology behind it (Fundamentalismus 71), but here are several disputes about where Islamism belongs. On the one hand, it is said that it has a connection to fundamentalism, and on the other hand, it is said that there is a difference between Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism. Wolfgang Wippermann, a German historian, says in his book Fundamentalismus that Islam as well as Islamism is fundamentalist in a religious way, but it becomes dangerous when it transforms into an ideology (Fundamentalismus 72). Ideology is “a set of beliefs […] that influences the way people behave” (Oxford); besides the Quran, Islam also has other rules to follow, like the Sharia law. In 1989, the charter of the Hamas, an extreme fundamentalist movement, was published; part of the charter was the total destruction of Israel (Fundamentalismus 85). The Hamas exploits jihad for their holy war and furthermore, wants to expand Islam violently that everyone believes in Islam, and who does not believe in it dies. That is to say, that this is a case of Islam as an ideology which means that this is Islamism. The Sharia law is another sign for Islamism. It is a clear collection of how to behave, and according to the definition of the Oxford Dictionary, it means that it is an ideology.

Christianity would not exist without Jews, and even among Jews are fundamentalist tendencies. The Maccabean Revolt is one important example in 140 to 37 BC. Jews admire the Maccabeans (sport clubs are named after them) and their bloodthirsty revolt, whereas Christians maintain their distance from the bloody battle described in the Maccabean books; Protestants even announced them as fakes. The revolt resulted in a Jewish state, which was fundamentalist (Fundamentalismus 99). In the 18th century, the Enlightenment had an influence on the Jewish community as well and caused the Haskala introduced by Moses Mendelsohn. The Haskala is a kind of enlightenment within the Jewish religion that supported the idea of a separation of religion and politics so that Jews should no longer see themselves as members of one nation, but as members of one religion (Fundamentalismus 102). However, there were still people believing in the idea of a Jewish state. Theodor Herzl tried to build a Jewish state and almost had the possibility to do so in Uganda, but the Zionists (Jewish fundamentalist movement) insisted that a Jewish state could only be possible in Palestine (Fundamentalismus 107). It seems a bit stubborn to insist in a state in a particular area when there is already an offer that would avoid conflict with others. Nevertheless, it helps to understand the terroristic attacks in 1984. In Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, the only Jewish state today, 27 fundamentalist Jews tried to bomb five Arabian busses, but the attacks were prevented by the Israeli intelligence service. These attacks were justified by several rabbis in reference to the Torah (Fundamentalismus 113). In other words, even the Jewish religion has fundamentalist movements.

Before starting with Hinduism, it is important to distinguish political Hinduism from religious Hinduism. According to Wippermann, only the political Hinduism is fundamentalist. Basically, Hindus do not use violence, but when other people interfere in matters of the Hindus, try to convert them, or do not adhere to the religious rules of Hinduism, they are allowed to defend themselves by using violence and military force (Fundamentalismus 116). Nonetheless, they never fought other religions in India at first; the relations were strained but not as intolerant and aggressive like that of the Christians at the crusades, the Jews in Jerusalem, or the Muslims on 9/11 (Fundamentalismus 118). The Sanatana Dharma, a fundamentalist group within Hinduism, defends the traditional caste system and fights against anyone who breaks the rules, for example: a marriage between two different castes is against the rules of purity (Fundamentalismus 124). Another example for Hindu fundamentalism is the conflict in Ayodhya. Muslims were allowed, by the British colonial masters, to visit their mosque, which was built on a place where a Hindu temple was once located and the Hindus were still allowed to use the space in front of the mosque to pray to their god, Ram. Neither side agreed with that. In 1992, the Hindus destroyed the mosque and as a countermove, fanatic Muslims stopped Hindu pilgrims and massacred them in 2001; most of them were women and children (Fundamentalismus 126). During the conflict, the god Ram became a god of war (Fundamentalismus 127).

At last remains only one religion: Buddhism. Since Buddhists do not have a Holy Scripture, it cannot be a fundamentalist religion, theoretically. The Tripitaka is just a collection of the speeches of Buddha Siddharta Gautama, the first Buddha, but is not as important as the Bible for Christians. It was written down by the Theravada school of Buddhism to preserve Buddhist religion but did not spread as the Holy Scriptures like other religions ( Therefore, it cannot be interpreted in a fundamentalist way. Buddhism is a philosophy, a teaching of wisdom, and does not have any gods (Fundamentalismus 130), but still they have a head equal to the Catholics Pope. Although the Dalai Lama had nothing to do with the resistance in Tibet at first, he shouldered the responsibility for it. Afterwards, he personally called for resistance (Fundamentalismus 137). He also explains his pacifism in a fundamentalist way, but emphasizes that peace is impossible without respecting human dignity (Fundamentalismus 140). Thus, peaceful fundamentalism is possible.

The explanation for relativism in the book Communication Between Cultures is much longer than the one for fundamentalism. It is conspicuous, because finding good sources about a definition of relativism is difficult. Most of the works describe relativism and truth as they were two kinds of the same coin. On the one hand, relativism is known for tolerance, but the real meaning is much more complicated and in a constant debate. As a result, relativism is divided into many categories. One mentioned in Communication Between Cultures is moral relativism, and another is cultural relativism. However, a general definition has to be found for now and to find one, it is impossible to ignore these questions: What does relativism mean, and where does the word come from? Relativism comes from the word relative, and relative comes from the word relation, and relation comes from the Latin word relatio. Relatio means relation in English, and according to the Oxford Dictionary, relation is “the way in which two or more things are connected” (Oxford). Relative means that something is “considered and judged by being compared with something else” (Oxford). In other words, relativism has something to do with a connection of two or more things and a comparison to those. Comparing this definition to the one in the Oxford Dictionary, relativism is “the belief that truth is not always and generally valid, but can be judged only in relation to other things, such as your personal situation” (Oxford), the origin of the word relativism is proved. Another definition is the one from the Wahrig: Relativism is the teaching that everything is perceptible to us only in their relation to each other but not as thing itself (Wahrig). This one is used in physics like in the famous theory of relativity. Nevertheless, relation remains still an important point.


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Fundamentalism vs Relativism in a Modern Society
University of Heidelberg  (IUED)
Übersetzen als kulturwissenschaftliches Handeln I
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relativism, fundamentalism, religion, christianity, islam, orthodox, buddhism, culture
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Julien Appler (Author), 2015, Fundamentalism vs Relativism in a Modern Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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