[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]
Secularism is the concept that we can manage our affairs and institutions — government, business, schools, personal lives — without the influence of religious faith. Fundamentalist beliefs are based on the conviction that our lives and institutions should be guided by divine instruction as revealed by sacred texts.
The term fundamentalism first emerged among Christian Protestants during Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy of the early 1900s. Characteristics of fundamentalists include a literal interpretation of the Bible, acceptance of the doctrines of virgin birth, young-earth creationism, the resurrection and Second Coming. Fundamentalists also promote the concept of “biblical separatism,” which encourages adherents to avoid contact with people who do not share the fundamentalist world view.
The term fundamentalist is now commonly applied far beyond its Protestant roots, to encompass Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and other faiths. The popular interpretation focuses on fundamentalist opposition to modernity, strict interpretation of moral codes and strong rejection of secularism.
In many early civilizations, religion and government were often one and the same, an arrangement known as theocracy. The earliest known entertainment of secular ideas emerged from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës). But the concept of government and other institutions operating separately from religious influence didn’t gain wide acceptance until the Enlightenment in the 1600s.
Early Western writing on secularism, such as John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” stressed religious tolerance and saw secularism as a way to minimize conflict in cultures with a plurality of faiths. After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India embraced secular government to unify Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
Fundamentalism and secularism are joined by their relationship to religious conviction. Fundamentalism attempts to preserve core religious beliefs and requires obedience to moral codes. Secularism’s premise is that social stability can be achieved without reliance on religion. Some cultures, including the United States, have a mix of both. In the U.S., tension between these views is evident in the political arena, where social conservatives and secular liberals hold different positions on issues like sex education, reproductive choice, gay marriage, evolution, censorship and state-sanctioned prayer.
On occasion, fundamentalist beliefs have led to violence, most notably the 9/11 attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. Extremist groups in many denominations, however, rely on rigid interpretations of religious texts to justify their cause. Closer to home, the Ku Klux Klan is a Christian group with a history of murder, bombing, political assassination, lynching and arson. Another American Christian terrorist organization known as the Army of God has conducted a campaign of arson, bombs, murder and anthrax threats.