16 Fundamentalism – some insights from psychology

To attempt to ‘explain’ fundamentalism in the sense we have defined in the previous post is clearly an impossible task.  Whether one writes a book or pens a 500 word blog post, this is an undertaking that can never be completed.  But I want here to suggest one or two leads that may not have occurred to you the reader and may be useful to your thinking.

In the last post I offered a definition of fundamentalism which pointed to the individual who had convictions which are held in such a way that they are unable ever to be questioned.  This would exist alongside a failure or inability to listen to another point of view.  I thus described the fundamentalist as someone who cannot and will not listen.  Such a definition, in as far as it has value, focuses very much on the individual, their personal thinking and convictions.  If one stays at this level of a person, one would expect a psychological investigation to proceed along the lines of an examination of his or her experiences in early life.  The question might be asked: why has this individual chosen to occupy a place which shuts off openness, dialogue and discovery?  Is there something about this early life that predisposes them to a shut-off non-communicating approach to the world?

The psychological literature does indeed offer clues as to why some individuals appear to prefer a ‘place of safety’ rather than taking the risk of exploring reality and life in an open way.  The same personalities may well seek the security of an authoritarian political party which offers answers to a variety of issues, those that allows them not to have to think out issues for themselves.  We know that certain newspapers are particularly good at telling people what they want to hear and allow them to feel that the ‘party’ line is one they have thought up for themselves.   Psychology will have something to say about this desire for safety and may well offer us some understanding of why people long to be secure.  The insights proffered by the discipline will in all probability focus on the early stages of life in the family of origin and the way that the individual may have failed to negotiate those stages successfully.

The approach that I want to open up in this post is somewhat different.  It looks, not at the individual and his past, but at the groups to which each of us relates to.  Everyone in society is a combination of an individual identity and a group identity.  Some of the time we experience ourselves as an ‘I’ and at other times we become part of a ‘we’ identity.  The way we oscillate between the two is the stuff of a relatively new theory within social psychology called social identity theory.  No one lives entirely outside the group or entirely within a group.  Somehow we try to find a balance between the two.

The book that I read a couple of years ago by by Peter Herriot , Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity , has an intriguing take on fundamentalism within this way of looking at individuals.  He suggests, to put it at its simplest, that fundamentalists are people who live perhaps excessively at the ‘we’ end of the spectrum.  That observation would apply to certain Muslims, Christians and a whole variety of political and religious groups.  In other words fundamentalists of whatever kind exist almost entirely in and through the groups they are attached to.  Their individuality is thus stymied or repressed.  Outside the group context they have few if any opinions and little in the way of personal identity.  At the opposite end of the spectrum we find people of maverick independence and maybe eccentricity.  From a Christian point of view such people might well be suspect as having heretical or unconventional views.  Clearly the place to be is not at either end of the continuum but somewhere in the middle.  Here there is a balance between our participation in the world of belonging and our self or individual identity.

The reason that individuals opt to remain within groups for their self-definition is an interesting issue to ponder.  Perhaps carving out individuality and our own opinions is too much like hard work for some.  If we really want to look for reasons why people fail to get to this point of avoiding having worked out personal opinions and thoughts, we might find ourselves back in the families of origin, the place which never really allowed the child to grow up and leave behind mother and father.  Clinging to the group, the ‘we’, may simply be a clinging on to old family patterns that should been left behind.


Clearly there is a lot more to be said on this subject of psychology and fundamentalism!

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

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