Tag Archives: Fundamentalism

Why Religious Fundamentalism Can Inspire Hatred (and what to do about it)

Intermixed with much of the worst of human history is a religious motivation. This can be seen in the involvement of a religious motivation in the genocide committed against American Indians and the Holocaust. More recently, this can be seen in the motivation behind tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the January 6 attack on the United States Capital. Other examples include the involvement of religion in motivating prejudice and violence directed toward members of the LGBTQ population and various cases of religious persecution.  

Hooded Members of the Ku Klux Klan Displaying Christian Imagery, 1935.

As Blaise Pascal once reflected: “human beings never do evil so completely and so joyously as when they do it from a religious motivation.”

How can great world religions – which generally teach love, compassion, and justice – become powerful instruments of prejudice and violence?

Although acts of religiously-inspired hatred are complex and caused by many variables, one common factor concerns religious fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism involves a rigid kind of certainty in the possession of the “one truth” and the “one way” to live. It typically relies on a literal interpretation of a sacred text and an absolute reliance on that text. Other sources of knowing what’s true or other ways of determining what’s valuable are rejected – such as when science or a different group offers an alternative perspective – in favor of what’s unquestioningly accepted within the group.

With this all comes a strong urge for fundamentalists to form a sense of who are “insiders” and who are “outsiders.” Explicitly or implicitly, it’s easy for all of us to believe members of our groups are superior, while others are inferior. One way for religious fundamentalists to address this is to develop an evangelical zeal to bring outsiders to the inside through attempts to convert them. However, when individuals reject their arguments or invitations, fundamentalists can develop even stronger attitudes against them, to the point where outsiders can become seen as less than their human equals, sometimes even leading to consciously or unconsciously dehumanizing them. At this point, prejudice and violence toward members of the outgroup become more likely.

Because fundamentalist groups also tend to draw like-minded people to their communities, individuals in these groups often decrease or completely lose contact with those different from themselves. As a result, the kinds of reality checks most people tend to naturally have happen to them when they interact with people different from them become less likely, creating the conditions for stronger stereotypes and prejudices to develop.    

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The Ways of the Fundamentalist and the Mystic

For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. From the media, this is the impression often given. However, decades of thinking and research in the psychology of religion suggest there are multiple ways of being religious, with distinct pros and cons.

Let me elaborate with a few personal stories.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be visiting a conservative Christian college when I was somehow invited to a retirement party for a faculty member – I believe a Theology Professor – who had worked at this college for many years. At one point, this man took center stage and spoke about his long and distinguished career. The Professor’s speech started as you might expect – with references to the meaningfulness of his work, gratitude for colleagues, etc. – until he took a surprising turn and honestly reflected on some of his struggles. The Professor started crying. He had a difficult time finding his words. Eventually, though, he explained how he called himself an “Agnostic Christian,” someone who wasn’t certain about religious and spiritual truths but still felt like he knew enough to make a commitment to Jesus and his interpretation of a Christian lifestyle. He discussed how the juxtaposition of “Agnostic” and “Christian” was sometimes not welcomed by conservatives at this college, but how this self-understanding felt so important to him and to his identity that he was moved to tears in sharing it.

For me, the Professor’s presentation felt like a revelation, for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, this was the first time I had ever heard someone openly acknowledge how they were both deeply uncertain about religious and spiritual truths while still being deeply committed to a faith. There was a raw honesty in this confession, and the juxtaposition created a new way for me to start thinking about my own religious and spiritual identification as well. Second, the Professor demonstrated to me the importance of adjectives in the religious world. Apparently, some people don’t simply identify along the lines of “Christian;” some identify as “Conservative Christian,” “Agnostic Christian,” “Social Justice Christian,” or “Mystical Christian.” In these cases, which of the two words is the adjective and which is the noun also can be enlightening to consider.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I found myself in a large group discussion about religion and spirituality at my public college. People were sharing their diverse ideas about religion and spirituality, and I thought I would “float” the above story and how it fit with my own self-understanding. A few people I didn’t know had joined us from a conservative Christian student club on campus, and after I shared, they walked over to me. I will never forget what happened next. One of them bent down and whispered into my ear: “you can’t be Christian and not know.”

Many people do not seem to recognize there are different ways you can be religious.

Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

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