Towards Understanding Religious Fundamentalism and Extremism (and atheist in-fighting, too?)

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by Neil Godfrey

I began this series about religion and religious extremism with the post, Atheists Do Not Understand Religion

As I was thinking through the sequel to that post I came up with another application of the principles (essentialism, coalitional behaviour): Atheist Hostility to Jesus Mythicism … making sense of it

Let’s recap with the point with which I began:

As one researcher put it:

The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same gods creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the ones who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.

Does that sound about right?

The same researcher added

Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.

I will conclude this series with this post. To do so I will refer to both the essentialist perspectives and coalitional behaviours characterized by religious groups and those who see themselves as some sort of atheist community.

I will quote sections of Boyer’s Religion Explained and add comments attempting to explain how I think they can be applied to each group.

People describe themselves as “members” of this or that religious group, with important and often tragic consequences for their interaction with other groups. (p. 285)

Agreed. People do.

These groups are explicitly construed as based on natural qualities—the people in question are thought to be essentially different from the rest, by virtue of some inherited, internal quality. (p. 287)

The internal quality we had when I was part of one group in particular was the holy spirit. We were called by God and given his spirit. That was not a personally inherited quality, but the group was defined as being a kind of “biological”, certainly “spiritual body” that had been in existence since the original day of Pentecost.

One of the most solid and famous findings of social psychology is that it is trivially easy to create strong feelings of group membership and solidarity between arbitrarily chosen group members. All it takes is to divide a set of participants and assign them to, say, the Blue group and the Red group. Once membership is clearly established, get them to perform some trivial task (any task will do) with members of their team. In a very short time, people are better disposed toward members of their group than toward the others. They also begin to perceive a difference, naturally in their group’s favor, in terms of attractiveness, honesty or intelligence. They are far more willing to cheat or indeed inflict violence on members of the other group. Even when all participants are fully aware that the division is arbitrary, even when that is demonstrated to them, it seems difficult for them not to develop such feelings, together with the notion that there is some essential feature underlying group membership.13 (pp. 287f)

We all know that to be true.

Our naive view of social interaction around us is that we are often dealing with people with whom we share some essential features — lineage, tribe, religious practices and so on. But I think we can get a better sense of how such interaction is actually built if we realize that many of these groups are in fact coalitional arrangements in which a calculation of cost and benefit makes membership more desirable than defection, and which are therefore stable. (p. 288 — my emphasis in all quotations)

Ah yes. When about to join a fringe religion we are certainly required to first “count the cost”. There is less of a cost with other more mainstream religions and groups, very often.

Now, in some contexts, the social relations people build on the basis of these coalitional intuitions are made much easier by the fact that the groups are defined as essential. In the laboratory studies, people were given an arbitrary coalition to cooperate with, and as a result they started imagining essential differences between groups. But in real social life the opposite is very often the case. People are presented with social categories that seem essential — castes of blacksmiths or lineages — and use them for coalitional purposes. (p. 289)

An essence or essential feature of an atheist group, as perceived by its members, may be that they are more “intelligent” than others, “secular” in their presumptions, etc. With religious groups they may see themselves as essentially different by the “essences” of righteousness and knowledge of spiritual things.

Because they are extremely stable coalitions, these essence-based groups do not seem to be coalitions at all. That is, for all the members as well as outsiders, the alleged essence is what drives people’s behavior. But I would suspect that actual behavior is more directly driven by people’s coalitional intuitions. (p. 289)

People join groups that they see as “essentially” what they want to be part of because membership confers some benefit that outweighs costs (if any).

Here too there seems to be a discrepancy between explicit concepts of social groups and intuitions that guide behavior. Consider the explicit concepts first: That most members of minority groups are dangerous or unreliable is construed as an essential feature of these groups by racists and deplored as lamentably unfair stereotyping by nonracists. Both constituencies agree on one assumption: that attitudes toward these social groups are based on people’s essentializing these groups. In this view, all it would take to establish better relations would be to convince most dominant-group members that minority people are essentially similar to them. For instance, if children were trained to realize that people do not really behave like their stereotypes, they would perceive the moral ugliness of discrimination.

But then Sidanius and Pratto marshal an impressive amount of evidence to suggest that there is more to dominance than stereotyping, and that the latter is a consequence rather than a cause. In fact, they demonstrate that many dominant group behaviors not only represent a desire to stay with one’s group, to favor one’s clan, but also to favor one’s group in an insidious way that maintains the other group’s lower status. Racial stereotypes are among the representations that people create to interpret their own intuition that members of other groups represent a real danger and threaten their own coalitional advantages. Obviously, one possible reason for this blindness to coalitional structures is that they often conflict with our moral standards. This may well explain why many people prefer to consider racism a consequence of sadly misguided concepts rather than a consequence of highly efficient economic strategies.15 (p. 290)

Ouch. That about sums up much of my naive, all-you-need-is-education outlook to solve all the social ills of our world. There really are people out there who want to stomp on others just for satisfaction of feeling victorious and unchallengeable.

So the notion that blacksmiths or undertakers are naturally different is particularly relevant when it explains why nonblacksmiths and nonundertakers maintain a high solidarity that excludes these craftsmen, but a notion like that is not the cause of such divisions; the interests of the groups, seen through human coalitional thinking, are the main cause. In this domain of social interaction as in others, people create powerful notions of what groups are, to some extent because these provide a plausible and relevant interpretation of their own intuitions. (p. 291)

All those people who have wronged me really are going to go to hell because God says they really have been evil. Or maybe they will repent and see how evil they have been in God’s eyes (not to mention my eyes, too) and then worship weeping at my feet. How glorious!

Flat-earthers? Young earth creationists? How superior we are to those who cannot accept established respectable institutions of higher learning. What kooks they are.

I have tried to show that there is nothing special about gods and spirits when it comes to creating communities or establishing efficient levels of trust. But we cannot stop there, for then we would have no explanation for the extreme enthusiasm with which members of some religious groups offer selfless cooperation to other affiliates and see members of other faiths as dangerous, disgusting or distinctly subhuman. The solution lies in human capacities for coalition building and in the flexibility of these capacities. The mental systems involved are not specially geared to religious concepts, but the latter can in some circumstances become fairly good indicators of where coalitional solidarity is to be expected.

This may be why many religious guilds try to emphasize affiliation as a radical choice, not open to further negotiation. . . . . (p. 291)

Oh, yes. To join a certain cult I was not able to just phone up and ask to be baptized and gain instant membership. I had to prove myself first to the gatekeepers. I had to demonstrate that I was so committed that I would indeed burn all my bridges behind me, my family even, my job and financial security, even prospects of finding a marriage partner.

The choice was certainly radical, not open to further negotiation.

But the point is that in each case, you can vary the extent to which you want to declare this identity and make it a source of coalitional commitment and coalitional benefits. Some people have a low-commitment strategy whereby they accept to be members, pay the various taxes and perform the various services demanded of members, but that is more or less it. Others choose a more involved strategy whereby they go further in declaring their allegiance, often volunteer for extraordinary actions on behalf of the faith, and get in return some goods, power, prestige and a guarantee of solidarity from other members of the corporation. Others take a still riskier path and are prepared to kill or to give their lives for the group. (p. 291)

Notice that. That is why anthropologists like Scott Atran have, as a result of the research undertaken by themselves and their peers, said that a more reliable predictor of who will become a suicide bomber might be the teams the person plays football with rather than his Muslim faith. His friends and their personal psychological commitments, their personal sense of fulfillment and meaning in life (and death), are better indicators of a propensity for terrorist action than the faith to which he and millions of others subscribe.

Think about atheist groups, too, for a moment, including, by contrast, all those atheists who never bother to join atheist forums or meetings and don’t even see themselves as “a group”.

First, note that many fundamentalist groups are predominantly concerned with control of public behavior — how people dress, whether they go to religious meetings, etc. — even though their doctrine often is primarily concerned with personal faith or commitment, and in some cases explicitly condemns the temptation to establish oneself as judge of others’ behavior (this is particularly salient in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam).

We see this is true with many of the notes left by suicide bombers and the public proclamations of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Would certain atheists care one whit about mythicism if it were a view that were confined to private household or bar-room discussions and never found its way into social or mass media?

Second, some fundamentalist groups have shown a great propensity to make the punishment of what they see as immoral behavior much more public and spectacular than it would have been in their respective traditions. At first sight, there is no clear rational explanation for the public denunciation of named individuals, for violent demonstrations in front of Planned Parenthood clinics or for the public stoning of adulterers. This emphasis on public and spectacular punishment makes sense if it is in fact directed at potential defectors, to make it all the more obvious how costly defection can be.

No need for further comment re religious groups.

Atheists: it pales in comparison with certain terrorist acts but we nonetheless have some very colorful very public denunciations of the wayward who appear to contravene the fundamental “essences” of the respective groups.

Third, a good part of fundamentalist violence is directed not at the external world but at other members of the same cultural, religious communities. The most imperious domination is exerted inside the community: by leaders over mere members, by dedicated followers over noncommitted people, and above all by men over women. If the movement is purely ethnic-religious, it will concentrate its attacks on outsiders. Again, however, coalitional dynamics would predict that whatever outsiders do is of little concern to fundamentalists. What matters is what other members of the group are likely to do. (p. 295)

Of course. With the atheist community (referencing those atheists who see themselves as a “community” of some sort) there is little to no cost in defection. Costs must be introduced to stave off defection. Costs include public disgrace, insults, etc.

Fourth, the main target of many fundamentalist movements is often a local form of modernized religion. This is quite obvious in American fundamentalism—both Christian and to some degree Jewish— which obviously cannot be a reaction to colonial or foreign influence but is very much directed against liberal versions of these creeds. But we can observe the same phenomenon in other places. The mass media’s depiction of fundamentalist Islam or Hindu violence in India would suggest that we are dealing here with a simple conflict between external modernity on the one hand and internal tradition on the other. But that is not the case. Both in Islam and in Hinduism for over a century there have been many popular movements that adapted religious norms to modern conditions. These movements were particularly popular with educated, urban middle classes and therefore represented a real political danger for those whose authority is purely grounded in religious hierarchies.

Consider past posts where I have outlined the studies of researchers into Islamic extremism and terrorism. Boyer’s words apply perfectly to those groups.

This is important to understand and accept. Too many continue to erroneously think that it is the religious doctrines and heritage that are themselves the problem. But the balance of numbers who remain peaceful against those who turn to violence proves otherwise. And Boyer epitomizes the findings of research into cognitive explanations for human beliefs and behaviour that there is a psychological universal at work here, not a particular religious heritage.

To sum up, then, fundamentalism is neither religion in excess nor politics in disguise. It is an attempt to preserve a particular kind of hierarchy based on coalition, when this is threatened by the perception of cheap and therefore likely defection. (p. 296)

Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Reprint edition. New York: Basic Books.

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28 thoughts on “Towards Understanding Religious Fundamentalism and Extremism (and atheist in-fighting, too?)”

  1. “anthropologists like Scott Atran have, as a result of the research undertaken by themselves and their peers, said that a more reliable predictor of who will become a suicide bomber might be the teams the person plays football with rather than his Muslim faith.”

    Atran has indeed, said and wrote that on many occasions, it even might be true, in a sense, given you understand that it doesn’t mean that being a member of just any football team or other small social group is a reliable predictor, these are specific teams all or nearly all of them comprised of Muslims, and that even if there are numbers to back up this claim, it doesn’t make evidence against suicide attacks being causally connected to Muslim faith.
    If we reversed the function, being a suicide bomber in the last few decades is nearly perfect predictor of the perp being a member of the Muslim faith.

    The way he puts it is more misleading than informative.

    1. @Kerel Right, because the football teams are likely just subsets of Muslims. It’s like saying that knowing the make of a car is more predictive of car accidents than just knowing if its a sports car or not. But of course makes are subsets of car types, which include sports cars, so yeah, like knowing if the car is a Viper or Corvette or Mustang may be more predictive than just knowing its if a “sports car”.

      So are people who make such claims supposed to be “authorities”? This is indeed an absurd statement.

      1. Back in early 2000’s, before ISIS were keeping sex slaves, he was preoccupied with this idea that terrorists can’t possibly be motivated with the prospect of virgins awaiting in paradise, and none of such lowly motives as sex for that matter, he would bring it up on every occasion, asked or not.

        Once, at a public lecture, he argued that Al Quaeda members can’t be sexually motivated, because most of them are married, which makes you wonder how a person that clueless about the human nature can become a prominent anthropologist.

        But for some really hair raising stuff, check the last bits of the following interview:

        1. I suggest you are misreading or misconstruing Atran’s comments. Have you read his and related research studies? I also see these posts addressing Boyer’s thesis have not given you a different perspective on how religion works. In what way do you think Atran is “clueless about human nature”?

          1. If the idea that being married somehow makes men stop desiring other women, real or imaginary, doesn’t qualify as being clueless about human nature, then I truly don’t know what does.

            Yet he does exactly that, he uses maritial status statistics to argue that terrorists can’t possibly be sexually motivated.
            Luckily the video of that lecture is still up, 1:06 and on.

            1. Oh Kerel, did you really listen to that section? He does NOT argue that terrorists don’t die for virgins because they married men. What an absurd mis-hearing of what Atran says. If you really think that terrorists go out and kill in suicide attacks because they want virgins you are engaging in the crazy fantasy Atran does rightly mock.

              1. Denial?
                “…and in terms of marital status, most are married, you can chuck the testosterone… theory about the virgins by the way, I mean no one dies for the virgins.”

                Sorry, this line of reasoning is as clueless as it gets, even if all the terrorists are frigid.

              2. Kerel, do listen to it all in context and comprehend the tone and meaning of what you are hearing. Atran gives clear evidence for the refutation of the “dying for virgins” notion and you seem to be very good at not hearing it.

              3. I’ve heard this line of defense before, usually in biblical context.
                Context does sometimes change meaning significantly, but then you should be able to demonstrate how, I don’t think you can do this in this case.

                The whole of his refutation of “dying for virgins” notion appears to be a straw man argument, I don’t know of anyone holding such caricatural views, and he does not single out anyone who does. In fact he used to come up with this “no one dies for virgins” stuff anytime someone merely mentioned the concept of afterlife in general. His preoccupation with this topic probably says more about himself than anything else.

        2. Indeed, it’s pretty common for people looking for sex to attack government forces, engage in genocide, behead soldiers and civilians, destroy cultural heritage sites, enforce a regime of Sharia Law in territory containing an estimated 2.8 to 8 million people and proclaim a caliphate.

      2. Not so at all. Football teams may be a constant but the faith involved at different times and places will vary.

        Suicide bombing has been perpetrated by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, — See the demographic data collated by Pape:

        Between 1982 and 1986 there were 36 suicide attacks by 41 suicide attackers against American, French and Israeli forces in Lebanon.

        We know the ideological affiliations of 38 of these 41 attackers.

        27 (71%) were from communist or socialist groups (secular groups with no commitment to religious extremism of any kind) such as the
        Lebanese Communist Party,
        the Lebanese National Resistance Front,
        the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,
        the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party,
        the Arab Socialist Union,
        the Arab Egyptian League,
        and the Baath Party
        3 (8%) were Christians
        a female Christian high school teacher (Norma Hassan)
        a Christian factory worker (Elias Harb)
        one from the Vanguard of Arab Christians
        5 (21%) were from an Islamic fundamentalist group
        Islamic Jihad
        3 were not clearly identified with any ideology.

        All 38 were native Lebanese.

        Moving beyond Lebanon and surveying suicide terrorist attacks more widely between 1980 and 2003. . . .

        An interesting datum emerges when one looks at the sex differences across the various suicide terrorist groups.

        From 1980 to 2003, the numbers of female attackers employed by the various groups were:

        None by al-Qaeda
        6 by Palestinian groups (5%)
        6 by Lebanese groups (16%)
        23 by the Tamil Tigers (20%)
        14 by the Chechens (60%)
        10 by the Kurdish PKK (71%)

        This suggests an interesting hypothesis: Islamic fundamentalism may actually reduce the number of suicide terrorists by discouraging certain categories of individuals from undertaking the act. (p. 209)

        What do we know of the ideological affiliations of this larger group of suicide attackers?

        The survey Pape uses contained information on the religious or ideological affiliation of 384 of the 462 suicide terrorists worldwide from 1980 to 2003. Of the 384 attackers for whom we have data:

        166 (43%) were religious (mostly al-Qaeda and about two-thirds Palestinian)
        218 (57%) were secular (mostly Lebanese, Tamil and PKK with about one third Palestinian)

        Boyer’s explanation of extremism explains why the vast majority of members in any religion are peaceful and extremists can emerge in any faith given the right triggers.

        1. We have to go back in time almost forty years to break the pattern, but that’s not the point.

          Being a member of any X is a very different predictor than being a member of the specific X, the former is among the worst predictors, the latter might be good, but is not independent of being of Muslim faith.
          He describes the latter predictor, but he draws conclusions as if it was the former, that’s where it goes wrong.

            1. This has nothing to do with what I wrote, in addition to that it’s in fact, incorrect.
              It’s like saying that being a smoker predicts the person will not die of lung cancer, because most smokers don’t die of lung cancer.

              Such statistic are meaningless unless placed in a comparative context, and predictor strengths are relative.
              A statistical Muslim is not a terrorist way less so than a statistical non Muslim, or a statistical football player.

              1. You are shutting your eyes to all terrorist acts except those of Islamists. You even conflate Islamism with Islam. Time for you to read some serious studies on terrorism, including Islamic terrorism. I have addressed a few in this blog.

              2. No conflating, even if you buy into this distinction, Islamism is fully contained in Islam. The distinction is also irrelevant for the assessment of the role of Islam, if we see Islamism spawning terrorism as undesirable, then Islam spawning Islamism is at least as undesirable.

                Non Islamic terrorism barely exits at this time, so why would I dwell on it? It’s also irrelevant for the assessment of the role of Islam, I suspect people keep bringing it up because they somehow subconsciously assume that an outcome can be only a result of exactly one cause, which is false.

              3. Kerel, you evidently know nothing about the biographies and autobiographies of terrorists themselves, or of the writings they quote and from which they proclaim their inspiration, nor anything about the views of mainstream Muslims. Please read the Islamist literature itself. And Islamic responses to it. I have given you many sources here and they are not hard to find for anyone seriously interested in informing themselves.

                Do not come back with some quote from the Koran unless you accompany it with the rationales made in (1) Islamist literature and (2) mainstream Islamic literature.

                Just copying and pasting a few lines from hate sites on the web won’t cut it.

    2. If we reversed the function, being a suicide bomber in the last few decades is nearly perfect predictor of the perp being a member of the Muslim faith.

      That depends where you choose to look. Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were responsible for most suicide bombings for quite some time. Before the current wave of Islamism they were socialist, Christian, atheist and Muslim “freedom fighters” from Palestine.

  2. That’s why I used proper quantifiers.

    These things used to happen in a finite number of few contexts, now we’re down to one, Islamic, except on much greater scale.
    These contexts are clearly separate, Tamil and Islamic terrorism don’t overlap, it’s obvious that the reasons lie within these respective contexts.

    Now let’s imagine someone trying to explain events that happened on Sri Lanka since the 80’s,
    giving reasons such as youth culture, football teams, group dynamics, or anything else that happens everywhere, always.

    1. Kerel, you have misread the argument. No-one has ever said that “football teams” etc are “the reasons” for such behaviour. You have not been listening, sorry.

      1. It still remains to be determined who misread what.
        Meanwhile, there was Atran’s paper available on terrorismanalysts.com, where I’m sure he argued to this effect, but the site appears to be down, so we have to put this question aside for now.

        1. You can read Atran’s studies and books elsewhere. A good place to start is “Talking with the Enemy”. Ask your local library to get a copy for you.

          1. The site I was referring to is a peer reviewed journal, Perspectives on Terrorism. Popular books are kinda okay as a place to start, but authors tend to let themselves to be carried away by speculations even more in such releases.

            Anyway, it’s back up again.

            “The causes that humans are most willing to kill and die for are not just about particular ideas; they are about particular groups of people, in particular places, at particular times. Terrorist groups that kill and die for the Takfiri cause arise within specific “scenes”: neighborhoods, schools […] leisure activities (soccer, mosque,…”

            “This new wave of Takfirism is about youth culture, not theology or ideology.”

            These are just some of the conclusions, and the whole thought process that led him to such shocking disoveries is indeed… enlightening. 😉

            1. Indeed. I recommend you attempt to understand what is argued on that site, and the evidence adduced in support. So far you have only presented glib misunderstandings of Atran’s article. As you quote, but with my emphasis this time, “not just about … ideas”.

              Atran draws upon an abundance of research, including his own meetings with families of terrorists and those who are part of terrorist groups to conclude:

              Most human violence is committed by young people seeking adventure, dreams of glory, and esteem in the eyes of their peers. Omar Nasiri’s Inside Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda (Perseus Books, 2006) rings true in its picture of the highs the militants get from the sense of brotherhood and sense of purpose. They want to belong to something that is at once intimate, bigger, and more permanent than a person alone. They kill and die for faith and friendship, which is the foundation of all social and political union, that is, all enduring human associations of non-kin: shared faith reigns in self-interest and makes social life possible; friendship allows genetically unrelated individuals to cooperate to compete. The most heroic cause in the world today is Jihad, where anyone from anywhere can hope to make a mark against the most powerful army in the history of the world. But they need their friends to give them courage, and it is as much or more for love of comrades than the cause that they will kill and die for in the end.

              In other words, Muslim terrorists are human, with the same human motivations and necessary background conditions as others through history have engaged in acts of terrorism. And when those conditions were not extant in the Muslim world, as has been the case for the overwhelming extent of history of Muslim peoples, such acts are simply not part of their world at all.

              The faith and ideology that draws them into such extremist groups, or that is the focus of such groups, is not mainstream Islam. It is the works of extremist clerics and others such as have been discussed here at some length.

              • Start with Qutb.
              • Look at Jason Burke’s historical origins and trajectory of modern day terrorism.
              • The book Friction concludes exactly the same as Atran and lists example after example since the nineteenth century.
              • Then read Maajid Nawaz’s autobiography and see how perfectly it fits the same model (despite its shortcomings as pointed out by some of his associates.)

              (All the above can be found via a word search on this blog.)

              Boyer’s analysis captures perfectly the relationship between particular institutional religious systems and the universal human factor (coalitional behaviour) that further backs up Atran’s point.

            2. Within specific scenes, not because of them, Kerel.

              Nowhere in what you quoted does he specify anything “that happens everywhere, always” as “reasons” for terrorism.

              The process of self-selection into terrorism occurs within these scenes… If moral outrage resonates with personal experience that reverberates among friends in a scene, and if aspects of the scene are already sufficiently action-oriented, such as group of soccer buddies or camp mates, then willingness to go out and do violence together is much more likely.

              You are narrowly focusing on one component and completely ignoring the other.

              1. Within specific scenes, and because of them, Neil.
                Read it again.

                All the context you provide does not change the fact, that placing scenes on the side of causes is just absurd, regardless if it’s just “not just” and other considerations.

                The point I’m making here is, the research in question is in it’s infancy, still highly debated and questionable, and some of it is outright nonsense, as evidenced above.
                That’s why it’s not being taken for granted by other researchers, as evidenced, for example, in this paper, published in the same journal:

                “The implications of these results can be interpreted in a number of ways. One would be to conclude – as many political leaders and media commentators do – that the results show there is something inherently conservative and fundamentalist about Islam that generates support for violent jihad and antipathy towards Western secular values.”

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