FROM DISTORTED IMAGERY TO DISORDERED PRAXIS: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM by Christopher Larsen

This article should be read carefully in conversation with Rod Dreher’s “‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Dialogue’” and David Ford’s “The Dangers of Fundamentalism.”

psychReligious fundamentalism is curious phenomenon because it is frequently associated with beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that directly contradict the very religious traditions upon which it is ostensibly based. Within the Christian tradition, the clear, unequivocal, and insistent requirement that Christians strive for social justice, mercy, and compassion has often been forgotten and replaced by a disordered praxis characterized by rigid dogmatism and hyper-moralism, prejudice, and puritanism.

The term fundamentalism is defined in the sociological and psychological literature to include persons from any religious background who exhibit a particular constellation of behavioral traits and attitudes. These involve a rigid and dogmatic adherence to a set of religious beliefs, extreme religious exclusivity, belief in the infallibility of a text or institution, denigration of persons from different religious traditions, political and social authoritarianism, and a rigid moralism. Frequently, this is accompanied by a conception of God as a harsh and capricious taskmaster, ever ready to subject His creation to judgment. However, the term fundamentalist should be used with some caution as the boundaries between healthy religious conservatism and fundamentalism should be maintained.

Because the traits which comprise religious fundamentalism can be observed in a wide variety of Christian and non-Christian religious contexts, one may assume that common psychological, sociological, and developmental processes give rise to them. Indeed, for many psychologists of religion, no theology or philosophy stands alone. Rather, theology and philosophy are façades built upon an underlying framework of psychological processes such as emotional needs, wants, desires, and drives, which nourish and sustain them.  

Psychological theory is comprised of multiple, highly divergent viewpoints and perspectives. However, most of these schools of thought hypothesize the existence of internal structures that comprise the models of reality through which life is perceived and lived. These may be called by different names in the psychological literature: personal constructs, cognitive schemata, archetypes, or psychological objects within the psyche. However, these are all felt to be mental representations created during psychological development from a variety of sources and experiences. In Orthodox terms, it is as if each person carries within himself or herself an internal personal iconography with which the ego dialogues throughout the lifespan.

Self-concept, social awareness, and personal identity emerge from the matrix of relationships and experiences that begin in early childhood. These relational experiences form a representational template upon which a general model of reality is constructed.  A model of reality which holds that the universe is safe and stable forms the basis of mature and healthy emotional functioning. As religious ideas manifest themselves early in psychological development, these models are extended to God and general religious belief systems. The belief in a stable and predictable universe fosters an image of God as benevolent, caring, and irenic. Conversely, a model of reality dominated by chaos, disorder, and insecurity leads to a representational image of God as a deity who is hostile and capricious. The causes of this may be due to psychological trauma or unhealthy aspects of early development; but the consequences of this can be pervasive and profound.

In order to function, such persons must find a way to adapt the demand of social reality despite a belief that chaos and disorder can spontaneously erupt. This is often done by simplifying their representational system into two distinct, dichotomous types: good versus bad, right versus wrong, pure versus impure, sacred versus profane, moral versus immoral, safe versus threatening, etc.… This parsing of the representational world makes functioning within the complexities of social reality more manageable.

Frequently those who are labelled as good, safe, and pure are those who are most similar to the individual. Those who are different are perceived as evil, bad, threatening, and immoral. From this internal representational iconography arise both excessive moralism and the forms of bigotry and social prejudice that have historically bedeviled the Christian community and muted its prophetic voice. The strength of moralistic and judgmental attitudes appears to be directly proportional to the intensity of both the underlying anxieties and the severity of the distorted internal representational imagery. Fundamentalists also compartmentalize aspects of their inner representational system and frequently hold contradictory and highly inconsistent representations within themselves, which appear like hypocrisy but in fact indicate that they have poor integration of their experiences and internal imagery.

Support for this conceptual model can be observed in the extensive psychological literature that shows that persons who score high on measures of religious fundamentalism also exhibit heightened levels of hyper-vigilance to sources of potential environmental threat. Such persons overestimate the number of threats existing in the environment, the likelihood that those threats will materialize, and the potential damage that those threats can cause.

Therefore, social differences are perceived as both a personal threat and as a broad existential threat to the moral fabric of the universe. Social psychologists have documented this as an in-group versus out-group dichotomy, and this process is central to the genesis of fundamentalism and various forms of social prejudice. In its extreme forms, it can generate a desire for social separation from persons believed to be a threat. This heightened in-group/out-group distinction also appears to play a role in right-wing authoritarianism and political extremism. A highly rigorist morality, a clear distinction between in-group and out-group, the projection of blame onto an out-group and an obsession with social conformity serve as a protective anxiety-reduction mechanism which allows such persons to navigate the complexities of social reality. However, it is also a delusion that directly contradicts the message of the Gospel and the Orthodox conceptualization of the Church as a place of healing.

The task for the Orthodox Church is to maintain our traditional moral and spiritual foundations without lapsing into unhealthy dogmatism. For healthy Orthodox praxis, the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church provides the people of God a template and an established iconography that can form the basis of a healthy internal representational system.

As noted above, self-concept and  identity emerge from a dialogue between the person, his or her experiences, and his or her internal representational system. This system and its imagery are subject to modification and change. Active participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the church may act as an antidote to the destructive and damaging psychological imagery that elicits fundamentalism. As Orthodox Christians, we should know that icons are not art. They are an external representation of the God-ordered cosmos that can be internalized through the sacramental life of the Church. Walk into any architecturally correct Orthodox church. At the summit of our sacred space should be the Pantocrator: Christ the Ruler of All. His comforting presence is placed at the highest point in the church for a reason. His image is there to remind us that He is truly sovereign over all things. The people of God need fear nothing if we would only look up.

Christopher Larsen is an Orthodox Christian and a PhD student in Clinical Psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara CA. His research examines the relationship between psychological attachment, religious fundamentalism, and authoritarianism. 

Photo Credit: Cover of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, by Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson (Guilford Press, 2005).
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
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