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There are probably no issue that exercises our political and social analysts more that the nature, origins, effects, importance and understanding of fundamentalist beliefs. We have seen, and continue to see daily, dramatic, radical and polarizing political, social and religious action in the name of some set of fundamentalist belief system or another. We are constantly confronted with liberators or terrorists depending on your point of view that speak and act with utter conviction, and see no other truth than the one they proclaim. This fascinating collection of essays seeks to understand the core concepts that fundamentalisms of all stripes have, whether they be Christian or Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu, secular or religious. It looks to explore the personal, group and social psychology, and ground its analysis in the commonalities rather than the particulars of the belief systems.
The book assumes that the reader has a fairly uncomplicated view of what fundamentalism is. It does not concern itself overmuch with the historical origins of the term, or to whom it has been applied and when and why. The book itself is a product of a conference organized by two of the editors (Strozier and Terman) in February 2005, which was then followed through late 2006 to 2008 by a series of monthly seminars in which the psychology of fundamentalism was explored and gradually took the conceptual shape we see now. The editors do mention in passing that there was much food, good bourbon and acceptable wine, but there is little indication of their influence on the writing -- or if it is there, it certainly helped. On the contrary, the writing is sharp and pertinent, precise and persuasive and greatly illuminates the subject.
In an early essay the mindset that so disposes its adherents towards intolerance and violence is characterized by a sense of radical (in its true meaning of being at the root of an idea) dualism -- black and white thinking in its starkest form, right and wrong, us and them; an apocalyptic view of the world -- an end-times perspective that is somehow cleansed by violence; a literalist view of seminal texts -- most usually religious ones that brook no discussion or alternative; a paranoid psychological state -- everyone is against us the elite, the saved, the only true believers; and a totalized conversion experience -- something that encompasses all aspects of life. This theoretical construct is then applied to specific ideologies and belief systems, specific forms of social organization and specific times and circumstances. And it is compelling reading.
The book is divided into four sections. The first tries to answer the question of what the fundamentalist mindset might actually be. It considers the essential dualistic nature of the belief systems, as already mentioned, the contagion and self-justification of paranoia, the frequent apocalyptic vision of the near future and charismatic leadership and the totality of conversion to the beliefs or ideology. It often seems, in fact, that such belief systems are more often fuelled by converts than not.
The second section examines the motivations for violence -- for again violence, towards opponents and apostates is very common. Unsurprisingly, but perhaps somewhat sadly, violence is associated with this complex of ideologies, paranoia, conspiracies and dualism.
The third section looks in more detail at Christian and American contexts. This is some ways is the most chilling part of the book. It examines in some detail the genre of end-times literature, and its quite astonishing success. It analyzes the conflation of eclectic religiosity and populist rhetoric and identifies the factors that make such demagoguery so difficult to counter -- any criticism is seen not as a debate, but as an attack and a quick route to the justification of victimhood -- and in the eyes of many, including the authors, so dangerous to liberal democracy. Taking a cue from The Book of Revelations it lists its own seven seals of the fundamentalist mindset: violence (for this is not only the way the world will end, but it is justified in bringing it about); time (dates, years and numbers all feature prominently, often embedded in secret cosmic codes); revenge (which is righteous, of course); paranoia (because everyone really is against those who believe); survivalism (and it is clear who will survive); the Elect (those who will survive); and redemption (of those who survive, by those who survive). The authors point out, however, that these ideas are not necessarily only confined to fringe groups, but are often to be found, albeit in a diluted or sanitized form, heading into the mainstream.
The fourth section gives a global and historical perspective, perhaps to counterbalance the previous section, but also to bring out the commonalties of the mindset more clearly. It looks at Islam and Hinduism in detail, and also the French Revolution, particularly the events leading up to the Terror, and the millenarianism of the Nazis.
It may be argued that there have always been end-time believers, conspiracy theorists, purveyors of paranoid rhetoric and so on. Some may suggest that many pivotal religious movements come out of such times; that out of moment of crisis an alternative arises. However, the fundamentalist mindset, as described in this very fine book is seen to pose a threat and, by its very nature, be dangerous to our polity -- and that is a serious question.
It is not always possible to detect an impartial tone in some of the chapters. Nor are there many suggestions about ways to combat what the authors see as a worrying trend. Nevertheless. the book will be of interest to scholars of many different fields, from religious studies to sociology to history to politics. But I venture that it may be of greater interest to the curious general reader who may be trying to understand not only how these ideas arise, but what they mean for us in our everyday lives.
© 2011 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, Ph.D., British Columbia, Canada.