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The Psychology of Religious FundamentalismReview - The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism
by Ralph W. Hood, Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson
Guilford Press, 2005
Review by Ulrich Mühe
May 16th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 20)

This is a timely book as since 9/11 the phrase 'religious fundamentalism' has entered popular culture by being used, whether rightly or wrongly, to denote particular conflicts and their origin. In "The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism" the authors Hood, Hill, and Williamson seek to clarify this concept and suggest a particular method for doing so.

The book is set out in eight chapters, where the first two are an exposition and explanation of the model the authors found most promising in identifying fundamentalism. Chapter 3 deals with the origin of the term religious fundamentalism, which is, interestingly, protestant, and gives historical information. Chapters 4-7 then focus on four particular religious groups: the Church of God (of Prophecy), Serpent-Handling Sects, the Amish, and fundamentalist Islam. In each case the hallmarks for the model set out in chapters 1 and 2 are highlighted, and hence these four case studies serve as verification of the authors hypothesis. The last chapter then serves as a summary of the account, a discussion of potential objections, as well as an examination, and rejection, of the most frequent stereotypes of religious fundamentalism.

Generally, the text is relatively simple and no prior knowledge of this area is necessary. The language is clear, the main points are made explicit and appear repeatedly. The central hypothesis of the book is contained in chapters 1, 2, and 8, while Chapters 4-7 serve as examples. Readers practiced in theoretical texts and not interested in case studies can therefore skip these middle chapters as they contain no new claims and are sometimes quite lengthy due to the detailed description of the respective group. Attention can thus be diverted to the two chapters at the beginning and the final one. Even if condensed in this way the text is easy to read and should not pose any difficulties. The text remains manageable while being much shortened and the main argument can therefore be accessed more quickly.

The task of the book is to clarify the concept of religious fundamentalism and the authors have found two aspects they think are broad yet also exhaustive enough in order to do so. 

1) The characteristic feature that applies to all kinds of fundamentalism, according to Hood, Hill, and Williamson, is an 'intratextual' belief-system. That means that a specific text (or a particular part of it) is held to be authoritative to such an extent that it sets the standards of truth and value for everything else. In other words, all of reality is interpreted and evaluated through this text (in the Christian religion the Bible, in Islam the Qu'ran), hence the name 'intratextual model'. The opposite to intratextual is intertextual: instead of relying on one text and bringing everything else in accordance with it, the intertextual approach is a method whereby the content of several sources is used to explain a certain fact, circumstance, or value. Thus, the approach is more dynamic and open. According to the authors, "intertextual models virtually define modernity and are what fundamentalisms oppose" (p.26). Instead of an objective truth expressed in a sacred text, an intertextual approach makes truth more relative because none of its texts "speaks for itself".

The intra/intertextual model is therefore not about the content of the beliefs but about their status, structure and the belief-forming process. The advantage of this method is that by focusing on the formal aspects of the belief-system, rather than the belief-content it avoids the difficulties surrounding what fundamentalists have to believe specifically, while still picking out a feature that applies to all fundamentalist belief-systems. Rather than quibbling about the personal character of fundamentalists the researchers can focus on the character and structure of the beliefs.

2) The other main claim is that of religion as a meaning system. Religious fundamentalism "provides a unifying philosophy of life within which personal meaning and purpose are embedded" by consisting of "a group of beliefs or theories about reality that includes both a world theory (beliefs about others and situations) and a self theory (beliefs about the self), with connecting propositions between the two sets of beliefs that are important in terms of overall functioning" (pp.14, 15). The reference, for the fundamentalist, is the authoritative text under which everything else is subsumed. Thus, religious fundamentalism offers the believer a complete way of life that gives him stability and certainty via comprehensiveness, an accessible philosophical orientation, a means of transcendence, and a direct claim to have meaning and purpose.

As far as the clarity goes the book works well. Nevertheless, a few limitations remain. First, none of the points can claim to be novel. That extreme religious belief proceeds from the application of a (single) text to the entire world is not a new observation. That therefore a model which puts this single-text-authority at its centre is successful in seeking out fundamentalisms is not surprising. Equally, that religion provides a system of meaning is not a new thought, quite the contrary. An earlier account of the concept of "meaning systems" are Erich Fromm's "frames of orientation and devotion" ('Human Nature and Character' in "Man for Himself" (1949)). Fromm not only had the same approach in terms of focusing on the structure rather than the content of the belief-system, he also went further in tracing the origin of the motivation that underlies them. Therefore, the final claim to have proposed "a unique model that attempts to offer insights into the meaning of the fundamentalist worldview" (p.213) is at best an overstatement. Concluding, this book serves as a good introductory text to the issue of religious fundamentalism. It presents the authors approach clearly and is easily understandable. But new insights are not to be found.



© 2006 Ulrich Mühe




Ulrich Mühe is currently a PhD student at the University of Kent (U.K.). His research interests lie in epistemology, social philosophy (particularly social ontology), phenomenology, and psychology.


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