Fundamentalism

1) Note that many fundamentalist groups are predominantly concerned with control of public behaviour- how people dress, whether they go to religious meetings... Even though their religious doctrine often is primarily concerned with personal faith or commitment, and in some cases explicitly condemns the temptation to establish onself as judge of others' behaviour (this is particularly salient in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam).

2) Some fundamentalist groups have shown a great propensity to make punishment of what they see as immoral behaviour 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 public stoning of adulterers. This emphasis on public and spectacular punishment makes sense if it is in fact directed at potential defectors (within the community), to make it all the more obvious how costly defection can be.

3) The majority of fundamentalist violence is directed, not at the external world but at other members of the same cultural, religious communities (it so happens that the article I mentioned in my post was found out by the media, otherwise the wider world would not have known about the incident). The most imperious domination is exerted inside the community: by leaders over mere members, by dedicated followers over non-commited people, and above all by men over women. If the movement was all ethnic-religious, it would 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.

4) The main target of many fundamentalist movements is often a local forrm of modernised 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 directed against liberal versions of these creeds.

To summarise, 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 easy and therefore likely defection. (Boyer, 2001)


There was a news article recently (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8366197.stm) detailing acts of stoning in Somalia. Knowing the above set of rational statements about why fudamentalist groups resort to violence however serves me little comfort when acts like this are so very real for some people in the world, particularly women.

The science behind understanding religion involveds cognitive science, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology. It is a growing scientific field, and an interesting one and topical one I think for todays society.

Yet as science goes, it provides no comfort for victims of crimes such as these, it is only through understanding an issue throughly that progress can be made through governmental action, very much like environmental issues- scientists study the issue, draw conclusions but it is upto policy makers to use the science to make a real difference.

The proliferation of religious and supernatural thoughts is of course a set of memes (Dawkins, 1976) which human minds can best remember and pass onto the next generation and so over 70 thousand years these thoughts have become ingrained in our culture, in one form or another.

References and further reading

Boyer, P. (2001) Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-00696-5
Boyer, P. and Bergstrom, B. (2008) Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 37, pgs 111-130
Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene, New York, Oxford University Press, ISBN 019857519x

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Tags: Fundamentalism, Morals, Religion, Science

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