Religious fundamentalism is an exceptionally prominent topic covered by nearly all media outlets. Whether on TV, on the Internet, in a newspaper, or within the context of a conversation, we are constantly exposed to topics such as “terrorism,” “radicalization,” “brainwashing,” and the like. However, this phenomenon is not necessarily specific to a particular religion, demographic, or ideology. Religious fundamentalism is the product of a perfect storm of behavioral contingencies that can affect any group of individuals who share a set of rigid ideals and beliefs. This article aims to address a few of the behavioral principles that play a role in shaping and maintaining fundamentalist religious behaviors.
One issue posed by many religions is the magnitude of the concept of heaven and hell. These two hypothetical places are eternal, and each represents a different extreme. If you are allowed into heaven, you are granted infinite access to an infinite number of preferred stimuli. However, if you are sent to hell, you experience an eternity of exposure to aversive stimuli. Often times, simply being told “this will let you into heaven” or “you will go to hell for this” is reinforcing or punishing enough to change and maintain various behaviors. Unfortunately, because these two concepts are so daunting, it is very easy for individuals with extreme agendas to use them to change the behavior of other followers.
In this same vain, because of the magnitude and uncertainty of reinforcement and punishment posed by the prospect of divine retribution and reward, very often those who follow religion in a much stricter sense will disregard laws and boundaries imposed by society and government agencies. This holds especially true for laws and cultural practices that are in direct conflict with what the religious individual has been taught.
Essentially, the religion vs. society/government paradigm is a competing behavioral contingency between contingency-shaped behavior encountered within society and rule-governed behavior shaped by the members of the religious community. In the book Rule-Governed Behavior: Cognition, Contingencies, and Instructional Control, Catania, Shimoff, and Matthews argue, “contingency-shaped behavior, which is by definition under the control of its consequences, will necessarily be sensitive to those consequences. Rule-governed behavior, on the other hand, will be sensitive to those consequences only to the extent that the rules are consistent with the contingencies. When this is not the case, the contingencies that maintain rule-following, even though often remote, may override the other consequences of the behavior” (p. 120). Individuals with fundamentalist tendencies who adhere strictly and unwaveringly to religious scriptures see two options: disregard or adhere to God’s laws and the result will last an eternity (a paradigm presented to them as a rule); OR disregard or adhere to the laws of government and society and encounter predictable, finite, and less severe consequences on earth involving contingency-shaped behavior.
Finally, in addition to the relationship a radicalized individual has with God personally, a radicalized individual or group of individuals will contact reinforcement and punishment, ranging from mild to severe, from other group members as a consequence for engaging in various behaviors. For example, in many religious terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, individuals and their families can face torture and even death for deviating from the group’s doctrines. There have been reports of individuals being tortured and even killed just for expressing dissenting political views (Iacopino, 1998). On the other hand, those who engage in fundamentalist behavior often contact reinforcement from other group members. For example, in the 1990’s a fundamentalist Christian named Eric Rudolph perpetrated a series of bombings that targeted a gay bar, an abortion clinic, and the 1996 Summer Olympic Games at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta (Mattingly & Schuster, 2005). Though he was prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison, he received an outpouring of support and praise from other radicalized Christian groups such as the Aryan Nations (Anti Defamation League, 2003).
This account only skims the surface of the behavioral science of religious fundamentalism. Religious extremism is comprised of a complex interplay of a wide variety of behavioral contingencies. The field of Behavior Analysis has a substantial amount to offer with regard to understanding human behavior outside the scope of mental health, and it up to us to open discussion to those in other fields.
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Catania, A.C., Shimoff, E., & Matthews, B.A. (1989). Rule-governed behavior: cognition, contingencies, and instructional control. New York, NY: Springer US.
Iacopino, Vincent. The Taliban’s War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan. Boston: Physicians for Human Rights, 1998.
Emily Mandel, M.S., BCBA, is a behavior clinician who works with children on the Autism Spectrum in the Greater Boston Area. She has over 3 years of experience delivering therapeutic services both in-home and in the public school system. Though she is predominantly focused on the utilization of Applied Behavior Analysis in treating individuals with disabilities, Emily enjoys examining topics such as religion, medicine, politics, and social constructs, through a behavioral lens. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.