Come hell or high water – Who becomes a religious fundamentalist?

By Michelle Leong


To some, it may seem spurious to suggest that religious fundamentalism isn’t synonymous with terrorism. But ever since Al-Qaeda headlined all major newspapers and news channels in 2001, the idea that fundamentalism isn’t synonymous with terrorism more often takes the anomalous position. A simple Google search using the keywords “religious fundamentalism” and “terrorism” immediately returns over 300,000 results, front-lined by journal articles that specifically examine the direct connection between religious fundamentalism and terrorism. The news section features the latest ISIS suicide bombing in Pakistan, which killed 80 people while echoing the rhetoric of the fundamentalist Islamic state.

It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the term “fundamentalist” was originally coined for 19th-century Christians who resolutely turned away from theological modernism. These Christians preferred to believe that Bible scripture was to be interpreted literally; they thought that snakes really did speak the human tongue and Noah really lived to 900 years old. In contrast to modernist Christians who found a meeting point between progressive modernism and theological traditionalism, fundamentalists prided themselves on being the “true” Christians, the ones who were faithful to the “fundamentals” of the religion. These early fundamentalists were harmless enough. Conflicting though their views may have been with secular society, to an outsider it simply looked like they held prayer sessions more regularly and their children had better attendance at Sunday school. No plastic explosives hidden in underwear; no PETN. Yet.

Today, the story has changed. The term “fundamentalist” is used loosely to include all who believe, more or less, in absolute religious authoritarianism. The rationale for this is understandable. All fundamentalist groups, after all, share the same rhetoric and methodology of “returning” to the fundamentals of their beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs may be. But in recent years the term is most frequently used alongside words like “jihadists,” “terrorists,” “ISIS,” and “Al-Qaeda,” (which, by the way, has become a useless umbrella term for radical Islamist groups around the world). The consensus is that while not all fundamentalists are terrorists, the majority of terrorists seem to be fundamentalists.

Could there be real weight to this consensus?

“Would-be fundamentalists”

In November 2009, the wealthy Nigerian businessman Alhaji Umaru Mutallab informed the US Embassy about his son’s religious radicalization. According to the report, young Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had left for Yemen to study academic Islam, but he subsequently sent his father a text, claiming that he’d found the “real Islam” and that he was no longer his father’s son. Umar was placed on the CIA watch list, but no further action was considered necessary.

When asked about the decision, an intelligence official said, “You had a young man who was becoming increasingly pious and was turning his back on his family’s wealthy lifestyle. That alone makes him neither St. Francis nor a dead-eyed killer.”

So, on Christmas Day, 23-year-old Umar carried explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The “Underwear Bomber,” as he became popularly known, began the attack midair but was foiled by on-board passengers and flight crew. The act of religious terrorism failed, and Umar was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences.

Naturally, the media went wild. Leonard Greene, of the New York Post, suggested that it was “sex torment” that drove the 23-year-old “nuts” (Greene has a penchant for puns). Prior to the attempted attack, Umar had posted as “Farouk1986” on the Islamic forum,  

“As i [sic] get lonely, the natural sexual drive awakens and i struggle to control it, sometimes leading to minor sinful activities like not lowering the gaze [in the presence of unveiled women]…”

While it may be too simplistic to ascribe Umar’s terrorist tendency to mere carnal desire, Greene’s article does prompt other, more pressing concerns, such as: Who becomes a “fundamentalist?” Are “fundamentalists” psychologically predisposed to religious authoritarianism? If so, is it possible to profile a “potential fundamentalist” before they take it too far? And if fundamentalism is not exclusive to specific religions (for the record, there are fundamentalist atheists too), then are some of us more susceptible to fundamentalism – or, worse still, the logical conclusion of fundamentalism – at certain periods of our lives, or under certain emotional duress?

Need for Cognitive Closure

Humans are narrative beings – we’re constantly narrating and being narrated. Truly, the psychic power of narratives cannot be overstated; it is the reason we create mythologies, believe in perfect Abrahamic pasts, and fund scientific hypotheses and theories. Religion is a narrative; so is science. To determine whether either or both are “true” narratives is not the goal of this section; the point is merely to demonstrate that both narratives offer the promise of cognitive structure (read: “knowledge”) and, in some cases, cognitive closure.

Recent research by Mark Brandt and Christine Reyna suggests a positive correlation between fundamentalism and the need for cognitive structure. For the layman, “cognitive structure” is fancy psychology-speak that means “knowledge” or “coherent narrative.” In other words, individuals partial to fundamentalism typically also demonstrate a high need for comprehensive, coherent narratives that explain the world.

The study found that individuals high in need for cognitive structure would more likely reduce uncertainty by subscribing to simple, coherent, black-and-white cognitive structures that offer stability, order and predictability to everyday life. These individuals typically resolve uncertainty and ambiguity via category-based processing (in which features of objects of interest are evaluated based on a pre-existing category, e.g. to certain aspects of scriptural doctrine) instead of piecemeal processing (in which features of an object of interest are evaluated individually to arrive at a conclusion).

In light of such research, it makes more sense that young Umar would have graduated from sexual desire to religious terrorism. On Gawaher, he shared:

“The hair of a woman can easily arouse a man. The Prophet (SAW) advised young men to fast if they can’t get married but it has not been helping me much and I seriously don’t want to wait for years before I get married. But i [sic] am only 18 … It would be difficult for me to get married due to social norms of getting to the late 20’s when one has a degree, a job, a house, etc before getting married. So usually my fa[n]tasies are about islamic stuff. The bad part of it is sometimes the fantasies are a bit worldly rather than concentrating in the hereafter.”

Umar, it seemed, could not isolate the issue of sexual desire. His need for cognitive structure demanded an overarching narrative. And, at the time, the narrative most freely available to him was fundamentalist Islam. In this way he connected one piecemeal information (“the hair of a woman”) to the larger cognitive context of sin and faith. The overall cognitive structure offered him a way to view and justify not only his sexual desire, but also the purpose of said desire (e.g. it was part of a series of “tests” from God).

Brandt and Reyna’s study also found that fundamentalism was characterized by subordination of peripheral belief to that of central belief, instead of strict isolation of the belief-disbelief system. In other words, fundamentalists tend to utilize doctrinal beliefs to provide cognitive structure and understanding of their more earthly experiences. In the case of illnesses, for example, religious beliefs can provide a meaning for which the suffering is contextualized and understood. The suffering itself isn’t discredited or separated from the superior religious understanding. Instead, it is explained in the framework of the belief, thus justifying the belief and the illness at the same time.

This applies well to fundamentalists like Umar. Sexual desire is not an aberration. It is merely a “test” for the greater glory of “God.” And evidently the narrative of sin, faith and God held such compulsive sway over the 23-year-old that his psychical tensions came to be intellectually processed via “fantasies” about “Islamic stuff” and, eventually, plastic explosives.

Emotional And Situational Duress

Was it this emotional duress then, apropos his sexual-spiritual distress, that made Umar an easy target for religious fundamentalism? If so, would it be more appropriate to label his brand of fundamentalism “situational” rather than “dispositional?” Perhaps another religiously motivated case can help shed light on this issue.

In 1984, within the small, sleepy community of American Fork, Utah County, 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty and her baby were murdered in their own home. The criminals were none other than her two brother-in-laws, who claimed to have committed the murders based on divine revelation. The following was part of the revelation, given unto Ron Lafferty by “God”:

“It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward […] First thy brother’s wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low, then Richard Stowe. And it is My will that they be removed in rapid succession and that an example be made of them in order that others might see the fate of those who fight against the true Saints of God.”

Regardless of the veracity of this divine claim, it has been suggested that Ron’s emotional and psychological state prior to receiving the “removal revelation” had something to do with the revelation itself. A year prior to the event, his wife Dianna had issued a divorce and taken all six children to Florida with her, which was as far from American Fork as Dianna could get to within US borders. Slightly before that, Ron had already been excommunicated from the mainstream LDS church after accusing the church of betraying sacred scripture (the LDS church refused to participate in polygamy, which was considered a central tenet of the fundamentalist Mormon faith).

So, when Ron Lafferty lost his family, he also lost the last living connection he had to non-fundamentalist society. Amidst the confusion and loss was an anger that found impetus and direction in blaming three individuals who, in his estimation, bore the greatest responsibility for his wife’s decision to leave him: Richard Stowe, Chloe Low, and Brenda Lafferty.

Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst most renowned for his psychosexual development theories, thought that religion was the social-cultural manifestation of psychological defense mechanisms that developed in response to traumatic events. Amidst great pain and confusion, it may be possible for an individual to retain a sense of control and safety by rigorously holding on to religious beliefs. Anna Freud supported this theory and suggested that defense mechanisms were a way to relieve displeasure and anxiety.

In light of psychoanalytic theory, then, Ron Lafferty’s revelation becomes somewhat understandable. In this case, fundamentalism could certainly be situational; Ron’s increasingly fanatic fundamentalism could’ve been a psychological defense mechanism in response to emotional upheaval. But further evidence also suggests that, in this case, Ron’s susceptibility to fundamentalist ideology was situational on top of being dispositional.  

According to Richard Wootton, the psychologist who examined Ron in prison, the Laffertys’ father was also prone to violent outbursts when the Lafferty boys were children. Ron even remembered “seeing his mother hit by his father and being so mad that he wished he could have been big enough to have kicked his father’s ass.” Wootton believes this early childhood impression laid the foundation for which Ron would later handle difficult and mistrustful situations, including his excommunication and divorce.

In other words, Ron was primed for religious fundamentalism by his childhood experiences. While his grief consequent of losing “everything” as an adult may have been the springboard to religious fundamentalism and – subsequently – terrorism, it was not the only reason for his susceptibility to fundamentalist theology. It could’ve been a combination of situational and dispositional fundamentalism that ultimately drove Ron Lafferty to first-degree felony.

Need for Optimism

Of course, it’d be a mistake to assume that, amid the justifications for religious awakening and salvation, there wasn’t also an emotional payoff for those involved.

A study by Sheena Sethi and Martin Seligman explored fundamentalism in a different way: they measured it in comparison to the empirical optimism of individual members. It was found that religious hope and influence in daily life was significantly higher for fundamentalists than for moderates and, interestingly, higher for moderates than for liberals. In layman terms, this means that religious hope and influence is directly proportional to the fervor with which religious followers submit to their beliefs.

The results of this study make sense when one considers the shared experience of religiosity, which is most clearly manifest in shared rituals, liturgy, literature, social functions, music and art, prayer gatherings, and sacred buildings. It is not uncommon to see believers crying, yelling, falling to the floor, and clutching their breasts when attending a sermon that they find particularly moving and profound. Not infrequently, these gestures are emotional and physiological reactions to the optimistic suggestion of salvation on Judgment Day.

When one considers the sheer lack of remorse on the part of religious criminals, then, it’s not too hard to imagine this sort of emotional motivation taken to an extreme. Umar the Underwear Bomber, for example, pleaded guilty to all charges in court. He called his failed plastic explosives a “blessed weapon to save the lives of innocent Muslims,” and informed the audience at the hearing that “if you laugh with us now, we will laugh with you later on the day of judgment.”

Dan Lafferty, too, showed no remorse for the murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Dan believed that Christ had told His children:

“I know life is fucking crazy, but I’m here to tell you there’s a purpose behind it. We’re working for the Kingdom of God. And the way we do that is we just put in our time here. And every hour you put in here is building up credit for the Big Party. That’s the promise. That’s the covenant. It’s going to be crazy down there for a while, but in the end, through Elijah, I will come.”

These examples certainly support Sethi and Seligman’s study on the connection between fundamentalism and optimism. In fact, they suggest that optimistic liturgy and literature may have something to do with the fundamentalism-optimism connection, given that fundamentalist liturgy and literature tend to exhibit more optimism. Further research, however, needs to be conducted to collect conclusive data about this particular hypothesis.


In truth, fundamentalists exhibit characteristics that are very similar to the average believer (and we are all, of course, “believers” of one paradigm or another). To put this into perspective, one of the experts called upon for the Lafferty case in 1994 was the psychiatrist Dr Noel Gardner, who contended that Ron – rather than exhibiting symptoms of psychotism – actually displayed characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the DSM-IV, NPD is characterized by – among other things – an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, envy of others, and arrogant, contemptuous behaviours. But these characteristics, says Dr Gardner, are also hallmark traits of highly successful people, including accomplished businessmen, attorneys, physicians, and academics. Many such people believe that they’re “smarter” and “better” than everybody else, and therefore are “willing to work incredible hours to provide confirmation to support their grandiose ideas.”

Of course, what marks Umar and the Lafferty brothers from the crowd is their willingness to support grandiose ideas in the name of God. So far, I’ve sought to cover three particular characteristics of fundamentalists-turned-criminals, namely: the need for cognitive closure, emotional and situational duress, and the need for optimism. At this point, further questions will need to be considered, such as: Are there specific emotions and/or situations that are more likely to push the fundamentalist “over the edge,” as it were? Is there a “cure” for the human need for cognitive closure? How does one achieve divinely inspired optimism without running the risk of going just a bit too far?

Even more importantly, do any of us exhibit these characteristics of fundamentalists-turned-criminals? Can we identify, in ourselves, a high need for cognitive closure and empirical optimism? Are there certain emotional and situational stresses that we know make us vulnerable, raw, and susceptible to suggestion?

And if we were in Alhaji (father of Umar)’s shoes, would we be able to do what he did?

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