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Bad FaithReview - Bad Faith
The Danger of Religious Extremism
by Neil J. Kressel
Prometheus, 2007
Review by Simon Riches, Ph.D.
Aug 19th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 34)

With the recent spate of polemical books warning against the dangers of religion, one might expect psychologist Neil Kressel's Bad Faith to be yet another diatribe against God and religious belief. Yet, with measured resistance to this somewhat sensationalist approach, Kressel demonstrates a welcome open-mindedness, periodically citing William James' dictum that religions should be judged not by their roots but by their fruits.

Although a self-proclaimed religious skeptic, Kressel is not one eager to espouse the "new atheism", sympathetically citing the "fundamental human need" for religion that those atheists often ridicule. Rather, "the problem is not religion", he writes, "but religious extremism" (p.18). Although he concedes from the outset of Chapter 1 that defining religious extremism will be a "difficult task" (p. 34), he employs William James' approach to explicitly focus on "the impact of religious beliefs, rather than their content" (p. 53), and so accordingly judges that, "when the fruits of a religion frequently include attacks on the life, liberty, and happiness of non-believers or those who don't practice the faith, the religion can be reliably classified as extremist" (pp. 53-54}.

New atheists, represented most notably by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, are typically less tolerant of the religion/religious extremism distinction, but Kressel provides a plausible case for thinking we can postulate such a line. After all, not all religious believers are militant extremists. Some religious believers achieve inner strength, secure personal identity and greater happiness through religious faith and do so without harming others. Kressel makes the point that for some individuals "religion contributes to mental health by providing ultimate meaning and a source of long-range guidance and goals" (p. 210), especially when the individual in question is "under conditions of adversity" (p. 206).

Kressel's exhaustively researched and clearly written book focuses instead on the tension between the widely held desire for human freedom and the constraints imposed on societies by religious fundamentalism and extremism. In particular, Kressel seeks to understand the psychology of religious belief and the socio-political circumstances that underpin fanaticism in particular individuals and cultures. As Kressel points out, liberal values could ultimately be the victim of this tension between freedom and extremism. Such was the case in the aftermath of the 2005 incident involving Danish cartoonists who drew satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed to the outrage of certain Muslim leaders. Subsequently, Western newspapers chose not reprint the pictures and journalists were afraid to discuss a range of sensitive topics for fear of retribution. Kressel claims that this is proof that some societies have already diminished their democratic right to free speech when militant religious fundamentalists issue violent threats. However, some Islamist figures view the Danish cartoonists themselves as the true terrorists for insulting the Prophet Mohammed and his followers around the world. This extremist mentality is so at odds with liberal values, it is very difficult to even comprehend it. Yet the majority of this book is devoted to a range of approaches intended to tackle precisely this problem.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Kressel discusses whether extremism is an inherent part of the world's major religions. Although there is much contemporary media coverage of Islamic extremism, Kressel is at pains to highlight that all religions have perpetrators of extremism. He explains that "Christians for hundreds of years were willing to put other Christians to death or through merciless tortures over matters that seem incomprehensibly trivial to nonbelievers" (p. 112). Even today Christian anti-abortion campaigners in the US have been responsible for the murder of abortionists.

Yet Kressel notes an important difference with Islamic extremism and extremism in other faiths. He claims that "the degree and nature of support that the extremists receive" (p. 106) is far greater in Muslim countries. Kressel argues that "[t]he American public squarely denounces antiabortion violence" and that there is no American equivalent of the "undercurrent of public sympathy … for Islamic terrorists in some Muslim countries" (p. 107).

Kressel continues in similar vein in Chapter 4 when he turns his attention to religious texts. He argues that some (although not all) of the blame for religious extremism must lie with religious texts and he produces persuasive textual evidence to show that they contain "messages that readily lend themselves to extremist interpretation, even if such interpretation is, as moderates insist, misinterpretation" (p. 83). Although Kressel believes that the Bible contains inflammatory content, he argues that the inflammatory content is markedly worse in Muslim texts. As he puts it, "the texts cited by Muslim extremists can very plausibly be read to support the approach they advocate. … Yet regarding the source of antiabortion violence, it's hard to put much blame on Christian texts" (p. 106). Throughout this chapter, Kressel still endeavors to present a balanced view. He does not deny that a scriptural story might provide instruction on "how to live a good life" or some "psychological comfort." (p. 190)

These few chapters focusing on world religions and their texts are very informative and painstakingly researched with an abundance of textual and anecdotal evidence, but they are occasionally labored and drawn out. One has the feeling that the real issues behind religious fanaticism and extremism are being, at best, only partially addressed. What one wants is a inquiry into the psychology of religious belief, in particular the psychology of fanaticism, and Kressel delivers on this front in the later chapters, although his remarks – perhaps inevitably given the complexities of truly understanding the fanatical mindset – are more a broad outline of suggested treatments than a definitive cure.

Nevertheless, Kressel makes some very interesting observations in this area. Though it is perhaps a natural conclusion for many, Kressel argues that it is a fundamental mistake to tie fanaticism to psychiatric abnormality. The criteria for psychiatric abnormality (deviant behavior, relationship difficulties, depression) do not readily apply in this instance: the measure of unacceptable behavioral deviancy is dependent on one's community finding it unacceptable (and this is not always the case in the communities of Islamic suicide bombers or Christian anti-abortion killers); familial relations have been known to improve if other family members are similarly extremist; and, equally disturbingly, Kressel points out that some of "the most extreme and dangerous religious beliefs render their adherents happy, or even ecstatic" (p. 50).

Instead, Kressel points out a list of traits that support extremism, such as the psychology of close-mindedness, the existentialist need to have power over one's own death, the rejection of freedom in favor of conveniently packaged certainties, identity problems that lead one to desire the safety of belonging to a group, and the alienating feeling of inner guilt, which he believes will shed light on the psychology of religious extremists. Kressel makes much of the notion of guilt, arguing that the temptation of "greater sexual openness, equality for women, religious tolerance, [and] free speech" is often too much for the religiously repressed, and that when they succumb this can generate "a surge in guilt" (p. 229). More generally, the notion of guilt also figures in Kressel's fascinating observations about the relation between religious extremism and sexual feelings:

Several psychoanalysts have detected a connection between religious extremism and feelings about sex. The hostility of most militants toward homosexuals, the exaggerated concern about the sexual goings-on of other people, the angry reaction to permissive mainstream media broadcasts, the preference for women in nonrevealing garb, and the insistence upon a male-dominated power structure can all be seen as suggestive of difficulties in the management of sexual impulses. Perhaps militants fear their own sexual impulses or the conflict of these impulses with their declared ideological commitment. One need not be a card-carrying psychoanalyst to agree that such people therefore construct a system of controls that makes the task of impulse control easier, but at the cost of intense frustration, anger, and resentment, directed especially towards those with a freer lifestyle. (p. 222)

Although Kressel's discussion of these matters remains interesting throughout, there is a disappointingly tendency for his theorizing to merely list a range of character traits signifying that extremism is nothing more than an outlet for religiously motivated insecurities. For example, in one passage, Kressel suggests the following precaution:

An individual is perhaps best protected against succumbing to the extremism when he has multiple identities. Thus, when a person values his national identity, occupational identity, linguistic identity, familial identity, and personal identity as well as the religious identity, the likelihood that he will permit the religious self to ride roughshod over the others is minimized. When, however, all the other identities are subordinated to the religious self, the risk is multiplied. (p. 250)

While no doubt good advice, this amounts to little more than a call for restraint where one's faith is concerned. The problem is that these precautionary measures do not appear to be custom made for religious extremism and that similar advice could be provided to curb a range of misbehavior.

Towards the end of the book, Kressel attempts to analyze why extremism is growing in the Muslim world. He provides compelling sociological and political analysis of Islam as an ill-managed culture that perceives itself as devalued and under attack. This, he argues, is typical fuel for fanaticism:

Sometimes, when controlling conventions are lacking, when destructive theology abounds, and when the surrounding state is a failure, the entire culture may run the risk of disintegration. Religion, under these conditions, will cease to work in the service of morality and social cooperation. It will become the tool of warped individuals and even large groups bent on destruction in the service of their theological and psychological agendas. This is what is now happening in large parts of the Muslim world. (p. 231) 

There is much to recommend about this book. It is highly informative, considerate to the general reader, and provides well-balanced, clearly expressed arguments. It makes good headway with the psychology of religious extremism, although ultimately it provides only a partially convincing explanation of this phenomenon. Above all though, it provides a compelling case for religious moderation and tolerance. As Kressel puts it, "[i]f religion trumps reason, it can readily become an energizing force for irrationality" (p. 239) To paraphrase Galileo: surely the God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect did not intend us to forego their use.

© 2008 Simon Riches

Dr Simon Riches has recently completed a PhD in philosophy at University College London, with a thesis on a priori knowledge, and has taught in their philosophy department for the last three years. Before that he studied philosophy at the University of Southampton.


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