New book addresses religious fundamentalism and fanaticism

May 23, 2019

Two Jungian psychoanalysts, Vladislav Solc and George J. Didier, have written a new book exploring the psychological causes and dynamics of religious fanaticism: “Dark Religion: Fundamentalism from the Perspective of Jungian Psychology” (2018). Their in-depth psychological analysis explores what happens when a person is possessed by the unconscious energies of the Self, what has been called the numinous or the Holy. These energies can possess a person for good or bad.

Radical fundamentalism is a burning issue in our world. It provides the supposed rational and inspiration for what might be judged as un-religious acts of violence. Extreme fanatical religion has produced conflicts that have exaggerated cultural clashes, violent acts of aggression, religious wars, and international terrorism and genocide. These are often committed “in the name of God.” The fundamentalists hide behind their own literalized images of God as if they have absolute knowledge of the will or identity of God.

We see the rise in fundamentalism in the growth of the Christian evangelical right in America (religious right, Moral Majority, the Tea Party), the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with the Iranian revolution and the Islamic doctrine of Wahhabism, and the modern Jewish fundamentalism in the state of Israel as it becomes an apartheid nation rather than a liberal democracy. Religious fundamentalism has combined political with religious goals. We are familiar with acts of aggression committed in the name of God by fanatical religion: the jihadist movements, ISIS building on archetypal religious ideas such as paradise on earth. Osama bin Laden was a religious fanatic. In some parts of the world, women are stoned for infidelity and other acts.

An example of religious extremism can be found closer to home in the radical anti-abortion activist who said he was acting in the name of God in killing Dr. George Tiller for providing abortions. There are many gurus, priests, politicians, spiritual leaders who are idealized and take advantage of uncritical followers. The religiously motivated massacres at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and in Christchurch, New Zealand, are tragic examples of violence in the name of religion.

This book reflects on the dynamics of fundamentalism through the insights of C.G. Jung’s depth psychology. There are many short clinical vignettes which bring theory into practice. There was a patient who grew up in a fundamentalist environment hearing, “You cannot question God!,” “Being angry is a sin.” He sought therapy for his unconfined angry outbursts. Another sad story was when a fundamentalist was asked what he could learn from science. His response was, “Nothing. I am a Christian. I have all the answers.”

The authors are careful to remind the reader of the vulnerability, fear, anxiety and fragility the fundamentalist experiences in the face of change, doubt and critical thinking. They remind the reader of the importance of healthy religious institutions and communities which have the spiritual tools to help us discover deeper religious meanings through worship, prayer, and ritual practices which contain powerful numinous energies for the transformation of personality and culture.

The authors argue for a more humble attitude when we talk about religion. There is a need for us to tell our experiences of religion but respect the “otherness” of another person’s experience and understanding. We should be careful of religious grandiosity which might protect us from our own suffering, doubts and from the deeper Self emerging from valuing paradox, imagination, conflict and emerging novelty in religious experience and understanding.

This book is a scholarly investigation of religion which is thoughtful, readable, comprehensive and contemporary in its concerns. It may not appeal to the true believers locked in dogmatism, literalization and concrete thinking, incapable of appreciating a more symbolic and imaginal reading of their sacred scriptures. However, this is an important work for serious students of psychology, religion and spirituality. Dark religion should be a concern to all of us in our churches, temples, mosques and also our families, places of public discourse and political platforms.

David J. Dalrymple, Ph.D., is affiliate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston, a pastoral psychotherapist and Jungian psychoanalyst, and has been adjunct faculty in Religious Studies at Marshall University.