December 15, 2016

Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.


Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.



1 reply to “Radical experiences that can change worlds

  1. Melanie Barbato

    The example of the Christian attacking the abortion provider opens new questions. The view that abortion is morally repugnant (and in some sense ‘murder’) is held also by pro- life humanists and secular pro-life campaigners. The vast majority of Christians or other people who hold this conviction do not attack anyone. There are also people who campaign as ‘Christians’ against the death penalty on the basis of related ‘radical’ convictions (such as the inherent worthiness of all human life that can be set aside only in self-defense situations), and non-Christians who do the same. So I don’t see how the example, at least as given in the text, serves to establish a cause or the usefulness of the label ‘religious’ for classifying convictions. Rather it suggests to me again the need for at least an additional variable.


Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *