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While many people associate fundamentalism with militant behavior and authoritarian, dogmatic intolerance, a recent book, The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, defines the word very differently—and includes the Amish in the conception.

The definition by the three authors, all scholars of the psychology of religion, is essential to their argument: “Fundamentalism can best be thought of as a religious meaning system that relies exclusively upon a sacred text.” (p.6) They make it clear that people who believe that religion is the “primary meaning system” in their lives are not necessarily fundamentalists. The critical issue, they argue, is that fundamentalists believe that their sacred text is the supreme authority for all knowledge and meaning.

Fundamentalists accept their religion as their complete way of life, and they believe that their text is not only the authority for their beliefs, it is exclusively the source of all truths, which are absolute. If there are any discrepancies or issues among the faithful, they believe, the text of the sacred scripture is the sole answer. The authors argue, “the text itself determines how it ought to be read.” (p.22) Other knowledge, other beliefs, are peripheral to the closed circle of fundamentalist thinking. The sacred text is the only source of meaning for them.

Since fundamentalists only give credence to their sacred texts and to those who derive answers from it, outsiders—unbelievers and critics, people who do not accept the absolute truths of their texts and beliefs—may be seen as threats to the purity and security of their worldviews. Their absolute truths cannot be criticized, especially by people who consider religious texts as authoritative rather than sacred, truths as relative rather than absolute, and peripheral beliefs as worthy of consideration rather than devoid of relevance.

The authors examine four different faith traditions in the light of their definition of fundamentalism: the Pentecostal denomination The Church of God (of Prophecy), the snake-handling sects, Shia Islam, and, perhaps surprisingly, the Old Order Amish. They argue that fundamentalism provides meaning to the fundamentalists by giving them a unifying worldview, a sense of coherence, a purpose for life, absolute values, and a sense of the efficacy of life.

For the Amish, their unifying worldview is provided by the Ordnung, the orally-transmitted code of behavior derived from their reading of the Bible. Their sense of coherence is based upon their church community and is developed by their rigid adherence to rules that the group imposes on all members. Violators—sinners—are shunned, a procedure that enhances group coherence. The Amish believe that their purpose in life is to remain righteous and to stay outside the secular culture. Their feelings of efficacy, of contentment, come from obeying the Ordnung and from living harmoniously within, and accepting the will of, the community.

The authors devote a chapter to each of the faith traditions they cover, and they base their work on the primary scholarship on each—in the case of the Amish (chapter 6), on the works of Hostetler and Kraybill. While books by those scholars are essential reading for anyone interested in the Amish, the psychological interpretation of this new book provides a useful overview. The authors maintain that the “introversionist tendency” of the Amish, their submission and introspection, supports the argument that fundamentalists are not necessarily militants. But considering the Amish in relation to their sacred text, they are, indeed, fundamentalists.

It could be argued that the Amish regard their traditions, their Ordnung, as authoritative along with the Bible, but the authors maintain that those traditions are all based on sacred scriptures. The Ordnung is legitimated by authority of the Bible. The Amish believe their concern about worldliness contrasts with God’s plan for righteousness, which is revealed in the Bible. While Amish beliefs about the divinity of Christ are similar to other conservative Protestant churches, their interpretations of the ways the Bible directs people to live their lives are unique.

The book makes it clear that one of the major factors distinguishing the Amish from the surrounding American and Canadian people is a focus on community versus an emphasis on individuality. The authors point out that “purpose, value, and self-worth are all understood in terms of contributions to the welfare of the [Amish] community.” (p.143) The rites and rituals that have so much meaning for the Amish—singing, prayer, common meals—help define their worldview and give it meaning.

In explaining subjects that can be difficult for outsiders—non-fundamentalists and non-Amish—to understand, the authors define their terms well and analyze the ways fundamentalists think and act quite effectively. This book is an interesting corrective to the “fundamentalists as militants” misconceptions that have grown up since 9/11. By including the Amish in the book, the authors jolt the casual reader to pay attention. These quiet, highly peaceful, people are the opposite of militant. And that’s the point of the book—fundamentalism is not about truculence. It’s about relationships with sacred scriptures and perceptions of absolute truths.

 Hood, Ralph W., Jr., Peter C. Hill, and W. Paul Williamson. 2005. The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism. New York: Guilford.