Fundamentalism as Psychosis?

Fundamentalism as Psychosis? June 2, 2018

I have heard people make claims about fundamentalism being a form of mental illness, but I’ve often felt that that was an inappropriate slight against genuine mental illness, using it in the demeaning way that popular speech talks about craziness and insanity. Moreover, there are lots of atheists who have said that religion of any sort is a mental illness, and hopefully all well-informed people are aware of the abundant counterevidence to that claim – which turns out, on closer examination, to be simply another example of the use of mental illness as an insult, in a way that those who do so ought to be ashamed of.

However, when I saw that a clinical psychologist who is also a priest in the Orthodox Church said that fundamentalism and psychosis at the very least have shared traits in common, it made me take notice. Here is a excerpt from what Rev. Dr. Vaseilios Thermos had to say on this topic in a recent online article, “Fundamentalism and Psychosis”:

Paradoxically, although religious fundamentalism is a fanatical opponent of the discipline of psychology, it actually is a form of psychologism. It assesses through habit, not through truth. For fundamentalism, it is “familiar identity” that is at risk. Fearful of the complexity of the modern world (which has already evolved to the chaos of the postmodern one), it resorts to oversimplified solutions, because it cannot tolerate doubt, perplexity, or coexistence. In other words, fundamentalism “freezes” certain created and external elements of the tradition, which it believes to contain the truth of God. In doing so, fundamentalism immobilizes history, unaware that by doing so it enacts the very sin it claims to fight.

Religious fundamentalism was born as a reaction to secularism; therefore, secularism and fundamentalism are mirroring phenomena that cannot be separated. The former yields to the fascination of the secular, the latter fights against the secular in panic and hatred. Both have elevated the secular to the status of an obsession, in opposite ways. Therefore, neither is free. They resemble to each other; that’s why they are rivals.

Psychologically, fundamentalist violence (whether physical, emotional or spiritual) indicates insecurity. The fundamentalist is insecure in his faith, and sometimes split as for his desire. Freedom and joy in others can trigger anxiety, leading to envy and then hatred. In short, the fundamentalist is animated by fear rather than by love. Aggression becomes a critical issue of survival, not a manifestation of bravery.[1] Therefore, the noblest elements of his faith have not been adequately internalized.

Consequently, the deep raw psychic aggressiveness seeks legitimization by claiming to defend “tradition,” a defense that does not stem from confidence but from fear. This is a fear that can evolve to a real paranoia, namely a morbid suspicion against non-existent enemies. We understand that the motivation for a defense of tradition is much more secular than the fundamentalist can imagine.

Fundamentalism is unable to interpret the holy texts because it approaches them like fossils, disconnecting them from the context that gave birth to them. Its concrete discourse lacks the capacity for metaphor, which is an indispensable means for interpretation. From a psychoanalytic perspective, fundamentalism (as a collective, not as an individual diagnosis) functions in the Church like psychosis. It is in psychosis that discourse is concrete, lacking the metaphorical function.[2] Among the most important aspects of metaphor are translation and contextual theology; this is why fundamentalism fights against both translating the liturgical texts into the common language, as well as interpreting theological tradition in context.

The other way in which fundamentalism converges with psychosis is paranoia, namely a fear that annuls any dialogue and reception. Usually, this fear is either disproportionate to the threat or an imaginary one in front of a non-existent threat. Actually, it is the inner aggressiveness that is projected under a Christian disguise, when the raw destructive forces of the psyche motivate a fight against the perceived enemy.[3] Therefore, the threat is perceived as coming from outside, while it is a projected aggressiveness.

Click through to the Public Orthodoxy blog to read more.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    That was really interesting.

    I especially appreciated the part about fear, and it calls to mind a post you wrote a while back tying together uncertainty and anxiety.

    • Matthew

      Hello Phil! Have a great week!

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Hey Matthew! You, too.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Interesting! 🙂

  • John MacDonald

    If you take the example of a paranoid schizophrenic, that paranoiac may find herself caught up in a world of terrible conspiracies. This conspiratorial transcendental signifier/unifying theme casts terrible colored light on the events/things she encounters. For example, walking down the road she may get anxious, turn around and see someone “following her.” This conspirator following her is interpreted as a sign that points to the truth of the worldwide conspiracy, but at the same time the innocent bystander isn’t a sign at all because it’s all in the schizophrenic’s head. I think this is the sense in which some secular people think the religious are nuts, because they are reading religious significance off the events they are encountering which no one else can see but them and other theists. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes.

    • John MacDonald

      On the other hand, an alternative to framing an understanding of religious life as analogous to that of the paranoid schizophrenic, is to consider the model of being in love. When a teenager experiences puppy love, the whole world seems to glow with a warm radiance, even though she is the only one experiencing this. Just because she is seeing something others don’t, she isn’t crazy. She’s just in love.


    If we’re going to deconstruct religious truth claims we should also deconstruct the notion of mental illness. Does this article flip one kind of fundamentalism for another?

  • “Freedom and joy in others can trigger anxiety, leading to envy and then hatred.”

    And then you just have to aggressively denounce their ‘heretical’ beliefs, and gleefully pronounce their sentence of eternal torture… all in the name of ‘love’ of course…

  • Jen (*.*)

    Wow that’s a great analysis. I was born into a fundie family and can attest to this. Breaking free was extremely painful but so worth it.