The Rationality of Fundamentalist Belief

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The Rationality of Fundamentalist Belief

Date Published: 27 August 2021
Author(s): Finlay Malcolm


Religious fundamentalism remains a significant force in global politics and religion. Despite a range of problems arising from fundamentalism, the beliefs fundamentalists hold can seem quite reasonable. This paper considers whether, in fact, fundamentalist beliefs are rational by drawing on recent ideas in contemporary epistemology. The paper presents a general theory of fundamentalist beliefs in terms of their propositional content and the high credence levels attributed to them. It then explores the way these beliefs are both acquired and retained by applying ideas from the social epistemology of echo chambers and group belief. The paper then considers three accounts of the rationality of belief: evidentialist, reliabilist, and virtue-theoretic. It is argued that fundamentalist beliefs can be reasonable on evidentialist standards, but are nevertheless still problematic on reliabilist and virtue standards, since they are formed in environments that are not truth-conducive and which cultivate intellectual vice.


The paper proceeds as follows. §2 offers a broad account of the ideology of fundamentalism and explores some of its manifestations. The paper will only consider examples from the main three monotheistic religions because they are, for varying reasons, clearer to describe than other religions. §3 argues for an account of the nature of fundamentalist belief in terms of, first, the propositional content of those beliefs, and second, the high credence in which those beliefs are typically held. §4 explores how fundamentalist beliefs are both acquired and sustained by drawing together ideas from sociology, broadly speaking, with recent work in social epistemology. It explores how these beliefs are formed and sustained in echo chamber-like environments as a variety of group belief. §5 gives epistemic appraisal to fundamentalist belief. It is argued that fundamentalist beliefs are not clearly irrational on evidentialist standards, but are nevertheless epistemically problematic since the environments in which they are formed cultivate intellectual vice and are not truth-conducive.