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Strong Religion and Extreme Beliefs - Research Team

The Research Team Strong Religion and Extreme Beliefs studies the nature and function of extreme beliefs, as extreme beliefs are found in fundamentalist, extremist, terrorist, fanaticist, and conspiracy movements.

Taking stock of developments in many religious and non-religious traditions – especially in their sometimes polarized relation with society at large - this research develops epistemological and ethical frameworks to better understand and potentially explain and predict extreme beliefs. 

Research Team - Strong Religion and Extreme Beliefs

  • Mission

    We study extreme beliefs and extreme behavior. These can be found in terrorist attacks, such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting by Islamists or the 2019 Halle Synagogue shooting by a right-wing extremist. However, we also find them in religious indoctrination at secondary schools, the rejection of the rights of minorities such as LGBTQ+, various conspiracy theories, and people’s gradual alienation from democratic political life. Our mission is to develop deeply empirically informed epistemological and ethical frameworks that help us to better understand, explain, and prevent extreme beliefs, in particular in those cases in which they lead to extreme behavior.

  • Aim

    Our aim is to better understand, explain, and assess extreme belief in its relation to extreme action, as manifested in fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism, fanaticism, and conspiricism. We study how such beliefs arise, what roles group dynamics play in them, and how they relate to affections and actions. In order to be firmly embedded in reality and in the academic literature on extreme beliefs and strong religion, our members use not only the theoretical methods of conceptual analysis and reflective equilibrium, but also carry out empirical and historical research on strong religion and extreme beliefs. In addition, the group engages in formulating adequate ways of responding to extreme beliefs in a pluralist society.

    Current and prospective research activities of the group

    • Monthly meeting of the Strong Religion & Extreme Beliefs group
    • Monthly meeting of the Extreme Beliefs group
    • Biweekly reading group of the Extreme Beliefs group
    • Yearly conference/workshop
    • Yearly book symposium
    • Multiple (4 or so) invited lectures per year
    • Various edited volumes
    • Applications under way:
      • NWA pre-application (under review)
    • We’ll turn some of the best MA theses into articles
    • We’ll regularly publish op-pieces in Dutch and English to reach a larger audience
    • We’re in touch with various policy-oriented institutions to make our research useful for society, especially regarding policy documents
    • Junior staff will write and submit NWO applications or similar projects in the next few years.
  • Team

    Senior staff

    Junior staff

    External PhD’s

    Associate members

    • Joep van Gennip (Tilburg University, the Netherlands)
    • Ruth Tietjen (University of Copenhagen, DK)
    • Finlay Malcolm (University of Hertfortshire, UK)
    • Mark Boespflug (Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, US)
  • Disciplines and Methods

    Our team members have backgrounds in theology, philosophy, ethics, religious studies, media studies, Islamic theology, sociology, psychology, and economics.

    We use a wide variety of methods. Particularly salient are philosophical methods, such as conceptual analysis, thought experiments, logic, and reflective equilibrium (in particular from epistemology and ethics), and empirical methods, such as interviews, historical-critical analysis, social network analysis, and scoping reviews (popular in the social sciences, psychology, and religious studies).

  • Possible thesis topics

    Past and current MA thesis topics:

    • Economic explanations for fundamentalism (Arina den Besten)
    • Right-wing populism on social media in the Netherlands (Ruth Heringa)
    • Fundamentalism and Manicheism (Niek Dijkstra)
    • Deep fakes and extreme beliefs (Jack Esselink)
    • Creationism and literalism in fundamentalism (Chiel de Groot)
    • Fundamentalism and conspiracy theories (Marin Djurisic)
    • Humor and fundamentalism (Zoe Longworth)
    • Images of God in fundamentalisms (Michiel Bouman), spending the Fall 2021 semester at the University of Notre Dame (IN, USA)
  • Possible PhD Topics

    • Normativity in studying fundamentalism and conspiricism
    • Conspiracy theory and (transcendental) meaning-conferral
    • The relation between extremist action and extremist belief
    • The metaphysic and epistemic status of conspiricism
    • What makes beliefs extreme?
    • How much room should there be in democratic societies for extreme beliefs?
    • How can resilience towards extreme beliefs be cultivated?
    • What are proper excusing conditions for extreme beliefs?
    • What are group excuses?
    • What is indoctrination?
    • What is it to explain extreme behaviour?
    • What role do theological God-images play in extreme belief and extreme behaviour?
    • How does extremism relate to orthopraxis and religiosity?
    • How does religious conversion relate to de-radicalization?
  • Projects

    Rik Peels leads an ERC Starting Grant entitled Extreme Beliefs: The Epistemology and Ethics of Fundamentalism and is co-leader of a TWCF-funded project on Epistemic Progress in the University.

  • Connection with education

    • Rik Peels and Nora Kindermann aim to teach an MA course in 2022/2023 on fundamentalism and extreme beliefs more generally.
  • Academic relevance and societal urgency

    We pursue and carry out mostly projects that are both academically and societally relevant. We aim to create academic breakthroughs and new avenues of research, in particular by rigorous interdisciplinarity (philosophy, theology, and the empirical sciences) and by seeking a synthesis of first- and third-person perspectives that takes the subject with extreme beliefs seriously as a normally healthy and rational person. We also translate our findings to insights for a larger audience, publish in newspapers, radio and television performances, podcasts and other public platforms, and seek application in various policy documents regarding extremism and de-radicalization.

  • Connection with centers/institutes

    We work closely with various members of other institutes that study extremism and terrorism, such as Security in Open Societies at Utrecht University (the Netherlands), the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (The Hague), and the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society (Canada). We are also closely involved in various philosophical research institutes, such as the Dutch Research School of Philosophy and the European Epistemology Network.

  • Agenda

    The Strong Religion and Extreme Belief research group organizes several lectures, workshops, and symposiums every year. Our own members of the team as well as external speakers are invited to present their research at these events. In addition, the members of the Extreme Beliefs group present their own work to each other every 1st Friday of the month, and every 3rd Friday of the month the members of both groups (Extreme Beliefs and Strong Religion) do this.

    The following lectures are planned for the rest of this year (2022):

    • June 21, 2022: Lecture by Lorne Dawson

    Misunderstanding the Role of Religiosity in the Explanation of Religious Terrorism

    • September 15 and 16, 2022: International Workshop and Symposium

    Explaining Extreme Belief and Extreme Behavior

    • September 21, 2022: Lecture by Nikolaj Nottelmann

    Title TBD

    • October 13, 2022: Lecture by Ayhan Kaya

    Islamist and Nativist Radicalizations in Europe

    • December 8, 2022: Lecture by Ruth Rebecca Tietjen and Hina Haq

    Title TBD