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Spiritual Psychology & The Fundamentalist Mind

Let’s look at spiritual psychology and understand it by putting it into practice. To do so, we’re going to look at the psychology of religious fundamentalism.

In our context, spiritual psychology is the study of the psychology behind our spiritual life. It enables us to gain insight into why people hold their faith structures at a fundamental level.

We go into various psychological theories and use them to shine light on this phenomenon. This will help us to understand it instead of demonising and ridiculing it, which is the usual, almost cliched response in modern society. This perspective will open our hearts and minds.


Before we begin discussing this sensitive topic, let me make my intentions clear. Though I use Christianity as my example, I’m not picking on Christianity – there are fundamental versions of every major religion. I was inspired to write about Christianity, but could easily go into the spiritual psychology about any major religion.

The goal is also not to question the validity of these Christian maxims. Whether they’re true or not makes little difference here. Neither is the goal to throw all of religion under a bus. The goal is to look at the psychology of fundamentalist people and to build a new, big-picture perspective on fundamentalism.

I find truth in all religions and resonate with all of them, but only the mystical, transpersonal truths – the “secret teachings”. I firmly believe they are systems for psychospiritual transformation and that this fundamental purpose has always been recognised by those who have undergone that transformation, i.e. the saints, mystics and meditators. Nonetheless, I recognise that people are at very different levels of development, and that they will inevitably interpret and distort the pure, elevated spiritual teachings.

We won’t be analysing all of Christianity – there are many “developmental” versions of Christianity, including the very highest. Here we’re focusing on a form of Christianity generated from a certain meta-stage of human development: fundamentalist Christianity. What most people believe Christianity to be is this form of it. We’re also not claiming all fundamentalists have all of these traits – these are general tendencies.

Spiritual Psychology: 3 Key Aspects of Fundamentalist Christianity

From my source information (DW Documentary), I deduced three key aspects of the fundamentalist Christian mind.

Key Aspect 1: The Saintly Life

This is the tendency of Christians to live according to strict, black-and-white rules which restrict their everyday life. Living this saintly life will lead to eternity in Heaven and a purging of their original sin. Doing the opposite will lead to eternity in Hell.

This way of living prescribes that all kind of excess is a sin. Homosexuality, drugs, pre-marital sex, alcohol and marijuana are prohibited – the Bible says so. We may also be punished for chasing money or business interests, or exposing too much skin – we must dress modestly.

Key Aspect 2: The Bible is the Unquestioned Authority on Truth

This is the strict adherence to Biblical facts and stories, which fundamentalist Christians interpret literally. There is no room for questioning, for alternative points of view, or for nuanced interpretation.

Children memorise the Bible and are encouraged not to question it. Adults automatically cite it whenever someone asks them a question about life and humanity: “Well, the commandments say…”.

Christians often use the Bible’s maxims to discredit Darwinian evolution and the findings of modern science – God created the Earth in 7 days, just 6000 years ago, and he created all its creatures in one day. There was a Big Bang? The solar system and Earth were created over the course of billions of years? Impossible!

Non-Christians are Sinners to be Converted

The final key aspect – one that has typified Christianity for thousands of years and that drove the Crusades and the Inquisition – is the strong division between Christians and non-Christians.

Fundamentalists see those who don’t accept Jesus and recognise God as sinners who they must convert and pray for. There’s a stigma and suspicion towards atheism, homosexuality and Islam. The non-Christian world is full of sin.

Even today there are groups of Christian fundamentalists training to use weapons to crush non-believers.

Spiritual Psychology and the Fundamentalist Mind

Now let’s analyse the psychological features of individuals adhering to fundamentalist Christianity. There is a double movement here: people with a certain psychology are looking for faith systems appropriate to them, and fundamentalist systems are perfectly made for a certain type of psychology.

The two fit together like a lock and key, hence why spiritual psychology is a crucial area of study. The faith system then influences and moulds them, in many cases, we’d argue, arresting their developing.

Further, each of the key aspects of fundamentalist Christianity has a psychological correlate. They are embedded in a a particular stage of human development, one studied and documented repeatedly by independent researchers studying different aspects of human growth. This is called the Amber stage.

Here we’ll look at different theorists’ conceptions of this level in various developmental lines and draw out their connection with Christian fundamentalism.

Spiritual Psychology & Sense of Identity

Susanne Cook-Greuter’s work is a wonderful starting point for our investigation. Though she isn’t a spiritual psychology, there are obvious paralles between her nine stages of ego development and religious fundamentalism, particularly her Conformist/Diplomat stage. Think of this as her persepctive on the Amber stage.

Let’s remind ourselves of the key features of this stage.

Key features of stage 3 of ego development in Cook-Greuter's human development and growth model

Well, where to begin?

It’s shocking how accurately her conception of the Conformist/Diplomat stage – which she discovered through studying a huge range of people and ages – encapsulates the core features of Christian fundamentalism.

To begin with, several of the key Conformist/Diplomat attributes point to the Saintly Way of Life: shoulds and oughts dominate the person’s emotional life; they experience shame when not conforming to the group; and their thinking is black-and-white. When these dominate a person, the religion they seek is precisely one promoting The Saintly Life. Fundamentalist Christianity does this with aplomb.

A key cognitive marker of individuals here is that they don’t question their group’s truths. Isn’t that a perfect description of the second core aspect? “It’s in the Bible, so it must be true.”

And finally, let’s look at the “Non-Christians are Sinners to be Converted” aspect. A core cognitive feature of the Conformist/Diplomat stage is its group-centric thinking: they believe their group to have truth and goodness while all others are wrong, evil and in need of conversion.

Cook-Greuter fleshes this out further in her research. In this stage, we can adopt a 2nd-person perspective. This means we have a separate identity and a sense of “other” – we see others to be separate from us, at least to some degree. But we divide all other people into two groups – those sharing our own identity (our nationality, our faith, our political views, etc.) and those who don’t. That’s how we differentiate other people.

You can imagine how a group-centric individual would treat people who share their faith. This is another perfect correlate between fundamentalist religion and Cook-Greuter’s model.

Spiritual Psychology and James Fowler

James Fowler was a renowned expert on human faith development. Unsurprisingly, he found that there are stages of spiritual development.

In his description of Stage 3 we find characteristics of the fundamentalist mind. Fowler’s stage 3 is the Amber altitude (or metastage) of development as it appears in faith development.

Again there is a clear connection between these stage in Fowler’s model and the key features of religious fundamentalism.

Fowler particularly emphasises the tacit nature of Stage 3 faith.

A person in Stage 3 is aware of having values and normative images. He or she articulates them, defends them and feels deep emotional investments in them, but typically has not made the value system, as a system, the object of reflection.

James Fowler

This points to the second key aspect. The Bible is the authority on truth, and Christians don’t typically question it even when presented with (what many consider to be) reasonable evidence.

A person at Stage 3 isn’t capable of questioning their faith system. They don’t have the mental machinery to do so. They haven’t seriously exposed themselves to other truth systems and grasped the limitations of their blind faith.

The structure of Christian faith groups plays right into this. They encourage members not to question or look for other sources, which are a target of ridicule. The strict adherence to and non-questioning of the Bible is the cross between Christianity and the Stage 3 mind.

Fowler also tellingly points out that:

For Stage 3, with its beginnings in adolescence, authority is located externally to the self. It resides in the interpersonally available “they” or in the certified incumbents of leadership roles in institutions.


This is a separate but related point to the previous one. Beyond being unable to question their belief system, Stage 3 individuals look to authority figures and leaders to provide them with guidance and authority on their faith system.

The top-down approach in Christian groups is both a consequence of this tendency and a magnet for it, as is the all-out authority given to The Bible. These individuals are looking for clear-cut answers to life’s questions and guidance on how to live. The Bible is full of both, and they won’t question any of it.

Spiritual Psychology and Spiral Dynamics

Now let’s see where the characteristics of the fundamentalist mind fit into Spiral Dynamics. This popular model tracks the layers of complexity in how people psychologically adapt to their environment and life conditions.

Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence of fundamentalism, there is a stage of Spiral Dynamics – or vMEME – which beautifully describes the fundamentalist mind: the Blue vMEME. Here’s a summary of this stage’s core features.

The links between Spiral Dynamics Stage Blue and the fundamentalist mind are simple startling. This model definitely captures the three key features mentioned above.

A person centred at Stage Blue seeks orders and a purposeful, structured existence. They see people following the mandates of their group’s authority to be Good, and everything else to be Bad. That’s a near perfect description of the Saintly Life.

The capitalisation of True Way (found in the Spiral Dynamics literature) shows the unshakeable, unquestionable righteousness of the truths, doctrines and maxims of the group the person identifies with. Tie this mind to a Christian ideology and you have a Christian fundamentalist.

And what’s also visible in this profile of the Stage Blue mind is the demonisation of other groups. Once again, it wonderfully fits what we see in many fundamentalists.

Broader Implications

The goal of this article is to show that religious fundamentalism has a strong psychological basis and is rooted in the Amber altitude of development.

We’ve just looked at three trusted models of psychological development (and could do the same with many more). These models are universal – they don’t just apply to religious people.

But each model has one fundamental stage that beautifully encapsulates the psychological characteristics that underpin the three key aspects of religious fundamentalism. In each case, this stage of development comes online in early adolescence.

We’re seeing a clear link between religion and human psychology. The Amber altitude of development (visible in these three models as Cook-Greuter’s Conformist/Diplomat, Fowler’s Stage 3, and Spiral Dynamics Stage Blue) is a fundamental stage in human development that most people, especially in the West, will move into in their lifetime. Some may move on to further stages; other will not.

In Christian fundamentalism, we see Amber dressed up in Christian clothing (so to speak). And we’ll claim that in Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Judaist (or any other) fundamentalism is based on the same underlying psychological structure.

Further Questions on Spiritual Psychology and Christianity

There’s little choice but to leave this on a cliff-hanger, otherwise this will be one very long post! There are some crucial unanswered questions on the back of this introductory discussion:

  1. Why is Christianity, by and large, stuck at such a low level of development?
  2. Does Christianity unknowingly hinder the vertical development of millions of people?
  3. What does Christianity look like at other levels of development?