Friday, October 4, 2013



Recently I overheard four faculty members from a conservative American Christian school discussing creationism and the age of the earth. One person was impressed with the presentation at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. "I teach the Bible," she said. As I listened to them talk I assumed they took a literal view of scripture, held ultra conservative social values, and were quick to support military solutions when national interests were threatened. Was I right?

Zorrse Zonkey Creation Museum / G Sutton 2015

American fundamentalism has been associated with the beliefs of Protestant Christians who reacted against social trends toward higher biblical criticism and evolution. The fundamentalist leaders developed a list of fundamental truths: 1. Authority of the Bible; 2. Virgin birth of Jesus; 3. Substitutionary atonement for sin; 4. Resurrection of Jesus; 5. Miracles; 6. Millennialism.

Behavioral scientists began looking for ways to broaden the concept of fundamentalism beyond lists of orthodox beliefs. Researchers focused on findings of militancy (e.g., Marty and Appleby) and authoritarianism in their samples (e.g., Altemyer and Hunsberger). Others focused on a literal interpretation of scriptures. Psychologists also looked at intelligence and personality traits.

In 2005, psychological scientists, Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Paul Williamson, observed that some religious groups were not militant unless faced with a threat. And that even then, some groups like the Amish, remained nonviolent. They also reported research that did not support authoritarianism. In fact, personality factors seemed weak at best. Their idea:

Fundamentalism can be explained by the principle of intratextuality.


The principle of intratextuality states that fundamentalists derive truth from God via their sacred text and they rely solely upon various parts of the text to interpret other parts of the text. For example, Christian fundamentalists who want to understand Gods plan for marriage will rely solely on the books of the Protestant Bible. To understand a passage about marriage in one book within the Bible, they will examine other portions of the Bible for teachings about marriage. In contrast, nonfundamentalists search for truth using an intertextual method. Nonfundamentalists will consider the sacred text in light of science, history, archaeology, anthropology, and scholarly research. Nonfundamentalists respect the sacred text and still consider it privileged and even crucial to consult before reaching a conclusion about a moral approach or stance toward some social policy. In Christianity, the view people take toward the Bible distinguishes a Fundamentalist from an Evangelical or a Progressive.


The principle of intratextuality could be a bit misleading if one forgets the big picture. The big picture is how sincere believers view the world-- Worldview in the parlance of contemporary Christian writers. For the fundamentalist, the sacred text provides the one comprehensive source of meaning and the framework for viewing life.


Initially, Williamson and others (2010) considered six dimensions of intratextuality. They developed a measurement scale, and based on cross-cultural research, they found five items useful in identifying five dimensions Five perspectives on the sacred text. The principle of intratextuality is not just about Christianity. The items were written in such a way as to apply to other world religions. Here are the five dimensions.
  1. Divine: The sacred text is a revelation from God (or of divine origin) to humans. Regardless of the involvement of people in the writing of the text, God (or a deity) is the author.
  2. Inerrant: The sacred text does not contain errors, inconsistencies, or contradictions. The text is objectively true.
  3. Privileged: The sacred text of the fundamentalist group is not just another sacred writing. It is the truth. Fundamentalists may show respect to people from other religions and their sacred writings but they do not consider other texts to be on the same level as their own text.
  4. Authoritative:  The sacred text is the final authority. If a conflict in belief arises, the sacred text wins.
  5. Unchanging: The sacred text is unchangeable and true for eternity. The truths are absolutes. The truths can be depended on to understand the world and as a guide for life.
Follow this link to learn more about the scale: Intratextual Fundamentalism Scale


So, what is true about fundamentalists --those who score high on the 5-factors of intratextuality?
  • Fundamentalists are active in worship and other faith-based activities.
  • Fundamentalists are unlikely to question their religious experiences or truths.
  • Fundamentalists are not prone to doubt.
  • High fundamentalism is linked to a tendency to avoid complex and critical thinkingespecially about religious beliefs and values.
  • High fundamentalism is linked to high scores on Agreeableness, one of the Big 5 personality traits. And fundamentalists seem to have a variety of Big 5 personality traits.
  • High fundamentalism scorers are high in Traditionalism but not Transformation. Traditionalism is a combination of the Big 5 personality traits of Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability. Transformation is a combination of the Big 5 traits of Surgency/extraversion and Intellect/Imagery.
  • Under some conditions, people who score high on fundamentalism also score high on aggression. My take is the nature of any perceived threat may be critical here.


With any research comes words of caution. A few studies do not offer certainty or proof.


The idea of appreciating the importance of a groups sacred text shows respect for the faithful and their views. Humans seek to connect the dots of their existence. Sacred texts offer a way to understand the meaning of life. Those who accept a common understanding may naturally be highly agreeable within that community.

So, was I right? Did my stereotypes hold true about the creationists? Well, the way they spoke about creation was consistent with a fundamentalist perspective. They seemed to be intelligent people that just rejected the current scientific worldview. I did not perceive any hostility. Nothing else hinted of radical militarism. So who knows about other beliefs they may hold. Best to ask, I think.

For more on the psychology of religion get news feeds by liking my page on Facebook

Learn about fundamentalism and Christian sexuality in A House Divided


Altemeyer, B., & Hunsberger, B. (2005). Fundamentalism and authoritarianism. In R.F. Paloutzian, & C.L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 378–393). New York: Guilford Press.

Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed). New York: Guilford.

Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W.P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York: Guilford

Kelly, H.L., Sutton, G. W, Hicks, L., Godfrey, A. & Gillihan, C. (2018). Factors predicting the moral appraisal of sexual behavior in Christians. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 37, (2), 162-177. 
 Academia Link     ResearchGate Link  

Marsden, G.M. (1980). Fundamentalism and American culture: The shaping of twentieth century Evangelicalism 1870–1925. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marty, M.E., & Appleby, R.S. (Eds.). (1991–1995). The fundamentalism project (Vols 1–5). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sutton, G. W., Arnzen, C., & Kelly, H. (2016). Christian counseling and psychotherapy: Components of clinician spirituality that predict type of Christian intervention. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 35, 204-214. Academia Link      ResearchGate Link

Sutton, G. W., Kelly, H., Worthington, E. L. Jr., Griffin, B. J., & Dinwiddie, C. (2018) Satisfaction with Christian Psychotherapy and Well-being: Contributions of Hope, Personality, and Spirituality. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 5 (1), 8-24, doi: 10.1037/scp0000145    Academia Link      ResearchGate Link

Williamson, W.P., Hood, R. W. Jr., Ahmad, A., Sadiq, M., Y Hill, P.C. (2010). The intratextual fundamentalism scale: cross-cultural application, validity evidence, and relationship with religious orientation and the Big 5 factor markers. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13, 721-747.

Learn more about research in CREATING SURVEYS ON AMAZON


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1 comment:

  1. Great little review, thanks for posting this. I didn't know about the Wiliamson et al. 2010 study, so shall now be checking that out. :-)