Research Article

Rational Fundamentalism? An Explanatory Model of Fundamentalist Beliefs1

Michael Baurmann


The article sketches a theoretical model which explains how it is possible that fundamentalist beliefs can emerge as a result of an individual rational adaptation to the context of special living conditions. The model is based on the insight that most of our knowledge is acquired by trusting the testimony of some kind of authority. If a social group is characterized by a high degree of mistrust towards the outer society or other groups, then the members of this group will rely solely on the authorities of their own group for their acquisition of knowledge. In this way they can adopt a corpus of beliefs which may seem absurd from an external point of view. However, they may be locked in a “fundamentalist equilibrium” in which particularistic trust, common sense plausibility, epistemic seclusion, social isolation and fundamentalist beliefs are mutually reinforcing - and in which individuals who adopt the “fundamentalist truths” of their group do not behave more irrationally than individuals in an open society who accept the “enlightened” worldview of their culture.

Michael Baurmann is professor of sociology at the Department of Social Sciences, University of Duesseldorf. Research interests: General Theory of Sociology, Social Capital and Trust, Sociology, Law and Ethics, Sociology and Economics. Coeditor of Analyse & Kritik. Journal of Social Theory (since 1979). Books in English: The Market of Virtue: Morality and Commitment in a Liberal Society, The Hague: Kluwer, 2001. Coeditor with Geoffrey Brennan and Reinhard Zintl: Preconditions of Democracy. Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2007.


1 This article is an abridged version of a manuscript I wrote as a Visiting Professor at the Department of Politics of the NYU. I thank Russell Hardin for making this stay possible. I had the opportunity to present preliminary versions of the paper at the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU in Canberra and at the Center for Rationality and Interactive Decision Theory at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I appreciate the critical comments I received and my special thanks go to Geoffrey Brennan and Edna Ullmann-Margalit. I am also indebted to David Coady for his very helpful editorial work. As always I have to thank Margaret Birbeck for her indispensable help in polishing my deficient English.