Religious beliefs in radicalisation processes

In exploring the terrain of religious radicalization and its underpinnings, the lines between sacred and religious violence often blur, presenting a significant challenge for empirical research. Cavanaugh compellingly argues that not only is this delineation challenging, but the rigid categorization of religious beliefs often escapes empirical methodologies. Yet, this complexity does not lessen the need for in-depth investigation into religion’s role in radicalization processes. Despite the challenges in operationalizing religious beliefs within empirical frameworks, the psychology of radicalization must courageously integrate religious considerations into its analytical purview. Emotional states, more readily quantifiable in experimental settings, starkly contrast with the nebulous nature of religious beliefs, demanding a nuanced approach for meaningful examination.

Echoing Cavanaugh’s concerns, Dawson highlights that focusing solely on socioeconomic or personal factors fails to adequately capture the multifaceted phenomenon of radicalization. He advocates for a broader dialogue that includes the impact of apocalyptic belief systems and charismatic leadership’s influence, pointing out the inadequacy of relegating religion to a secondary role in discussions on terrorism and extremism. This critique aligns with a broader consensus that, despite their controversial and fluid nature, the intricate dynamics of religious or sacred beliefs are essential for understanding radical motivations. This argument underscores the importance of incorporating both qualitative and quantitative analyses of these beliefs in radicalization studies, and highlights the need for thorough examination of the historical and social contexts within which radicalization occurs.

Macro-level Approaches

Societal Structural Factors:

Macro-level theories attribute radicalization to social conditions such as poverty, discrimination, and exclusion. The absence of social safety nets and barriers to minority education create fertile ground for radicalization processes. National culture theory suggests that collectivist cultures foster inter-group dynamics, potentially leading to violence.

The Role of Religion:

Religion, operationalized through narratives, representations, or apocalyptic creeds, is often considered “fuel” for radical groups. Juergensmeyer presents a recent and influential analysis that places religion at the core of radicalization theories.

Critiques and Limitations:

While macroeconomic analyses are useful for mapping long-term trends, they often struggle to directly link social conditions to radical acts. The transition from social oppression to violent radicalization is more accurately explained through meso-level mechanisms such as relative deprivation and cognitive dissonance.

Micro-level Approaches

Individual Psychological Factors:

A closer examination of individual psychological factors underscores the importance of coping strategies and religious valuations. Recent frameworks capture the role of religion in shaping cognitive processes and stress perception, highlighting how religious beliefs influence individual coping mechanisms.

Meso-level Analysis

Social Psychological Research:

This approach connects individual coping with uncertainty to the collective offer of ideological and religious beliefs. Kruglanski’s goal systems theory elucidates the interface between cognition, motivation, and action in radicalization, emphasizing the search for meaning.

Radical Redemption:

Acceptance within religious groups can buffer social exclusion and motivate aggressive behaviors against external groups. Narratives of redemption and salvation in extremist religious beliefs play a crucial role in mobilizing individuals towards violence.


While there are empirical challenges in operationalizing religious beliefs, it is imperative that future research takes these beliefs seriously as primary motivators. Understanding the historical and social contexts of radicalization is crucial for preventing and combating violent extremism.

de Graaf, B. A., & van den Bos, K. (2021). Religious radicalization: social appraisals and finding radical redemption in extreme beliefs. Current Opinion in Psychology40, 56–60.