Extremism of today comes in many forms, not only the clear-cut religious fundamentalist type that is so often portrayed in popular media. Strong atheism could be described in the same vein as religious extremism; they both share similar traits (vocal opposition to conflicting views, ‘fundamentalist’ leaders who are unwavering in their views, use of strong, emotive and persuasive language). Many atheists would balk at being compared to theists, and to a small degree they have a valid point of exception. Atheists do tolerate and consider opposing views with more appreciation than religion seems to. But these views must be from their own group; generally, ‘strong’ atheists will only validate the arguments of other atheists or non-affiliated (with a religion) individuals. This is comparable to the Christian considering an alternative viewpoint on minor biblical details but neglecting to even acknowledge the opinion of the skeptic. Atheists are more similar to their religious brethren than either side would care to admit. In this article I intend to present and argue that there are two main processes at work, interacting to perpetuate extremism on both sides of the theistic debate.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that acts automatically and unconsciously to reduce tension between conflicting thoughts. It is thought to occur when the individual experiences two contrasting cognitions and also when behaviour does not match such beliefs. The theory broadly defines ‘cognitions’ as any mental event (emotion, attitude, belief). Dissonance, or tension between cognitions, is inherently unpleasant for human brains. Mental unpleasantness thus forms the motivation to reduce dissonance by either filtration (ignoring, denying, reducing) or modification (changing cognitions to increase consistency). Humans dislike inconsistency because we are hard-wired to trust our mental processes; they form the primary source of evidence in our dealings with the outside world. Hypocrisy not only causes inefficiencies in the system due to inaction and conscious internal debating but also overwhelms our information processing capabilities. In short, mental hypocrisy prevents us from knowing with certainty what is happening both outside and inside our brains.

Group behaviour encapsulates a myriad of interconnected theories; the end result is a very complicated process. Such behaviours can be simplified if one takes a step back from the theoretical details and considers the overall picture. Groups evolved thousands of years ago out of our ancient lineage to the primates. Primates are social animals, therefore it makes sense that all species that are closely related share similar behavioural properties. Humans have vastly improved upon the rudimentary social groupings evident in primate populations, but the basics are all there. “Social grooming” in primates closely mirrors our own close relationships relationships, however we tend to augment physical contact with communication. Keeping relationships functioning can be hard work, as large percentages of the individual’s time is wasted maintaining friendships and ‘grooming’ others. As a way of improving the efficiency of this process, groups may have begun to form that included individual’s with similar beliefs about the world. This reduced the amount of time needed to maintain loyalty as group norms (unwritten rules of conduct and belief) gradually arose to police the attitudes and behaviours of members, ensuring their similarity.

Evolution soon saw the advantage of group-like behaviour, as many hands make light work. Hunting and gathering became much easier and more efficient overall (perhaps too efficient as nomadic tribes cleared out entire areas before moving on to greener pastures – a sign of things to come?). Thus the fundamental human need to belong was initiated into our evolutionary makeup. Humans began to fear ostracism by the group, as quite often it meant certain death, either from competing tribes or the hardships faced finding food and shelter alone. We now have the basic outline of group behaviour; the group maintains similar beliefs and worldviews through an evolutionary predisposition (group norms and ostracism) to minimise infighting and improve the individual’s chances of survival (through the survival of the group). Overall cohesiveness and efficiency is the end product; in effect, individuals sacrifice some of their freedom for the good of the many.

Group identification could be construed as a defense mechanism that protects against assimilation by competing groups. Individuals soon learnt to identify their fellow group members through physical characteristics (race, gender, skin colour, clothing) and also commonly-held beliefs. Outgroups were a threat, whether it be attempts to claim resources and territory or mating partners from their neighbours. Thus, when physical combat was too risky (and it often was), a psychological subterfuge evolved. Outgroup beliefs attempted to erode the ingroup and mass convert members to its cause. This explains the harshness with which we treat traitors, even in modern times (often carrying the death penalty not to mention the social stigmatisation).

It is my proposition that the relationship between group identification and extremism is moderated by the degree of cognitive dissonance experienced by the individual. More specifically, the more a person identifies with the group’s beliefs and practices (at the highest level becoming totally enmeshed within the group, loosing a sense of self) is not directly predictive of extremism. Rather, the individual must also be predisposed to ‘filtration’ and ‘modification’ of dissonant cognitions for extremist positions to be adopted. This explains individuals who identify strongly with a chosen group but are content to live their lives without disturbing the beliefs of others and are open to at least consider conflicting ideas. Extremists, on the other hand, are not at all open to criticism of their group. A ‘hyper-drive’ of their group protecting instincts instead kicks in, fueled by active denial or modification of incoming cognitions that are dissonant with their own. Hence the phrase ‘like talking to a brick wall’. Extremists simply cannot receive criticisms in their unedited form; their brains act automatically to shield their beliefs from corruption, thus ensuring the protection and perpetuation of the group.

I believe this is apparent especially in the Middle East conflict. Suicide bombers make the ultimate sacrifice; total group identification mixed with cognitive dissonance reactions and a corrupted interpretation of a religion is recipe for disaster. Any religion that gives promises of an adulterous afterlife with multiple partners in exchange for the mass killing of largely innocent people is, in my opinion, not religious but rather evil incarnate misconstrued. This theory can be applied to any religious group, be it religious or otherwise. To an extent, the atheist movement can also be said to suffer from a degree of extremism, although I hope that the majority of its members are both openminded and empirical enough to maintain their professionalism and consider all the evidence, not just that which happens to agree with pre-established beliefs. That being said, it is also a timely reminder to such persons that the instinctual and automatic nature of human though processes should be made conscious if the evidence is said to be considered with a pure methodology.

There may not be much that we as a society can do in order to overcome the maddeningly obnoxious frustration that cognitive dissonance breeds. There is nothing more pitiful and wasteful than an individual that ‘goes down with their ship’ so to speak. The human mind is a beautiful creation; some people need to realise its potential and use it to the degree that it is designed for. To do nothing is not just a waste of one’s mental capabilities, but also the potentials of all the minds in the said group. Religious (and secondarily atheist) extremism needs to look beyond its own group and towards the future if the ‘zombification’ that cognitive dissonance breeds is to be overthrown.

But how could this be done practically? Is it acceptable, even moral and ethical, to allow extremist groups to continue down their self-destructive paths until their beliefs are so twisted, warped and modified (in order to accommodate rising dissonant cognitions) that they end up doing more harm than good? Some might argue we are already at this point with the Middle Eastern situation, therefore with the level of carnage that area is currently experiencing, to do nothing would be construed as morally unacceptable. Thus we all share the responsibility for this situation; thinkers, dreamers, philosophers and scientists alike must work together and identify the factors that underlie extremism and put in place a plan for action that can reconcile group differences and embrace humanity in a sea of tolerance. Perhaps we should re-double our efforts to identify extra-terrestrial life; nothing unites humanity like an threat from outer-space (well it works in the movies!).