Explaining Extreme Beliefs and Extreme Behavior

September 15, 2022 - September 16, 2022
VU University Amsterdam

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Amsterdam 1081 HV

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

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  • European Research Council


VU University Amsterdam
VU University Amsterdam
VU University Amsterdam
VU University Amsterdam

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Extreme beliefs and extreme behavior manifest themselves in phenomena such as fundamentalism, fanaticism, extremism, terrorism, and conspiracy theorizing. Research on these phenomena can seek to empirically and historically describe them, search for a conceptual analysis and mapping of these phenomena, try to epistemically and ethically assess them, seek to understand them, or, from a more practical perspective, to prevent them.

After conceptualizing these phenomena in a Workshop in December 2021, we will now move on to explore explaining these phenomena. Some scholars in the field, such as Marc Sageman, have argued that research on explaining extremism and terrorism has stagnated. There are various ways one can respond to such stagnation, for instance: (i) one can seek to integrate possible explanations on different levels, (ii) one can take a new angle as some do by taking seriously the first-person perspective in terms of a person’s beliefs, reasons, and narratives, and (iii) one can scrutinize what we mean by ‘explanation’ and whether it is even possible to explain these extreme phenomena.

In the literature, we find explanations on a macro level (in terms of religion, in terms of social, political, economic factors), on a meso level (say, group dynamics), and on a micro level (individual grievances, religiosity, etc.). Can explanations on each of these levels be integrated with one another and what is the importance of each of them (to which explananda are they relevant)? To what extent are various explanations in the literature competitors, or can they be combined? What can explanations of, say, extremism, learn from those of conspiracy theorizing or those of fundamentalism from those of fanaticism? What are important dissimilarities between explanations of these different phenomena and what accounts for these differences? How can first-person explanations – roughly, explanations in terms of factors that subjects themselves would also appeal to in explaining their behavior, such as religiosity, belief, reasons, and narratives – be integrated with third-person explanations – roughly, explanations in terms of factors that others would appeal to in explaining extreme belief and extreme behavior, such as social, political, and economic factors?

There are also more philosophical and methodological questions we can ask about such explanations. Can, say, terrorism be explained at all or is there in the end something incomprehensible about it? How do explanations of extreme behavior and extreme belief differ from other explanations in the humanities, such as those of historical events or other kinds of human behavior, and from explanations in the natural and life sciences, such as those of diseases or the behavior of matter? How does explaining relate to understanding? What are desiderata for sound explanations of, say, fundamentalism and extremism? Should explanations also have predictive power?


The workshop is mostly plenary with two parallel sessions. It is followed, on its second day, by a symposium on interdisciplinarity in seeking explanations for extreme belief and extreme behavior. This symposium will address such questions as: What are the obstacles and challenges to interdisciplinarity when it comes to explaining extreme belief and extreme behavior? What are best practices of interdisciplinarity on this subject? Which questions regarding explanations for extreme phenomena can be tackled by individual disciplines and which ones not? The two events are independent, so one can attend the one without attending the other.


· Can extreme phenomena such as extremism and terrorism be explained at all?

· How do first-person explanations, such as those in terms of religiosity, relate to third-person explanations, such as those in terms of social, economic, and political factors?

· How does explaining extreme phenomena relate to understanding them?

· How does explaining extreme phenomena relate to predictive power?

· How do micro-, meso-, and macro relate to one another in explanations? (e.g., is one level more fundamental than the other? Does one level determine or constrain another?)

· Is the well-known distinction between push- and pull-factors for extremism (and fundamentalism, etc.) viable?

· How do explanations from belief and behavior differ from those of physical phenomena?

· What are desiderata for explaining, say, extremism and terrorism?

· What are similarities and differences between explaining, say, conspiracy theorizing, fanaticism, and violent extremism?

· How do explanations of extreme beliefs differ from those of extreme behavior?

Submission of contributed papers

An abstract of around 500 words, prepared for blind review, should be sent as an attached Word document or pdf-file to Jedidja Kloens via [email protected] no later than May 20th 2022. The e-mail message should contain EB2022> in the subject line and the author’s or authors’ names, affiliations, and an e-mail address for contact in the main body. The attached abstract should contain the title of the relevant section, the title of the contributed paper and a short resume of the paper.
Confirmed speakers: Lorne Dawson, John Horgan, Sophia Moskalenko, Rik Peels

Cautionary note

The workshop will be held physically, but also digitally for those who can only attend online.

Attendance Fee

Physical attendance: 200 Euros for regular attendees, 150 Euros for PhD students, and 100 Euros for other students. The fee includes the workshop dinner on Thursday night.

Digital attendance: for free. Registration required.

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September 1, 2022, 9:00am CET

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Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana

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#Explaining Extreme Beliefs and Extreme Behavior, #2nd Extreme Beliefs Workshop