Pre-modern values, religion and culture

Many people outside the USA have watched with astonishment as fundamentalist Christians have aligned themselves with a serial adulterer and sexual assaulter who lost the recent election and is now seeking to undermine democracy in order to stay in power. Since first elected, Trump has worked hard to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition, sacked people for doing their jobs and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. But this alignment is not as bizarre as it seems on the surface. Fundamentalists share the value of demonizing and seeking to punish those they see as “other”, one of the key characteristics of fascism, as I discussed in my previous post. This applies to Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, as evidenced by the recent murders in France and Austria by Muslim terrorists angered by cartoons.

What is fundamentalism?

So I have extended my analysis of the the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) (see earlier post here) to see what it has to say about the extent of religious fundamentalism in the world today. Most religions developed in the pre-modern era and their sacred texts and teachings incorporate pre-modern culture and values to varying extents. Peter Herriot has written extensively on fundamentalist religious beliefs, characterized these movements as attempts to return to the pre-modern origins of their faith as prescribed by their sacred books [1]. He identifies five main general characteristics of fundamentalist religious movements:

  • Reactivity: hostility towards the secular modern world
  • Dualism: the tendency to evaluate in starkly binary terms, as good or bad
  • Authority; the willingness to believe and obey the sacred book of the movement and/or its leaders
  • Selectivity: the choice , from the sacred book or the tradition, of certain beliefs and practices in preference to others
  • Millennialism: the belief that God will triumph in the end and establish his kingdom on earth.

Other common characteristics include prejudice towards minorities and authoritarian aggression – in some cases resorting to violence. Fundamentalist groups may be mainly religious in focus, or the religious element may be strongly associated with nationalism or ethnic identity. Fundamentalists seek to erase the distinction between secular and sacred and impose their form of religious beliefs on all through political action or authoritarian control. In the 21st century, the mobilization of the fundamentalist vote in the USA has been an important contributor to the election of the two most recent Republican presidents, and a driving factor has been their wish to impose their moral values on others who do not share then, particularly in relation to abortion and homosexuality.

Herriot perceives fundamentalist movements around the world and in all major religions as having arisen relatively recently in the twentieth century as a reaction to modernity [5] and sees them largely as subgroups within the overall religion. I tend to disagree with this.  Some religions which have not gone through a Reformation process involving separation of church and state remain largely embedded in pre-modern beliefs and values. In other cases, as religious institutions have evolved along with modern science, technology, culture and moral values, subgroups have rejected this evolution as going further than their moral comfort zone.

However, I recently came across an excellent article on Muslim fundamentalism [2] which describes in some detail how Muslim fundamentalism has grown substantially in countries of the Middle East in recent decades and in fact, like fundamentalism in the West, has risen as a political phenomenon in the entire Muslim world, and as a driver of terrorist attacks on civilians in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. The authors define Muslim fundamentalism in essentially the same terms as Herriot, as “a reactionary, nonscientific movement aimed at returning society to a centuries-old social set-up, defying all material and historical factors. It is an attempt to roll back the wheel of history. Fundamentalism finds its roots in the backwardness of society, social deprivation, a low level of consciousness, poverty, and ignorance.”

Another examination of fundamentalism in eight Muslim-majority countries [3] (available here) conceptualized fundamentalism as a set of religious beliefs about and attitude toward religion, expressed in a disciplinarian deity, literalism, exclusivity, and intolerance. They found that fundamentalism in these countries is linked to religiosity, confidence in religious institutions, belief in conspiracies, xenophobia, fatalism, weaker liberal values, trust in family and friends, reliance on less diverse information sources, lower socioeconomic status, and membership in an ethnic majority or dominant religion/sect.

Using the World Values Surveys and European Values Study to identify pre-modern values

I’ve sought to identify questions in the WVS/EVS [4-7] that relate to “pre-modern” values associated with earlier stages of moral development (as defined by work of Piaget [8], Kohlberg [9] and Gilligan [10]. Gebser and Wilber have elaborated the link between these stages of individual development and the broad evolution of cultures over the course of human evolution through magic, mythic, rational, to integral stages [11,12]. Wilber also refers to the mindsets associated with the three broad stages of moral values as egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric [13].

Pre-modern moral values and related religious values focus on absolute rules, obedience and punishment and a stage 1 individual is good in order to avoid being punished. In stage 2, the individual internalizes the moral standards of the culture and is good in order to be seen as a good person by oneself and others. Moral reasoning is based on the culture’s standards, individual rights and justice. In stage 3, the individual becomes aware that while rules and laws may exist for the greater good, they may not be applicable in specific circumstances. Issues are not black and white, and the individual develops their own set of moral standards based in universal rights and responsibilities. Wilber relates these stages also to Maslow’s hierarchy of need, with stage 1 being common where survival and safety issues are dominant, and increasing movement towards higher stages as self-actualization becomes more important than survival and safety.

Because pre-modern religious teaching is expressed and interpreted in mythic terms, it may appear to conflict with scientific understanding of the natural world. A person with pre-modern values may thus reject scientific findings,  whereas another with modern values will understand that the myths communicate aspects of the human condition, but are not to be interpreted literally, and that the domain of religion relates to meaning, values, ethics, and does not generally conflict with the domain of science.

As moral values evolve through the three broad stages, the size of the in-group (“us”) with which an individual identifies typically expands from tribe to ethnic group or nation to all humanity. At lower stages of moral development, the “other” group is not seen to deserve the same rights as “us” and tends to become seen as the cause of the problems that prevent the society returning to its ideal state. The “other” becomes see as not deserving of humane treatment or even life. The “other” might be infidels, Jews, migrants, homosexuals, socialists, women, intellectuals…..depending on time and place.

Finally, enforcement of social norms governing human fertility have been a major factor in pre-modern religions. For thousands of years, very high levels of child mortality and other survival pressures meant that most societies sought to ensure that women produced as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Additionally sexual behaviour, particularly that of women and that not linked to reproduction, was strongly socially controlled to minimise uncertainty about paternity. Religion was the primary method of social control and pre-modern values regarding women’s rights, reproduction and sexuality are still dominant in most of the major religions.

I reviewed questions included in the WVS and EVS to identify those most relevant to distinguishing pre-modern and modern moral values and which are widely available in the WVS/EVS surveys [4-7]. The selected questions are summarized in the following table:

For more details on these questions and their analysis, see here.

The questions on belief in heaven and hell address two aspects of fundamentalism, namely the literal interpretation of mythic elements of the sacred literature and also the exclusion of others such as nonbelievers or homosexuals who will supposedly go to hell for eternal torment. My father was a Protestant minister and I grew up in a rural Protestant culture in Australia, went to lots of church services and don’t remember ever hearing anyone trying to claim hell was a real place rather than a metaphorical place. Belief in a real hell tends to be much more common for fundamentalists, who are a relatively small proportion of Christians outside USA and some other countries. I think for religious people focused on the message of the New Testament, rather than Old, it is usually clearer that hell is a mythological concept dating from primitive times and literally believing your God would torture people for eternity marks you out as having premodern values. I still have trouble getting my head around the idea that there are large numbers of people who appear to genuinely believe that people who don’t accept their beliefs will be tortured forever by an all-powerful and apparently psychopathic god. And its not too much of an ethical step to decide to start the torture before they get to hell, or to fire up the gas chambers.

Prevalence of belief in heaven and hell

For this reason, I took a closer look at the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell across the world based on survey responses for 76 countries in wave 7 of the WVS/(surveys in years 2017 to 2020). At a global level 53% of people believed in heaven and 43% in hell. Among those who said they were Christians, 58% said they believed in heaven and 45% said they believed in hell. At the country level, Denmark had the lowest prevalence of belief in hell at 8% and the other Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany also had low levels of belief in heaven (typically 20-30%) and in hell (ranging from 8% to 16%). Most countries have a lower prevalence of belief in hell than heaven, there are only 10 where the difference is less than 1 percentage point. Half of these are Muslim majority countries, and two are predominantly Buddhist (with low levels of belief in both heaven and hell). The USA is the only developed country in this group and it has identical levels of belief in heaven and hell at 64% of the population.

Global variations in prevalence of pre-modern values

Here are some graphs showing how responses to four of these questions varied across culture zones for practicing religious people compared to others (non-practicing religious, non-religious and atheists):

Development of a premodern/modern religious values index

As described elsewhere, I have calculated a continuous latent variable based on the responses to the 12 questions I identified above that relate to pre-modern religious values. The following plot shows how the responses for these questions line up with the latent variable (shown on the horizontal axis).

For ease of presentation, I rescaled the latent variable so that average values for countries ranged from just above zero to slightly below 10. Country averages for the most recent WVS/EVS wave for 2017-2020 ranged from 0.2 for Pakistan to 9.9 for Denmark, followed by 9.8 for Sweden and 9.3 for Norway. Note that higher values denote higher prevalence of modern religious values.

The following plot illustrates the distribution of the latent variable values in the surveys dataset for three categories of respondent:

Respondent 1. Person with the following pre-modern values: believe in hell, agrees their religion is the only right one, agrees that religion is right whenever science and religion conflict, and thinks that homosexuality is never justifiable. The average latent value score for this group is 0.9.

Respondent 2. Person with a mix of pre-modern and modern values: does not believe in hell, agrees their religion is the only right one, disagrees that religion is right whenever science and religion conflict, and thinks that homosexuality is never justifiable. The average latent value score for this group is 3.3.

Respondent 3. Person with the following modern values: does not believe in hell, disagrees their religion is the only right one, disagrees that religion is right whenever science and religion conflict, and thinks that homosexuality is justifiable (giving a score of 6 or more on a 10 point scale). The average latent value score for this group is 8.6.

The following map plots the country average religiosity latent variable against the country average pre-modern/modern values latent variable for the 104 countries in waves 5-7 of the WVS/EVS. Religiosity measures level of religious engagement ranging from close to zero for non-religious atheists, through non-practicing religious people to practicing religious people (high scores). The coloured zones represent the culture zones used in previous posts to classify countries.

The following plot shows culture zone population-weighted averages for the two latent variable for four categories of religiosity. This plot relates to averages for wave 7 only.

In every culture zone, practicing religious people have the lowest score for modern religious values, ie the most pre-modern values) and modern religious values increase with decreasing levels of religiosity. The variation across culture zones is approximately as substantial as the variation across religiosity categories. This is not surprising, the values of non-religious people are influenced by the culture in which they live, whose values have been substantially shaped by the dominant religions in the history of that culture.

Understanding the evolution of values at individual and societal levels

Looking back at the cultures and civilizations of the pre-modern eras, it seems clear that the boundaries defining “us” versus “them” were substantially narrower, whether to ethnic group, kingdom or tribe, and that authoritarian rule backed by brutal punishments and intolerance of dissent were the norm. All the major religions were formed during the pre-modern period and their sacred literatures account of their gods reflects often reflect similar values.  The Buddha and Jesus are two notable exceptions who proposed ways of living life to reduce suffering. Jesus in particular spoke of a God of love and acceptance rather than the Old Testament God of wrath and fear.

For people at Stage 1 and for many at stage 2 of Kohlberg’s levels of moral development, what appeals in their religion are the pre-modern values of past forms of religion and the authoritarianism of imposing absolute values and threatening and punishing those who don’t conform to them. The characteristics of the fundamentalist program are very similar to those I identified as the key features of fascism in my previous post. This is not a new insight, many others have made the same connection. See, for example, here and here and here.

For people approaching Kohlberg stage 3, religion and spirituality become paths for expanding the boundaries of love, acceptance and inclusion as “us”, and for addressing and transcending our limitations and suffering. I came across an article recently which perfectly encapsulated one woman’s experience of this different between looking backward and contracting our boundaries of “us”, and looking forward and expanding our boundaries for tolerance, acceptance, care and love.  Emma Cooper wrote of the God of Fear that she followed in her evangelical childhood, in which the core of salvation was a desire to avoid hell: “It was faith out of fear, for a God made out of fear. It was abusive.”  She argues that millennials are leaving the Church in droves because of this abuse, and that we no longer need a God of Fear, but that there is an alternative new understanding of God as a God of love. She mentions “new interpretations of Christianity” which contest if there even is a hell.

This is weird for me to read, not only because the my analysis of WVS/EVS showed that belief in hell was a minority belief among Christians globally, but also as an Australian who lived as a child in a religious environment that was not fundamentalist. I never encountered the God of Fear as a child, the religious message was always about the God of love. And hell was never presented to me as a real existing place, only as a mythic metaphor. The religion of fear drives the need for fundamentalists to seek to impose their beliefs on the whole of society. In their different ways, and not so different beliefs, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists (and those of other religions also) pose a real threat to democracy, human rights and our ability to use our science to address pandemics, global warming and other major issues for the human race, other living things and our planet.


  1. Herriot, Peter. Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity. Routledge, 2014.
  2. Farooq, Tariq. Religious Fundamentalism in Muslim countries. Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres, 3 July 2015.
  3. Moaddel, Mansoor, and Stuart A. Karabenick. “Religious Fundamentalism in Eight Muslim‐Majority Countries: Reconceptualization and Assessment.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion4 (2018): 676-706.
  4. Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: Madrid: JD Systems Institute.
  5. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version:].
  6. Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0,
  7. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
  8. Piaget, Jean. The moral judgment of the child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co: 1932.
  9. Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row: 1984.
  10. Gilligan, Carol. In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review. 1977, 47(4), 481-517
  11. Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin, authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
  12. Wilber, Ken. Up from Eden. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981
  13. Wilber Ken. Integral Spirituality. Integral Books: Boston and London, 2007.

3 thoughts on “Pre-modern values, religion and culture

  1. Pingback: Prevalence of pre-modern values across the world | Mountains and rivers

  2. Pingback: Premodern religious values and happiness | Mountains and rivers

  3. Pingback: Values and religion in 2020: an updated map | Mountains and rivers

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