Global counter-terrorism efforts consistently fail to recognize the influence of psychological development on religious interpretation thereby missing the opportunity to effect real and lasting cultural transformation.
The White House recently hosted experts from around the world at a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The summit was designed as a platform to share best practices in the prevention of violent religious extremism. In light of the ongoing conflict with ISIS in the Middle East, continued Boko Haram violence in Nigeria, terrorist attacks in Sydney, and the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the summit could not have convened at a more relevant time.
A dear friend and colleague of mine was in attendance. As I spoke with her about the summit, I learned of the various conversations at play. Some participants focused on basic national/international security issues, others encouraged dialogue among religious traditions, while still others discussed how to curtail social factors that lead to violent action (e.g., recruiting, radicalizing, training, etc.).
In our present Western culture we give a massive amount of emphasis to the exterior dimensions of our experience (behavior, security, social/economic influences) but we often miss the more subtle aspects at play that relate to the interiority of our experience; the dimension of consciousness. At the end of our conversation, I kept thinking to myself how useful it would have been to have someone in attendance at the summit who understood the basic stages of human development and how they relate to religious interpretation.
Here’s why: an individual’s relationship to and interpretation of a particular religious tradition falls along a spectrum of psychological development. The stages of interpretation are rooted in the basic ways in which we cognitively process information. James Fowler’s work on Faith Development, out of Harvard University, is still some of the best research we have on the subject. What Fowler found, and what much of my own work has attempted to deepen, is that faith development is its own line of intelligence. This means that regardless of how developed a person might be along other lines (interpersonal, emotional, cognitive), interpretation of faith has its own evolution and trajectory.
Understanding faith development is a critical component to mitigating the dangers of violent religious extremism.
Early stages of Faith Development are simplistic in their cognitive processing. They tend to see distinct and often dichotomous relationships between ideas and beliefs, their interpretation of scripture and tradition is often literal, and there are strong tendencies to draw bright lines between those who are on the “inside” of the faith and those who are not. As healthy development unfolds, perspective taking expands, boundaries between “us” and “them” begin to fade, and a capacity for bringing together multiple worldviews (even those from other faiths) comes online. The higher reaches of faith development allow one to find a deeper, more inclusive, and more universal synthesis of multiple worldviews simultaneously.
The stages of faith development provide a road map away from extremist views and towards views that are more universal and integrative. Combating extremism, isn’t simply about addressing the exterior issues. Yes, of course we need to consider religious violence across multiple traditions. Yes, of course we need to mitigate against further advances in behavioral factors that lead to extremism. And yes, of course we need to take seriously international security issues. But without someone or some group consciously holding a meta-view that includes the interior/consciousness dimension of combating extremism, countless opportunities for effective action will continue to be missed.
We have the knowledge and capacity to help pave the way for conveyor belts of transformation within each of our world’s religious traditions. The opportunity exists to transform religion from being one of the strongest barriers to evolution to evolution’s greatest ally. 
My latest book, Evolution’s Ally, offers a roadmap for greater understanding of terrorism, harnessing the power of religion for positive human and social transformation. Check it out HERE.
 In its official press release, the White House announced that the summit intended to “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence.”
Statement from the Press Secretary on the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, January 11, 2015. Accessed on Feb 27th <http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/11/statement-press-secretary-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremis>