Fanaticism

Since the tragic events of September 11th. we've been hearing a great deal about "religious fanaticism" ‑‑ as if there might be another kind.  Although the term "fanatic" takes it's origin from the word fanum (the old Latin term for temple or shrine) it is obvious, when we look at the traits shared by all forms of fanaticism, that the phenomenon is neither exclusively religious nor particularly new. 

The first of these traits has to do with time.  Fanatics seem to be fixated on the past, even when they strive for some future goal. Frustrated or intimidated by the present state of things, they seek to turn back the clock to some imagined "golden age" of yesteryear when "once upon a time..."  They are unable to deal with the messiness or confusion of the here and now.  The Taliban party in Afghanistan , as well as their "guest", Osama bin Laden, seem obsessed with the vision of restoring Islam to its imagined glory days of a millennium ago. Even Hitler's famed "New World Order" was sold to his followers as the "Third Reich" ‑‑ the latest embodiment of a glorious Teutonic, pure "Aryan" past.

The second trait is a penchant for the absolute, be it absolute truth or the absolute power. No dissenting opinions are to be tolerated in a society of fanatics, and those who disobey are immediately punished, expelled, or worse.  The infamous "Inquisitions" of the late Middle Ages, the "show trials" of Stalinist Russia, and the McCarthy‑era "hearings" in the USA were all variations of this absolutist streak.  The idea that truth only emerges from debate or that power comes from a "social contract" or the consent of the governed is utterly foreign to the fanatic's thinking.  He believes that God (or "history") is on his side and that he rules by "divine right".  The "my way or no way" mentality reigns supreme.

Finally, and perhaps tying the above traits together, is a passion for simplicity ‑‑ to have a simple answer to very complex problems or to have a single solution or cure for every ill.  This is why, almost without exception, every display of fanaticism and violence in the world today seems to be closely allied with religious fundamentalism, be it Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or even Jewish, with the "true believers" quoting their scriptures with much the same zeal and dogmatic assurance that Communists quoted Lenin or Marx.

Does all this mean religion or any "blessed rage for order" in the world is suspect?  Hardly so.  Religion is humanity's primary means of making sense out of life and it is only when, for various reasons, life no longer seems to make sense, or proves too complex to be easily understood, that fanaticism rears its ugly head.  What the world needs is not more "true believers" but more people with faith in the God‑given powers of reason and patience, the very antithesis of war‑making and violence in every form, to bring justice and peace into this complex and messy world.

R. W. Kropf  9/19/2001                                                                 Fanatics.doc  01-09-19.html