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Austin Cline

Heed Not the Fanatics

By April 17, 2004

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Fanaticism exists in all religious systems. In some religions it may be more popular or prominent, but it can still be found in all. What's curious is that people who are part of a religious system often aren't able to detect the fanaticism around them, even when they themselves aren't fanatics.

Will Hutton writes for The Observer about Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion":

Whether it is the perpetrators of the Madrid atrocity or Franklin Graham, evangelical son of evangelist Billy Graham, calling Islam a 'wicked religion', fervent fundamentalist religiosity breeds violence, intolerance and sexism. The sacred texts of Christianity and Islam may plead love, mutual respect and peace; their fundamentalist followers observe these doctrines in the breach.
American society, where reformist social and political movements are undermined by its sheer continental scale, along with a deeply felt, faith-based individualism, is particularly prone to throwing up individuals who see no other way to give their lives purpose than by evangelising others. For them, it is not enough to live by a religious code. They want others to live by it, too, and conversion is part of their purpose. Gibson is a classic of the genre - and so we are invited to put the clock back and live as if we were third-century Christians who believe in the reality of spirits and kingdoms of the faithful in paradise.
In Iraq, the two unforgiving eye-for-an-eye fundamentalisms - American and Islamic, informed by the doctrine of blood sacrifice - confront one another in an arena of escalating violence. Europe looks on helplessly, in danger of succumbing to its own parallel demons. What is needed is a rediscovery of politics and a belief that purpose is best attempted in a secular guise underpinned by universal values, and that religion is a moral code to live by, rather than a purpose in its own right that gives believers the right to deny rationality and humanity.

Fanaticism is a violent tendency that can afflict secular as well as religious belief systems, but it seems to be more common to religion. Why? Religion makes more absolute demands on people and their lives just as a matter of course. Religions presume to have answers not simply about how to chart the course of society, but also the direction that the entire universe is taking. Within such a context, fanaticism can breed very quickly and easily.

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