Friday, July 23, 2010

Fanaticism, Doubt and Compassion

A few months ago, Roger loaned me a book, In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic, by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld. A short time later, Jeff loaned me You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by Brad Hirschfield.

I showed the two books to my friend Eric. I asked, "Do you see a theme here?" He replied, "Face it, Brant, you're a fanatic." That is, to my knowledge, the only time that I have ever been called a fanatic and of course, Eric was being sarcastic.

The dangers of fanaticism should be clear to all of us in this post-9/11 world.

Winston Churchill wryly observed that "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." I have been working on my own definition of fanaticism. It is less witty than Churchill's and still somewhat tentative, but I present it here for your consideration.

Fanaticism is dogmatic belief without compassion.

In my earlier thinking, I was toying with the idea that fanaticism is belief without reason, but upon consideration I realized that fanaticism usually has its own internal logic. Also, all religious faith transcends reason. So although I have left reason out of my definition, I do think that fanaticism is marked by its lack of compassion.

Building on that definition, a fanatic is a person who, convinced that they are right, believes that those who do not share their belief system are of less value. Because of this, while a convicted believer might be willing to die for their faith, a fanatic might be willing to kill for their faith.

The two books I referenced above suggest strategies for dealing with fanaticism. Berger and Zijderfeld advocate a kind of methodological doubt as a middle ground between crippling relativism and dangerous fundamentalism. They would subject every truth claim to rigorous questioning. They invoke the principle that "human dignity is inviolable" as the guide for moral deliberation. This, they say, leads to a "politics of moderation." At a time when political and religious conversation is increasingly polarized, some moderation would be welcome.

Orthodox Rabbi Hirschfield's book is written more in the vein of memoir. Hirschfield says that we can, and even should, hold firm convictions, but we must also allow that others are equally passionate and convicted about their own faith. By emphasizing the things we hold in common (e.g. love of God, and the value of life) we may not reach consensus but we can at least respect and understand one another. Hirschfield admits that his vision is idealistic, but insists that it is not naive.

If I am right in defining fanaticism as dogmatic belief without compassion, then less dogmatism and more compassion are the antidote to fanaticism. Showing compassion toward the fanatic will obviously strain one's own faith. I will be praying for more compassion in my own life.

I recently came across two blog posts that epitomize compassion. John Gustav-Wrathall, who blogs as "Young Stranger" is a gay Mormon (a "Moho"!) who has written about Tom Brock, the anti-gay, anti-ELCA Lutheran Pastor who was recently outed by Lavendar magazine. Read this post. And this one.

Illustrating this blogpost are the covers of In Praise of Doubt by Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld and You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right by Brad Hirschfield. Both books provide plenty of material for consideration.

1 comment:

  1. Brant - I very much like your definition of fanaticism. I very much like Rabbi Hirschfield's position as well. There is nothing more powerful than a person of conviction who nevertheless lets nothing cloud her compassion.

    And thank you for the kind words about my posts...