Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Geneology of Fanaticism

Posted by Ann on October 4, 2008

In themselves, all ideas are neutral, or ought to be; but man animates them, projects onto them his ardor and his madness. Rendered impure, transformed into beliefs, they are inserted into time, acquire the status of events: a transition from logic to epilepsy is consummated….Thus are born ideologies, doctrines, bloody farces.

Idolatrous by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and interests into constants. History is nothing but a procession of false absolutes, a series of temples erected to pretexts, a debasement of the mind before the improbable. Even when he distances himself from religion, man remains subject to it; wearing himself out forging simulacra of the gods, he then embraces them feverishly: his need for fiction, for mythology, triumphs over evidence and irony. His power to adore is responsible for all crimes: those who love a god without justification compel others to love it, and exterminate them if they refuse. All intolerance, all ideological intransigence and proselytism is rooted in bestial enthusiasm. Whenever man loses his faculty of indifference, he becomes a virtual assassin; whenever he transforms his idea into a god, the consequences are incalculable.

~Cioran

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11 Responses to “Geneology of Fanaticism”

  1. Stephanie K. said

    Isn’t all knowledge personal, to an extent, and is that really such a bad thing? Are conclusions based on “neutral” evidence really a more reliable form of knowledge than those informed by passion or human experience? We all create our own realities, whether we rely on our senses, our intellect, or our gut instinct. Vision, for example, is largely a product of memory. The cornea picks up vague shapes and rough colors, and our brain fills in the details and sends the complete image to the mind’s eye (according to a recent New Yorker article).

    Rationality and dispassionate observation are valuable tools. But elevating them above all other forms of knowing is a value judgment in itself, i.e. a belief.

    Beliefs are not inherently dangerous. Developing them is a natural part of human growth and maturation, and a world that contains a diversity of beliefs is more interesting. And richer. It is only when beliefs become rigid and uncompromising that they lead to intolerance, conflict, and oppression.

  2. Paulo said

    Science is a relatively new concept in the history of man. Within the last few centuries we are finally seeing things a lot more clearly than under the spell of religious belief. I, for one, would rather we pour all our passion and belief into things we can grasp rather than in concepts purely held together by faith.

  3. The Chaplain said

    What you are calling “belief” is “faith” i.e. belief without evidence. Sure, it is a “value” judgment to value evidence over no evidence. So, yes, I value evidence over no evidence–but that is not faith.

    I do not believe that beliefs are not inherently dangerous. The belief that Blacks were nothing more than animals, inferior to Whites in every sense, is an inherently dangerous belief, is it not?

  4. Stephanie K. said

    To clear up the semantics issue, my use of the word “belief” was synonymous with “opinion” or “conclusion”, rather than “faith”. But the distinction may be a little arbitrary, because the point I was making is that there is no such thing as a purely fact-based (and faith-free)opinion. All information is filtered and shaped by one’s own assumptions and experiences. Humans do not discover truths, they create them (they impose their own paradigm on the data so they can sort it into something recognizable) . Even the scientific method does not exist in a vacuum. It arose out of a Western industrialized culture, was shaped by the assumptions and values found in that culture at that time, and it continues to evolve, but still within Western parameters. So my answer to your (rhetorical?) question is found in the last sentence of my original comment. The danger lies not in the existence of a belief, but in the conviction by its holder that it is the “correct” belief, superior to all others.

  5. The Chaplain said

    Ok, it looks like I need to get a bit more detailed in my response now that I have read your clarification. You state that there is “no such thing as a purely fact-based (and faith-free) opinion. All information is filtered and shaped by one’s own assumptions and experiences.” It is true that each individual filters the world through his/her senses. The knowledge that exists in books would cease to be knowledge if no one was around to decode and process those funny squiggles on those paper pages. In that sense, all knowledge is personal and no opinion is “pure”–or free of the mind of specific individuals. However, what I do not agree with is your conflation of “fact-based” and “faith” opinions. I suggest that you look up the definition of faith. Faith is belief without proof. Fact-based opinions are those based on proof. What you say, that “all information is filtered and shaped…”, is true–but faith does not filter information. That is precisely what makes faith faith–there is no supernatural information to filter. Faith requires that you make an assertion without any evidence, proof or filtered information of any kind.

    The next section of your last post states that humans “do not discover truths, they create them (they impose their own paradigm on the data so they can sort it into something recognizable).” It is true that humans look at the world around them and construct models to explain the interconnectedness of phenomena. But again, some models are based on observable evidence and other models are based on faith (belief without proof or evidence). Yes, the scientific method rose out of human ideas and human culture. So what? Does that make it less valuable than faith? Also, I do not understand what you mean when you say that the scientific method continues to evolve. The scientific method involves the same steps it has always involved. Here is a brief explanation of the scientific method: “Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methodologies of knowledge. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many hypotheses together in a coherent structure. This in turn may help form new hypotheses or place groups of hypotheses into context.
    Among other facets shared by the various fields of inquiry is the conviction that the process be objective to reduce a biased interpretation of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established.” Let me end by addressing your final, repeated, statement that “the danger lies not in the existence of a belief, but in the conviction by its holder that it is the ‘correct’ belief, superior to all others.” The problem with this statement is that it again conflates belief based on evidence with belief based on no evidence. They are not equal and should not be conflated. I see no danger at all in viewing belief based on evidence as superior to belief based on none. This is not to say that the belief based on evidence is “correct” (in the absolutist sense that you mean it). Rather, it means that it is based on the best evidence we have now. For instance, we might discover in the future that it is not gravity that keeps the planets revolving and rotating but a group of invisible “planet trolls” who view planet revolving and spinning and their sacred duty. Until the day of that discovery arrives, it makes more sense to tentatively but relatively confidently hold to the position that gravity is the most reasonable explanation.

    I also wanted to say that I find it interesting that now that academia has tired of and rejected the relativism inherent in postmodern theory, Christian’s have now taken up the postmodern torch. I can see what is attractive about it from a Christian perspective: if all knowledge is in brackets, to be held tentatively because of its uncertain nature, then surely faith (belief without proof or evidence) must be as valid a form of knowledge as belief based on scientific evidence! Well, not quite. In the field of science, discoveries, theories and laws are already held tentatively. Scientists know that new discoveries might alter entire paradigms of knowledge (much in the way that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity did). Maybe one day humans will discover that there are parallel universes, or that there are supernatural realms and spiritual beings. Right now though, the evidence does not point that way and there is no suggestion that it will. If you discover evidence that these realms do exist, please let the freethinkers and the scientific community know–that way they can immediately get started applying the scientific method. However, until you provide that evidence, I think it is a bit of a stretch, to say the least, that belief without evidence is equal to belief with evidence.

  6. The Chaplain said

    Oh, one other thing I forgot to say that I meant to: there is danger inherent in all beliefs that are false. It is obvious that the likelihood of falsity existing in beliefs based on no proof is much higher than the likelihood of falsity existing in beliefs based on evidence.

  7. Stephanie K. said

    I find it interesting that you equate the filter I describe, one based on “assumptions and experiences”, with a filter based on senses. I would argue that we can not rely on our senses as simple decoders of external data. Recent advances in the field of neuroscience have highlighted the complex relationship between the senses and the brain. It is not a simple matter of information being taken in and transmitted directly to the brain. Rather, our perception of physical reality draws deeply on the subconscious, the memory, and one’s desires/needs. This is why someone who has been blind from birth, and gains sight during adulthood, does not immediately see the world the way you and I do, but at first sees only masses of confusing shapes and colors, until that person’s mind has developed patterns for interpreting the sensory data.

    I couldn’t quite tell if your last post categorized me as one of the “Christians taking up postmodernism” that you describe, or if you were making a more general statement. That would certainly come as a surprise to most people who have known me in the last decade! It’s been a while now since I was part of that tribe. Even as a young person growing up in the MK community, I was always a bit of a skeptic, and was proud to call myself a feminist and a political liberal. I read a while ago that about 50% of people raised in evangelical Christian households leave the faith of their parents. I’m not sure if the stats are lower for MKs. Even so, there are a fair number of us who have left, but we have not all “strayed” in the same way. Which is the reason I decided to post a comment in the first place. I wasn’t trying to start an argument (okay, maybe a discussion), and I’m certainly not trying to discredit science. But I did want to point out that there are a number of non-Christian philosophical outlooks available to people. It shouldn’t have to just be a choice between positivism (rational empiricism based on observable data) or blindly clinging to “faith”, which you define as belief without proof. My personal philosphy on life has very little in common with Christian religion, but does not seem to resemble yours very closely either.

    You may be correct in placing my opinions under the broad umbrella of postmodernism, although I personally shy away from slapping a label on beliefs because I find that to be intellectually limiting. Postmodern thought has indeed had its critics, many of whom come from the more positivist scientific camp. Postmodernism’s early extreme relativism is less influential now, but many newer and more current theories have been spawned by the debate, and discussion is alive and well in academic circles. My personal influences, or at least the theories I’m most drawn to, would probably be constructivism (the idea that humans construct knowledge and meaning, rather than taking in objective knowledge), many of the critical theories (including critical race, postcolonialist, and feminist), the ideas of Foucault, and the writings of mystics throughout history. These theories tend to come up regularly in articles published in major academic journals, so I would not say that positivism has triumphed in academic circles. The critical theories make some good points about the way that the West (particularly males in the Western world) have used their power to define knowledge for others, whether in the realm of science, economocs, politics, etc. You are right that the scientific method itself remains the same. What I should have said more precisely is that science has an evolving culture, just like any other field, and that culture tends to be influenced by trends in Western thought (rather than those from less powerful societies). As far as Christians adopting some of the above-mentionaed arguments, all I can say is that Foucault would make a very strange bedfellow indeed, what with his claim that sex (in all its forms, straight or not) is a good and healthy part of human experience. But if there’s a discussion going on (rather than just the trading of dogmas), I’m all for that.

    I think it’s safe to say that we’re approaching this from two different philosophical standpoints, and we probably are never going to agree on all points. But I do think an active (and respectful) discussion is a good thing. I appreciate the fact that this conversation has pushed me to do a little research, define my terms, and attempt to verbalize and explain some of my own assumptions and preferences. And I am impressed by the research, links to relevant sources, and intellectual rigor that characterize this blog. The one thing that rubs me the wrong way is the absolutist tone that comes across. I think a little more tolerance (of others’ beliefs and other ways of looking at the world, even the ones that screwed us up as kids) would elevate the discussion.

  8. The Chaplain said

    Stephanie,

    Let me begin by thanking you for generating some very interesting discussion. I agree with you about how our minds process data. I only brought senses into the equation, since that is how we interact with the world. No data processing occurs without the brain and the senses.

    I had no clue if you were a Christian or not, but your argument did seem to carry the scent of relativism. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions about your overall argument; I have been doing a lot of debating with Christians over the years, and the recent rise of the relativistic/postmodern argument concerning the nature of knowledge is one that I field on a regular basis (and I agree that Foucault and Christians make strange bedfellows—remember, they haven’t actually read Foucault; they just like whatever idea helps to rationalize their unreasonable beliefs in what cannot be observed, tested, or proven to exist). When I get a scent of it, I go into autopilot and crank out my usual response. Still, if you are arguing that there is something else “out there”—some other reality besides the natural and physical one—then it makes sense for you to rely upon a relativistic argument. This argument is very appealing to those who want to place their “knowledge” of the supernatural or non-natural on the same plane as the observable or testable universe. The truth is that there is no evidence for anything other than the natural world; ergo, “knowledge” of the non-natural is equal to the “knowledge” of planet-spinning trolls: it is not knowledge at all. It is simply an unsupported belief—which is fine—but wishing that it is equal to forms of knowledge that have actual evidence is not enough to elevate it to that level (as far as I’m concerned). In other words, it smells an awful lot like wishful thinking: the core of belief in the supernatural and religion.

    I’m sure you must have been quite a scandal as a feminist—I mean, what is more controversial in the Christian world than wanting women to have the same rights as men!

    I’d be interested to know where you saw that statistic stating that 50% of people raised in evangelical Christian households leave the faith. I have never seen any actual statistics on this, so I have no clue. My bias is to expect a much lower number than that. I haven’t done any scientific polls myself, but the number of MKs I grew up with who are still Christians is overwhelming. I can name those who left the Christian faith on one hand. I would be very interested to find out actual numbers—anyone feel like doing some research? (I’m too busy grading papers at the moment to do it myself.)

    You are certainly right to point out that there are many non-Christian and scientifically-consistent philosophical outlooks available. I wasn’t trying to suggest that there weren’t. However, I speak for myself, and I have a strong voice when I speak. I know that the other contributor’s to this site have opinions and thoughts that do not mesh with my own and that’s cool; I wasn’t speaking for them. In fact, I would be very happy if you would become a contributor yourself. I get a little bored looking at my own posts on here, and it’s tough for only three of us to add posts on a regular basis. Let me also point out that I was not arguing for positivism, and I completely disagree with its concept of progress. Progress is a value-laden concept. Thinking that science provides the most reliable knowledge about the world that is available to us (keeping in mind that paradigm shifts do occur) does not make one a positivist.

    As far as postmodernism is concerned, its critics come from more than the positivistic camp–I am proof of that. As an academic, I can tell you that postmodernism (its deconstructionist tendencies) is spent. Its contribution to the world of thought is that assertions should be placed in brackets and held tentatively. But even Derrida himself argued that one had to take a “position,” and that position should be held with the realization that a new position might need to be adopted. I couldn’t agree more. On a daily basis, I modify my framework for viewing and understanding the world. I read things everyday that result in subtle, barely perceptible changes in my paradigm. Those changes add up over time.

    Michel Foucault is the bomb (whoops, I said “bomb”—someone at Homeland Security is reading this at this very moment), and The Archaeology of Knowledge is a must-read. Interestingly, when I was in grad school, one of my profs said to me, “You sound like one of those social-constructionist people.” (Obviously, she wasn’t.)

    I can’t follow you with the mysticism though, and I’m not sure what form of mysticism in academia you are referring to. If you mean that there are mystic academics, then, yes, that is true. There are also many Christian academics. The term “academia” is pretty broad, so it is difficult to know what field you mean. I can say, though, that mysticism has nothing to do with the academic field of science. In my view, and I’m not speaking for any of the other bloggers on this site, mysticism fits in the same category as Christianity; they both think there is some non-natural realm or reality, and they both have absolutely no evidence to support it. Since both claim to know something about something we can’t see or observe (the super or non-natural), I don’t see the point in even thinking about them. Should research be done to see if there are other non-natural realms of existence? Sure! But let’s try to put most of our resources into something we know for a fact exists: the natural universe.

    I will end by saying that you shouldn’t mistake my powerful, male (ha, ha!) writing voice for anything other than an assertion of my opinion. If I seem at times to be dismissive of worldviews that argue for something other than the natural universe, that is because I think it is preposterous to believe in something for which there is absolutely no proof; I don’t see the point in hemming and hawing about it. This is probably the “absolutist tone” you referred to. Concerning tolerance, I have tolerance for views that do not try to assert power over me against my will. Modern evangelical Christianity, with its powerful political arm, tries to turn its belief in the supernatural into legislation that has very real effects on people. I do not tolerate that. But that is different from my argument voice. Mysticism is a different matter—it is as equally credible as Christianity’s supernatural (i.e. not at all)—but since it doesn’t have a political agenda, it doesn’t bother me.

  9. Stephanie K. said

    I added mysticism to the list not so much as an academic influence, but as an influence in the sense of it being a source of ideas/viewpoints that I find compelling. That, along with yoga, meditation, astrology, etc. Now, before I elicit a knee-jerk reaction by throwing so many allegedly nonsensical terms out there, let me explain. Humans have been looking for answers, conducting research, and discussing ideas since the dawn of time. Early astrologists mapped out the solar system, traditional healers practiced medicine, and ancient societies built mind-bogglingly complex structures long before the advent of modern astronomy, medicine, and architecture. And they did all this while steeped in non-scientific cultures. My point being that they they came up with a fair amount of useful knowledge (along with some nonsense), and it would be a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I do not discount mystical or non-scientific worldviews, although I do take in these ideas with a skeptical mind, as I do with any source.

    The dismissal of anything beyond the immediately observable natural world seems arbitrary to me. That paradigm is not complex enough to encompass everything there is to know. “Evidence” is not limited to the natural world, unless the term natural is used broadly. Intuition and emotion, for example, are very real things, and provide valuable information. Nuance and humor are not quantifiable in the traditional sense, yet they are intrinsic to communication. Things that are currently relegated to the spiritual or paranormal realm could provide very useful information (aka evidence), if we approach the process with a slightly broader framework, one that is more holistic, for lack of a better word. So when I talk about different ways of knowing, I am not suggesting that they are separate but equal, but rather that it may be possible to integrate them into a more complete whole.

    I would be happy to post on the blog, and maybe elaborate on some of these ideas, rather than taking up so much comment space. But only if you really do think the different perspective would be helpful. I have to say, I feel like a bit of an interloper. And I’ll try to find the source of the stat I mentioned. I think it was from a book criticizing fundamentalist Christianity written by an Episcopalian, so now that I think about it, the 50% number may have included people who left fundamentalism and have adopted more liberal (but still Christian) theologies.

    You may indeed have sniffed out some relativist tendencies in my writing, but I’m guessing that’s the lawyer in me coming out, rather than the postmodern torchbearer. And you’re right, the feminism was not typical among my peers. The reaction tended to be bemusement rather than outrage – or else they just dismissed me as being a little odd. I did manage to convince the powers that be at the MK school to change a sexist rule that only allowed high school boys to be ushers in chapel services. (I think I used a biblical argument to make my case). Problem was, none of my female classmates had any interest in taking on that role, so my victory ended up being dead in the water. Oh well…

  10. The Chaplain said

    Yes, my use of the word “natural” is broad. Things like emotion and intuition exist in the brain and within the realm of the natural (obviously, since there is no other realm). Even something like love is based in instinct, culture, etc…all things that originate in human biology.

    I have never suggested that we “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Yes, belief in the supernatural is tied up with thoughts, discoveries and assertions that are not irrational and are not tied directly to belief in magic. Michelangelo made beautiful art regardless of the non-existence of his subject matter. In fact, even that is too simplistic of a statement, since his subject matter was humans, in the end. Don’t mistake my rejection of belief in that for which there is no evidence for rejection of centuries of human culture. To criticize one thing is not to criticize everything. I don’t make a point of drawing people’s attention to that fact, because I take it for granted human culture is valuable. The only thing I am railing against is using superstition and belief in magic to effect one’s actions and decision making. Sometimes that can be harmless, but usually it causes some type of harm–whether that be psychological or physical harm to oneself or others.

    Your usher-girls victory is important, even though it ended up being useless. It reminds me of that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when “Loretta” wants her right to have babies–even though she can’t. Hilarious scene.

  11. Stephanie K. said

    Fair enough. If your definition of “natural” is broad enough to encompass all of human experience, I suppose that gives me enough elbow room. And I didn’t mean to paint you as the culture grinch – was just attempting to argue that the more magical worldviews may not be irreparably at odds with modern views when the end result (enduring art, interesting ideas, functioning societies, etc.) and driving motivation (the search for truth) are essentially the same. Or, as Gandhi said much more eloquently: “Where there is truth, there also is knowledge which is true.”

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