The Human Condition:

The Core of Fanaticism – July 31, 2016

Fanatical old man

“The enemies of reason have a certain blind look.” So said the protagonist’s friend and doctor played by Tom Conti in one of my favorite movies, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists.

To my way of thinking, fanatics—people who are zealously, endlessly, argumentatively wedded to a certain religious belief, political position, or article of faith—are indeed enemies of reason. This is not to say that all strongly held beliefs, positions, or convictions are wrong or unreasonable. But all should be considered rationally, tested regularly against real-world conditions, and reevaluated in light of new facts and counterarguments.

This is a survival trait, to be able to accept new thinking, change old ideas, and adapt to varying conditions in the surrounding environment, both physical and mental. Being flexible and light on your feet, being able to change yourself and your point of view, are traits that make human beings long-lived and virtually unbreakable. Compared to us, insects with their genetically programmed behaviors, and robots that cannot alter their own programming, are fragile beasts indeed.

Of course, much of a person’s attitude toward a cherished belief or position depends on the nature of the belief itself.

Sober truths and cold, hard facts are obvious, easy to recognize, and easy to accept. No one really argues anymore that the Earth is a globe rather than a flat disk riding on the back of a giant turtle—even though the ground looks flat from my apartment window and the stars appear to swim across the sky. Go out on the ocean and watch a tall ship approach over the horizon, where you can watch—all within visible range—as first the tops of the masts, then the upper and then lower sails, and finally the hull itself rise above the waves. You can observe for yourself that they come from the far side of a curved globe. And even if you can’t go out to sea with the tall ships, we’ve all seen the pictures from orbiting satellites. The roundness of the Earth is no longer a belief about which the holders feel threatened.

In the same way, anyone who has studied genetics, comparative anatomy, or even plain old biology at any depth will accept that all life on Earth is related and evolved from previous life forms. Compare the bones in a human arm and hand, a horse’s foreleg, a whale’s flipper, and a bat’s wing. You can pick out the similarities and trace the evolution in structure and purpose with the naked eye. That quickly puts to rest the notion that each animal and plant represents an individual and separate creation, designed for a single purpose, and fixed for eternity in a single shape.1 Anyone who believes the current forms of animals and plants are unchanging through the eons has failed to understand how dynamic this planet and this universe actually are, or how much this world and its survival requirements can change in just a few thousand years.2

But no one invests a lot of energy and argument in beliefs about the roundness of the Earth and the fluid nature of life on this planet. These and similar matters of accepted truth may be beliefs we hold to our dying breath, but we feel no special need to be passionate about them.

All of this tells my inner ear that, when people become purple-faced with rage about the ideas they hold dear, when they start raising pitchforks and torches, marching in the street, and screaming their lungs out, all of that passion is inspired by … a seed of doubt. People put the most energy into believing and promoting the truths that they find most comfortable, most self-affirming, most profitable to believe and yet which they, deep down, in that place where the naked soul confronts the hard-edged universe, suspect may be … false.

Consider the energy that modern, supposedly educated, supposedly democratically inclined members of the Ku Klux Klan put into affirming that certain people, because of their racial heritage and the color of their skin, are not equal to other human beings, despite the presence of twenty-three chromosomes, indistinguishable genetics, and much cross-breeding.

Consider the energy that modern, supposedly educated, supposedly civilized Germans once put into affirming that an Austrian corporal and failed artist was the political and military genius of the age, justified in scapegoating—and eventually trying to exterminate—an entire branch of humanity because of their racial heritage and ancient religion, despite the proven gifts and achievements of that maligned group.

Consider the energy that many modern, supposedly civilized, although non-Western practitioners of Islam put into affirming that a sixth-century desert trader, mystic, and warlord was the perfect human being, that his every utterance is the direct word of God, and that anyone who denies this—or, once having believed, begins to doubt—should be killed out of hand, despite the obvious deficits in the society his vision has created.

Consider the energy that modern, supposedly educated, supposedly civilized members of Communist parties throughout the world put into affirming that their system of anti-economic theory and non-governmental practice is the one true path to human happiness on Earth and that anyone who disagrees should be rooted out, isolated, re-educated if possible and, if necessary, killed out of hand, despite the ultimate failure of these theories every time they have been tried.

All of these belief systems bear the seed of self-congratulation while ignoring the Golden Rule of treating others—all others, any others, any beings who carry the human genome, walk upon two legs, and shine with the light of reason in their eyes—as you would yourself want to be treated. That’s pretty much the basis of all religions, all concepts of morality, fairness, and reciprocity: if you wouldn’t like someone to do it to you, then don’t do it to other people.

Of course, the Golden Rule requires a measure of human empathy. That’s where many people go wrong in their thinking. If you like eating broccoli and wouldn’t mind being force-fed a steady diet of broccoli every day—or if you would like being made to live in a barracks under strict martial law coordinated by bagpipe music, or required to strangle the German shepherd dog you raised from a puppy in order to prove your devotion to a cause, or mandated to wear a sack dress and veil in order to atone for the shame of your femininity—then you might believe that everyone else wants to be treated in this way, too. But a human being who has acquired some measure of empathy, which is anyone who can put his or her mind and thoughts into the situation and perspective of another person not of the same family, tribe, nation, or religious upbringing—that is, any sufficiently large and well-ordered soul—would know that people have different ideas, different aspirations, different preferences, different tastes, and different thresholds of pleasure and pain. To accommodate these differences, to allow each being to find its own nature, its own satori and nirvana, to operate from the principle of doing the least harm and promoting the greatest general good—that is the beginning of human wisdom, at least as I understand it.

That sense of morality and fairness has not necessarily been handed down from an all-knowing deity and was not required to be written in some golden book. Instead, I believe, it is simply the most-efficient, least-friction, easiest-to-get-along way of ordering affairs between two independent, self-willed beings or two groups of such like-minded beings. It is the operating principle that any six year old can observe on the playground. It is the teaching that a mother or father tries to impart to a fretful child in mid-tantrum who insists on getting his or her own way right now. It is the beginning of a human being’s transition from occupying the center of the universe as a beloved but helpless baby to taking his or her rightful place in the wider society as a responsible adult. It is part of growing up.

Any attempt to reverse that course, to move back into the warm glow of self-satisfaction, to adopt the dark vision of one’s own needs, aspirations, and preferences being paramount and everyone else being some kind of subhuman dirt—that impulse speaks to a lie. And although the lie may be layered over with reasons, justifications, plausible theories, and irrefutable mathematics, it remains evident to the naked soul which has once confronted the hard-edged universe.

And that, O my friends, and O my foes, for all the screaming and swearing, is a losing battle.

1. Of course, that does not put to rest the notion of a higher creative power or intelligent design. While the variability of the DNA/RNA/protein domain allows for infinite plasticity of the Earth’s organisms, we have not yet proven whether this chemical mechanism—so ubiquitous and unchallenged on this planet—originated here or blew in on a wave of stardust, and whether it self-assembled and developed by chance or was the product of a Master Chemist conceiving the ultimate malleability of life forms. For more on this, see The Flowering of Life from August 25, 2013, and Accidents and Evolution from August 17, 2014.

2. The main philosophical difference between our modern thinking and that of the ancient Middle Eastern and Indus Valley scribes who wrote down the first human legends and the original sacred books of our various religious traditions is an appreciation of the great age of the Earth, the dynamism of our environment, and the non-static nature of reality.