THE ROOTS OF FANATICISM

by Sean Prophet


I've been racking my brain to come up with a simple definition, based on human nature, for religious fanaticism. Through this tragedy, I think I've finally found the clarity I've been looking for.

Why the hatred of zealots? This hatred knows no national boundaries. Indeed, it's alive and well in this country, pitting "god-fearing" Americans against the secular. Where does this come from?

It's useful to go back to human nature, which is largely governed by Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We are all self-serving creatures, satisfying our needs, building one tier upon the other. We start with the physiological, move to safety, love and belonging, esteem, then self-actualization. We can agree that most people want the same things when they are on the first four tiers. It is when they hit the fifth that individuality must triumph. That means that different people and different groups will actualize in different ways. And some will see others' actualization as threatening.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

5. Self-Actualization
4. Esteem
3. Belongingness and Love
2. Safety
1. Physiological


Religion has tied into this hierarchy of needs in many ways. Especially at levels 1, 3, and 5. Religion has helped people organize to provide food, clothing and shelter for those who did not have it. It has established communities where people can find love and belonging, and it has given people a path to self-actualization.

At the same time, however, religion has told people that to be self-actualized, they must focus on a supreme being outside themselves. Therefore, religion has only provided a path to a self-actualization that is based on "fear of god". Under organized religion, we cannot fulfill levels 2 and 4 of the pyramid. We cannot feel true safety within ourselves if we are in constant "fear of god". We cannot have true self-esteem if we believe that if we actualize in a certain way, we will bring down the "wrath of god."

Organized religion is by DEFINITION incompatible with the fulfillment of two of the most important needs of man. And even inasmuch as organized religion provides a channel for self-actualization, it is one governed by narrow boundaries and unquestioned acceptance of external truths passed down through generations. Therefore, a religious zealot who THINKS s/he is self-actualized may come completely unglued if a conflict or inconsistency in their particular brand of religion is exposed.

We are all drawn to higher contemplation by that mysterious area of our brains termed the "god-spot." This region is responsible for the fact that religion has existed in every culture throughout human history. Scientists have found that religious practitioners of every stripe exhibit increased brain activity in this "god-spot" while praying and meditating. Conversely, electrical stimulation of the "god-spot" causes people to report having had spiritual experiences. These findings are reinforced by the fact that many of the charismatic prophets througout history are now thought to have been afflicted with epilepsy or other brain diseases that left them open to voices and visions. True or not, we can see that there is a distinct possibility that our instinctive religious leanings might be a quirk of nature, rather than a connection with something tangible outside ourselves.

It is therefore possible that religious fanatics suffer from a mental illness which has increased the activity in their "god-spot" beyond the level of normal religious adherents. This has forced these people into an almost obsessive pursuit of their beliefs.

Those who have chosen that path have often gone through years of self-denial, thinking that they had no choice. They have practiced their beliefs in response to inner fears and outer peer pressure. Often they are raised with these beliefs from childhood. Whether it's bowing 5 times a day, fasting on certain days, or avoiding listening to music, all religions have some combination of forced and prohibited activities. And as adults, there is a powerful structure designed to keep the sheep from straying from the fold.

Most people within these communities, organizations, and nations do not enjoy this enforced structure. In fact, it is virtually certain that the majority of these people have huge unconscious resentments. They resent their leaders, their peers, and ultimately (though they will never admit it to themselves) they resent the concept they define as god. Their brains are literally at war with themselves. On the one hand, there is the animal brain, with its instincts, sexual drives, and pursuit of Maslow's pyramid, and on the other hand is the "god-spot" telling them that they must fight these instincts and drives.

Now picture these religious zealots perched on a hilltop. They look down into the valley and see throngs of non-believers. They see artists, gays, musicians, intellectuals, prostitutes, dancers, pornographers, hedonists, poets, lesbians, witches, pagans - an entire sodom and gomorrah of individualism, self-satisfaction, and Dionysian revelry. None of these people "fear" anything, except perhaps their own death. Whatever their definition of self-actualization might be, it is their OWN. They have come to terms with their "god-spot" and channelled their spiritual longings into their own creativity and glorification of self. They don't believe you need a concept of "god" for anything. They just do it themselves.

The Dionysians make the zealots VERY uncomfortable. The zealots want some of what the Dionysians have. But they can't allow themselves to partake, because they then have to question everything they've stood for their entire lives. Some come down the mountain to dip into the earthly delights. Then they hide in the shadows and fear divine retribution. They also fear the wrath of their peers. This doubles their resentment.

The constant battle between indulgence and guilt, desire and fear, becomes an irritant from which the zealots cannot escape. They even invent their own ideas of heaven (which in many cases resemble the 'hell' they see down in the valley). For example, the fanatical Muslim suicide bombers are convinced that they will be greeted in death by 72 virgins. They would never permit themselves this indulgence in life, but they are willing to kill themselves to get it. So in the end, they're not really different from the Dionysians.

Notwithstanding our religious and puritan heritage, America is seen by the rest of the world as one big Dionysian valley. They don't see our own internal battle between homegrown zealots in the bible belt and the hedonists on the coasts (gross generalization, of course). Our entertainment and media portray us as a nation of hedonists: We drink, we gamble, we fuck with abandon, we are materialists, we consume vast quantities of recreational drugs. And we thumb our noses at anyone who tries to tell us how to live.

Misery loves company. Those zealots who have denied themselves their true self-actualization their entire lives, who engage in various rituals of self-denial out of fear, are not - cannot be - happy. Seeing others such as Americans who APPEAR to be almost universally happy, rubs salt in their wounds.

In a nutshell, the entire concept of religious fanaticism and the accompanying violence can be summed up in the kindergartener's taunt: "If I can't have it, then no one can" as the desired toy is smashed on the ground. In America's case, they want to smash the entire playground.

The question I cannot answer is why?

Why is it that the secular world has no problem with others doing as they wish, including the religious? Why can't the religious fanatics be secure enough in their own convictions to ignore the secular? And given this comparison, whose FAITH in themselves is ultimately stronger?

These are the questions I would like to ask Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. If you haven't heard of their statements on the WTC tragedy, prepare to be appalled:


Falwell & Robertson's statement

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