Are we fanatics?

I seem to be on a binge of books that make me wonder. Today's book is Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. This is a book I mentioned before in connection with my reflections on whether a religion can abandon founding tenets and still be considered true to itself.

Krakauer's book focuses on two breakaway polygamist Mormons who committed violent murder against their sister-in-law and her fifteen month old daughter. In tracking down the events that led to these killings, Krakauer tells, not only the murderers' story, but also the history of the Mormon church. And that history inevitably embraces those who now claim the banner of the original Mormon faith — something they do primarily by embracing polygamy. What characterizes so many of the fundamentalists he describes is that they started off as ordinary Mormons or non-Mormon Christians; they had various epiphanies that led them (they believed) to seminal truths; and they were convinced that, having learned these revealed truths, everyone who didn't embrace the truths was wrong or evil.

Well, folks, that could be me. I started life as an ordinary liberal Democrat (who always had conservative leanings); I had an epiphany in the wake of 9/11, when I decided the world had arrayed itself in an Us vs. Them pattern, and that those who deny this pattern are wrong; and I constantly hark back to a pure America of the Good War of the 1940s, and the (at least superficially) coherent society of the 1950s. I'm now sure enough of my newfound beliefs to blog about them regularly and to try to convince people, through my blog, to see the world as I see it. Certainly, my husband, who has remained true to his original Democratic faith, perceives me as having gone off the deep end.

So my question is: Have I gone off the deep end? Where does commitment end and fanaticism begin? When does a change of heart cease to be the reasoned development of the intellect and become the kind of blind faith that can lead one to commit dangerous or wrongful acts? Feedback anyone?

UPDATE:  Perhaps the self-restraint Dennis Prager discusses in this article (conservative vs. liberal self-restraint) is part of what separates the fanatics from those who are merely committed to a belief system. 

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  • Curt

    I’m sure fanatics believe they are well reasoned in their believes also so I think it’s up to the individual. As long as a person can see the bad along with the good then I think they have their feet still on the ground.

    Some would say I agree with Bush all the time so I’m a fanatic. But the truth is, and I have blogged about it consistently, I disagree with him on a few issues. The biggest being immigration.

    The abramoff scandal was bad and many of us said string em up, all of em, whether they be Dem or Rep.

    That is a sign of someone grounded I believe.

    Then look at the Bush haters who will NEVER admit when Bush is right. To them the Republicans and Bush are all evil. That to mean is a sign of fanatics.

  • Danny Lemieux

    The difference, Bookworm, is that you posed this question of your readers. Neither will you murder for your new-found believes. Your previous world construct (dream palace) broke down so you created a new world construct to explain the world around you a-new. You continue to evaluate, you continue to question, and you will readjust your world view to fit the facts as the come before you. That is what makes you a free thinker. The fanatics are the ones who cling so tightly to their comfortable dream palace constructs (credits due to Fouad Ajami) that they will deny, attack or destroy anything that threatens those constructs. If you look at nature, you will find that most creativity and destruction occurs at the biological transitions zones (be it a coral reef or the edge of a forest). Life at the transition zone is hard, precarious but always alive, exciting and creative. So goes it at the political and ideological transition zones, the zones that fanatics will kill to avoid. Fanatics cannot change, adapt, or accommodate because to do so shatters the foundations of ideological comfort zones. So they try to deride, demean, humiliate and destroy! You’ve weathered your adaption to the turmoil of the transition zone and will do so again, as often as needed. The French, by way of example, have not.

  • DRaftervoi

    Fanaticism begins when people lose the ability to understand that there are people of good will who disagree about fundamental issues. Two clear identifying hallmarks of the fanatic are the conviction that anyone who disagrees with them is 1.) Evil or 2.) Stupid. No other choices are allowed.

    Another is the inability to name oh, say, five things about which you disagree with your party/politician. For example, I disagree with Bush on stem cell research, farm policy (end the sugar subsidy!), the death penalty, senior drug benefits, and the expansion of federal deficit spending.

    A third is the a priori conviction that EVERYONE on your side is somehow a paragon of moral virtue. I.e., you start to turn a blind eye to corruption on your side of the aisle. You see the mote in your brother’s eye, but not the beam in your own. Trust me: your side is composed of upright talking monkeys, venal beasts that are heir to all the sins of the flesh….just like the talking monkeys on the other side of the issue.

    Numero cuatro: lack of historical perspective. Get a freakin’ clue. Every issue is not a “matter of crisis for the republic.” Every issue does not represent some sort of greased handicapped accessable ramp to perdition. Sometimes you lose an election, and life goes on…and on…and on.

    #5: lack of temporal perspective. Similar to #4…if you are predicting the END OF THE WORLD in three to seven years (if, that is, we do not listen to you and follow your policies…), you’ve gone off the deep end. I’ve survived the end of the world dozens of times, so I know! Some day, (________) will be in power, and we’ll get through it.

    The sixth, and most critical item, is the LOSS OF YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. If you can’t look at three or four mooks on your side, and go, “Jeez, what a maroon! Where’d we get this idiot?,” then you’ve definitely lost perspective and drifted into fanaticism.

  • T.S.

    I think the best way to avoid becoming a fanatic is to constantly strive to uncover the truth of any given situation, which means:

    1) Reading things that make you uncomfortable, and refusing to limit yourself to ideas that conform to your prejudices and world view. What ultimately matters is who is telling the truth.

    2) Stop labeling people or ideas as conservative or liberal. There is a tendency to define ourselves as “Democrat or “Republican” and then identify with things that are preceived as core ideas of that group. Can anyone find the truth in such a manner?

    It’s not just the Mormons, you know. A lot of groups have been 100% sure they are right and think that anyone who does not agree with them is wrong and/or evil.

    I’m old enough to remember the feminists from the 1970s. I read “the Women’s Room” even though it made me feel queasy and then I rejected many of the feminsts’ notions outright, which is something I had to hide while in college.

    I never though they were right, even though I was afraid to openly say so in class. Talk about a scary bunch!

    But I felt the same way about the neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq. I found myself agreeing more with the realists from the first Bush administration, who outlined the dangers in invading Iraq, which have turned out to be largely true.

    There was a time, however, when anyone who opposed the war was painted a member of the far left fringe, which was a convenient way of preventing debate or open discussion, which is a hallmark of fanaticism.

    But if you’re afraid of becoming a fanatic, and feel comfortable openly discussing such fears, chances are, you won’t become one.

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  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    I don’t think you’re a fanatic, Bookworm, not least because fanatics don’t question themselves. Moreover, as other commenters have said very well, you’d flunk the fanatacism test.

    Consider the context in which you raised the question: it came while musing about a popular work of religious and cultural history, with more than a hint of “true crime” to season the tale. Moreover, based on your description of Krakauer’s book, it’s safe to say that although his portrait of his subjects may be impartial, it probably has the kind of clinical detachment that jounralists adapt when trying to be fair to a subject or subjects they find distasteful. I’d wager that Krakauer’s writing about people whom he finds fascinating but disagreeable. That gives his portrait particular resonance when the well-documented excesses of radical Islamists and the Christian-bashing zeal of many alleged Progressives who spout ignorantly about the “American Taliban” and the scary “Religious Right” combine to create a misleading impression of fanatacism everywhere.

    One can have strong convictions without being a fanatic. Our culture ignores that distinction because it rightly suspects that strong convictions are born of value judgements, and it would rather cling to radically egalitarian readings of history in the name of “tolerance” than admit that some values are better than others.

    So…I didn’t mean to write an essay in your comments box, but there you are.

  • ExPreacherMan


    Nope, you have not walked the plank into the deep end. You are still on shore and headed for higher ground.

    My thoughts as an old narrow-minded Christian preacher may be considered — well — narrow-minded. But there is Something called “Truth.” There are many (Conservatives, Liberals and Middlers) who argue that there is no such thing as Truth. If your goal is “The Truth” and you search honestly.. you will recognize and find it. Incidentally, don’t try to find it on Oprah or Air America. I know you well enough to know you would never do such.

    The Bible, Old and New Testament, states in so many words, “…ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
    Jesus said He is the Truth.. and He came for the whole world, Jew and Gentile.. and, I might add, — Liberal, Conservative and Middler.

    When I became a Christian 42 years ago, I found the Truth — and I was set free. The beauty of finding the Truth — it is entirely un-forced and voluntary..

    There IS Truth and it is not “the deep end.” Your intellectual honesty prevents you from falling off the deep end.


  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    Few people remember it now, but Zane Grey’s classic Western novel “Riders of the Purple Sage” is very hard on the Mormons; it’s about a frontier woman in Utah who stands up to Mormon bullying with the help of a traveling gunfighter. Does Krakauer allude to that story anywhere in his book, I wonder?

  • T.S.

    “Liberals may counter that conservatives hated President Bill Clinton. But that hatred has been more than matched by liberals’ hatred for George W. Bush. And more to the point, Bill Clinton is one individual. Liberals hate virtually all conservatives with the same intensity that many conservatives hated one man named Bill Clinton”. – Dennis Prager

    Does this ring true? It seems like more of the same ol, same ol to me.

    Recent books suggest that maybe, just maybe, Prager’s observations aren’t exactly well thought out.

    Some examples:

    Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism (Hardcover), by Ann Coulter

    Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism (Hardcover) by Sean Hannity

    Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild (Hardcover) by Michelle Malkin

    There is big money to be made in labeling and scapegoating and making gross generalizations. But there is no real search for truth in any of it.

    That goes for James Carville and Al Franken, too.

  • Ymarsakar

    Everyone has a conscience. Who is your conscience, Bookworm? In the end, how do you tell right from wrong?

    Many Americans tell right from wrong via two primary methods. Family with the community they belong to, the circle of friends and social associates. And, the second method, the United States Constitution. If there is any united religion, it is the belief in the Founding Fathers and in the Constitution of the United States. This religion, this fervent and true belief in the truth of a man made document, is honest. It is honest in how it portrays humanity, it is honest in how it portrays God, and it is honest in how it portrays the proper relationship between the governor and the governed, the source of power and the receptacle of power.

    There is a certain flexibility. You do not find this flexibility in Stalin, Hitler, or Imperial Japan. You think the wrong thoughts or say the wrong things, the NKVD of Russia will make you disappear. Act as a traitor to Hitler and the Vaterland, and you will be executed.

    The Constitution drew a very fine line between honest dissent and traitorous conduct. As such, it helps prevent the excesses that fanaticism might have brought. The Constitution did not prevent fanatics from existing, of course. What it did, was simply to allow the fanatics to convince people through merit of words, rather than the coercion of guns. We would never have recovered from the Civil War or WWII and the internment camps of Japanese, without the Constitution. That document, it is the roots that hold up the tree of liberty, giving us life and renewal. It is what holds us stable, in a stormy world, full of destructive forces.

    Harry Turtledove’s World War series is a very educational alternative history series in that it portrays all the sides in that World War. As honestly as he could make the attempt.

    What separates America from Nazis, Communists, Islamic partisans, and Japanese Imperialists was the belief that Truth, Beauty, and Prosperity could result from following specific philosophical principles that were not related to individual liberty. Believe it or not, all of the above ideological groups had their own internal philosophies. It was not your local YMCA club or the local Frat boys. Theirs was a movement that captured the mind, and presented a glorious outcome. Whether that was the dialectical materialist approach of communism, or the Master Race philosophy of Hitler, or the Bushido code to die in the name of the Emperor. All, had ideological roots. All had true believers, fanatics if you will, that would do anything to achieve the ends that their philosophy had taught them throughout their lives.

    The difference, is of course, the fact that Americans were taught to value individual life and individual sacrifices and individuality. The Soviets recognized bravery, but only in the service of Stalin and the rodina. Hitler recognized a soldier’s value with the Knight’s Cross, but only because that soldier to him was an example of the Master Aryan race of superior beings. Only in America, did we value human beings and human constructs, for what they were in the end instead of what they could accomplish.

    That helped provide for us a conscience, to pull us back from the brink of the Abyss. Russia had their patriots, Germany had theirs as well, and so did Japan. Never doubt that for a moment. There were men and women just as virtuous as any we had ever known, who fought for their nation. The difference is ironic yet inescapable. THeir nations were ruled by ideologies that were failures, they were dishonest ideologies that did not describe reality and humanity as it really was.

    So long as you have the benefit of this honesty, this stark introspection Bookworm, then shall you be capable of recognizing the Abyss and being able to turn away after staring in it.

    The first step to honesty, is to recognize that humans will always believe fervently in something called Truth. Whether that is true truth or false truth, remains for logic and reason to analyze. The heart only speaks of love and belief, not of real or unreal. The point is not to make humans disbelieve, the point is to make sure humans in believing in the truth, is actually the Truth.

    A lot of liberal Democrats turned away from the fake liberals because their principles never really changed. If you were brought up believing in human rights and decency and security, then it will take something major to change your fundamental identity. It would take a war perhaps, it would take a life and death struggle in personal terms, not in abstract. As I asked before, would 9/11 change an anti-American, aristocratic believer in the greatest good for the greatest number outweighs individual rights, into a believer in America and a supporter of human rights? No, I don’t tend to think so.

    Sure, Bookworm, a person could change as you did, when you recognized a threat and responded. But people who rooted for the underdogs and believed in what the Constitution said, will not be changed by a 9/11. If they do change, it will be in their choice of actions to support their beliefs, not a change in their beliefs.

    There are two choices. Either a person looks inward to find the spiritual strength inside, by fortifying his basic identity and all the values he had ever valued. Or, he can look outward, for some kind of balm or solution provided by someone else, to feel strong and confident again. Communism, even though a failure, still has the power to grasp a person’s mind, and tell them that everything is the fault of capitalists and Amerians. That has appeal.

    The Democrats believe most of America are following Bush because Bush has given America what they wanted to hear. The Democrats are wrong, for one single reason. They mistook their own personal actions, for the actions of their opponents. What did they call it, anthropomorphism? Humanocentric? Believing that everyone acts as you would, because the only person you have met is yourself. Parochialism.

    What’s the best way to fight racism, poverty, and ignorance?

    What’s the best way to get into power so as to fight racism, poverty, and ignorance?

    Those are two very different questions, based upon entirely different goals. One is for a solution to a societal problem. The other is a solution to a human power struggle. There’s nothing more to say, except this.

    Most Americans aren’t true believers. They don’t tell right or wrong by looking at the Constitution. They tell right or wrong by weighing how they would be seen by their family and friends.

    The other segment of Americans, most of them in the military, are true believers. They are as fanatical in their support of the Constitution as the terroists are in their belief in Jihad(pursuit of happiness), Allah(liberty), and the Virgins in Heaven (life). It is this core, that forms the solid bedrock of patriotism. And it is why 9/11 did not defeat us nor did it force us to restrict freedom of speech as the Russians did. The terroists are scary, primarily because they will do anything for their belief in jihad. Americans are just as scary, because that solid core will do anything to protect the fundamental principles of the Constitution. Many people live without witnessing the solid core of America, since it is very tiny and dense and layered by our Hollywood entertainment, our materialistic capitalism, and our American lifestyle. But it is there, and it is every bit as “hard” as Islamic Jihad. Why would that make any Democrat feel afraid and scared that we have gone off the deep end? Does not that tell you much in itself? Okay, now it is over.