June 24, 2013

Fanaticism and the Fact-Proof Screen

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside of it.
- Eric Hoffer (1951), The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

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This quote will strike some of you as being relevant to religion, and it certainly is. Much of Hoffer's classic book is relevant to religion even though political fanaticism occupied at least as much of his focus. Unfortunately, fanaticism need not be religious; even secular movements can adopt ideologies that some adherents will approach in a dogmatic and fanatical manner.

We do not expect to encounter fanaticism in the atheist community. Many of us came to atheism by way of critical thinking, skepticism, and free inquiry. These things cannot be reconciled with fanaticism except through compartmentalization (i.e., one applies critical thinking, skepticism, and free inquiry elsewhere but not to the ideology about which one is fanatical). Thus, we would expect that most atheists would be at least somewhat inoculated against fanaticism. And yet, fanaticism can be found in certain corners of the atheist community today.

How might we recognize the fanatic in our midst? Perhaps he or she has divorced skepticism, abandoned critical thinking, and can no longer afford free inquiry. Some fanatics are still quite capable of applying these skills outside of the ideology about which they are fanatical, but they do not do so with their ideology. To the fanatic, critical thinking, skepticism, and free inquiry are no longer necessary when it comes to his or her chosen ideology. The issues are settled, and the ideology itself is not merely correct but has become imbued with the force of moral righteousness. Those who question it reveal themselves as flawed beings. It is not just that they are wrong; their disagreement makes them bad people who are now worthy of condemnation.

With moral righteousness on his or her side and license to condemn those who disagree, the fanatic engages in behavior we may not recognize as being even remotely rational. He or she may take up rage blogging, call for the boycott of organizations that have previously promoted much of his or her stated agenda, or make idle threats of abandoning the entire community. The manner in which he or she interacts with others, especially followers, may become increasingly cult-like.

Attempting to communicate with the fanatic often seems like an exercise in futility. Even a passage of unambiguous text will be filtered by the fanatic to conform to his or her ideology. Argument and evidence will no longer hold sway. The "fact-proof screen" to which Hoffer referred shields the fanatic from external reality, and external stimuli are made to fit the ideology. Even mild criticism and disagreement are perceived as morally repugnant affronts (e.g., harassment, stalking).

To the outsider, it will appear that there is something seriously wrong with the fanatic's ideology. But as Hoffer suggests, that may be because we are using the wrong criteria to evaluate it.
Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.
An ideology that has accomplished this has been wildly successful. It is not going away anytime soon, and that means that it is up to the rest of us to decide how best to deal with it.
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