Fanaticism and Irrationality

We all rely on isms to help us make sense of the world around us. Darwinism, for example, with its implications and impact on modern science, allows researchers and others to view the natural world with a certain set of useful assumptions; a starting off point, so to speak.  Isms are borne of religion, philosophy, science, economics, politics, and many other facets of human life and society.  They provide a base set of assumptions and premises so that when we encounter new information we are not required to reason our way up from the very “bottom”, as it were, in order to understand, process, and contextualize a wide variety of experience.  Isms, therefore, are extremely useful as descriptive mechanisms.  Despite their usefulness, however, isms can present unique and serious challenges.

One of the many difficulties presented by “isms” is that they often lead their adherents to form opinions, make decisions, and develop perspectives based not on how the world “really is”[1], but rather on how these adherents wish the world were.  For some, isms become so persuasive that they transcend being merely descriptive and come to represent a set of dogmatic truth claim.  Isms, then, lead to ideology and ideology inevitably leads to ideologues or fanatics.  Fanatics are so enamored with their particular ism that the totality of life is viewed through the prism of their adopted ideology to the point where reason, objectivity, and even basic critical thinking skills, are set aside in favor of pre-conceived notions and conclusions.  As a result, much of life’s experience and happenings are perceived to be of a certain nature when, in the most extreme examples, precisely opposite is the actual truth.

Certainly it is beneficial, and perhaps even necessary for individuals to formulate general ideas and assumptions about the purpose and function of life, society, and the world they observe.  However, when these ideas and assumptions themselves begin to trump and take precedence over the practical and tangible impact that the ideas inevitably create, unfortunate outcomes are almost sure to follow as, for example, social injustice is ignored for the sake of capitalism and classical liberalism or violent atrocities are ignored for the sake of communism and various forms of fascism.

Allow me to give an example from my own experience.  I have a dear friend who recently began teaching a new course, the first of its kind, at a major university.  My friend obtained a PhD from one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions, is well published in his field, and respected by scholars from around the globe.

When news of the introduction of this course became public and widely known, there were certain groups of individuals who chose to comment on the matter in the most crude and ignorant way possible.  As discussion continued, each comment compounded the absurdity of their stated assumptions about the quality of the course, my friend’s academic and cognitive abilities etc…  Due to their disdain for the subject matter, or rather to whom the subject matter is related, these ideologues both drew and perpetuated false, unreasonable, and incoherent conclusions while congratulating themselves for being intelligent, reasonable, and critical thinkers of some magnitude.  Any objective and reasonable person could see their assertions and assumptions and false but nevertheless, conversation continued unabated within the echo chamber of a self-reinforcing and self-congratulatory frenzy of virulent expression.

Not all ideologues are this extreme, of course.  Yet one can’t listen to a conservative talk show on AM radio or any number of shows on Fox News of MSNBC without seeing how ideology, rather than actual fact, drives much of the narratives presented as news.

I too am an ideologue and I suppose we all are.  Too often I make unwarranted assumptions about a given person or situation without really thinking the matter through in a rational and constructive way.  This has often resulted in me having to backtrack and recant certain statements I’ve made or things I’ve written.  We all do this.  Indeed we must work with ideological assumptions to some degree in order to function within various contexts in an increasingly complex and interconnected world society where information is everywhere.  At times I have to remind myself to step back and look at a situation or idea as an objective observer before drawing strong and likely incorrect conclusions

Barry Goldwater once said extremism in defense of liberty was no vice.  I certainly can appreciate the sentiment.  Yet there are times when our most basic ideas and assumptions must be questioned and reevaluated lest we fall into the trap of fanaticism and, in a grand display of irony, become the very thing we claim to oppose.


[1] I recognize this phrase to be extremely problematic as defining what “is” has been the quest of science, religion, and philosophy for many millennia.