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The Religious Fanatic by Lee Gruenfeld

Religious fanaticism comes not from deep faith, but from a lack of it.

What is a religious fanatic, at heart?

The fanatic is someone who is convinced that just believing in God and living a moral life is simply not enough.

The fanatic feels compelled to engage in behaviors that demonstrate his faith. He believes that the magnitude of those behaviors must be commensurate with the strength of his faith. The more he believes, the more he has to do to show it.

It's all a matter of degree, because every religious person feels he has to do something, and it's only a question of how much.

It might be going to church on Sunday, or keeping a kosher home, or praying five times a day. We call these people the faithful.

It might be devoting one's life to serving the poor, or donating large sums of money to the church, or becoming a priest. We call these people fully committed.

It might be crashing jet planes into tall buildings. We call these people fanatics.

The only thing religious fanaticism really demonstrates is weakness on the part of the fanatic. Weakness in his own faith.

The fanatic believes that his simple faith is not enough. He must do more. And if there is nothing reasonably more to do, he'll invent something.

It might be putting on a hair shirt, or excessive fasting, or mounting an army to invade the lands of the infidels or heathens and convert them all to his religion.

Whatever it is, it's generally about insufficient faith that believing and living a good life is enough.

It's also about inventing what you think God wants you to do because you don't really know. Nobody really does.

But as long as you keep pretty much to yourself, nobody should much care how you choose to manifest your faith. It's when you look down your nose at someone who doesn't attend church regularly that you start to cross over into the world of the fanatic.

By the way, can we accept it as axiomatic that imposing religious practices on someone else is inherently absurd? What good could such a thing possibly do?

It won't save the soul of the non-believer who is merely going through the motions.

It can't possibly be looked upon with favor by the God of your choice.

I personally don't think that God wants us to do many of the things that a lot of people feel compelled to do as part of their faith.

Then again, my opinion on the matter is as utterly useless as anyone else's. And don't think I'm unaware of the hypocrisy in all of the foregoing: Here I am looking down my nose at everyone whose religious opinions don't match my own!

Then again, I don't bother anybody with mine. In this regard I can rightfully claim I'm no Taliban.

We all need to pick and choose what we choose to believe, and leave everybody else out of it because none of us really knows. For my money, I like what Micah told Judah were the only things necessary to avoid the coming catastrophe: "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

I can't believe God cares if you go to church. In fact, I think God would be mightily in your face if you went to church five times a day and lived a rotten life. You're better off not going to church at all if all it does is underscore your hypocrisy.

You think Allah is going to look favorably on people who obey the Seven Pillars of Islam and then crash planes into tall buildings? Probably not any more than he is on people who go to church on Sundays and overcharge their customers on Mondays.

There is another important thing that characterizes the religious fanatic, and that is the inevitable corruption of the original underlying belief system. Because that system probably never demanded that kind of devotion in the first place, one has to retroactively justify it somehow. That's done by making stuff up that wasn't part of the religion in the first place.

We see this all the time. In Judaism, for example, the simple phrase "Thou shalt not boil a calf in its mother's milk" got blown up over time into the most incredibly complex and stringent set of religious dietary laws on the planet. In Christianity, we saw the unimaginably horrific atrocities of the Inquisition, which tortured and burned people all across Europe for the good of their souls.

The Taliban example needs no further expounding.

My favorite passage in the western Bible comes from Amos, a Judean shepherd living a few miles outside of Bethlehem who had no connection at all with the "professional prophets" but who felt compelled to speak out against the professed pieties of sinning Israelites. Here he is, quoting God (New Jerusalem Bible version): "I hate, I scorn your festivals, I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies.

When you bring me burnt offerings…your oblations, I do not accept them and I do not look at your communion sacrifices of fat cattle.

Spare me the din of your chanting, let me hear none of your strumming on lyres, but let justice flow like water, and uprightness like a never-failing stream."

Needless to say, this little performance got Amos thrown out of Israel. Damned fanatic.

from: A Practical Guide for Everyday Living, by Lee Gruenfeld * © Copyright 1996-2001 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

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