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A Basic Problem with Religious Fundamentalism

Updated on September 11, 2014

Choosing Faith over Humanity

President Obama recently made his case for military action against the Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL, or whatever name you prefer for these lunatics). Needless to say, it is difficult to know whether or not his strategy will work. As we have learned very clearly over this thirteen year (and counting) “War on Terror,” the consequences of military action are inherently difficult to predict. Clearly, the United States cannot through military power go out and destroy all of the political leaders, terrorist groups, and entities that fit into the general category of people that we do not like. The Islamic State (or IS), however, while not being nearly as powerful as its name and rhetoric suggest, has seemed to take brutality to a new level. (When Al-Qaeda thinks that you are too brutal, then you have clearly gone off the deep end of the deep end.) So in spite of strong feelings of trepidation, I agree with the President and much of Congress that military action must be taken. You can’t just stand idly by when an organization chops off the heads of your citizens and then goes on to YouTube to brag about it.

It is likely that some of the people attracted to IS and its methods are your basic psychopaths. Others have been attracted to its brutal methods because they are so angry and/or traumatized by the Assad regime and/or the incompetent, corrupt, and sectarian Iraqi government. You cannot understand this group, however, without taking into account its extremist, fundamentalist religious ideology. As history has consistently demonstrated, religious beliefs are often the most powerful forces in driving people to extremes of behavior. And it is generally the fundamentalists who go to the furthest extremes.

Critics of religious fundamentalists often accuse them of being irrational, a criticism that in my view does not go far enough. While it is true that fundamentalists consistently strive, in the name of faith, to ignore common sense and filter out any information that conflicts with their core beliefs, they are also forced to resist the emotional impulses that bind us to other humans. Like our capacity for reason, our ability to feel empathy may be one of the few traits that separate us from other animals. But fundamentalism, just as it requires its adherents to suppress their capacity to think, can also discourage people from acting on their compassionate instincts. A non-psychopathic member of IS will try to push away the feelings of horror and empathy as he watches a fellow member pull out a machete and decapitate another infidel. People convinced that God condemns the sin of homosexuality will suppress feelings of compassion if they find themselves listening to a gay person describing the struggles he or she faces while living in a homophobic society. While spending one’s last moments with a non-believing, dying loved one, a fundamentalist must snuff out the feeling that God would be unjust if his or her father, mother, brother, sister, or friend ended up in hell. And when listening to people from different religious perspectives describing the amazing spiritual experiences and acts of kindness that sprung from their faiths, fundamentalists are compelled to downplay those profound moments that connect us all. If you allow yourself to see the traits that a wide variety of belief systems have in common, it can be difficult to hold on to the faith that there is only one path to salvation. In this struggle to hold on to their faith, fundamentalists are forced to deny an integral part of their humanity.

All forms of religious fundamentalism, of course, are not created equal. There are plenty of cases of intense religious faith leading fundamentalists to perform good deeds (or at least avoid bad ones). The fear of judgment day, after all, can be a powerful motivator for doing good. But even with the fundamentalists who seem to be influenced positively by their faith, there is still a daily emotional and psychological struggle going on inside of them, and there is always the danger that this unhealthy psyche will eventually translate into unhealthy, even dangerous behavior. Members of the Islamic State and other religious extremist, terrorist groups are extreme examples of religious fundamentalism gone wrong. But any time that people are asked to prove their faith by repeatedly ignoring their capacities for common sense and empathy, you have a disaster waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes you have to make painful sacrifices, brushing away your doubts and fears, in order to live out what you believe. You should always be skeptical, however, of any ideology that consistently asks you to sacrifice your humanity.


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