“In addition to neutralizing its noxious expressions, we need to learn more about what drives religious fanaticism and take steps to prevent it from taking root in the minds and hearts of the young.”
Swami Vivekananda's appearance at the World's Parliament of Religion in 1893 is celebrated for jumpstarting the modern interfaith movement and ushering Indian wisdom into the West. Less discussed is his passionate denunciation of religious fanaticism. He concluded his opening speech with: “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.” (By “same goal” he meant the spiritual liberation to which the deepest teachings of all traditions point.)
Exactly 108 years to the day after that seminal talk, on September 11, 2001, religious fanatics blew the cover off what seemed to be a century of steady progress. I can’t imagine anything more heartbreaking for Vivekananda’s legacy, right down to the tragic irony that 108 is a sacred number in Hinduism.
The Scourge of Fanaticism is Still With Us
It is hard to know whether we have witnessed a frightening upsurge of religious fanaticism in recent years or simply the unmasking of extremists who had been lurking in dark corners afraid to show themselves. Now the fanatics are emboldened. Not just the jihadist types who brought us 9/11 and ISIS, but also the Christian variety, from the fundamentalists working to create something akin to an American theocracy to the missionaries who employ coercive tactics to convert “heathen” in places like India. And the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who see Arabs as a lower life form and themselves as biblically mandated to reign over the Holy Land. And the Hindu extremists hoping to de-secularize India and subordinate religious minorities. And the Buddhists in Myanmar ethnically cleansing the Rohingya Muslims. And on, and on.
For fanatics, facts and evidence are dispensable. Reason and logic are subordinate to faith and emotion. They tend to be scriptural literalists whose interpretations of core precepts are not to be doubted or scrutinized. Dogma shapes their opinions on all matters. If they kept to themselves, they could live and worship as they please. But fanatics tend to be tribal, and many of them feel threatened by those outside their tribe. And for some, that translates into a driving need to convert, debilitate, or destroy the Other. That’s what makes them dangerous.
What can be done about religious fanatics? Debating is usually futile. As Thomas Paine put it, “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” In addition to neutralizing its noxious expressions, we need to learn more about what drives fanaticism and take steps to prevent it from taking root in the minds and hearts of the young. Some of Vivekananda’s later comments on the subject turn out to be consistent with what we have come to learn about the stages of spiritual development. He saw fanatics as occupying the “lower planes” of what Hindus call Bhakti, the path that centers on devotion to a particular form of Divinity. “All the weak and undeveloped minds in every religion or country,” he said, “have only one way of loving their own ideal, i.e., by hating every other ideal.”
It is imperative for everyone engaged in the spiritual education of others to shout from pulpits, ashrams, and rooftops that the Divine One manifests in multiple forms and, correspondingly, human beings are drawn to those different forms just as they’re attracted to different colors or styles of music. Clerics need to teach their flocks that those who favor a form of the Divine different from theirs are just as much their spiritual brothers and sisters as the people who worship exactly as they do.
But it requires more than talk and more than preaching. That sense of commonality with the religious Other is facilitated best through direct contact, hence the importance of interfaith conversations and the sharing of spiritual practices. Something magical happens when people of different paths experience together their various spiritual disciplines. They realize they have the same or similar experiences of the Sacred despite their different beliefs and doctrines. Above all, we need to elevate individual spirituality from rote forms of worship to transformational inner experience. “When Bhakti has become ripe … no more is there any fear of these hideous manifestations of fanaticism,” Vivekananda concluded. At that level, the person is “too near the God of Love to become an instrument for the diffusion of hatred.”
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