Religion - Fundamentalism, fanaticism, and tolerance
Religion can – one hears – be a beautiful thing. In practice, though, it has proved difficult to secure the benefits of religion without at the same time fostering its dark side: exclusionism and fanaticism, with fear and hatred of persons outside the elect.
The ups and downs of religion. Internal charity, external fear and hatred.
The admirable logic and danger of fundamentalism.
The benefits which a religion provides for its believers are undeniable. The Christian, to take a familiar example, has personally the ear of the almighty Creator of the universe. The Creator hears and cares about the believer's pleadings. The believer receives comfort and certainty. The troubles of the world are insignificant in the perspective of eternal life, where the wrongs of this life will be made right. The believer's enemies, who are also enemies of the Creator, will be punished, to the satisfaction of the flock of believers.
All modern religions have their roots in ancient mythology. But while science has invalidated and superseded their creation stories and astronomies, the psychological validity of religion remains unchallenged. To the millions of persons who are not comfortable with the animal nature of humankind and the finality of death, the notion of eternal life is of great comfort, and the knowledge that the Creator is listening to their individual communication and cares about their plight is a source of daily strength and aid. There is no question but that the practice of religion helps millions to cope with an otherwise intolerable existence.
Information received from an omniscient God does not leave much room for debate. The problem is, of course, that other believers have received different – often contrary – information from the Almighty. This cannot be, in the believer's view. He knows that God reveals himself to potential believers. Such revelation is at the heart of his own belief. But God could not engage in the deception or error of granting to others revelations inconsistent with the believer's own truth. Therefore, any claimant to contrary revelation is a charlatan and an enemy of God, and his followers are deluded or evil.
The more firmly a person believes that his own beliefs are right, the more he is convinced that different beliefs are wrong and evil. It is no great step from that to the view that the other (wrong) religions are the enemy of his God. Individuals with less strongly held religious beliefs will generally be more tolerant, and those without religious beliefs may be expected to be most tolerant. This is often not the case, since some non-believers take an aggressively derisive view of religion, which may make them intolerant of all religious practice. While the religious fanatic has an emotional basis for his intolerance, the fanatical atheist's contempt derives from an attempt at logic, which, becoming a belief-system itself, engenders emotion. The end result is about the same.
Religious belief-systems contain heavy doses of both reason and emotion. It may seem a paradox that some of the strongest and most emotionally held beliefs (for example, those of Christian fundamentalism) are also the most logically consistent. They are not the most comfortable beliefs in a secular society and therefore do not easily capture the hearts of comfortable masses, but compared to the cozy Sunday church-going of the majority, the fundamentalists are the very models of logical consistency. I mean that the basic premises of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions (and others) lead logically to fanaticism. The comfortable believer is likely to harbor a comfortable measure of hypocricy.
The basic common premises of these religions are that God, the creator of all things, exists; that he is all-powerful and all-knowing; that he cares about the lives of his human creations and has given instructions for our lives; and that he will judge us all by his revealed standards and seriously reward or punish us in an endless future existence. While the major Western religions differ as to how and to whom these premises were revealed, they agree that they must be accepted on faith. Proof is irrelevant. Those who do not accept these premises on faith are not properly Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.
Let's look at where these premises lead us. I ask the reader, for the moment, to be a believer, to accept these basic premises on faith: The eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful God created the universe, with its billions of galaxies, stars, and planets. On one of these planets he fashioned his crowning creation, the human species. He is proud of these individuals, and concerned about them. He loves them all, and is planning to unite them with himself in the afterlife. He took the time to reveal his rules of life for his creatures, but having done all that he will brook no disobedience. God's rewards for his obedient creatures will be bliss, but punishment for violation of his rules will be severe.
The conviction that these premises are true brings the most awesome consequences. I suggest that to one who holds these beliefs, the fact of God and of Man's relation to him quite logically holds the central position in ones life. Nothing else on the Earth, including one's own temporary life here – or others' – can measure up in importance to the overwhelming facts of God's omnipresence and the promise of eternal life. This is a perfectly logical position given the basic religious premises above. This is fundamentalism. It is uncompromising; it is dangerous; and it will be with us as long as there are religions that lay claim to absolute truth.
Update: See the later essay, "Religion, New and Improved"