Fanatics, ideologues and absolutists are humanity’s greatest scourge. Whether they’re the leaders or the followers, fanatics are people who indulge in a heady, intoxicating and toxic concoction of self-affirming, know-it-all confidence that they have unique access to absolute truths, truths so perfect that they have to impose them on everyone.
The absolute truths that fanatics latch onto might be religious or political, right wing or left wing, Christian or Islamic, libertarian or communist, new age spiritual or old-time religious. It’s not what they believe that makes them fanatics but how they believe it, that they have final word, no need to consider further evidence, no need to ever wonder or doubt themselves again.
Fanaticism is a drug. Let loose on society it’s like crack cocaine or alcohol only worse. Fanatics drive through life like alcoholics driving under the influence. They think they’re perfectly fine driving. They kill innocent bystanders, sometimes by the thousands or millions.
We’ve learned though, that treating alcoholics as criminals doesn’t help us or them. Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful in part because it gives the addict a graceful way out of the corner he or she is painted into. It’s hard to kick a drug if sobriety means admitting that you’re a vile person through and through. Shaming the addict can make him dig in his heals. It’s easier to kick it if you declare that you’ve become host to a virulent disease that can attack any of us. No one is exempt from the risk. It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to kick it.
What’s needed is an AA-style safe-haven for recovering political and religious fanatics, ideologues and absolutists. It’s message is, “Yes, you’re a wreck and have done real damage. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Like so many of us, you became host to a powerful parasite that mutates quickly and has taken over minds throughout human history. Don’t blame yourself. You are not alone. Join us. Together we can lick this thing.”
Here’s a rough draft for the 12 Steps of Fanatics Anonymous
1. We admitted we were powerless over fanaticism—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that Reason, a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Reason.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have Reason remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly invoked reason to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through inquiry, debate, conversation, curiosity and doubt to improve our conscious contact with Reason seeking for better understanding of the human tension between what we want to believe and what’s most likely to be true.
12. Having had an awakening to Reason as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to fanatics of all kinds, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Of course, the peculiar move here is replacing god with Reason, and more peculiar perhaps to repurpose the AA model for fanatics anonymous, what with AA’s surrender to god’s will, the most notorious excuse for fanaticism in fanaticism’s long and sordid history.
And what is Reason anyway?
Reason is nature’s gift to humankind and to the humanitarian impulse. It’s also called rationality, which comes from the same root as ratio, to compare, discern, evaluate, judging carefully and humbly in our efforts to find the better bets on how to live.
Reason is also related to logos, a word with diverse implications over the millennia but related to language, and logic, uniquely human gifts for our ongoing effort to understand the true ways of the world.
Ongoing–that’s how science practices reason. Where fanatics say “I reasoned once, came to the absolute truth and don’t have to reason again,” science, a practical practice we can learn to apply well beyond the lab, admits that there’s no last word, just today’s best guesses, to be improved upon through ongoing inquiry.
Sustained reason is just the hard work that an addiction to fanaticism frees us from. No wonder fanaticism is so intoxicating. Being a know-it-all provides such powerful pain relief. Reason is a much harder master than god. Humbling ourselves to it is painful.
No wonder so many of us fall off the wagon.