Religious, political and varied other kinds of fanatic are those who defend beliefs as certainties and tend to hold absolutist opinions. In neurological terms they are said to have developed “hard-wiring” whereby certain neuronal pathways in their brains have been so strongly reinforced that they maintain ideas and opinions against otherwise overwhelming contrary evidence. Such mindsets may be unreflected – unquestioned assumptions about many things which have been ingrained in their make-up in early life. So how can one learn about the most likely and most general causes of such fanaticism?
In the relative lack of well-articulated and systematic empirical studies on the circumstances influencing the adoption of one or another kind of extremism or fanatical attitude, we must rely mostly on recorded case histories and insightful literature. The chief source of understanding is probably individual life experience… and the longer and more varied the life, the higher accuracy and value the experience will have.
On such foundations it seems indisputable that, very often, sustained fanaticism occurs in persons who have had a disturbed upbringing causing them to lack what Medard Boss and other existential psychologists have termed ‘basic trust’. Obviously, the specific causes of each kind and degree of disturbance can vary enormously, but a general process definitely seems to pertain in that the need for security or mental-emotional comfort which has lacked is relieved by a pseudo-remedy. Such remedies may include the acceptance of someone as a father- or mother-figure (such as a charismatic preacher or guru, established religious or even political figures as an idol – which ‘transference’ of need is used therapeutically by psycho-analysts). Aids used to relieve emotional suffering also include imagined entities (angels, deities, aliens etc.) to largely mental abstractions, from religious doctrines to conspiracy theories, set philosophies to totalitarianism.
However, on the positive side of things, such strongly held positions, also when long entrenched, can sometimes be overcome. The (undamaged) human brain is reportedly never so “hard-wired” as to be irretrievably fixated into set patterns of responses. New paths can be opened if sufficient stimulus is there, and what was “hard-wired” in the shape of cast iron beliefs or opinions set in stone, and even over a long period of time can – with lack of reinforcement – eventually fade into insignificance.
However, where the person concerned is unable to overcome or neutralise the root cause of unfulfilled needs or a badly disturbed sense of trust, the evidence points to substitution of other cognitive distortion in place of the defeated ones. Thus, a believer who is severely jolted out of belief in a religious sect, cult or guru will very often seek another such in place of the first. The same applies (with due alteration of details) in political extremism and other kind of ‘fanatical fixation’.
One main cause of religious zeal: Religious enthusiasm is often fuelled by the desire to be part of a greater whole and ‘surrender’ ones worries and anxieties into the keeping of a wise super-being… whose existence is deduced through false logic from observations and especially from unconfirmed and non-confirmable second-hand reports (i.e. such as scriptures and hagiography). This applies equally to followers of many political movement of the more or less totalitarian kind. The all-too-commonplace assumption of religionists that a super-being is controlling everything that everyone thinks or does, and all that happens from the tiniest detail to the unknown reaches of the vastest universe would seem to rank near the top of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time. This assumption leads to cognitive distortions of many kinds, from the somewhat innocuous to the truly dangerous and highly destructive doctrines. This assumption is so widespread and has had such a pervasive influence throughout the history of the world that it must be considered one of the chief causes of religious fanaticism.
One symptom of clinging to cherished beliefs is seen in most conspiracy theorists. Such theories are sometimes surely designed to defend against a perceived threat to the way of seeing the world that the proponent feels it imperative to maintain. They avoid or belittle investigation of substantive facts and are liable to rely on assertions about others’ assertions for fact (whether in support of their fancy or the opposite), without themselves confronting the factual basis itself. Such theories detach from the basic factual evidence and are generally highly selective as to what they take into account. One can see the avoidance of psychological denial in the ways they concentrate almost exclusively on verbal statements and the character of those who made them, rather than on collected and sifted evidence.