Identifying "Spiritual Life Gone Wrong" - Part 2
As it has been so wisely put, "You can be sure your religion has gone off the rails if its 'god' hates all the same people you do!"
And that pretty well defines what the media usually labels, though somewhat simplistically, as "religious extremism" or "religious fanaticism". Whatever you call it, though, it's all around us today and it's attempting to redefine our world, often through violence, coercion and intimidation. So today we're going to look at the five main symptoms or manifestations of this kind of "perverse spirituality".
Just before we get there, though, I thought you'd enjoy this break with British comedian John Cleese, who explains very clearly why being a religious nut-job is so much fun:
So just what are the five main features of religious extremism?
1. Divine Fascism
Divine fascism is the ridiculous belief that the divine being is so insecure and neurotic that he has to demand total conformity from you in all aspects of your life and will punish you if you don't.
Contrast this with the viewpoint of Authentic Ancient Traditions (as I've called them in The 5 Pillars of Life) that the divine being or Absolute is overflowing love. As St. Silouan of Athos (d. 1938) put it, based on his own mystical experience, "God is love insatiable".
If you belong to a religious group that preaches "divine fascism" and you're using it as your personal worldview, then you must believe that:
- Your religion is totally, 100% correct and those who don't follow it are somehow lesser human beings
- Your mission is to bring these lesser human beings under your religion by whatever means you can
- For anyone to deny the truth of your religion is an insult that your (insecure and neurotic) god can't bear - they must be punished
- Everyone within your religion must conform rigidly to its norms of behavior
- No one is allowed to leave the group - there are severe penalties for "apostasy"
All of these presuppositions set the stage for the next feature of religious extremism:
2. Religious Violence
Once you subscribe to religious fascism, it's a very simple leap of logic to convince yourself that you're doing God's will and creating God's kingdom on earth by using violence to get your way. And there are many forms of violence, including intimidation (making people afraid to speak out), direct threats, verbal violence and, of course, physical violence itself, whether that's organized military violence or not.
Not surprisingly, a good deal of the violence inherent within religious fascism is actually directed within. And here we're not talking about the good and beneficial violence of spiritual struggle you find in authentic traditions. Instead, this violence is about enforcing conformity within the group, keeping the group's social order and putting down any tendencies toward asking the wrong questions or other forms of "free thinking". Naturally, most of this falls upon the most vulnerable segments of the group's own population - women, children and minority groups like gays, intellectuals and dissidents.
Notice that authentic traditions create an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance, and their most serious ("extreme") practitioners are deeply humble, whereas religious extremists have a strong tendency towards arrogance and violence.
3. Victim Syndrome
This tendency towards violence is helped along by the group's standard narrative, which is really good at establishing the existence of strong and powerful "enemies" that are out to destroy the group. And since the group is somehow chosen by God above the rest of humanity, this forms a kind of siege mentality where everything that goes wrong for the group, all of its intractable socio-economic problems and the rest, can all be blamed on these powerful "enemies".
So it really is just like John Cleese says: when you've got your list of enemies, you can start blaming them, abdicate all responsibility on your own part and start the violence.
4. Sexual Repression
Another frequent manifestation of religious extremism is its total inability to deal with one of the most basic forces of real human life - sexuality. Since the group narrative often puts forward a divine basis for circumscribing human sexuality and confining it within some socially acceptable boundaries, any attempt to question these boundaries or break out of them is seen as pretty close to apostasy.
This is very convenient too, because when the group's sexual norms are different from those of surrounding cultures, the group can paint those surrounding cultures as licentious and immoral, further reinforcing their own siege mentality and sense of victimization.
This repression of sexuality has some hideously violent outcomes around the world and is creating untold misery on a daily basis. These outcomes include:
- Forced marriage (where women have no say in deciding whom they will marry)
- Violence against women (regular beatings sanctioned by the religious group)
- Female Genital Mutilation or FGM (surgical removal of the clitoris and labia in a usually unsuccessful attempt to remove female sexual desire and capacity for pleasure. This is usually performed on young girls without their consent, without anesthetic and in a non-sterile environment)
- Honor killing (where male relatives will murder a young woman for losing her virginity, having a boyfriend or otherwise violating the group's sexual norms)
- Sexual neurosis (repressing sexuality always leads to significant neurosis, as it is deeply disruptive to human emotions and the human energy system)
5. The Vice of "Identification"
The easiest way to understand the problem of "identification" is probably from what I've written about the "warrior's way of life" in The 5 Pillars of Life:
What Warriors seek to avoid and to root out of themselves is the neurosis of identification – the psychological need to belong, to be validated, and to identify with one’s own culture, which is the matrix of opinions, attitudes and values comprising the worldview of those around you. But as for the inability or unwillingness to understand others, the psychological need to be right and have others be wrong - the Warrior’s life is directly opposed to all this.
The identification that the Warrior is against is not the conscious and deliberate adherence to an authentic tradition. He is only against a semi-conscious, neurotic, ego-driven and insecure identification of self with any given set of values, attitudes and opinions, however “right” it may be.
So "identification" is essentially a neurosis where you have a deep psychological need to belong, but also a need to be right and therefore have others be wrong. In other words, you need an external enemy to validate your own victim status.
Look closely and you'll see that religious extremism ALWAYS has external enemies whom it blames for everything from its own poverty and powerlessness to the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami.
All of this begs the question: "If your god is as angry as you say he is and as powerful as you say he is, and if you're as righteous as you say you are, while your enemies are as evil as you say they are, then why doesn't you god just ZAP the bastards and be done with it??" Since this isn't happening, could it be that the universe is just a little more complex than you think?
The ONE Thing No Society Can Tolerate
Tolerance is a great virtue. Truly. For all its faults, Western civilization is the beacon of hope to the world primarily because it has set up not just a prosperous economic framework, but a political model that allows you to be who you are and to put forward your viewpoint without fear. However, there is still one thing that Western civilization cannot be expected to tolerate - the existence within itself of religious or any other kind of extremists who do not accept the fundamental values on which it is based, including individual rights, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and equal rights for all social groups. Tolerating intolerance is NOT a virtue; it's a fundamental stupidity.
With some thoughts on that, here's author Richard Dawkins. Since Dawkins is a well-known proponent of atheism, I naturally don't agree with everything he says, but I deeply appreciate his commitment to the fundamental value of free speech and his willingness to listen and respond thoughtfully and rationally to anyone:
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger