Fanaticism, Politics, and Religion

By Crosson, Frederick J. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Fanaticism, Politics, and Religion


Crosson, Frederick J., Philosophy Today


Half a century ago, in 1951, Gabriel Marcel wrote, "The first duty of the philosopher in our world today is to fight against fanaticism under whatever guise it may appear."1 But even earlier, in his 1933 article on "Outlines of a Phenomenology of Having," he commented that "The more I treat my own ideas, or even my convictions, as something belonging to me. . . . the more surely will these ideas and opinions tend, by their very inertia (or my inertia toward them, which comes to the same thing), to exercise a tyrannical power over me; that is the principle of fanaticism in all its forms."2

At the present time, fanaticism tends to be almost automatically linked with terrorism in our public discourse, but our reflections here will be on a broader understanding of the concept, a concept to which Marcel returned many times in the course of his writings. He titled one of the essays in Man Against Mass Society (Les hommes contre l'humain), a work contemporary with his Gifford Lectures, "The Fanaticized Consciousness." That way of naming the topic under investigation, instead of calling it fanaticism, he says, derives from phenomenology's insistence that the way in which the intended object of consciousness is constituted or presented depends on the intending consciousness, on the person. And that perspective helps us to keep the character of the person, as well as their intentional attitudes, in our view. The fanaticized consciousness of a person colors other parts of his experience.

I use the plural pronoun ("their intentional attitudes") here not for gender reasons, but to begin to bring into our thinking a first critical element of the fanatic in Marcel's analysis (I'm going to identify three "critical elements"), namely, that fanaticism is a group phenomenon. That can become clearer if we distinguish a common use of the term "fanatic," one that means something like the obsession of an individual with some idea or quality or fact, being consumed with it, making it a constant concern. Something like that was probably what Festus (the Roman procurator of Judea) meant when he said to St. Paul, "You are mad, Paul" (Acts 26). So we speak of people being obsessed with neatness, or with their grade, or of obsessive-compulsive behavior. But Marcel comments:

the fanatic cannot be an isolated being . . . on the contrary he exists among others, and . . . between these others and himself there is formed . . . a unity or identity of harmonic range. This unity . . . is felt as a link which exalts, and the fanaticism of one man is always kept alight by contact with the fanaticism of another.3

Second critical element: not only is the fanatic consciousness a group phenomenon, a shared or common intentional consciousness, but it normally has a group as its object. Paradoxically, the shared fanatical consciousness gathers itself together as a group only by dividing itself from those "others" who are the object of its preoccupation.4 You may be reading my words and thinking of Al Quaida or some such group, so let me clarify that the fanaticized consciousness may contemplate no harm to the group it is concerned with. In fact, Marcel several times exemplifies this group-against-group consciousness by referring to Catholics who embody it:

the sighing, disdainful condescension many of us feel toward our separated brethen, verbally expressed by the phrase "we catholics" ["nous autres catholiques"] which one opposes to "you poor blind devils" ["vous autres, pauvres aveugles"] may be condemned, I think, in the very name of Catholicism.5

Indeed it seems to me that while St. Paul might be described as obsessed with proclaiming the good news, he could not from our point of view be described as a fanatic because for him there is no "Other"-everyone he meets is a potential member of the group that he belongs to, the community of Christ Jesus. (Perhaps one could say that for Paul the "Other" we have to oppose and conquer is the old Adam, existing in each of us. …

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