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Observations placeholder

James, William - The Varieties of Religious Experience - Fanaticism vs loyalty



Type of Spiritual Experience


There is one emotion that has caused havoc in the world over the years when it is taken to extremes and that is the function of loyalty. Loyalty tends to be an act of love whereas disloyalty is an act of hurt. But there are emotions beyond disloyalty and loyalty – both of which are actually destructive – have the potential to hurt – these are treachery [extreme disloyalty] and fanaticism [extreme unquestioning loyalty]

Under any form of spiritual experience loyalty and disloyalty can become fanaticism and its converse treachery – extreme disloyalty. This is not good news!

But even in a normal everyday situation, a person with a poor mental model and poor reasoning ability is far more susceptible to becoming fanatical. Or if you prefer, you have to be stupid to be a fanatic.

In the days when war was commonplace, subtle and not so subtle means were used to ‘fire up’ troops. Drums and drugs both worked and the loyalty of a soldier could become fanatical. They became ‘berserk’, for example and showed a whole range of other extreme emotions as a consequence – foolhardiness instead of bravery and courage, appalling cruelty and so on.

As James says “spiritual excitement takes pathological forms whenever other interests are too few and the intellect too narrow.” You have to be drugged or hypnotised or stupid to be a fanatic. It is not something to be proud of.

A description of the experience

The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James

Fanaticism is loyalty carried to a convulsive extreme. When an intensely loyal and narrow mind is once grasped by the feeling that a certain superhuman person is worthy of its exclusive devotion, one of the first things that happens is that it idealises the devotion itself. To adequately realise the merits of the idol gets to be considered the one great merit of the worshipper; and the sacrifice and servilities by which savage tribesmen have from time immemorial exhibited their faithfulness to chieftains are now outbid in favour of the deity. Vocabularies are exhausted and languages altered in the attempt to praise him enough; death is looked on as gain if it attract his grateful notice; and the personal attitude of being his devotee becomes what one might call a new and exalted kind of professional speciality within the tribe............

An immediate consequence of this condition of mind is jealousy for the deity’s honour. How can the devotee show his loyalty better than by sensitiveness in this regard? The slightest affront or neglect must be resented, the deity’s enemies must be put to shame. In exceedingly narrow minds and active wills, such a care may become an engrossing preoccupation; and crusades have been preached and massacres instigated for no other reason than to remove a fancied slight upon the god….

Fanaticism is found only where the character is masterful and aggressive. In gentle characters, where devoutness is intense and the intellect feeble, we have an imaginative absorption in the love of God, to the exclusion of all practical human interests, which, though innocent enough, is too one sided to be admirable. 

The source of the experience

James, William

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