The Third Way, 6: Path 2—Zealotry

fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic.  (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)

zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

In the post previous to this one, I suggested that the ‘Second Way’ for humanity to go forward is to rediscover zeal and ‘heart’ in contrast to Progressive Materialism’s exclusivist appeal to reason, logic, and science.  I would suggest that the usual negative connotation of the term ‘zeal’ given by the West’s dominant modern, postmodern, post-Christian cultural and social paradigm must be reclaimed.  The denial that ’emotional’ concepts like ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ add nothing to wisdom and knowledge must likewise be rejected.  Emotion in balance with reason is a form of knowledge and a path to wisdom.  The legitimacy of emotional wisdom and knowledge have long been recognized by modern psychology as essential in becoming a healthy whole person.

In Part 5 we noted that nothing of lasting significance has been done in human history without fervent enthusiasm, dedication, and perseverance—characteristics flowing from the heart and will—areas of the self traditionally assigned to ‘the soul.’  Motivation to see something through to the end cannot come from mere reasoning that ‘it’ is a good and right thing to do.  Striving to move above and beyond what is and what may even be thought possible in any domain cannot occur without the qualities of mind and spirit that zeal imbues.  In other words, anyone who wants to excel, to be the best they can be, to give the best they can give, must be a zealot in the best sense.

The bloody and horrific legacy of the recent past has turned zeal into an almost purely negative concept akin to the despised ‘fanaticism’ for many Western ideologues.  It is only fair to note that the worst atrocities of history—the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2, the Communist massacres in the Soviet Union, China, Kampuchea—were not the work of religious zealots, but twisted people inspired by grossly distorted notions and principles coming from the Enlightenment stream.[i]  We can formulate a long list of extremely negative results from fanaticism and misguided zealotry.  The dictionary calls a fanatic someone “filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something” and a zealot someone who is “an uncompromising or extreme partisan.”

Even definitions found in dictionaries come from an interpretive perspective.  The key words to question in the above definitions are “excessive,” “misguided,” and “extreme.”  These are value words.  Dictionary editors and composers have a set of values they impose on their work, just as much as any scholar or scientist in any serious discipline.  Is there really any way to measure when enthusiasm has become “excessive” or “misguided,” or when zeal has become “extreme?”

The converse implication of these definitions is that there is a degree of acceptable and appropriate, (“guided” as compared to “misguided”) enthusiasm.  Likewise, there is a converse implication that a partisan can be moderate and reasonable (“compromising?”), rather than “extreme.”  A primary implication is that to be uncompromising, extreme and excessive (however that is assessed) is inherently wrong.

Common sense suggests that zealous people cross the line into “fanaticism” when they condone and perhaps even advocate killing, oppression, and suppression of opposition by force and coercion.  Oppression and coercion can take many forms, both direct and subtle, but any method that denies basic human rights and respect would qualify as “misguided,” “excessive,” and “extreme.”  Killing is simply beyond the pale at any time, except perhaps in the case of a ‘just war” or in self-defence or defence of one’s loved ones.

No ideology of any description—religious, political, economic, social—has a monopoly on common sense, pure logical reasoning, or moral consistency.  Neither does any have a monopoly on moderation in and consistent just treatment of its adherents or those who oppose it.  However, it is manifest that some tend to practise better treatment than others in this respect.  To put it ‘progressively,’ they are more tolerant of dissent.  Historically, no ideology, philosophy, or religion can win hearts if its founders and first propagators are not enthusiastic and zealous about what they preach, teach, and model in their lives.  Let us once more recall the work done by the abolitionists.  It is hard to imagine they would have gotten far if they had been only tepid, moderate, compromising, and unpretentious.  Many other examples would demonstrate the same point.

History shows conclusively that we have only imperfect and flawed exemplars to work with.  Any system which we may choose may succeed in offering us a fine theoretical picture—some with better and more consistently thought-out concepts and principles than others.  But, for any that have actually been implemented at least partially, we have another measure—the historical test results.  This, for history, is the only ‘scientific’ method available, the historical equivalent to the experimental testing of the hypothesis.

We can no longer pretend, à la Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Plato, or Aristotle, that we can devise a perfectly objective method of thought and impartial judgement.  Not even our “pure scientists” at their best can pretend to achieve such a condition, not even Mssrs.Dawkins, Hitchens, or Hawking.

We have been focusing on the West and its society, culture, prevailing ethos, and traditions.  But we find ourselves in a world increasingly dominated by the values and ethos of the West, regardless of geography.  The influence of Western thought, science and technology, and values has infiltrated everywhere, from top to bottom, from pop culture to ‘high-brow’ culture, from philosophy to religion.  

One response to the present Western paradigm built on Progressive Materialism is to simply reject it.  But even those who reject it ideologically are unable to escape its tentacles.  Islamists bent on murderous and suicidal terrorism use the West’s technology to network and infiltrate, and to kill, steal, and destroy.  They typically binge on self-indulgent, Western-style hedonism before carrying out attacks, holding that, as martyrs with a free pass to Paradise, their sins will not be counted against them.

Previously adamantly Communist societies like China and Vietnam see the bankruptcy of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist paradigm and shift to a hybrid of Western style capitalism and big business, mixed with a State-directed and controlled socio-political system.  They maintain the fiction of “Communism” while having shifted to what is really neo-Fascism.  Ironically, Fascism is a uniquely Western ideology which uses select elements of Enlightenment concepts from the social, religious, and scientific revolutions while distorting them to justify its peculiar nationalist and particularist agenda.

In the seventeen centuries since Constantine gave birth to Christendom, so much has been tried, and nothing seems to have really answered the purpose.  Humanity still faces the same issues and dilemmas that emerged millennia ago with the establishment of the first civilized societies: Who are we? Where are we? Why is there so much pain, suffering, death, and disaster? How can we make a better future, a better world? What is death and is there anything beyond or after it?

“Who” speaks to just what humanity is, just what I as an individual am.  The where speaks to what this world is and what the cosmos we find ourselves in is.  The next questions are about why this cosmos seems so bound up with what, to our human understanding, seems to be unnecessary, arbitrary, cruel, feckless afflictions—the worst of which is death, a sort of cruel joke for self-aware creatures like humans, who have such a hunger to live, explore, and appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all.

Every society ever known has struggled with these issues.  Our age is no different.  For the mass of people living from day to day, these questions are not front and center.  But all normally functional humans will face them and struggle with them from time to time.  As our own mortality looms larger, finding some kind of answers assumes greater and greater importance.  Some event some time will crash through our self-absorbed cocoon and jolt us into uncomfortable and perhaps agonizing revelation that we and all we know and care about share this common destiny.  Most of us do not simply shrug complacently in the face of “The Grim Reaper” or “go gently into that good night.”

As we have observed repeatedly in this blog, the West’s assumed posture is that all that exists is a product of time and chance, or perhaps some unknown innate directing quality within matter itself.  (Hmm – this doesn’t sound much like science, more like magical thinking!)  But, for the rest—the pain, suffering, disaster, and death—there is no special meaning behind it; it is just how things are and must be.  Modernist, atheistic materialism says that our predilection for “finding a greater meaning” is a sort of evolutionary relic that continues to deceive us and divert us.  Our real task is to get on with making ourselves as comfortable and ‘successful’ as possible for however long our strangely self-aware species can survive.

Perhaps it is time to move on from this position to search for another. 


1. I am sure that the champions of the Enlightenment and its legacy would take strong exception to this observation.  However, the Communists, Fascists, Japanese militarist Fascists, and Nazis did not derive their ideology and hate-filled search for “utopia” from the tenets of any major religion which has been the usual historical whipping boy of militant atheists and Progressives seeking the ideal religion free society.  It would be a long discussion to trace the roots of these ideologies, but, except by the wildest kind of loose reasoning, they cannot be foisted on any of the three great monotheistic faiths, or Buddhism or Hinduism for that matter.  They were militantly atheistic (except the Japanese variety with its veneration of the Emperor, the living descendant of the sun-goddess.)

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