Should We Discourage People from Becoming Religious Extremists?

It makes sense in response to the massacre committed by supporters of Isis to ask: how can we discourage people from becoming the sort of people who commit such massacres.  A first approximation of what sorts of people those are would be to characterize them as “religious extremists”.  This raises the issue of which is more important: to discourage people from becoming religious or to discourage people from becoming extreme.

Let’s consider discouraging religion.  One obvious problem is that billions of people find their identity in religion, including admirable ones.  If “we” (and who we is a worthwhile worry, but let’s say it means “concerned citizens trying to avoid future massacres like the recent one in Paris”) declare our opposition to religion as such we alienate them and add credence to the view that what is most precious to them is under concerted attack.  But even assuming we could finesse this political problem and that it would somehow be possible to exterminate religion from the range of human possibilities, it’s not clear that it is desirable.  Religion provides identity and community support by responding to ultimate questions of death and the contingency of human life with ritual, myth, and spiritual practice.   Since it is hard to see why this ultimate questions will ever go away — they’re ultimate after all — it’s hard to see why we should chuck myth, ritual, and spiritual practice.   The burden of proof lies on the person promising to protect us from massacre by eliminating these three coping mechanisms to convince us that they have something better.

Another option would be to eliminate extremism.  We can define the extremist as the person willing ot make big bets in the hope of big future rewards.  His opposite is the timid supporter of the status quo.  Both can agree that the status quo is rife with injustice and inefficiency, but while the moderate worries that big moves run an unacceptable risk of making the situation even worse, the extremist is wiling to take that risk.  They also differ in rhetoric — the extremist says that what we have now is very very bad and what we stand to get is very very good — but these are just sign posts to their differing view of action.

It would be a mistake to try to quell the human impulse to extremism, because its impulses include a perception of the sub-optimality of the status quo, and an ability to imagine better alternatives.  If we eliminate these two impulses we would in the same act eliminate the cognitive and emotional engines for improving our lot.  Take the example of Semelweis who advocated that surgeons wash their hands after performing an autopsy and before assisting in a childbirth.  Semelweis was both an extremist and a martyr; we have him to thank for life-saving hygiene measures.

If neither religion nor extremism can be eliminated without an unacceptable cost, what should we avoid?  Is Isis the unavoidable price to pay for a society that allows the extremism of a Semelweis or the religion of a Martin Luther King?   I believe not, but we need to focus our fire on the real enemies.

The real enemies I believe are Maincheanism and apocalypticism.

Manicheanism is the view that we are engaged in a cosmic struggle of pure good versus radical evil.  Apocalypticism is the view that history is nearing its end.  An individual who believes he and his friends are pure good and his enemies are pure evil will feel justified in commiting atrocities because the lives and views of his victims have no value. An individual who believes history is nearing its end will feel justified in causing mass destruction both to hasten the end, and because since the gameboard will soon be knocked over by G-d no moves really matter other than those that hasten the end.  If we are playing speedchess big showy sacrifices make sense, not so if we are playing chess with an unlimited clock.

If Apocalypticism and Manicheanism are the two fangs of the serpent, how can we pull them? The apocalyptic impulse can be tempered by learning history.  If we acquaint ourselves with the many prophets in the bast who have failed — from Bar Kochba to Sabbatai Zvi to the Taiping Rebels — we will be less likely to put all our chips on the guess that history is ending soon.  The manichean impulse can be tempered by learning comparative religion.  If we learn to see the good and the complexity in people of other faiths we will be less likely to throw them in a big shapeless trash heap called “the dwellers in darkness”.