One thing my students and I discuss in class is the role of religion in society and the development of religious extremism. I began to think about this while I was reading an excellent piece by Steven Hayward in the CRB on the Goldwater campaign called “Extremism and Moderation.” It is a fabulous piece that explains, in part, how William F. Buckley and National Review brought to heel the irrational John Birch Society, thus peeling off the more reasonable elements of the right and showing the door to radicals in the party who would have done nothing but harm to the party in the long-run.
It prompted me to think about Buckley’s act of heroism and how organizations and institutions–parties included–often have to deal with radical elements in their midst. Sometimes, the radicals win out. At other times, the voice of reason carries the day. We see the battle and struggle between these elements every day in the Middle East. ISIL radicals have, in some way, hijacked the Muslim faith (though there is much disagreement over that). I personally know many people in the Middle East (having travelled Israel, Jordan, Kuwait), so my opinion is quite anecdotal, but I know many many peaceful Muslims who abhor what the radicals of their faith are doing. Muslims have a long and honorable history. They have produced great political philosophers including Al Farabi and Averroes. But, in the present state of things, someone like Al Farabi would be murdered at the hands of extremist militants. So, what’s the answer? For Islam, it could be they need a reformation just like what Christianity went through centuries ago.
Be that as it may, in a not so serious, or violent way, some institutions or organizations go through changes where a choice must be made to either stand for rational moderation, or slowly glide down a radical road that leads to ruin. We have seen this happen at many so called Christian colleges, where the cult of personality has led to a totalitarian temptation. Students and faculty have been abused by such people, and the harm it does to souls is excruciating. This is especially the case when the person doing the abusing possesses some religious authority and uses said authority to torture the souls of the faithful. This happens more often than you’d think, and has led to support groups to be started by the “survivors” of spiritual abuse.
The one thing that many religions have done is to hold that uneasy tension between reason (or philosophy) and revelation (or the revealed Word). Those organization that don’t do that eventually become radicalized (like ISIL, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.), or cults (Like Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown, or the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who literally formed an armed camp less than 75 miles from my home in the 1980s). There is one thing constant in all these formations, and that is the claim the only the leader or leaders have a special revealed word (that no one else can access), and/or they proclaim they are being unfairly judged or persecuted by dark and evil entities. Usually immoderate and violent religious organizations create enemies lists centered around the alleged “persecution” of a personality or figure who is at the center of the faith. Jim Jones is quite the example of finding enemies whoever he looked, as he called this world a most dark and evil place, while proclaiming their own purity in the face of it all. One can see how this all might turn into violence or even, in the case of cults, murder and suicide.
One of he people I respect from the academic world was Eric Voegeli who cautioned against Gnosticism as an irrational trap of modernity. I eventually sided against Voegeli because his caution excluded, or I should say could include, the Ancient political philosophers. The Ancients were rationalists and I think there was always a sense of Gnosticism in them–they were gnostic before the religious gnostics of Christianity came to the fore.
The only tempering of any religious extremism from Socrates to the present day–from pagans to the three great revealed religions–is reason and philosophy. Jerusalem should always be open to the critique of Athens, and Athens should always be open to the claims of Jerusalem, but neither should trump the other. When that happens, and it usually happens among the religious–destruction will follow.