David Carlson: Humility offers antidote to fanaticism

One of the greatest challenges facing parents in the next decade will be to understand the allure of fanaticism for young people.

It wasn’t that long ago that calling someone a fanatic was, if not an insult, at least a warning that such a person was dangerous. For a growing number of people now, to call someone a fanatic, whether we are talking about a religious fanatic or a political fanatic, is a compliment, signifying that the person has strong beliefs. And what, some might ask, is wrong with that?

Our current confusion about fanaticism means that we have to be clear about fanaticism’s allure and danger. First, let’s consider its allure. Zeal or zealousness is a powerful emotion. Zeal in its extreme form is the feeling that comes when a person is totally committed to an ideology or a person. When a group is unquestioningly committed to the same leader or set of beliefs, the feelings of strength and power increase. Put another way, it’s quite a rush to be in a group where everyone is “all in” on the same belief or behind the same leader.

Second, let’s turn to the danger of fanaticism. It is an accepted psychological fact that adolescent males have poorer impulse control than they’ll have when they are older. Young men, then, are particularly susceptible to the allure of fanaticism. Many older men reading this column can probably remember poor and even dangerous choices made in their early years because they were urged on by others. It is hard to “think before you jump” if others whose acceptance you covet are jumping all around you.

There is another factor behind the growing fanaticism. Many young men, both in our country and elsewhere, find aspects of the modern world — multicultural diversity, the rapid rate of change, and shifting social patterns and demographics — confusing and upsetting. These same young men are easily attracted to ideologies and leaders that offer overly simplistic answers to life’s complexity.

Fanaticism, then, offers a tempting shortcut to deal with the complexity of modern life. Despite fanaticism being a lazy way of thinking, however, it offers a big payoff — a powerful sense of certainty. Fanatics don’t doubt or question; fanatics know.

If fanaticism is a dangerous disease that is wreaking havoc across the world, there is good news for parents and teachers. The disease of fanaticism has an antidote, and that antidote is humility.

But what is humility? Put aside all thoughts of humility as a weak emotion. Humility is a stance a person can take to deal positively with the complex issues in our country and world. Humility accepts that none of us has all the answers, but, as we seek truth, humility encourages us to be open to correction and to having our minds changed.

Think of the issues and problems our country or our world are facing as complicated “knots.” There is a real cost to believing that our country, our religion, or our preferred political party offers the only way to untie those knots. If we fall into that trap, we will miss the wisdom of other cultures, cultures that might offer a better way to untie the knots that frustrate us—or even offer insight as to how we tied ourselves in knots in the first place.

Fanaticism is seductive, as it offers these feelings of power and of being in the right. But fanaticism closes the mind down, leading to an obsession with one set of beliefs or leader. Humility is the opposite of fanaticism. Humility opens the mind out. The humble person can accept life’s complexity not as a problem but as that which makes life challenging.

The role of parents is to help the young find and follow the path to wisdom. There is no wisdom in fanaticism. Wisdom is found only in humility.