Between Tolerance and Fanaticism

Updated on November 5, 2017
Armand Cruceru profile image

Armand is currently a Finance and Banking student in Bucharest, with a strong passion for literary arts, philosophy and the uncanny.

"I see all the dead of past ages and of our own appearing in His presence. Are you very sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the divine Antonins, the good Trajan, to Titus, the delights of mankind, to Epictetus, and to many others, models of men:

'Go, monsters, go and suffer torments that are infinite in intensity and duration. Let your punishment be eternal as I am. But you, my beloved ones, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.' You draw back with horror at these words; and after they have escaped me, I have nothing more to say to you." - Voltaire

What comes first in mind when you think about tolerance? But what about fanaticism?

Though with a pinch of well-placed irony directed at the Church, Voltaire successfully sums up what we all have questioned for a very long time. That is, of course, the very basis that stands at the heart of religion and fanaticism. Many have questioned the highly cryptic ways of God, regardless of the different approaches on the concept, also referred to as religious diversity, but none have put it in such an appealing manner that it strikes at the heart of our logical intellect.

You might ask yourselves, how can one even believe in such a reasoning without trying to fathom multiple perspectives and then choose the one that fits his/her persona best. That would be an idealistic and desirable approach on the delicate subject at hand and, truthfully speaking, a very improbable one, as it has been proved countless times throughout history.

I. The Roots of Fanaticism

The Psychological Standpoint:

It all starts with an external idea, which we’ll call train of thoughts. Fanaticism prays on the mentally vulnerable people, shaping something horrific from already present disorders, such as the inflated sense of righteousness, moral certainty and grandiosity.

At the core of religious fanaticism are actual spiritual experiences of union with god, of transcendence, of collective love that lay the foundation of the fanatic’s personality. In some cases, one may even succumb to a tendency of dehumanizing and demonizing all those who oppose him.

Having an outlook on the category of people on which Fanaticism can grow unhindered, let’s proceed on analyzing the extrinsic cause and how it functions.

A ’Foreign Tormentor’

It might be defined as uncomplicated as your family, friends, social conjuncture or as a fully grown, barefaced idea, often spread and induced by a preacher. Humanity is no stranger to spreading false ideals in hope of self-gain, often materialistic. Their success stands in successfully planting an idea so powerful that it easily eradicates all others and solely places itself in the heart of the individual.

As such, the problem is not necessarily the transpersonal experiences per se, but the way in which they are carefully seeded by the ‘tormentor’ within the personality. There are many examples of such large-scale ideologies that have divided and ensnared people against each other throughout the ages but the one which I’ll discuss is the Jesuits, as observed by Voltaire himself in his book, ‘Treatise on Toleration’.

II. Voltaire’s Treatise. The Death of Jean-Calas

As stated before, I will emphasize on the Catholic Church and the fanaticism that was steered by the Jesuits in 18th century France.

The hatred of one group of French Christians for another was a pessimistic reminder of the wars of religion that had racked the kingdom of France in the sixteenth century and it reawakened Voltaire’s interest.

Voltaire composed the Treatise on Tolerance in response to a monstrous miscarriage of justice in France. Jean Calas was a Huguenot shopkeeper who lived in a predominantly Catholic area of Toulouse. When one of Jean’s sons commited suicide in the family home in October 1761, all the members of the family who were present that evening were accused of murdering him. Convicted of murder, Calas was tortured and executed on 10 March 1762, while the other accused were given less severe sentences.

Once informed about the details of the trial and execution, Voltaire’s concerns focused on the religious hostility of Catholics in France that heavily sabotaged the verdict’s integrity.

He concluded that, if an innocent Huguenot could be so unjustly tortured and executed at the instigation of a Catholic mob, then no one was safe.

Given the facts, we can safely assume that it was high time to re-assess the laws and customs of France that discriminated systematically, inciting unrest within the minorities.

What strikes us most forcefully today about these cases is the barbarism of the tortures and executions, even if the accused people had been guilty of a genuine crime. These on-going miscarriages of justice were fueled by Catholics’s hatred towards fellow citizens of other religious beliefs, mainly protestant(Huguenots).

Luckily, this chain of events had provided the theme of a campaign for religious toleration as one of the defining features of the Enlightenment in Europe.

All taken into account, are we that enlightened nowadays after all?

III. Toleration as a “Modus Vivendi”

‘Remember that the illnesses of the soul are not cured by coercion or violence. ‘ (Cardinal Le Camus, Pastoral Instruction, 1688)

One could write a very large book that is composed entirely of similar passages. Our histories, discourses, sermons, books on morality and catechisms all breathe and all teach this sacred duty of toleration today. What fate or inconsistency could make us deny in practice a theory that we proclaim every day? Our actions belie our morality only because we believe that we will benefit in some way by doing the opposite of what we teach.

But there is certainly no benefit in persecuting those who do not share our opinion and causing them to hate us. There is, therefore, once again an absurdity in intolerance. And still, some object that those who are interested in constraining the conscience of others are not absurd.

The age we live in requires and demands toleration as heavily as a living being requires breathable air. We should therefore welcome it in our lives and combat adverse tendencies through reason, thus committing ourselves to public harmony. Religious controversy is an epidemic that has run its course and this plague, of which we have been cured, no longer needs anything more than a ‘mild diet’. Quoting Amelot de la Houssaye, ‘The same thing applies in religion as in love; a command can do nothing and compulsion even less. There is nothing more independent than loving and believing.’

Do you agree with Voltaire's teachings? If not, comment below on the issue, presenting your own view.

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    • Armand Cruceru profile image
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      Armand Cruceru 4 weeks ago

      Thank you very much, Mr. Schneider. I only hope to raise a little bit of awareness on the subject, also inspiring people to document more thoroughly on Voltaire's study case or, why not, other relating analyses.

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      Howard Schneider 4 weeks ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful analysis, Armand. Fanaticism is certainly a mental and emotional symptom of deeper psychological problems for many people. These manifestations have created havoc throughout human history including France during Voltaire's years. His treatise was truly a positive and brilliant answer to these forces. Excellent Hub.