Fanaticism and Fana: Tolerance, Acceptance and Curiosity in Anxious Times


It has become somewhat of a badge of honor in recent decades in western culture to say that you fancy yourself a sports fanatic, or a coupon fanatic, or a fanatic of any other sort. Well… except of course, the religious sort, which i will get on about later as it is the topic of this writing. But the trend towards an acceptance and veneration of fanaticism is telling about our cultural drift. Early Spring being tax season might lead one to want their tax filing to be completed by a tax fanatic. It seems the word has changed somewhat in cultural usage to denote an expert status. But is an expert a fanatic? Wikipedia offers some assistance in differentials:

An expert is “somebody who obtains results that are vastly superior to those obtained by the majority of the population”.[1] Alternatively, an expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study.

Fanaticism is a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal or with an obsessive enthusiasm. Philosopher George Santayana defines fanaticism as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim”. The fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.

Noteworthy in distinction is the ability to tolerate differences. A fanatic cannot distinguish between a fact and an opinion and feels to some degree threatened when their opinion is not taken as fact. While some might fancy themselves as a fanatic, it is not always the case. For instance, if you are the kind of Browns fan who can sit at the same table as a Steelers fan during a game and still be friends afterwards, you are not a fanatic. But if you are a Catholic and you want to marry a Protestant, it could be a problem. For the fanatic, the principals of the universality of love are lost to the rigidity of belief and the threat of dispirit of one’s own beliefs. To the fanatic, their beliefs are something of a sacred cow. To the expert, beliefs are more fluid and open to new interpretations and to deepening understandings. The fanatic does not have that luxury. Even in calm discussions, the fanatic ca not tolerate differing views of situations or events. The tax fanatic may save you money on your return, but in their enthusiasm they may unintentionally violate your principals or even their own. The fanatic has lost their principals and thusly cling even more tightly to their beliefs. The true sports fanatic violates the rules of the game, as the tax fanatic violates the law. The religious fanatic likewise violates the principals of their own sectarian religion.

A daily practice does not make one a fanatic, nor does it keep one from being a fanatic. Fanatics and non-fanatics have daily practices. How they relate to those practices is a different question altogether and is another story. And yes, there are atheists who are fanatics too. To them, anyone with a daily practice could be a fanatic. Discernment has been lost.

Unfortunately, our culture has become more and more xenophobic as fanaticism has been not just permitted, but embraced. Differences have become more and more threatening. Our safe spaces are merely green zones that are safe, but only for some with shared points of view. They are rally points for those seeking refuge from dissenting views.
The antidote for fanaticism is the broad application of considerations, appreciation for diversity and sincere questions that drive at understanding differences so they can be accepted for what they are. The demonization of difference is the antithesis of such tolerance. The fanatic can calmly ask questions to discern “us and them” but this (largely unconscious) intent often violates the fanatic’s own principals.

One group of fanatics that has come under fire in western culture is that of “radical” Islam. If the fanaticism of radical Islam were to be curbed, it would be done so with the weapons of true freedom: tolerance, curiosity, respect for diversity, compassion and understanding. Looking within the religion of Islam will reveal possibilities that exist that are more potent in dismantling fanaticism than social pressure, machine guns, bunker busting bombs, or even “smart” bombs. There exists underused principals and ideals imbedded within Islam, should you be interested in warming the seeds of future violence to the point of rendering them impotent.

Some yogis are familiar with the concept of Samadhi. Samadhi is the culmination of a part of yoga known as Dhyana. According to the Vedas, “dhi” is the imaginative vision and “yana” means method of practice. While Dhyana is often thought of as meditation, it carries with it aspects of both observation and reflection. Samadhi then refers to the meditative state where the mind becomes still and the individual becomes completely aware of the present moment in an integration of all of existence. It is a coming together and is marked by an accompanying sense of peace and surrender. In fact, burial places in India are referred to as the place of samadhi. Likewise, the final pose of most yoga classes is known as Savasana, or “corpse pose”.

Those who practice yoga practice this kind of death. But this concept is shared among traditions. Yogis, Buddhists and Hindus share this concept. But this concept is not alien to Westerners. All bunnies and eggs aside, Easter is connected to Jesus rising from the grave. He had the courage to bear the burdens of hate and the physical pain of his cross even when it meant facing death. While some Muslims may be quick to point out their differing views of Jesus on the cross, many more see what they have in common with Christians’ story of Jesus. But the idea of living beyond death is a shared idea. Some tribal peoples welcome people into elderhood with an initiation that mimics death where they are painted entirely black, isolated, rendered speechless and visited by fellow tribe members who tell them everything that they ever did wrong. Some even make things up. A stark contrast to a beachfront retirement game of golf.

Anyone who has had a taste of dying before death understands the value of seeing things as they are and accepting all things in their place. Samadhi offers a glimpse of this. While Muslims share Jesus as a prophet, they also share a similar concept to Samadhi, or as it is called in Arabic, Fana. If a Muslim is able to reach the state of Fana, their ability to return to a state where fanaticism flourishes will be diminished. So, encourage them to their practices and do not worry about their beliefs. Fana puts all things in perspective just like Steelers fans sitting at a table with Browns fans when the Browns new quarterback scrambles into the endzone for a game winning touchdown. When the game is over, you will still be friends, but you might hold your beliefs more lightly.
Ya Fana! Happy Easter! (…and Go Browns!?!??)

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