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The Crisis of Zealotry

Zealotry: the uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals; fanaticism.

It is a paradox – we would hope that people feel and behave with strength in their convictions. But we presume that those convictions are well founded and that civility and rationality will temper them. We have entered an era of human crisis which has arisen from irrational and inhumane zealotry.

Our news is filled with examples of religious extremism and because of its focus we might readily think that the crisis of zealotry is centered within Islam – and we would be wrong. The crisis is far broader, involving other religions and non-religious idealism. Fanaticism appears routinely within isolated issues (such as gun control) and across sweeping ideologies (such as “democracy”). Zealotry is almost always based upon a conflict between idealism and realism.  In this short article we will open a door of awareness exposing the causes of and solutions for zealotry.

For many the concept of zealotry has come from the Judean nationalists of the New Testament[1] and recent focus has led to the view that Jesus might be considered a zealot[2].  In our time we view Islamic extremists, such as those in al Qaeda, as zealots and our conception of zealotry has moved towards the violent and inhumane actions of the most extreme. Clearly, those zealots are the ones most readily seen as dangerous and oppressive but they are neither the most dangerous nor most oppressive. Few would hesitate to say that such zealots should be killed and because they tend to be easy to identify we can use traditional means to hunt them down and eliminate their threat (as the Romans did with the Judean nationalists). Oddly, it is with our own zealotry that we have most successfully dealt with other zealots and the more zealous the zealot the more readily we have dealt with them.

It is the somewhat less zealous zealot that has led to our current crisis – the ones who advocate extreme ideas with less fanaticism or who are overly fanatic about less extreme ideas. The common core of the most dangerous zealotry is the suppression of reasoning and enhancement of imposition without posing a direct threat to individual safety[3]. The zealot without a gun who successfully promulgates a culture which diminishes human rights and undermines morality is ultimately more dangerous to us than any one person with a gun. Our failure to recognize this danger has led to the crisis of zealotry.

Within this framework (where zealotry = suppression of reasoning * willingness to impose upon others)[4], we see that the Islamic jihadist, who believes that Islamic law (“sharia”) is proscribed by Allah and must be imposed by a global Islamic state, is very dangerous not because the belief is irrational but because they accept a duty to impose it upon others. Reasonable minds may differ upon what is rational, but we should respect everyone’s right to believe as they will – unless their beliefs undermine that right.

It would seem apparent that people would recognize and oppose those who impose their will on others, but since we do it so often and so casually the largest amount of imposition goes unchallenged. This is especially true when the imposition is social, political, or cultural. Indeed, on the individual basis we can accept that social impositions, such as laws, are a good thing while also believing that we can pick and choose when to obey those laws. Ultimately, it is the denial of choices which identifies the most oppressive impositions.

While reasonable minds may differ, there is a level of irrationality which transcends the limits of reasonableness. For the most part this determination is based upon the degree to which one’s beliefs and actions align with evidence and logic. It is neither reasonable nor unreasonable to believe in things which have no factual or evidentiary basis, but it is unreasonable to presume that such beliefs are a proper cause for action – especially if some part of the action results in the imposition upon another’s right to believe or act as they choose. Given our access to “logic” as a means to test rationality and our well-developed methodologies to test the validity of our beliefs, there should be less and less zealotry. But zealotry is not based merely upon acting irrationally – it is the suppression of reasoning. 

Yes, there is a meaning of rationality which implies reasoning. But here, I am referring to the additional meaning of rationality: the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe or of one's actions with one's reasons for action. In other words, one can be reasonable without being rational and it is this distinction which often separates the zealot from the zealous. Because the identification of zealotry is essential to solving its harm, we should better explain this distinction and examine some examples.

Suppression of reasoning doesn’t inherently equate to not reasoning – it relates to how one applies reasoning both individually and culturally. One may carefully apply logic to a set of facts and reach a valid conclusion and then develop a belief which is inconsistent with the conclusions or choose an action based upon their belief which is contrary to the reasoning that led to the belief.  Developing inconsistent beliefs and acting contrary to the reasoning behind them is irrational, but is not enough to lead to zealotry. Zealotry requires the additional element of suppression.

Here, “suppression of reasoning” is taken to mean the intentional exclusion of reasoning from the formulation of a belief or to hinder the process whereby reasoning leads to appropriate action. In each case the suppression is a conscious act even when the individual hasn’t thought through the exclusion or hindrance. For example, when a person believes that a certain book is divinely inspired and inerrant even though they know it was written by murderers and it has obvious inconsistencies they have chosen to suppress reasoning. When a politician violates an oath of office, they have suppressed reasoning.  When a zealot murders an innocent child, they have suppressed reasoning. 

When applied to common experience, the formulation Z=S*W (zealotry equals the suppression of reasoning times the willingness to impose upon others) better identifies where we should be concerned. For example, one can be zealous for the law and not be a zealot. Laws are impositions upon people’s right to choose so advocating laws and law enforcement might seem to fit the formula for zealotry. But merely advocating something which would impose upon “free will” is not an imposition and even imposing law where participation in a society requires the choice to accept those laws is not willful imposition.  Nor does zealotry require violence – in many cases the willful imposition is accomplished through subtle social pressures or the hidden removal of choices (e.g. state sponsored racism and sexism).

While the damage done by one zealot who kills someone is great, it may be far less damaging in the larger view than the damage done by a group of zealot politicians who enact unjust laws. A teacher, preacher, or parent whose lessons include the imposition of beliefs is a very dangerous zealot[5]. The use of subliminal persuasion, propaganda, and indoctrination techniques are zealotry at work since they have suppression of reasoning as a basis.

Our crisis of zealotry has several components…

1.      There is an increasing amount of violent imposition occurring.

2.      There is an increasing amount of non-violent imposition occurring.

3.      There is an increasing amount of suppression of reasoning.

4.      There is a decreasing ability to reason.

5.      There is a general lack of understanding regarding “zealotry”.

In the first case the problem is manifest in efficiency: it is far easier to kill than to prevent killing. Indeed, the easiest answer in dealing with killers has been to become killers. We fight violent imposition of will with violent imposition of will. The danger in this approach is inherent although its efficiency seems great. Of course, a few great humans have advocated other approaches (e.g. Jesus and Gandhi), but we have never been willing or able to accept the large costs of their approaches. Lacking other options, our best long-term approach is prevention (as below).

Non-violent imposition is easier to deal with – sort of. All that is required is awareness and greater will. If we know that someone else is suppressing reasoning, we should be able to counter it – with reasoning. (Oh!) This makes it clear that the most effective zealots are those who can suppress the ability to reason about reasoning. An operative word in this process is “acceptance”; zealots strive to have their beliefs accepted through adoption of non-reasoned beliefs.  Another term for this process is “indoctrination” and it works because humans want to believe in things that are comforting and self-advancing (even if unreasonable). It also works because we are often lazy – it is easier to have someone else tells us what to believe than to reason our own beliefs.

The suppression of reasoning is increasing through mass media and marketing. Whereas zealots have traditionally been seen as politically or socially motivated, they are increasingly driven by economics (“greed”). Such zealotry may be viewed as less dangerous or less oppressive than militancy, but the results can be even more serious and negative. Instead of destroying individuals, cities, or nations, the newest zealots may destroy the entire human race. At the very least these new zealots profoundly decrease the quality of life for millions of people.

The success of the modern zealot – regardless of their motivation – may be largely based upon their victim’s ignorance and inability to reason. While this is easy to recognize in cultures where educational opportunities are controlled or are lacking, it is more difficult to see or understand in seemingly advanced societies where educational opportunities abound. Those societies provide excessive distraction and are often penalized for their “idealism” – in the interest of “freedom” and “individual rights” they enable the unscrupulous zealot to indoctrinate the distracted, fearful, and weak-minded.

A second factor working in favor of the zealot is economic disparity, especially when coupled with modern media access. People who see convincing images of economic “prosperity” among others seek such for themselves and when opportunity to achieve such prosperity is very restricted, it is easier to accept beliefs which explain inequalities and offer hope for change. If we view zealotry as a contagion, we should see that we have created ideal environments for its spread.

The ability to reason must be taught and learned. The more we focus upon “spoon fed” teaching and rote learning the less we develop reasoning skills. As we rely more and more upon other people (or machines) to do our thinking, the more successful zealots will be.

Finally, as indicated herein, we need to more fully consider zealotry itself. Zealotry has been around for thousands of years and will continue to plague humanity indefinitely. While we cannot “cure” it, we can recognize it and then minimize it. Our well-being certainly depends upon our awareness of zealotry and our very survival may depend upon our response to it.






[1] As explained within the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (i.e. “Antiquities of the Jews” 18:1). See “Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political factor in Primitive. Christianity” by  S. G. F. Brandon, Manchester University Press (1967).

[2] Note “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan and “Jesus the Terrorist” by Peter Cresswell.  

[3] It is important to note that the zealot who threatens YOUR safety is the most dangerous to you but may not be the most dangerous in general.

[4] This may be written as Z=S*W.

[5] Even if the lesson itself is reasonable, the more subtle lesson is that it is acceptable to use the imposition methodology.









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