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Conscience and Fanaticism

Kenneth R. Weinstein

The nineteen Arab terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 were religious fanatics-adherents of Wahhabism, a Muslim sect that emerged in eighteenth-century Arabia. Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, preaches the inherent purity and superiority of its followers compared to those in the “pagan” West. Osama bin Laden and the more radical Wahhabists believe it to be their moral duty to extirpate heretics, whether they be innocent men and women in New York City or fellow Muslims who do not adhere strictly to radical Wahhabi beliefs.

Such religious intolerance may be appalling to modern Western societies, but in fact such fanaticism was common worldwide before the Enlightenment. With the rise of political liberalism, a consequence of the Enlightenment, philosophers began searching for ways to contain the religious extremism that motivated violence throughout Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In particular, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the English political philosopher, was determined to end England’s bloody wars of religion. Hobbes promoted civil power over and above all religious authority, and he and his Enlightenment followers encouraged the notion of religious tolerance that is now integral to Western civilization.

First, they sought to reassert the independence of politics from religion, through a unified and singularly powerful executive authority. This executive would not hesitate to use violence when necessary to ensure that men would obey their princes rather than their clergymen or their consciences, which had at times urged regicide and other violent actions in the name of religion. However, fear of violent death at the hands of the civil sovereign could not discourage those who were moved to fight either through fear of eternal damnation or in the name of eternal salvation (just as the promise of seventy virgins in heaven helped motivate the September 11 suicide bombers to turn civilian aircraft into guided missiles). Strengthening the authority of the civil sovereign therefore required the reduction of people’s fear of eternal damnation and belief in eternal salvation. Thus, Hobbes and his followers, such as John Locke (1632-1704), the intellectual grandfather of American constitutionalism, sought scientific enlightenment through the systematic explanation of natural phenomena, to diminish people’s fear of and respect for the supernatural. As a result, the power of the priests who preyed upon such fears was greatly restricted, and the clergy could no longer compete with secular authorities for absolute control of the citizens’ minds. Ironically, scientific enlightenment ended up reducing the authority of the political realm as well, because the state could no longer claim to provide full protection against the uncertain mysteries of life. Disputes over the best path to salvation were removed from the realm of politics.

In a further irony, toleration developed in part because of an evolution in the notion of the conscience’s role in religious affairs. The traditional Christian notion of conscience, derived in good part from Saint Thomas Aquinas, was that one had to obey one’s conscience because it is the voice of God. This pre-Enlightenment view required that one’s conscience be in accord with ideas that were objectively true. And the church hierarchy decided what was true. After the Reformation and under political liberalism, however, the criteria of what constitutes conscience shifted. Adherence to the voice of God meant adherence to one’s own understanding of scripture. Dogma was no longer sacrosanct; conscience itself, instead, was king. Sincerity thus replaced orthodoxy.

This new understanding fostered toleration and discouraged persecution. Forcing someone to accept an opinion that contradicted his conscience came to be seen as the moral equivalent of forcing him to disobey God.

Thus earnestness of belief gained respect, and coercion, applying force for religious reasons, was seen as a violation of the law of God. In the past, the notion that a person’s conscience had to be in line with the truth in order to be accepted had led to the forcible imposition of doctrines and opinions in the name of orthodoxy, and by shifting the standard by which religious belief was judged, the Enlightenment philosophers encouraged religious diversity and persecution was greatly diminished. Under liberalism, religion came to be primarily seen as a personal matter. (Though religion remained an essential pillar of the liberal democratic order, as Alexis de Tocqueville cogently noted.) With soul-saving no longer on the public’s agenda, souls were instead saved in private. The public realm was thus reduced while the private realm expanded.

Unfortunately, no analogous developments have occurred on a widespread basis in the Arab world. Once, the Arab world stood far ahead of the West in the application of reason to political philosophy, but then Islam began to turn against the outside world. In particular, the “closing of the gates of interpretation” in ninth-century Sunni Islam marked the beginning of the rejection of non-Islamic intellectual authority. This rejection of non-Islamic intellectual authority led to a rejection of reason and scientific enlightenment essential to such strains of Sunni Islam as Wahhabism. Having rejected philosophy and the Enlightenment, Wahhabism breeds premodern and intolerant notions of faith. These ideas are particularly dangerous when financed, as in the case of Wahhabism, by massive oil profits. The September 11 terror attacks vividly demonstrate the awful ramifications of the rejection of the modern West’s idea of religious tolerance, and the West’s powerful military response suggests the price that is paid by those who choose to reject it.

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