Religious radicalism and the cult of commitment

What is it that drives a religious believer to act in the most fanatical and obnoxious of ways? What kind of motivation drives such a person to abuse others? Why is it that some who profess belief in a God of justice and even a God of love act in ways that are hardly just and loving? Why is it that some people commit murder as an act of service to their God?

Many people argue that religion turns an otherwise good person into a raging fanatic, and the sooner the world is rid of religion the better. ‘Religion’ is blamed for conflict, terrorism and oppression, and often not without reason: the emergence of so called ‘Islamic State’ can hardly be understood solely in political and social terms. A recent presentation on the iWonder page of the BBC website asks Would the world be more peaceful without religion? A cursory search for “atheist quotes” on the internet will reveal that many famous and distinguished people would enthusiastically answer that question in the affirmative! An example is the extraordinary statement from Gwyneth Paltrow: “Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world”. Clearly the oppressed people of atheist North Korea and those who had lived in “officially atheist” Albania under Enver Hoxha or in the USSR, would find it hard to agree with such a statement!

Even though Gwyneth Paltrow’s comment can easily be debunked when exposed to the facts of human experience, it is nonetheless true that religion has been the source of much evil and suffering throughout history. No intelligent believer in God can deny this.

But why is it that a person, who professes to believe in a just, merciful and loving God, can act towards others in a way that is, at best, cynical and misanthropic, and at worst, downright abusive?

A psychological process
To answer this question we need to understand the psychological process of religious radicalisation. This process, which may be subtle or overt, takes place within a culture and atmosphere that I would like to describe as “the cult of commitment”.

I am presenting my view from the vantage point of a Christian, but it can certainly apply to other religions. Throughout my Christian life I have often heard people referred to as “committed Christians”, for example…”Oh, did you know that such and such a celebrity is not only a great actor (or musician or sportsman), but he is also a committed Christian…” or some such comment. It is as if the simple term ‘Christian’ is not good enough! There is a need to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill ‘Christian’, who is – or could be – merely ‘nominal’, on the one hand, and a ‘proper’ Christian – that is, a “committed Christian”, on the other. What is often forgotten by those who deploy this term is that it is also possible to be a nominal ‘committed’ Christian! After all, if someone can make a show of being merely a Christian, then why is it not also possible to make a show of possessing some level of Christian commitment?

Because God is perceived by many believers as primarily an authority figure, and He is also the moral judge of mankind, many religious believers regard personal sacrifice and observable commitment to be the only authentic and faithful basis to their relationship to the Supreme Being. For them such a response to God must be costly: it must involve giving up aspects of life which are perceived to be characteristic of normal daily experience. The natural life therefore has to be suppressed. The religious life has to be seen to be ‘different’ from the common life. Since love and compassion are part of daily life and relationships, then these values are reinterpreted in a more ‘muscular’ and austere direction, to the point where they are stripped of their normal meaning. The world is then divided into two camps: those who are committed to God and those who are not. The latter are then described in depersonalised categories: “the lost”, “the unregenerate”, “apostates”, “unbelievers”, “the infidel”. These descriptions then provide a subtle justification for different forms of abuse. The task of the committed religious believer is to convert such people, or, in extreme cases, to be the agent of God’s supposed judgment on them.

A competition to win accolades
We only need to observe the behaviour of certain aggressive Christian street preachers to see this dynamic in action, in which unsuspecting passers-by – people about whom the preacher knows next to nothing – are subjected to verbal abuse and unwarranted accusations delivered in a strident and completely non-compassionate tone of voice. The “sins of flesh” are emphasised – usually of a sexual nature – and the more deadly sins of pride, self-righteousness, abuse of religious authority and a lack of compassion towards the poor and needy (the greater sins denounced by Jesus Himself) are almost never mentioned.

As someone who was once a member of a Christian fellowship, which valued street evangelism above almost any other aspect of the Christian life, I can understand what most probably motivates these preachers, and I doubt it is the love of God. What drives such people is the need to be affirmed and praised within their Christian fellowship for having had the ‘courage’ to go out to “lost and fallen” humanity and do battle with the forces of evil. This is the narrative that is persistently reinforced within such fellowships. It’s a game – a competition – to win accolades within your faith community. The preachers may meet up after their ‘mission’ and exchange notes – and literal or figurative high fives – about what brave things they have done out in the devil’s backyard. This is the psychological reward within the cult of commitment. It has, of course, very little or nothing to do with genuine Christian discipleship motivated by the grace of God.

Driven by fear
The cult of commitment operates through fear: fear of God’s displeasure, and at the root of this is the fear of hell. The leader of the group plays on this emotion and reinforces the loyalty of his flock by focusing on certain passages of the Bible, which speak of the need to be ‘wholehearted’, ‘single-minded’ and “a living sacrifice” for the Lord. The word ‘cost’ appears with great frequency in the discourse of such a fellowship. The cross of Jesus Christ is primarily interpreted in terms of an example, which we should follow. And thus we have “the martyr complex” at the heart of the cult of commitment.

Now clearly this cult is not limited to Christianity. We know the tragic effect of the martyr complex on the followers of other religions, and we have seen that there is a very small step from being willing to die the death of a martyr to being willing to end the lives of others alongside your own. This murderous understanding of religious commitment is really a fanatical extension of the more subtle forms of the cult of commitment, in which misanthropy is justified with reference to God’s judgment on those who are viewed as outsiders. Normal human emotions, which should act as a check on such radical behaviour, are ignored as the temptation of the flesh and the devil – a force seeking to weaken one’s costly devotion to the voice of God. Healthy feelings of fraternity, community and sympathy towards others are viewed with suspicion and the devotee in this cult is taught to suppress such sentiments under the weight of “God’s holy word”. When the disciple then suffers rejection as a result of his obnoxious behaviour, his commitment to his religion is reinforced, because he is now proud of the ‘persecution’ he is suffering. Such a person is, of course, a victim of brainwashing, and young adults, who naturally are seeking a challenge in life, are particularly vulnerable to this.

The true basis of commitment
The way to combat the destructive influence of the religious “cult of commitment” requires a complete rethink of the concept of discipleship. Christian discipleship is based on the love and grace of God, in which we are not required to prove our commitment at all. In fact, any Christian who tries to prove how committed he is, is disproving his commitment by that very act. True commitment involves a complete trust in God, in which we forget about our own level of devotion to Him. Anyone who says “I am wholehearted for God” has proven that he is anything but wholehearted, because a truly wholehearted believer would not be talking about himself at all in such terms.

As the Bible says…

“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Hosea chapter 6, verse 6

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah chapter 6, verses 6-8.

“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all people.” Titus chapter 3, verses 1-2.

True committed discipleship involves a wholehearted embrace of those values which describe God’s character: love, mercy, justice, humility and respect for others. Any other form of commitment is bogus, no matter how costly, no matter how much it may require courage and personal suffering.