After I finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (who also wrote Into the Wild and Into Thin Air), I find myself thinking more than usual about zealots. Of course, this doesn’t have to be much since I have an embarrassing history of rarely thinking about zealots. (In fact, I had to look up the word “zealots” in the dictionary.)
The book centers around the true story of two Fundamentalist Mormon brothers (different from mainstream Mormons who say that the Fundamentalists are not Mormons at all). In July of 1984, the Lafferty brothers, after receiving a revelation from God, murdered their sister-in-law and 15-month-old niece—a holy act of obedience based on a “removal revelation” straight from God Himself, they were convinced.
According to Dr. Stephen Golding, a forensic psychologist who testified at the Lafferty brothers’ trial, a zealot is simply someone who takes a belief (religious, political, personal, etc.) and allows it to become extreme and fervent. A zealot is willing to go to great lengths to impose those beliefs on other people and act on those beliefs.
A zealot is often a narcissist, too: lack of empathy for others, exaggerated sense of self importance, a belief that they are special (i.e., have special insights that others are not capable of having), a need for admiration, a sense of entitlement which may lead to taking advantage of other people, and an arrogant/patronizing/contemptuous attitude toward others’ opinions. A zealot honestly believes that his or her extreme view is “right” or “good” and opposing views are “wrong” or “evil.”
If you’re a zealot, it’s tough to maintain personal relationships because friends and family often feel judged—again, whether it’s religious, political, or personal issues. Zealots make the people around them feel kind of squirmy and disrespected. It’s tough to share your viewpoint with those narcissistic zealots because they’re not much interested in what you think, since they’re convinced your viewpoint is wrong or evil if it doesn’t match theirs.
I don’t deny that it’s good to have personal values and beliefs to guide our own lives. It’s fine to work for causes we believe in. It’s all right to have open dialogues about religion or politics or lifestyles when both sides are seeking to understand—not to judge, demean, apostatize, or condemn the other’s viewpoint.
After reading Under the Banner of Heaven, I am all in favor of having a world full of people who are wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, let’s-get-along, I’m OK/You’re OK, lots-of-gray-areas types of people. Give me folks who don’t want to start wars over whose religion is the true religion and whose religions are spawns of Satan—or whose political party will lead to an enlightened age and whose politics will lead us to Armageddon—or whose lifestyle is pure and whose is an ‘abomination in the eyes of God.’ Give me people who believe that every religion has some good in it and that the honest aim of every political party is to improve the lives of its citizens. Give me people who believe that life is a healthy balance, not a zealous pursuit of extremes.
Zealot on Steroids
In fact, let’s put all the zealots on an island together, somewhere in middle of the Arctic Ocean, and let them fight it out. Maybe the last zealot standing will be the one who is truly getting revelations from God. Or then again, like past religious and political wars have shown, he might just be the one with the biggest gun.