Should Religious Fanatics Be Praised?

An atheist’s perspective

Cristóbal de Losada
4 min readOct 29, 2021
Illustration courtesy of María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

It seems to me that, in certain cases, the motivation behind the fervent impulses and extreme actions of some people could be considered praiseworthy, as it could be argued that it reveals integrity, good nature, and an active interest in others. To people who don’t share the beliefs that give rise to such motivation, those actions usually appear excessive, extravagant, and even insane; and those carrying them out annoying fools at best, and dangerous lunatics at worst. But think of anti-abortion activists, for example (I’m mostly pro-choice): If you knew of places where children were being pretty much gratuitously massacred, wouldn’t your consequent outrage compel you to intervene, even violently if necessary, in order to stop such a horrific slaughter? Well, I suppose that’s the way some anti-abortion activists perceive abortions. If they do, how on earth can they remain passive? Seen this way, their vociferous outrage seems not just understandable but wholly justified.

Another example could be a close friend or relative who is utterly convinced that your atheism will condemn you to the eternal flames. Wouldn’t it be a natural consequence of his beliefs and his affection for you that he’d do all in his power to save your soul, even if that meant greatly annoying you with what you’d consider unspeakable nonsense? From that perspective, one could almost resent a friend who held such beliefs and was nonetheless rather cool and indifferent about one’s atheism. It would be like you seeing a good friend about to drown due to some foolish or misguided action and failing to intervene decisively to save him.

In such cases, rather than passing judgment on the moral qualities of the zealot in question, it might be more productive to challenge and refute the misconceptions behind his motivations and sentiments.

I suppose the reason that most religious people tend not to bother their atheist friends and relatives too much is that they don’t hold their beliefs too firmly after all, or perhaps that they choose primarily to believe in or give more weight to the nice bits of their faith (a loving and forgiving God) and ignore the nasty ones (a cruel and vindictive one).

On the other hand, some religious people might feel disinclined to intervene in favor of infidels, particularly those who are neither their friends nor relatives, out of spite… that is, they may derive a malevolent satisfaction from what they think will be the heathens’ just deserts: burning in hell for having willingly conspired with the Devil in their rejection of the Almighty or some such thing. Yet others, the more benevolent ones, might just resign themselves sadly to the fiery fate of their lost brethren, perhaps still pleading for their salvation in their prayers.


Of course fanaticism is not confined to religious worldviews; it can thrive and fester in ideologies of any sort. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides an excellent example in his must-read essay “Monomania Is Illiberal and Stupefying”:

If you and your friends believe that everything is about power, and that the world is divided into the powerful people (who oppress others) and the powerless (who are oppressed), then you have a moral obligation to do something about it — all the time.

In Haidt’s example, we see again that admirable sentiments and behavior can have pernicious consequences if they’re based on utterly misguided premises. And here again, it would be better to focus on combating the premises, and refrain from automatically assuming that questionable positions stem from feeble morality or, worse yet, nefarious motivations — although the latter can’t be discarded, of course.

Opinions are often superficial

So to what extent do our opinions and beliefs reflect our inner core?

Talking about fellow writer Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges once said: “I think we profess quite different political creeds: but I think that, all things considered, opinions are the most superficial thing there is in someone; and also I like the fantastic stories of Cortázar.”

Further: “Julio Cortázar has been condemned, or approved, for his political views. Outside of ethics, I understand that a man’s opinions are often superficial and fleeting.”

I find Borges’ comments very insightful. It’s interesting too that he exempted ethical stances from his view that opinions are superficial and often ephemeral.

Indeed, when two people start from divergent moral sentiments, their reaching an agreement is likely to be particularly challenging, as they have no obvious common starting point. Still, even in some of those cases the disagreement may be superficial rather than a reflection of fundamentally incompatible values. For example, some people may be indifferent to the inhumane slaughter of animals, but that might just be because they aren’t aware that animals can suffer greatly, and not because they’re inherently cruel or prone to psychopathic tendencies.

It’s worth noting that Borges added “and also I like the fantastic stories of Cortázar”, which shows that, even though we may dislike someone’s religiosity, ideology, or political views, such views don’t necessarily define that person nor represent their totality. We may still find a lot to like in people we disagree with and connect with them in other, rewarding ways.



Cristóbal de Losada

Interests: evolutionary psychology, natural selection, neuroscience, human nature, consciousness, philosophy, ethics, religion and atheism.