Duffers and Fanatics

I do not know what Islam is “all about,” and this is one respect in which I differ from most journalists, politicians, chiefs of police and U. S. military officers. Unlike me, a great many of these deep thinkers are confident that they know what Islam is “all about,” or at least what it is not all about. The basis of their claim is not clear, although it does not appear to involve study of Islamic scripture or immersion in Islamic practice.

This post is not about Islam, because, as I said, I do not know what Islam is “all about.” I have not read Islamic scripture and I have not gone so far as to dip my toe into Islamic practice. I find my own religion a handful. This post is, instead, about how we should go about learning what a religion is “all about,” and why when today’s deep thinkers try to do so, they so often take us into a world of fantasy.

To begin, let’s describe a religion as a practice, since religion is above all else something that one does. A “practicing Catholic” is, for instance, doing Catholicism by believing the things Catholics believe and acting the way Catholics act. Presumably the same is true of a “practicing Muslim.”

Alasdair MacIntyre says that every practice yields “internal goods” and “external goods” (1). Internal goods are intrinsic, proper, and unique to the practice to which they are internal. External goods are incidental to any particular practice, and common to many. For example, the good of gliding through water is internal to swimming, for it can be achieved by no means other than swimming. The good of a chiseled torso, on the other hand, is external to swimming because swimming is only one of the ways one can get one.

Now what we might call a true swimmer strives for excellence in swimming, not in physical appearance, health, or social opportunities. He may very well enjoy and appreciate these last three goods as incidental rewards of swimming, but if he is a true swimmer, they will not be what swimming is “all about.”

Not all who swim are true swimmers. Many swim with an eye to one of the external goods, or incidental rewards, of swimming. For them, swimming is a convenient means to corporeal pulchritude, physical health, or casual socializing. I call such people duffers. A duffer is not necessarily a bad swimmer, but (still following MacIntyre) duffers are, on the whole, bad for swimming.

To understand why this is so, imagine a hiking club that is comprised of true hikers and duffers. The true hikers love hiking, the duffers are happy to hike, but only because it is an agreeable way to exercise, socialize, pass the time, build an appetite, or what have you. And to the extent that the duffers take over the club, the club will cease to be a hiking club and degenerate into a social club that happens to hike. Socializing, not hiking, will become what the club is “all about.” Book clubs are often destroyed by duffers.

With this in mind we can return to the question of what any particular religion is “all about,” and doing so we see that every religion takes in true religionists and duffers. The duffers will call the true religionists “fanatics,” and I’m happy to accept the term. To the fanatics the religion is “all about” goods internal to the practice of that particular religion, and not about external goods such as “community,” “fellowship,” or gossiping in the church basement over coffee and cookies. To the duffers, it’s the other way round.

Now, if you wanted to understand what swimming, or mountaineering, or barber shop singing was “all about,” would you ask a fanatic or a duffer? I’m not asking which one you would like to join with in a club. If you’re a duffer, you will wish to club with duffers. But who would you ask if you wished to understand the good internal to the practice of swimming, mountaineering or barber shop singing? You would ask a fanatic, of course, since the fanatic is obsessed with that good. The duffer is concerned with something else.

When today’s deep thinkers tell us what Islam is “all about,” they clearly have in mind what it is “all about” for the duffers of Islam, since the goods they mention are external to Islam and readily obtained by other means. I do not deny that “spiritual solace,” “meaning,” “tradition,” “community,” and the like are incidental rewards of Islamic practice; but since they are incidental rewards of a great many practices, they cannot be what Islam is “all about.”

The reason today’s deep thinkers say such things is that they are themselves religious duffers. In their eyes, a religion is a convenient pretext for doing things other than the practice of that religion, just as hiking is a convenient pretext for duffers in the hiking club to do things other than hiking. Duffers are always quick to denounce and purge “extremists,” because “extremists” have tendency to point out that duffers love, above all else, to sit on their duffs.

The essence of any practice will be found in its fanatics, not its duffers. This is obvious in sports and it should be obvious in religion.


(1) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edition (South Bend, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), chap. 14.

31 thoughts on “Duffers and Fanatics

  1. Pingback: Duffers and Fanatics | Neoreactive

  2. Very prescient post! I was hoping you would mention mountaineering, and you didn’t let me down. I find it puzzling, but very interesting, that people will go to great lengths to climb a mountain like K2 knowing good and well that for every three or four successful summits, at least one person will die during descent, not to mention the rate for survivors to lose fingers and toes, and even whole limbs, to frostbite. Again, this astounds me that people will take these kinds of chances knowing the odds are barely in their favor, as in … WHY?

    This is the part that intrigues me – why do they do it? If you watch documentaries that explore this question, you will learn pretty quickly that the true mountaineers reject the common notion they are “thrill seekers,” they climb these mountains because they love climbing, and they despise the commercialization of climbing Everest, for example, because commercialization has attracted duffers, to borrow your term, who ARE thrill seekers and not real mountaineers, and who are, as a result, a bane on the sport because they’re dangerous (not just to themselves, but to everyone else) and irresponsible, etc., etc., and therefore give mountaineering a bad name.

    But still, I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to climb K2 (arguably the most dangerous mountain in the world), whether genuine mountaineer or duffer either one!

    But anyway, excellent article.

    • I used to be a climber. The duffers climbed mainly so they could talk about having climbed. Climbing was the means, talking was the end.

      • Your duffers vs fanatics is a worthwhile entry.
        I’m glad you wrote it; gladder still am I that I happened upon it.
        On a personal note, it puts me in mind, sadly, of a certain family member whose several trips to England, France, and Italy (over the past decade) — and the recounting of which — were tailored for consumption by those whose economic and educational status were just a step above her own.
        All these many years I have prayed that this dearest one would grasp the true prize of peace in the arms of Jesus — and become one of us, a fanatic. But not yet. Not yet. Sadly, not yet has she given up the quest for earthly riches, in their myriad forms.

        As per Islam. Your essay has much upon which to reflect; although it is true that I get my info on its ways and designs from among those whose opinions I trust: Stephen Coughlin, Dr. Bill Warner, and some others. I count Diana West among the strongest of my sources for pinning down the steps taken by our “leaders” to hood-wink us, to disarm us, in the face of yet another existential threat; her work American Betrayal is quite the eye-opener to those who are naive still in believing FDR was such a great guy.
        OK. That’s getting way too far afield — and wandering.

        But duffers or no: Islam needs to go.

      • You can always tell the traveling duffer: wherever he goes he is thinking of the story he will make out of it.

      • Debra, if we lived in a sane society where the powers that be weren’t bent on destroying the last vestiges of Christian influence, there’s no way under God’s heaven Islam in particular would enjoy “equal protection” under the first amendment free exercise clause, incorporation notwithstanding.

        And yet, in his autobiography, Jefferson bragged that his religious liberties bill he had crafted for Virginia prior to adoption of the federal constitution, meant to include, under the mantle of its protection, the heathen and *Mahommetan* of every denomination. Now, of course, we make no distinction between his intentions in the Virginia religious liberties bill, and his understanding of the first amendment religious clauses of the federal Bill of Rights. No matter that T.J. himself made a big distinction between the two.

        Post-reconstruction, out of thin air “incorporation,” 14th amendment U.S. citizenship, equal protection and due process, and all that obviously, but I have said more than a few times that someone ought to dig Jefferson’s bones up and whip the tar out of them for his giving moderns yet one more weapon with which to subvert and destroy our founding Christian (as in exclusive of Islam, et al) principles and virtues. He should have known better, and in fact, I think, did.

        But of course everybody now knows that ‘freedom of religion’ means freedom for ALL religions! Duh. Thanks, T.J., for helping us out on that!

  3. This seems to summarize the reason I became areligious. In every faith I have studied and attempted to practice the internal goods seem never to appear. Meanwhile a pack of duffers enjoy the external rewards without even noticing the curious absence of the internal rewards

    • I know just what you’re talking about. Later in life I was less bothered by duffers, having come to see a good deal of the duffer in myself.

      • I don’t mind being a duffer per say when a tradition is doing good, and holds to beliefs and practices consistent to reality. The issue is that traditional churches near me seem to be deeply superstitious[1], practicing Christianity in ways I find indistinguishable from my New Age phase. Those that aren’t superstitious are so blindly liberal they have made themselves empty of meaning.

        [1] – Which is not to say that all such groups are superstitious, only that I have yet to find any in my area.

      • You say you’re areligious and superstition turns you off, yet you’re open to religion. You also say you resent duffers, but that you may be a duffer. Has it struck you that you may also be religious and superstitious? I’ve found that areligious people believe in all kinds of religious concepts like morality, free will, human value, justice, rights, equality, etc. I’ve found that anti-superstitious people fail to live truly as if there really was no morality, free will, value, justice, etc. (I also know these things first hand.) If so, perhaps you would stop calling yourself areligious. Perhaps something like “wayward” would better describe you?

        On another front, I found that when I disregarded the duffers, and disregarded the goods and rewards, and focused strictly on what is true, I found my way. (Or The Way found me.)

      • Earl,

        It took me the better part of a week to respond to you because I was so furious at being called superstitious. Part of the reason for that is I deal with[1] a lot of mental illness. I’ve become a pretty radical skeptic as a defense mechanism to deal with that. It interferes with enjoying religions blessings when you are also engaging critical thinking tools to make sure you are not choosing to be crazy while joining.

        I think that the fanatic-duffer dichotomy is missing something. What I’m angling at is that I would not mind contributing to and participating in a faith community I disagree with on many points if it were otherwise healthy and good. A contributing duffer or skeptical fanatic. Someone who is aware that due to illness some or all of the benefits others get from the faith may play out different for me. I think what I really dislike are “leech duffers”, in Utah the functioning portions of the welfare system are administered by the local LDS bishop, and as a result many non-LDS families participate in Mormon stuff with a very half-hearted and resentful mindset.

        Wayward may be a better name, though I’ve little notion which way I am going. After a degree in religious studies I’ve seen the sausage made so to speak. It’s clear to me that something transcendent is available to humanity but I’m very unsure beyond that.

        [1] – I could suffer from it if I choose I suppose, but the whole reason I’m attracted to the alt-right and orthosphere are the genuine belief that everyone, even the sick, are accountable adults. Accepting that I need to double check some of my work, and make sure it matches up with reality as others experience it seems better than the sad “lives” of SJW ‘mental health activists’.

  4. From a comment I posted over at Edward Feser’s. Includes a softball analogy similar to Mr. Smith’s:

    One thing that is missing from the five reasons liberals have a hard time understanding Islam: their nominalist view of religion, that is the contention that Islam or Christianity or whatever have no stable nature. For many liberals, Islam is simply whatever Muslims want it to be. This tends to go along with a reduction of religion to motives that the liberal can understand: hence, the tendency to interpret religion as a cover for material desires, or the desire for community simply as community, the latter being particularly common among the mushy kind of liberal.

    The nominalist view of religion is quite wrong, but it isn’t totally preposterous, at least at first look. It is based on several true things:

    1. The content of various religions, at least of religions that aren’t true, is historically contingent to a high degree. If Mohammad had left out verses X, Y and Z, Islam could have been a very different beast.
    2. Very few people carefully examine the merits of the various religious options available to them and choose what they think are the best. In fact, very few people are capable of making such a comparison. So, they tend to just go along with what everyone else in their main social group is doing. Content doesn’t seem to matter much to them.
    3. There are quite a large number of not-particularly-devout hangers on in most religions, even in highly devout societies, perhaps especially in highly devout societies. They mostly seem in it for the social benefits: the sense of community and identity and such. And, of course, religion often does create robust sense of community and identity.

    The problem with point 1 is that he did include verses X, Y and Z. The problem with points 2 and 3 is that they see religion primarily as a matter of individual choice rather than a complex social phenomenon, where if you downplay certain things too much, the system doesn’t work anymore.

    With point 2, sure, whatever religious symbol (such as a scripture) a particular community may rally around may be fairly arbitrary and contingent, but the symbol does need to actually be held in common for there to be a real community. If you disrespect the symbol too much (by, for example, ignoring the teaching of a scripture too much, or insisting that there is no real content to the symbol) the community will tend to fall apart.

    As for point 3, there is an analogy. Some people would look at a softball league, and all the social activity that goes on around it, and conclude that it isn’t really about playing softball, but about community and togetherness and whatnot. And there would be a lot of people, particularly many of the women, who were much more interested in the picnics and parties than the actual sporting events. But the fact is that you really do need a certain critical mass of people who are actually interested in the softball. Otherwise, the community stuff won’t happen. You can’t just have community be about community, as the attempt of many mainline churches shows.

    • It’s interesting that nominalism is always good for thee, but not for me. That Christianity might “evolve” into a club of wife-swapping swingers seems to them entirely reasonable, but not that liberalism might “evolve” into a party of militaristic slave owners.

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  6. My strong impression is that in evaluating a religion (or, within Christianity, a church or denomination) the most important factor is whether the evaluator has a positive or a negative attitude to that religion.

    For most people, no amount of (seemingly) contrary evidence will dent their ‘prior hypothesis’.

    I think the reason is that religions are evaluated in the light of their ‘intentions’ and (since we are not mind-readers) these intentions must be inferred indirectly from a very wide range of often contradictory data.

    In other words, there is no neutral ground from which to reason, and most of the most important question are necessarily ‘begged’.

    The best that can realistically be hoped for is honesty and clarity about one’s own assumptions.

    • I agree. There are simply too many ways to dismiss overt intentions, and to shrink or swell the set of relevant data. The honest pan states his biases before the discussion and does not attempt to disguise them as findings or conclusions.

  7. “Unlike me, a great many of these deep thinkers are confident that they know what Islam is “all about,” or at least what it is not all about.”

    One of the more smirk-inducing Tweets I recently read was in response to bloviating journo-creep pustule Piers Morgan who had said that the terror attacks on the Bataclan theater were not representative of Islam and that ISIS were not true Muslims. Someone had then retorted:

    “Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi has a degree in Quranic studies from the Universirty of Baghdad. what are your credentials?”

    Another lefty then piped up with “they don’t have real universities over there!”, which seems to bizarrely suggest that a university in England might have a better grip on what Islam is than one that was in the heart of the Islamic homeland! This is a little like saying those yoga classes advertised in California barber shops might be able to unleash the powers of one’s chakra better than the temples of India!

    Now, onto the meat of the essay. This perfectly captures the reality of how leftists have a warped view of religion as traditionally practiced. The problem is that their observations fail to match up with the meaningful reality. The fact is that of all adherents to Islam in the Middle East and North Africa (we’ll exclude strange exceptions like Albania because it is inconsequential to current geopolitical affairs) very very few are duffers. Sure, there are many who will not join terrorist organizations, but as many have pointed out this is not because they disagree, it is simply because they are not predisposed to get involved in such personally taxing and dangerous affairs, nor do they need to. Most of Afghanistan agrees with the Taliban on every major issue.

    In the Christian world, what a contrast! One of the reasons I have been cautious to lament the collapse of Christian observation in the West is that I honestly think these people who attend church for the wine and wafers, the duffers in other words, are holding back one key reform, that of the priesthood. The Catholic Church (and I speak as an outsider in this regard) has a problem with a priesthood that is riddled like a termite-filled log with heretics, left wing apologists, and outright Liberals. They have been enabled precisely by the duffers, the ‘Catholics’ who think Joe Biden has a good point on abortion. The smaller the Church contingent gets, the more its Traditional and extreme fanatics are the only ones left in the wheelhouse to push forward the spear of the Traditionalists (SSPX etc.) into the upper echelons of the clergy, right the way to the currently oscillating and worrying Papacy itself.

    In order for everything that Reactionaries hope for to come about, I think one of the core components is a religious order that will be behind us, and the duffers are holding that back. I’d much rather have them sitting in Chipotle than applauding an address from Cardinal Kasper.

    • All historical religions were compulsory. Christianity was compulsory in Europe except for a small number of Jews. Islam was compulsory if you were born Muslim. Jews remain Jews in Jewish society, Hindus remain Hindus under a Hindu rule.
      So, there was no way duffers could be excluded. How could that be? Would they be excommunicated?

      • Duffers were less of a problem so long as religion was controlled by a priestly caste, for whom the cost of membership is high. Duffers in the congregation can introduce “folk religion” and “superstitions,” but they can’t take over so long as there is a priestly caste. The Puritan movement tried to control duffers by excluding them from the sacraments and church government, although (in New England) they were required to attend religious assemblies. Duffers take over when the cost of membership is low and church government is democratic.

      • Make participation in church governance contingent on tithe & demonstrated worthiness? Whatever else I dislike about Mormonism they manage to tolerate quite a large swarm of duffers in Utah. The LDS church here functions as a de-facto welfare state, and it works effectively because the low price of compared to the high price of temple worthiness keeps duffers from having power to demand more resources than exist.

  8. I’d like to put in a good word for duffers here. Duffers who understand they’re duffers are not the problem. You shouldn’t have a social system (org., church, society) in which duffers are given inordinate influence. If you do, it’s not the duffers who bear the blame. Democracy in any social system will give duffers an outsized influence. Democracy rewards duffers, as it was designed.

    • Exactly. If an organization is to survive, it must exclude duffers or exclude duffers from power. I say exclude them from power, but let them come along for the ride.

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  12. I prefer the term – fundamentalists. I just think it is a more appropriate term than fanatics. Every person in every traditional religion/philosophy that knows its dogmas /teachings and is willing to apply them completely in everyday life is a fundamentalist, because this person believes without a shadow of a doubt in the basic principles of the religion in question. Fundamentalism is the only natural way a religion can exist, the only natural and legitimate way a religion can be practiced. A true believer is either a fundamentalist or he is not a believer at all.
    On the other hand, we can hear today about “non practicing“ Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus… this is nonsense.Those people are, for example, aligned to their religion by birth, but are not interested in it, or they know and follow some aspects of the religion, while disregarding, discarding or being in the complete dark about the other aspects. They largely have a (post)modern view of the sacred, completely individualistic and subjective in essence. Religion is there for them, it has to make them feel good about themselves. They no nothing about theology, what a religion actually teaches, and they simply don’t care.
    One of the things that the modern (western) man does not understand, and does not want to understand, is that basically all the traditional religions are theocratic. There is no separation between religion and politics. Possible exceptions are Buddhism in some of its forms, and Christianity in essentially all its mainstream forms.
    On the other hand, with Jainism I am not too familiar, but traditional Shintoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Judaism have no concept of separating the religious from the political.
    For example, in Judaism, Moses is a religious and a political leader, a lawmaker, a judge, and a military commander. And we can see these days that groups of religious Jews, especially among the settlers in the West Bank, are attacking and desecrating Christian churches, monasteries etc. They are against the state of Israel itself, because they view Israel not as a Jewish state approved by God but as a secular Godless entity that should be destroyed and replaced with a Jewish religious kingdom ruled by Jewish religious law- the Halakha. Gentiles would either be forced out or killed.
    The concepts of civil and open society, secularization, freedom not only of religion but also from religion, radical individualism etc. are incompatible with any traditional religion, except as I said Christianity and slightly Buddhism. Against these western concepts and way of life, this worldview and the political and social order that stem from it, Islam is, in some forms, nowadays, the most visible and vocal opponent, but by no means is it the only one. This is something very few in the West understand.
    The West is not against „extremist“religious teachings, it is against any traditional religion itself. It wants to annihilate it in any shape or form. It wants religions that can fit into its postmodern, relativist and nihilistic world outlook, where you can shop till you drop for your „holiday“ but if you actually believe in the dogmas and teachings of your religion, you are a lunatic.
    Coming from a part of the world that had centuries of direct experience with Islam and Muslim rule, where Islam left an impact on many things, I also have a fair amount of experience from the Arab Muslim world, and while I do not speak Arabic very well I am very much familiar with the religious terminology and teachings.
    And since this post is not about Islam I would just like to say that to view Islam as only ISIS, while legitimate and based in theological teachings, nonetheless this view is rather simplistic.

    • The term fundamentalist actually began as a somewhat liberal compromise. Instead of saying that Christians had to believe every single article of faith, fundamentalists insisted on belief only in certain fundamentals. There had to be certain basic points of doctrinal agreement, or there would be no faith. I think this is correct.

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