The Dissolute Dogmatists

Why some freewheeling Westerners so easily morph into fanatical Islamists

By Christian Beenfeldt, Ayn Rand Institute

[This is an affirmation of The True Believer by Eric Hoffer]

Interest has recently been renewed in the puzzling phenomenon of Western-raised Islamic militants–in “Australian Taliban” David Hicks, who received a surprisingly light sentence for his armed involvement with al Qaeda; in “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, whose parents and lawyers are renewing their attempts to have his 20-year sentence for serving as a Taliban fighter commuted by President Bush; and in “Jihad Jack” Thomas, who also received al Qaeda training and was charged with being a terrorist “sleeper” agent.

These three men raise the paradoxical question of how freewheeling Westerners can possibly morph into fanatical Islamists.

All three men started out at what appears to be the opposite end of the spectrum from a hard-line religionist. Lindh grew up in the liberal, “anything-goes” culture of Marin County where he developed an early affinity for nasty rap music, Thomas was a beer-loving punk rocker, and Hicks was a high-school drop-out who, according to his former school mates, already in school was a heavy drinker and cannabis smoker.

Yet, all men ended up seeking out the dogmatism of radical Islam, traveling to far-away al Qaeda camps and receiving terrorist training.

How is this transformation possible? The freewheeling, anything goes type and the religious dogmatist are of course both familiar in today’s culture–and they are generally considered to be diametrically opposed. But are they really?

Consider the typical “progressive” leftist, with his non-judgmental relativism. He is the embodiment of subjectivism: he holds that there are no absolute principles, that truth is “in the eye of the beholder,” and that “what’s right for you might not be right for me.” He is the exponent of the belief that nobody can have objective knowledge or objective grounds for evaluating another person’s beliefs or actions. On the premise that moral values are merely subjective preferences, he feels that there is no factual basis for moral judgment.

Thomas betrayed a residue of this sentiment when he stated that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” And Lindh’s Marin County parents certainly typified this philosophy with their non-judgmental attitude towards his affinity for repugnant rap music and his later conversion to radical Islam. Hicks’s early life, as a drinker, dropout and deadbeat dad, seems to be the very embodiment of this approach.

The religious dogmatist, on the other hand, dismisses the “truth is relative” chorus of the subjectivists and has no qualms about making moral judgments. His philosophy, he says, espouses the unquestionable truth and advocates absolute standards of right and wrong.

It is only on the surface, however, that the dogmatist is opposed to the subjectivist; at root, the two share a fundamental similarity. In denying that there are any objective standards by which to choose how to think or act, the subjectivist makes clear that his choices are ruled by blind feelings. This is precisely also the basic policy of the religious dogmatist.

There is an infinite number of opposing religious sects. How does the religionist decide which faith to embrace, which revelations to follow and which authority to obey? Does he scientifically gather the evidence, carefully weigh it, and then adopt the conclusion to which reason and logic point? Obviously not. He feels it. He feels that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, astrology or whatever, is the right faith for him.

As Thomas himself describes his conversion to Islam, after agreeing to fast for the month of Ramadan: “I just felt a link from all the prophets of Adam and Noah and Moses and Abraham and all the prophets coming from one God and Confucius and Buddha and all the people being messengers and all my whole world came together.” He continued to follow his feelings to radical Islam, to terrorist training, and to the adoption of “Jihad” as his first name.

So while the religionist may claim to uphold absolute truths, his beliefs are as arbitrary and baseless as those of the subjectivist. Thus, the paradoxical conversions of Lindh, Thomas and Hicks–from subjectivist to religious dogmatist–aren’t so paradoxical after all; in both cases, the switch was merely from one form of emotionalism to another.

What neither the subjectivist nor the dogmatist can fathom is the need for an objective approach–a method of seeking truth, acquiring knowledge, and defining moral standards, not by indulgence in emotions, but by a process of reasoning based on factual evidence alone. In every issue and area of its life, a mind on this premise is moved not by arbitrary whims, but by logical arguments that are grounded in directly perceivable facts.

What is needed, then, to avoid raising the “Jihad Jacks” and American or Australian “Talibans” of the future, is for our culture to reject emotionalism in all of its varieties–whether in the form of anything-goes subjectivism or of emotion-driven faith in mystical dogmas–in favor of the rational alternative: objectivity.

Christian Beenfeldt, MA in philosophy, is a guest writer for the Ayn Rand Institute ( in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand–author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” Contact the writer at

April 16, 2007 | 4 Comments »

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4 Comments / 4 Comments

  1. Christian Beenfeldt’s concluding advice to Americans to reject outright emotionalism/subjectivism in favour of dispassionate objectivism is completely unrealistic and is contrary to the way human nature works in our decision making process which is a melange of subjective and objective factors.

    The 3 people Beenfeldt claims are examples of those trade one form of subjectivism for another can be better explained by considering that what happened to them is what happens to many who are having an identity crisis and are searching to fill a void in their lives. These people are like the so many people who feel they have been cast adrift in sea of faithlessness and uncertainty and they therefore look for and ultimately find a comfortable harbour to drop anchor at.

  2. We all are either servants to an oligarchy of emotions and reason, or we are a slave to one or the other — For a dictatorship of either emotions or reason tends to ruin by the perversion of the other. – RT

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