All major religions include esoteric and exoteric expression. Esoteric is the inwardly manifesting, mystical dimension of religious experience sometimes referred to as the great work, secret realm, transcendence, or liberation. As such, it is beyond rationality, full explanation, conceptualization, or language itself; its practice may employ sounds, gestures and rituals as methods of stimulating, generating or otherwise contacting the realm of what is variously called God, Allah, divinity, sacredness, unity, oneness, emptiness, or heaven.
Exoteric is religion’s outwardly manifesting, worldly dimension sometimes referred to as good works, skillful means, acts of compassion, empathy, generosity, and spiritual advocacy. The exoteric is based on written or oral precepts, concepts, explanations, and predictions, and may also employ words, gestures, and rituals intended to stimulate feelings of devotion, adherence, proper behavior, inner peace and even self-sacrifice.
Practitioners of esoteric religious expression can appear to others as perfectly normal-looking, well-composed, polite, socially adept individuals; they can also appear to be eccentric, unconventional, ill-kempt, wild-eyed, confused, or even a touch crazy. The same is true for practitioners of exoteric religious practice, or for that matter people who practice no religious activities of any kind. The varieties and outward appearances of people are no different whatever the nature of belief.
Religion, as such, appears to be inherently attractive to people, but religious fundamentalism imposes specific religious belief and behavior on others, and often generates violence and conflict. Historically, the Christian Crusades and Inquisition were violent expressions of fundamentalism as is that of today’s Islamic suicide bombers. What religious fundamentalism has in common is a form of psychological pathology which promotes the objectification of others and leads to overt acts of dehumanization which inexorably produce violence. Fundamentalism conflates the esoteric with the exoteric, transforming esoteric metaphors of scriptural wisdom into exoteric literalism, changes ritual into initiation and provides emotional justification for extreme acts against others. Accordingly, the fundamental quality of fundamentalism is its fundamental confusion.
The fundamentalist abortion opponent bombs clinics with the same sense of righteousness as the fundamentalist jihadist who bombs public markets. The country of Iran, ancient home of the esoteric Islamic religion of Sufism, is nonetheless ruled today by dogmatic Islamic fundamentalists. In Sri Lanka, defying the peaceful image of Buddhism, politicized monks are terrorizing minority Muslims.
Practices of the “emptying of self” are common elements of esoteric religion. For example, certain practices of Tibetan Vajrayana, the esoteric Buddhism of the peace-loving Dalai Lama, involve the contemplation of terrifyingly violent images intended towards defeating one’s demons of ego. Similarly, Islamic Jihad, or spiritual war, is an esoteric spiritual practice related to the dissolution of one’s own ego, was expropriated by fundamentalists and converted into an exoteric political activity about killing enemies and “infidels.”
Any belief system, religious or otherwise, can devolve into forms of destructive fundamentalism; the conventional, although nearly sanctified belief in the “wise, guiding hand of the free market” is a good example, despite its history of cruel exploitation and ecological violence. Fundamentalism thrives on simplistic, often literal, blind devotion; for some, adherence to simplistic belief, like originalism, provides an attractive alternative to the troubling complexities of life.
Though reason and science-based systems of logic and knowledge surround us, emotional satisfaction is inherently esoteric. Our emotional vulnerability, often considered our great weakness, is actually our great strength, drawing us together for comfort and protection. Fundamentalism, unfortunately, converts our emotional bonds of friendship, love, and unity into an authoritarian weapon.