Religious Zeal, Affective Fragility, and the Tragedy of Human Existence

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4 Citations (Scopus)


Today, in a Western secular context, the affective phenomenon of religious zeal is often associated, or even identified, with religious intolerance, violence, and fanaticism. Even if the zealots’ devotion remains restricted to their private lives, “we” as Western secularists still suspect them of a lack of reason, rationality, and autonomy. However, closer consideration reveals that religious zeal is an ethically and politically ambiguous phenomenon. In this article, I explore the question of how this ambiguity can be explained. I do so by drawing on Paul Ricœur’s theory of affective fragility and tracing back the ambiguity of religious zeal to a dialectic inherent to human affectivity and existence itself. According to Ricœur, human affectivity is constituted by the two poles of vital and spiritual desires which are mediated by the thymos. As I show, this theory helps us to understand that religious zeal as a spiritual desire is neither plainly good nor plainly bad, but ambiguous. Moreover, it enables us to acknowledge the entanglement of abstraction and concretion that is inherent to the phenomenon of religious zeal. Finally, this theory helps us to understand why religious zeal, as one possible expression of the human quest for the infinite, is both a promise and a threat. In conclusion, human existence is tragic not in that we necessarily fail, but in that no matter which path we take with regard to our spiritual desires—that of affirmation, rejection, or moderation—we are and remain fallible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalHuman Studies
Issue number1
Early online date2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Religious Zeal
  • Fanaticism
  • Afectivity
  • Passion
  • Human Existence


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