About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Religious tolerance: an oxymoron?
Lopresti nicely summarizes the options available to religious people who wish to be tolerant of other religious traditions (tolerance toward atheism, of course, is a different matter...). First, one can decide not to be tolerant at all, and embrace exclusivism. This is the familiar position of many in the Middle East and in the American Bible Belt: there is only one God, and it’s mine. If you don’t believe in It, no matter how pious and well intentioned, you’re going to Hell (or another horrible place of my choice). Clearly, there are few options to “accommodate” other traditions if one is an exclusivist: usually believers in other gods are (often forcibly) converted, or exterminated. Hence the religious wars in Europe for most of the Middle Ages up to the Enlightenment, and the chronic disaster that is Palestine.
The second alternative, according to Lopresti, is inclusivism. Here the idea is that “we all believe in the same God,” sort of. This, as it should be immediately obvious, is plainly not true. Despite heroic fits of mental gymnastics by progressive religionists, there is just no sensible way in which the God of the Old Testament is the same thing as the Spaghetti Monster, or, for that matter, the same thing as the God of the New Testament. I’m reminded of a moment in Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, which I read when I was a teenager and which obviously made a lasting impression on me. Russell was arrested by the British government for demonstrating against Britain’s entrance in War World I. When he was brought to jail he was asked the customary questions by the local record keeper, including “What religion are you?” When Russell responded that he was agnostic, the guard pondered the answer for a bit, obviously confused, then shrugged, wrote something down and commented along the lines of “Oh, what the hell, we all believe in the same God.” No, not really.
The final option presented by Lopresti is pluralism: the idea is that different religious traditions are in fact distinct (a la exclusivism, contra inclusivism), but they also have enough shared values and common objectives to foster reciprocal collaboration. Lopresti’s example of shared goals isn’t exactly flattering, though: “Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the holy city of Jerusalem banded together in a show of solidarity -- not for peace, social justice, or some other wacky idea, but against a gay-pride parade.” In other words, religious people can set aside their internal disputes when they rally behind the common banner of religious intolerance!
More seriously, pluralism faces a variety of obstacles, beginning with the obvious one: what are we to make of the suggestion that various religious traditions are different ways to get at the same truth, if one rejects the whole idea that there can be such thing as a religious truth to begin with? Indeed, what would such “truth” look like, and how would we know it? It is useless to invoke religion as a guide to morality, first because one can obviously be moral without being religious, and second because religious “morality” has been responsible for countless atrocities throughout human history. It won’t do either to go minimalist and claim that what all religions have in common is the “truth” of the existence of God, because the various notions of “god” proposed by different religions are often incompatible, and -- more importantly -- because god truly is just make believe.
It’s hard to be tolerant when one is religious.