Saturday, November 15, 2008

Karen's wish

Karen Armstrong wants the world's religions to coexist in harmony. Your thoughts?



Anonymous said...

Impossible. And maybe not even desirable.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Yes. Impossible. Anyone who thinks radical Islam, for example, is dreaming about peaceful and tolerant coexistence with the infidels is in the grip of a very dangerous delusion.

Kevin Kim said...

I ended up thinking that Armstrong's wish suffered from terminal vagueness. There are ways to agree with her basic sentiment (charitably interpreted), but only after adding a mess of qualifications that address such issues as the intolerance of others.

Rhesus, I'd love to hear why you feel that way. Details, man-- details!


Malcolm Pollack said...

There are ways to agree with her basic sentiment (charitably interpreted)...

One would have to have a lot of religion to be that charitable.

Anonymous said...

The Charter for Compassion is a collaborative effort to build a peaceful and harmonious global community. Bringing together the voices of people from all religions, the Charter seeks to remind the world that while all faiths are not the same, they all share the core principle of compassion and the Golden Rule. The Charter will change the tenor of the conversation around religion. It will be a clarion call to the world.

Idealistic? Absolutely. Impossible? I don't see why not. Movements all have to start somewhere, do they not?
I don't think Armstrong or anyone involved in the project thinks this will create Paradise on earth, but I can think of no higher task than working "to build a peace and harmonious global community."

As for "Not even desirable"? I don't know---I would think even non-religious people would agree the world needs more compassion.

Kevin Kim said...

I love that this blog can be a meeting place for the faithful and the skeptics. It's tempting to open comments fully to allow free discussion instead of gumming up the process with comment moderation, but my experience with assholes makes me cautious about who might jump in.

Sufi Guy, I agree that the goal-- though still too vaguely worded even in the snippet you've quoted-- is desirable on its face. Peace is almost always better than war. But I can imagine some people who might offer legitimate objections on the grounds that "peace at any price" is no solution.

A world under the thumb of a single religion or single world government, for example, might know a certain peace-- the peace of people too threatened from above to think about rebelling or killing each other. But is such a peace even worthy of the label? Some call this the darker side of the Pax Romana, as well as of the Pax Americana that a New Zealand friend of mine talks about (he sees the current Pax Americana as what's keeping East Asian countries from destroying each other, though given the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, I'd understand if people from those regions were to snort "What Pax Americana?").

Dissenters might look at missionary religions like Islam and Christianity, religions whose goals appear to be the conversion of the entire world (the relevant biblical and Qur'anic scriptures are easily searchable online), and sense something sinister from that direction. How harmonious can the world be when certain traditions insist on treating the global population as a marketplace in which they are competing with other traditions-- everyone striving, Grim Reaper-like, to harvest souls?

This brings up the question of what exactly Armstrong et al. might mean by concepts like "peaceful" and "harmonious." Are these concepts reconcilable with the notion of missionary competition? I have my doubts.

Whether harmony and competition can coexist is a question that vexes me on several levels, not merely religiously but also when we think in terms of politics and culture. Some folks feel, for example, that we members of the so-called "north Atlantic culture" need to be about the business of exporting (or imposing) our values-- free exchange of ideas, frequent skepticism of authority, freedom of expression, assembly, etc., on those who don't share them. Indeed, anyone who feels that their way of life is the right way of life might feel impelled to share that way with others. So I can understand, to some extent, the missionary impulse; it has a rational basis.

But is such an impulse legitimate in this modern age? Personally, I'd love to see us do away with conversion campaigns altogether; they have little place in an overcrowded, agitated ecumene. If Armstrong is envisioning something along those lines-- a world stripped of missionary zeal, in which people live according to the Clint Eastwood ethos of "Everyone leaves everyone else alone"-- I'd be more sympathetic to this project. But the Golden Rule, however ubiquitous it might be in the various religious traditions, isn't what proselytizers have in mind when they proselytize: they don't want someone knocking on their door trying to convert them. Surely Armstrong, given her background, knows this. Are she and her cohorts seriously telling everyone to chill out and stop trying to convert each other? If so, hats off to her, but I'm pretty sure it's not a message that over three billion zealots want to hear.


Anonymous said...

I promise to add some details when I have more than five minutes free. In the meantime, consider using my first post as a sort of universal response:

A: Could you pass the salt, please?

B: Impossible. And maybe not even desirable.

Elisson said...

Alas, there are limits to the amount of true religious harmony that is achievable, as long as there are faith communities out there in which evangelism and exclusivity are key components.

Believing that one's religion is the only path to salvation - that nonbelievers are damned - is no way to build a harmonious World o' Religious Coexistence...because only one religion is taken seriously. And believing that proselytizing nonbelievers is a necessary activity (which follows from the first premise) is insulting to other faith communities, however well-intentioned it may be.

These are issues that seem to be most prominently evident in Islam and Christianity, to greater or lesser degrees.

There will need to be a little more religious evolution before true harmony is possible. One day, perhaps...but we're just not there yet.

It's a nice ideal, though, and one toward which we, as a species, should be striving. God is such a big, unknowable concept that none of us can have the whole picture - I always think of the story of the six blind men who are trying to describe an elephant. Each one can only perceive one facet of the whole; to get the real picture, there has to be dialogue and synthesis.

Mark Tueting said...

Ellison said:

Believing that one's religion is the only path to salvation - that nonbelievers are damned - is no way to build a harmonious World o' Religious Coexistence...because only one religion is taken seriously. And believing that proselytizing nonbelievers is a necessary activity (which follows from the first premise) is insulting to other faith communities, however well-intentioned it may be.

And that, my friends, is why religious harmony is truly impossible - even a guy who seems to support the idea has to criticize some religious people. Humans being humans, we will disagree. Those who want to minimize disagreement have never come up with an adequate response to the people who - wait for it - disagree.


Multiculturalist post-modernist: All viewpoints are equally valid.

Me: You're wrong. Laughably so.

Multiculturalist: But...

Me: By your own beliefs you must accept the validity of my viewpoint. Luckily (for me), my belief system has no such constraints. Idiot.


Pacifist: Oh please, international thug, stop raping and pillaging your neighbor.

International thug: No.

Pacifist: Um, couldn't we talk some more?

International thug: No.


Religious pluralist: Let us just acknowledge that there are many paths to God. There are no right and wrong answers.

Religious guy: No.

Religious pluralist: But you're wrong! There are no right or wrong answers! Oops.

Anonymous said...

I certainly concede the proposal could be more detailed, but I don't think it is as vague as it is made out to be---after all, the movement here has just begun.

My understanding is that Armstrong isn't trying to change the minds of zealots, but rather is trying to give voice to those people who take their religion seriously but are nevertheless not zealots.

My own feelings are that conversion must be understood as an INVITATION, not a compulsion. And the one sending out invitations must understand that not everyone who receives an invitation will accept it. And this does not rule out friendship and collaboration.

The question of whether or not harmony and competition can co-exist is an interesting; again, speaking for myself, I look to Qur'an 5:48 which speaks to subcutaneous harmony and also a kind of "competition":

"Unto every one of you We have appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie], then, with one another in doing good works. Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ."

"For, every community, faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself."

The "competition" described here is not of gaining converts, but of performing meritorious deeds upon the earth.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Well struck, Mark. That's it exactly.

Anonymous said...

I'm with sufi guy on this one. Granted, there a religious bigots aplenty. Yet history teaches that if you can get them engaged in dialogue, even bigots can change. Granted, again, that the odds might not be very good. But what's the alternative to dialogue? A few more rounds of religious bloodletting? I'll try dialogue.

Kevin Kim said...


Indeed, one of the most trenchant critiques of convergent religious pluralism is that it is actually a sort of crypto-inclusivism or even crypto-exclusivism. Convergent pluralism, simply by virtue of being a specific viewpoint, necessarily includes some folks and excludes others-- a fact that these pluralists aren't always willing to admit.

That's one reason why I've moved some distance away from John Hick's camp (Hick's philosophical paradigm is the most well-known example of convergent pluralism, i.e., many paths converging on the same summit).

But I remain sympathetic to Hick because we run into problems when we over-emphasize difference to the point of saying "You go your way; I'll go my way, and we'll trust that each of us will attain our respective form of salvation" (i.e., different paths leading to different summits-- divergent pluralism). If you're religious-- and even if you're not-- how can the divergent pluralistic stance make philosophical sense? There's a Christian heaven and a Muslim heaven and a Hindu moksha and nirvana?

Occam's Razor would suggest that we inhabit just one reality. The various competing visions of reality are therefore closer to or further from that reality (whatever it is), but it's possible that, at any given moment in history, more than one vision of reality is pointing more or less in the right direction. That's what John Hick is saying. Some people have taken Hick's version of convergent pluralism to be a heedless relativism (as caricatured in your "religious pluralist" example), but Hick wasn't actually saying that all religious traditions are equally legitimate. In fact, most pluralists, whatever type of pluralist they are, don't make such a claim. Pluralists come in all shapes and sizes. There's a pluralism of pluralisms.

None of which is to say I disagree with where you're going. Empirically speaking, there are and will be people who hew to a more exclusivistic way of thinking. There are also pluralists who do claim that all traditions are equally legitimate. Because such people exist, conflicts will always arise.

But we may have to parse out the different strands being pursued in this comment thread. Whether pursuit of dialogue is desirable is one such strand. Whether there will ever be religious harmony is another. The first issue lies more on the prescriptive/ethical plane; the second is more on the descriptive/empirical plane. The two strands are related, of course, because if we determine that global harmony is impossible, we may be tempted not to try for such harmony at all (and this seems to be where Bob Koepp's coming from-- better to try for dialogue than resign ourselves to more bloodletting).

I'm not sure that the viewpoints expressed in the thread so far are mutually exclusive. We might all agree, for example, that complete religious harmony is an impossibility. We might also agree that dialogue is generally better than violence. Even within this thread, there's room for building bridges of agreement, however limited in scope.

Or we can just pick up our dueling pistols, count off ten paces...


Kevin Kim said...

Oh, by the way, all-- the "dueling pistols" thing was a JOKE. I don't want to be accused of committing the fallacy of the excluded middle, as if I were implying that "we either try to find points of agreement or we kill each other." I do realize it's possible to coexist in peaceful-but-total disagreement.


Anonymous said...

If we never attempt to achieve what is improbable, we will never discover what is possible.

Anonymous said...

Whereas I am a big fan of Armstrong's writings; and

Whereas I am a "universalist" at heart, seeking to find those things which are common and inherent in most cultures and their accompanying theological vicissitudes;

Whereas I believe that neither the "radicals" in Islam nor the "evangelical fundies" in Christianity fully represent every single sentient being of those faiths;

I FULLY ADMIT I am just naive and idealistic enough to think that yes, world peace CAN BE attainable by the "majority in the middle" and as such, each of us has a moral responsibility to "Pay it Forward," and to be mindful in our daily living and interactions with our fellow man and Mother Earth.

Fuck organized religious rhetoric. Fuck it sideways. A good lot of "fundamentalists" on both sides exploit the words, and bastardize them with their contradictory deeds. It (organized religion) is a man-made concept, and serves no purpose but to be divisive, and at times, arrogant.

We need to look inward, recognize that we are human and need to treat our fellow humans with compassion and dignity, as well as recognize we need to be stewards for the world within which we reside.

Your favorite, flatulent infidel.

Anonymous said...

@ Bob:

That quote reminds me of another:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to his surrounding conditions.

The unreasonable man attempts to adapt his surrounding conditions to himself.

Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man." (G.B. Shaw)

As I commented elsewhere on Kevin's Walk, the very word harmony implies a concordance of different elements. If you don't have difference or pluralism, you don't even really have a harmony, just a bland, monochromatic sludge. ;)

I would describe myself as a religious pluralist, but not a convergent pluralist ala John Hick. In fact, I would suggest we are never going to find some theoretical model that will tie everything together into a nice neat conceptual package---and that's fundamentally okay.

The point I think isn't to answer the "question" of pluralism, because pluralism is simply not going away. The point is to have a dialogue to build mutual understanding, mutual respect, and yes, explore common ground (it does exist between all religions, believe it or not). This is worth having both because it makes peaceful coexistence/collaboration that much more possible, and also for its own sake. Rather than seeing diversity as a problem to be solved, we should be seeing it as a chance to explore.

I guess that puts me in the neighborhood of Raimon Pannikar. What say you, Kevin (or anyone else)?

Anonymous said...

My sentiments are with Sufi Guy. I see no reason we need to strive all to agree with some kind of doctrinal statement, or arrive at a conceptual system into which all forms of religious belief could fit. What there is a need for is to find a way to all live in the world together. We are perilously close to a global situation to which B. Franklin's "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hand separately" metaphorically applies. I figure every little bit helps, and public dialogue oriented to helping us figure out how to coexist (not agree, mind you--just coexist) surely is better than simply standing around bewailing the miserable state of the world.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Well, I agree of course that trying to work something out is better than bewailing, but the problem is that no sooner will everyone get together in a great big tent to have a nice week of dialogue than some zealot will pull up outside and detonate a truck bomb.

But sure, "dialogue" away, if you like. The problem, of course, is that the ones who want the dialogue aren't the problem.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Sufi Guy, "mutual respect" is simply not warranted in the most troublesome cases. Some religious "memeplexes" are so violent, intolerant, and, for want of a more accurate word, idiotic, that they deserve respect only for their virulence.

We can, I suppose, respect their knack for infecting minds in the same way we in the same way we must respect the enormously effective design of the AIDS virus. We can respect the unfortunate people whose minds have been taken over by these cognitive diseases, because they are still human beings, after a fashion. But that's about as much respect as I can manage, I'm afraid. And to offer any more respect than that is a dangerous posture; I can assure you the favor is not likely to be returned, and will be seen as nothing more than weakness. Which is exactly what it is.

Kevin Kim said...

Sufi Guy,

Panikkar's one of my heroes. He doesn't espouse models, and that's the worldview I'm drifting toward-- the incommensurability of worldviews. I'm not sure a coherent model that accounts for or somehow smoothly integrates religious diversity is possible, and I'm still rather put off by S. Mark Heim's orientational pluralism, a form of divergent pluralism that attempts to respect fundamental religious differences while also allowing all parties to trumpet the superiority of their own religious position.

I still have no clue how orientational pluralism's supposed to work in the real world; I tend to think that, if harmony is the answer to perceived disharmony, then people like Hick actually have a point when they argue that certain poisonous (i.e., disharmony-producing) elements within the various religious traditions will need to be unplugged. In Hick's case-- and he's speaking as a Christian-- this means letting go of the notion that Jesus Christ represents something normative, and letting go of the Bible as a source of literal fact. I'm sure Hick would apply the same thinking to other traditions as well.

But of course, people start screaming when you ask them to drop cherished beliefs, which brings us back to the accusation made against Hick: his pluralism isn't really pluralistic.


Maven hits on the idea of "paying it forward," i.e., spreading the harmony outward. I don't see the violent radicals as simply off in their own corner, isolated from the moderate mainstream. If there's any hope of reaching the radicals (and I'd agree that such hope is dim at best), it's going to be through people of the same tradition, not those from outside the tradition.

This is the flip side of Sam Harris's contention that we moderates are the dangerous enablers of the extremists. It's part of our moral duty, I think, to somehow fight against extreme behavior. By "our," I mean those of us who belong to religious traditions that have radical wings... which would be most of us!


Malcolm Pollack said...

The problem is that in certain exquisitely designed religious systems, scriptural literalism itself is a central and explicit foundational tenet, which renders moderation heresy.

Such systems are designed always to have at their core a self-renewing fount of fundamentalism, making them immune to Hick's approach.

Kevin Kim said...


True enough. That's why I see one aspect of the whole interreligious problem as a dirty turf war, where the turf is actually the minds and hearts of the young. The confirmed adult radicals won't be swayed, but youth can become disillusioned, especially if they can be exposed to a wider worldview than the sliver offered by their misguided elders.

Even in America, which is by no means a smoldering inferno of religious violence, we find "ex-" everything: ex-Mormons, ex-Catholics, ex-cultists, ex-fundamentalists... the fundie memeplex is powerful, but the young, reasonable, and open-minded are its weakness.

Hell, I used to be a creationist and biblical literalist, and back then, the expression "shut up" was a swear word on the order of "fuck you." People can change; they can wake up. Much depends on their environment and their own character.


Malcolm Pollack said...

Well, Kevin, if the young are as reasonable and open-minded as you say, perhaps there's hope for our species to begin to wean itself from religion altogether, which would solve all these interreligious problems at their root.

But I'm not particularly optimistic about that; it isn't likely to happen as long as there are so many infected adult minds to pass along the virus.

Malcolm Pollack said...

And here's what we are up against.

Anonymous said...

@ Malcolm: I agree, the fundamentalists are not going to be the ones coming to sit down and dialogue. However, the very fact that such a dialogue exists and is on-going deprives them of any shred of credibility they have. Ultimately, I think it helps to get rid of fundamentalism altogether. As Maven said, it's about "paying it forward".

I have to say I find your use of the phrases "infected minds" rather troubling, as well as the whole usage of the "meme" to describe religion. I think at best the meme is at best an extremely poor analogy that doesn't really capture the complex actuality of religion; at worst it is a word used to simply dismiss the ideas and beliefs of others as a "virus" which, presumably, must be "eradicated". Implicitly this language is as violent as that the most "virulent" fundamentalist; it also assumes that the one employing such language is free of such viruses and thus "pure". I won't invoke Goodwin's Law, but I can think a number of unsavory and relatively secular 20th century movements who employed the same language and killed tens of millions.

Secondly, I would advise you against relying on the New York Times and other western media as your primary source for information about groups like Hezbollah. The tendency is to take what are fundamentally complex socio-political realities and recast them as having to do with "religious revival across the Islamic world". Like the meme analogy, this is a highly simplistic, often poorly researched reduction of a large and complicated situation.

Without derailing this conversation too much, I will simply note that Hezbollah would not have the widespread support amongst Lebanese Muslims AND Lebanese Christians that it currently does if (a) Israel and the US altered their foreign policy in the Middle East, and (b) if the Lebanese government got its sh*t together started providing services that Hezbollah currently does for a sizable segment of the population (healthcare and education).

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Sufi Guy,

Yes, I did not expect that the language I used was going to sit well with everyone. I do not retract it, though. I have not arrived at this view casually or lightly, in ignorance or in haste, and I think it is capable of sustained and searching defense.

The secular monstrosities you allude to achieved what they did by co-opting the existing social and cognitive mechanisms of religion, and quite deliberately and explicitly so. This is precisely why they had to be secular, and had to suppress the practice of other religions: to clear the path to install their own custom-designed replacement.

Regarding religion as meme-complexes: there is nothing in the concept of memes, which are packages of ideas that can copy themselves from one mind to another, that renders them inadequate for representing the complexities of religious beliefs. On the contrary, religious ideas, which can certainly be as complex as you suggest, are perfect examples of how memes operate. A mind altered by becoming host to a powerful religious meme can be transformed almost beyond recognition. Indeed, as in the viral transmission of disease, in the saddest cases such a mind becomes little more than a machine for propagating the religious memes that have taken it over.

As for the Times, please be assured that it is not my only source of information on these matters. The timing of that article's appearance on today's front page simply seemed apt.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Sufi Guy, one further point:

A dialogue amongst the moderates may, as you say, deprive the zealots of credibility. But it only has this effect on the minds of the moderates themselves. And those minds aren't the problem.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm: I have to disagree with your assessment of memes. I see no useful information or insights that they offer. They seem to me to be little more than abstractions. This is also not a position I take lightly, so let me explain it (although I expect you have heard many of these objections before).

I think it is highly problematic to apply the concept of the gene to mental phenomena, simply because mental phenomena are quite different. Genes are discrete units of hereditary with specific functions and properties. It is interesting that you speak of "meme-complexes"---but can you break down a meme complex into specific memes? Can you point to a specific function of each meme, the way geneticists can with genes? What differentiates one memetic unit from another? Whereas "genes" correspond to concrete material entities, the lines we draw around "memes" seem to me to be rather vague and arbitrary. They seem to be a simplistic reification of complex mental processes. You simply can't point to an atomic conceptual unit in the same way that you can point to a genetic unit.

One of many problems with the notion of memes is that they afford minimal autonomy to the very minds they are said to "infect". It reduces the human subject to little more than a passive "carrier", and I would argue this is simply not how the majority of religious believers or human beings in general operate.

Proponents of memes also assumes a high degree of homogenity between different carriers of a single "meme", even when such homogenity does not exist. I know of no two Christians or Muslims or Buddhists who have precisely the same beliefs or the same understanding of doctrine---even though they supposedly share the same "memes".

Finally, the notion of the meme ultimately undercuts itself, since if seems if we are to take it seriously the only way of judging a meme's intrinsic value is by its success at spreading. If the human mind is little more than a meme-vehicle, then I don't see how notions like ethics come into play at all, which means that the only "good" meme is a successful meme, one that is good at replicating itself. If so, there would seem to be no basis for your claims that religion is a meme we are better off without---if you subscribe to the idea of memes.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm, there are many on which points I could take you up, but Sufi Guy has addressed several of them already, so I think I'll tackle your contention that if "our species . . . weans itself from religion altogether," that "would solve all these interreligious problems at their root". In a sense, of course, that's trivially true--if no religion, then no interreligious problems. However, I doubt somehow that a lack of religion would result in a lack of closed-minded absolutism, self-justification of acting out of one's violent impulses, or even a praticularly higher level of rationality in human discourse.

My point is that many of the problems that you habitually attribute to religion are in problems with both human thought and human actions that may crop up in religious environs, but also crop up among atheists, and any other category of humans you would care to designate. Even the phenomenon that some ideas, if they get widespread credence, make certain kinds of bad actions more likely is hardly restricted to religion or religious ideas. And given that you've virtually conceded elsewhere that rationality is a weaker basis for morality than appeals to our less rational selves, and that in that sense at least religion is a strong basis for morality, I'm curious as to just why you think the world would actually be better off without religion. Whence the better moral system, or the sounder means of inculcating and promoting that better system, if religion were to disappear?

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Sufi Guy,

Well, clearly we differ about whether "meme" is a useful concept. I think it is. I doubt we will resolve that disagreement in this comment thread; it seems beyond the scope of the current discussion, as well as being off-topic.

You do seem, however, to be objecting to claims about memes that I haven't made. For instance, I'll gladly agree that memes are not just like genes; indeed it is hard to imagine how they could be. I have often wondered why so much heat is generated by this; it strikes me as odd that anyone would attempt to press the metaphorical resemblance to such literal detail. Certainly none of the academic proponents of the memetic notion do so, and neither do I.

Also, I made no claim about "intrinsic value" of memes. I am not suggesting, for example, that the memes that make up my own mind are more "valuable" in any objective sense than those, say, of a jihadist; after all, to what objective standard might we possibly refer to make such an assessment? It is simply that I prefer them myself, because I also prefer such things as rationalism, freedom from superstition, empowerment of women, and other attributes of post-Enlightenment Western civilization. But genuine objectivity is nowhere to be found in any of this. I'm glad to cede your point about ethics, too, as I have no reason to imagine that morality has any objective foundation whatsoever beyond its practical, adaptive value in promoting the evolutionary fitness of human groups.

But if you like, we can drop the troublesome term "meme" altogether, and substitute the word "idea". Minds, then, hold collections of ideas, and ideas are transmissible. Certain ideas have the power to transform the minds they occupy, and the result, sometimes, is that the minds thus populated can become zealous about making sure those ideas get copied into other minds as well.

I'm guilty of it too; I'd very much like to see ideas like "rationalism", "ssecularism", "democracy", "freedom of thought", "women's rights" and so forth get copied into as many minds as possible. So when I say that religious memes are something we would likely be better off without, that judgment is only possible in the context of the ideas that are, in my own subjective assessment, more desirable. And those assessments will vary, of course, depending on the sorts of ideas that make up each of our minds. If I wish to convince you, for example, that treating women as chattel is an undesirable attitude, then it will be necessary for me to find some context, some foothold in your own mind to which I can appeal. If it simply isn't there -- if the mental worlds we inhabit are simply too different -- then nothing is possible. And this is why interreligious dialogue, in my opinion, holds scant promise: at the very least, for it to work both parties must see some value in compromise, must be willing to question their beliefs. But the strongest religious idea-complexes are carefully, beautifully tuned to defend themselves against exactly that weakness.

Finally, I'd like to be clear that it is not any racial or ethnic group that I see any need to struggle against; the conflict is between ideas, and the disputed territory is human minds.

Malcolm Pollack said...


Quite right you are. I hope I haven't given the impression that I think that the abolition of religion - as if such a thing were even possible - is the answer to all the world's problems. But it is certainly easy to list a great many agonizing and immediate problems that would go away, and it would be interesting to see what sort of new problems would arise as a result of people being too reasonable, too free of baseless superstition, too free of reasons to hate other folks, too disinclined to believe unlikely things on no evidence, etc.

Believe me, I well realize that our human cognitive apparatus is a messy, imperfect, cobbled-together machine. And yes, I do believe that religion provides the moral and social glue that binds many human societies together, and appreciate your concern that being rid of it might not be an unalloyed blessing. But that there are already millions of people - look at Northern Europe, for example - who lead peaceful, friendly, unthreatening and civilized lives without leaning on religion proves, I think, that it can most certainly be done.

I live in New York City, where the prospect of a world without religious fanatics has a particularly poignant appeal, and where the actual fact of a world bursting at the seams with them casts a particularly gloomy shadow.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm - You speak too glibly, given the context of our present dialogue, of the poignant appeal to New Yorkers of the prospect of a world without "religious fanatics". Do you seriously believe that the primary motivation of those who brought down the twin towers was religious in nature? If you do, then I'll suggest that you are under the sway of a pathological meme that blinds you to the political roots of so-called "radical Islam." Putting a religious patina on a political ideology serves a purpose, of course; but it's a _political_ purpose. Establishing a global Ummah isn't about making sure everybody prays five times a day.

Anonymous said...

My point is that the abolition of religion would not result in "people being too reasonable, too free of baseless superstition, too free of reasons to hate other folks, too disinclined to believe unlikely things on no evidence, etc." The unreason, baseless weird belief (that is, your baseless belief would be weird; mine would be sane and sensible :-) ), xenophobia, etc. will still be there, amalgamated into other belief systems.

Hatred, violence, inability to see others as fellow human beings, a rejection of rationality itself--these are the problems, as I see it, and while they may be found among religious peope, they are not religious problems per se. I think it's counterproductive to attack religion broadside, for many reasons, not least of which is that you are then attacking a number of non-objectionable targets alongside the true problems. If what concerns you are the extremes of behavior, attack those, and attack the specific ideas associated with and supporting those, but it's a distraction to attack religion as a phenomenon. Perfectly ordinary, reasonable people whom you would be happy to have over to dinner are likely to feel, reasonably so, that you are attacking something precious to them and feel threatened; people who would otherwise be with you in the opposition to hatred, etc.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Bob,

I hardly think it glib to suggest that Muslim jihadists, like the ones who chanted "God is great" as they flew into the towers on a suicide mission for the glory of Islam, or the Talibani who do the same as they massacre schoolgirls, are religious fanatics.

Yes, the cultural morass in which such minds are conditioned is the product of political as well as religious history, but it would be glib in turn to imagine that the Muslim world's political woes are not themselves (as, for example, Bernard Lewis has explained in patient and searching detail) due in large part to Islam itself -- which is both uniquely literalist at its core, and in which politics and religion are inseparable as a matter of theological principle. We are speaking, after all, about a religion that explicitly divides the world into the "house of submission" and the "house of war".

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Addofio,

I do hope you don't think that I am in any way advocating some sort of violent campaign to eradicate religion from the world. I am not even imagining an "abolition" of religion, as you suggest I am. If religion is ever going to go, it will be because more and more people simply begin to see through it, and to see past it. I am not optimistic.

But although I certainly don't advocate a war on religion, or an abolition of religion, I am certainly within my rights to criticize religion, and to wish we were rid of it, which is all that I am doing here. But such is the strength of the taboo against such criticism of religion that one is seen as somehow beyond the pale even for doing that, although if it were any other sort of phenomenon we were discussing -- something to do with politics, philosophy, science, sports, you name it -- to make such an unfavorable critique wouldn't be unusual at all. Indeed, in any other area, one might routinely be expected to make a rational defense of one's views -- but to ask for such a thing when it comes to religious beliefs is considered an insult and an aggression, and religions themselves adroitly defend against such intellectual threats by declaring them "blasphemous".

Look at the harsh terms with with people browbeat each other daily regarding their political views -- but if you try that with religion in America you are seen as violating social norms, and if you do so elsewhere in the world you might end up dead. It is high time for this free pass -- that protects religious beliefs from the sort of searching criticism we are free to make of anything else -- to expire. I must also emphasize the distinction between expressing a critique of a system of ideas by commenting on a blog-post, and doing so by beheading journalists, or flying planes into towers.

As you say, religion merely makes effective use of universal features of the human cognitive design. Religion's chief purpose being, in my opinion, to bind human groups for the sake of mutual indentity, support, and defense, it is indeed true that to "attack" a religion simply has the effect of activating and reinforcing these defensive solidarity mechanisms, which, I agree, can be counterproductive. But religion exploits and amplifies these features -- and the existence of peaceful and civilized secular societies, and of many millions of people who live decent, generous lives without any religion at all, is ample evidence that we can do just fine without it.

As for anyone that I might have over for dinner, I think it is sad that there must be such a large and fundamental area that must be off-limits for discussion and critical examination (which, in your telling term, Addofio, becomes in the case of religion an "attack").

Anonymous said...

Hi Malcolm,

I concede that we will probably not change each others' minds on the subject of memes. ;)

I also think we will not change each others' minds on religion. I also must admit I have a very different understanding of "strength" and "weakness" vis a vis idea or meme complexes. I think that sincere religious people are willing to question, themselves, their beliefs, and their actions. They are constantly on their guard. I am serving God by this action? Or am I making excuses, erecting mental idols, as it were? (One can presumably see this at work in non-theistic religions as well, ala Linchi's injunction to "Kill the Buddha"). That to me is strong faith, not somebody who simply shuts out criticism, difference, and challenge.

I also have to agree with Bob and Addofio when it comes to a world without religion. I first of all think your criticism is misplaced. The problem is not religion, but radicalization. Radicalization stems not from religious belief or doctrine, but from a perception of marginalization and oppression. In other words, it is a problem with political and social roots. "Religion" here is a tool used to rationalize one's actions, but it is not the primary motivating factor. If there were no religion, but still the same political factors, then radicalization and violence would still ensue. Fundamentalist religion is the symptom, not the underlying cause of the disease.

Secondly, I don't think it's possible to get rid of religion. Even if you were to wipe away all existing religions, I can guarantee that in a very short time new religions would develop. In my opinion the human being is homo religious---whether because of Divine action or evolutionary factors (and who is to say those two are mutually exclusive?*).

* This is not in any way an endorsement of creationism or "intelligent design".

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Sufi Guy,

You wrote:

I think that sincere religious people are willing to question, themselves, their beliefs, and their actions. They are constantly on their guard. I am serving God by this action? Or am I making excuses, erecting mental idols, as it were? (One can presumably see this at work in non-theistic religions as well, ala Linchi's injunction to "Kill the Buddha"). That to me is strong faith, not somebody who simply shuts out criticism, difference, and challenge.

I quite agree. I have no quarrel with such views. Those are the people who will be at the interreligious-dialogue conventions, and I applaud their good intentions. As I said above, they are not the problem.

As for a world without religion: I have no doubt that political difficulties make fertile soil for radicalization. But as I mentioned to Bob just above, I disagree about which is the tail, and which the dog; I think that may of the Muslim world's present-day political and economic woes stem directly from Islamic religious and social dogma. Also, were it not for the promise of a reward in Paradise, many of these young radicals might work to solve their predicament in far more productive ways.

Finally, as I have pointed out repeatedly, it is simply not necessarily the case that new religions must arise as old ones die off; just look at a place like Denmark, for example. Many millions of people do just fine nowadays without any religion at all. How do you account for them? Are you saying that what they have managed -- to free their minds of this contagion -- is in principle impossible for all?

Yes, religion has arisen, and, has been robustly successful, because it serves an even more fundamental human purpose: to improve the fitness and cohesion of human social groups. But other ancient and adaptive institutions, such as slavery, have fallen away as our species has matured; I am simply expressing my own hope that religion will be next.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm, I was not attacking your right to criticize religion or anything else. The question I am attempting to bring to the fore isn't a matter of "rights" at all. I am merely critiquing your critique, if you will.

Nor do I disagree that people can and often do manage well without any overt religious belief system or religious organization. But you do take broadside swipes at "religion", unqualified by "radical" or "fundamentalist" or "literalist", on a regualr basis. And you seem to equate religious thinking with irrational thinking (in general, not just the thinking of religious extremists--until the fallacy is pointed out to you, at which point you retreat to pointing to the extremists as being the really problematic people), and to assume that those free of religion are somehow more rational than those "infected" (a deliberately pejorative word choice) by religion, a contention I doubt you could empirically defend. I am trying to encourage you to be more consistently precise and nuanced in your critique. If moderate religion and religious people aren't "the problem", then when you are discussing the problem, it seems to me desirable to make that clear.

But to haul things back to the original question somewhat--if the problem is ideas, extreme ideas that lead people to engage in violent, destructuve behavior, then it seems to me that for moderate people to put moderate ideas out into the public sphere in competition with those extreme ideas might actually be not entirely useless. The dialogue Armstrong is calling for may not be a dialogue you want to participate in, but that doesn't automatically make it undesirable or even merely a waste of time.

Anonymous said...


I disagree about which is the tail, and which the dog; I think that may of the Muslim world's present-day political and economic woes stem directly from Islamic religious and social dogma.

Again, we will probably have to accept mutual disagreement on this particular subject---I am of the opinion that most of the difficulties in the Muslim world stem from colonialism.

Finally, as I have pointed out repeatedly, it is simply not necessarily the case that new religions must arise as old ones die off; just look at a place like Denmark, for example. Many millions of people do just fine nowadays without any religion at all. How do you account for them?

Just because statistically speaking, people do not belong to any religion doesn't mean that they are not "religious". They are any number of secular creeds which have tenets one can only believe on the basis of faith. A key example of this is the faith many non-religious people place in inevitable human progress, a belief which has its basis in a linear conception of history which developed from Christianity. Whether they realize it or not, many (perhaps even most) secular Europeans still have a worldview that employs Christian categories and values.

In some cases there is even a full blown secular eschatology, like the secular ideology of transhumanism, which has its own version of the rapture (in the form of "the singularity"). One even finds faith-based statements coming from mouths of the "New Atheists", like Daniel Dennett, who believes that cell phones, television, and portable radio will bring about the end of organized religion as we know. Clearly, Dennett is a "true believer", otherwise he would realize the role technology has played in, say, the Iranian Revolution (Ayatollah Khomenei's speeches spread because of the portable tape recorder). I see Dennett's belief in the magic of communication technology as being on the same level of somebody who believes in faith healers, in spite of the overwhelming empirical evidence against the claims.

I have yet to encounter any person, even atheists, who are without the religious instinct. I stand by my claim that the human being is homo religious, and that religion cannot be eradicated even if we try. It will just come back in different forms.

I also disagree that religion can simply be reduced to an evolutionary strategy, but this is probably worth a whole separate topic of its own.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Sufi Guy,

Your likening Daniel Dennett's attitude about the erosive effect of modern communication on medieval religions -- an attitude that is nothing whatsoever like religious faith, but is simply confident optimism -- to the unquestioning faith in supernatural agencies and scriptural literalism that such religions espouse seems quite absurd to me, but you are entitled, of course, to your opinion. I have the feeling that it is not the sort of topic about which further discussion will be terribly productive.

As for the universality of religiosity, I must ask: how do you think you would be able to recognize a person who "lacks the religious instinct" if you were to encounter one?

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Addofio,

Guilty as charged: religion as it is generally represented does indeed seem to me to be at odds with rational inquiry; I can see no rational reason to believe, for example, that there is an anthropomorphic Agent in the sky who ostensibly loves us, is infinitely merciful, omnipotent, all-knowing, etc., and yet who routinely sentences innocent toddlers to die in agony of bone cancer as their praying parents watch in helpless and grieving torment, or who malevolently shears away his faithful servants by the tens of thousands -- despite their groveling and obsequious supplication -- with such instruments as tsunamis and hurricanes. All of this strikes me as so absurd as to be beyond the credence of anyone whose powers of doubt and skepticism have not been suppressed by some explicit, and explicable, psychological mechanism.

You are right, though: there are indeed rational minds who manage to co-ordinate religious belief with genuine philosophical curiosity; William Vallicella is a good example. Someone like that is simply willing to leave such questions as the problems mentioned above as "mysteries", and there is nothing further the non-believer can say about it. But the God of such believers is a very different, and far more amorphous, concept than the one that the great mass of people carry about with them. A great deal of academic theology consists of finding the philosophical loopholes that allow a rational mind to maintain religious faith without embarrassment or excessive cognitive dissonance; the unbeliever simply can't see why anyone would go to all the trouble.

I agree that "infected" is a provocative word. But when one looks at a jihadist "martyr" -- a young person who, had these toxic ideas not been installed in their minds, might have had a long and productive life -- it's hard not to see it as exactly that: a self-propagating cognitive virus that, having got hold of a malleable mind, led it to destruction. And once you have seen how apt the metaphor is for the most virulent religions, it's hard not to notice that it extends equally well to all religions. Its just that some strains of the virus aren't particularly harmful, and can even be, in some ways, beneficial. Perhaps in some especially benign cases it might, I grant you, even be seen as more of an "inoculation" than an infection.

As for your point about exposure to moderate ideas having a chance at eroding fundamentalism: well, this is no more and no less than the very sort of optimism for which Sufi Guy is jeering, below, at Daniel Dennett. It may indeed help; I don't suppose even at worst it will hurt much, pace Sam Harris.

Addofio, you know that I do not wish to be uncivil. But as a lifelong outsider to religion -- one who was never indoctrinated as a child, and to whom it simply seems incredible that sane and serious adults could actually believe such things, or would really even want to (the sort of person that Sufi Guy thinks doesn't even exist) -- I find it difficult to feign respect for beliefs that strike me as preposterous, but which nevertheless affect every aspect of the society I must live in. And I am not going to conceal my hope that a brighter day may come when we can just put the whole sorry mess behind us.

Anonymous said...

Malcolm--so, in short, you'd like everyone to see the world in the same way you do, and to think pretty much as you do, valuing the same things you value. A natural impulse--and exactly the same impulse that, say, a Christian who believes all that stuff about salvation and damnation might reasonably have. Me, too, I hasten to add--I, for instance, would like see everyone agreeing that there are many legitimate and viable ways of seeing the world and that none of us has cornered the market on truth or, still less, wisdom.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Oops - the jeering-at-Dennett was above, of course, not below.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Addofio,

No, I'm certainly not hoping for a world in which everyone sees things exactly as I do. How boring!

But that doesn't mean that there aren't some ways of looking at the world that we might all be better off without.

Mark Tueting said...

Some ways of looking at the world have better natural consequences.

Rational, reality-based understanding of the world works better than religiously-based mental paralysis.

An earlier comment said that unreasonable men are the source of progress. I disagree. It is eminently reasonable to understand the world and then to modify the world in a way that promotes the common weal.

I'm of the camp that says that the Islamic world's problems predate colonialism. In fact, the very existence of those problems allowed colonialism to happen. In 1000 AD, the Islamic world was, with China, the most technologically advanced culture. But somehow that changed. And that change cannot be attributed to colonialism.

In fact, the cry of "colonialism! Colonialism!" is counterproductive if we wish to improve the material well-being of the third world. Those claims distract from the real, reasonable things that can be done to improve the commonweal.