When I first learned about Patheos just over a year ago, I thought the organization was just another attempt by spiritual seekers to find something to put in place of God’s throne. Something meaningful, spiritual, but not too prickly, because seekers have had it with prickly. Everybody wants religion to be like their favourite pillow, and if it isn’t like that it can just go to hell.

That’s where Patheos comes in.

The spiritual seekers who cobbled together this pastische of misinformation (yes, I went there) and parochial pieties are called Leo and Cathie Brunnick, “a husband-and-wife team,” who look a lot like those husband and wife teams that sell prayer-cards on the religion cable networks, or (cutting them some well-needed slack) turbo-food processors. What they serve up in their articles and forums is a lot like what you’d get at the spout- end of a Veg-o-Whirrl.

They do not list their credentials for such an undertaking. Leo professes [sic] to be a non-practicing Catholic, Carrie a Lutheran turned evangelical. They just say they were “curious” about religion when they got married (any other activities?) and were looking for a way to blend their families. There’s that blender image again.

They also mention that Patheos is a hybrid of the word path, meaning path, and the word theos, meaning God, and that it is pronounced PA-theos. I do not know what PATH-eos means, however, if I flip the hybrid the other way, nor can I really pronounce it. Somewhere I saw the term referred to as a portmanteau, and I adore the word portmanteau. And you should also know that in the OnLine Christian College’s list of the top fifty spirituality blogs, they are ranked at number 10.

They–Carrie and Leo– are a for-profit company, by the way, and I say more power to anyone who can still milk the gods for lucre. More mysteriously they say (without any attempt to prove themselves honest) that “ is the premier online destination to explore and experience the world’s beliefs and to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality.” They get between 100,000 and 200,000 hits per week. Probably mainly from people who are Googling the word pathos.

To test the poignancy of their articles, I clicked Roman Catholicism. I braced myself in my chair, ready to engage in the global dialogue that awaited me.

But, alas! All I was able to find was an advertisement for Roman Catholicism, written by insiders, and so pukily uncritical it might have been printed on the side of a bus going to a Knights of Columbus Convention in Tampa.

If a camel is a horse designed by a commitee, the article I found was unquestionably written by a committee of camels. Let me simply illustrate with the following traffic wreck of conflated paragraphs:

Jesus’ first apostles handed authority down in an apostolic succession that developed into a system of bishops, but the specific jurisdiction of Rome’s bishop was initially unclear.

Fact: The doctrine of apostolic succession wasn’t clearly articulated until the very end of the second century, when it wasn’t called that, and was not tied to Rome until later. Perhaps the writer means to say, “According to devout Roman Catholic tradition…”?

But this inability to separate belief-based postulates from the required nuances and cautions of religious studies scholarship is the pit that all quick-fix sites like this one (and including BeliefNet) have struggled unsuccessfully to avoid. By the same token, Muslim eavesdroppers have begun to love Patheos for this very weakness: did I mention it was like your favourite pillow? In fact, it is like everyone’s favourite pillow, which is why, I suspect, the advertising revenue will continue to roll in.

A little more:

Roman Catholicism Historical Perspectives
As she [sic] attempts to interpret and implement the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church is reexamining her relationship with the world, other faiths, and fellow Christians.

Fact: This statement might have been current in 1969 and may have had a lingering scent of authenticity in 1989. It is totally unclear why Vatican II is doing at this point in the article, or whether the writers have the foggiest inexpert notion what Vatican II did do and failed to do. I’ll bet whoever wrote this still goes to guitar masses.

Rock me!


Roman Catholicism Scriptures
Several centuries passed before Church authorities weighed a variety of scriptural writings to establish a definitive canon of authoritative texts known as the New Testament.

Really? This isn’t the way is happened at all. Variety there certainly was, but the “canon” was really settled by the force of tradition and individual bishops. The writers seem to think that at some point, possibly at Reno, the bishops convened and one by one, like congressional amendments, the gospels were yead and nayed (“Reverendissimi: Omnes pro Marcum per ‘Sic’ significantur.”) The matter is so complicated and so prone to cause disagreement between protestants, Catholics, Jews, and scholars who like plaid ties that it is best just left alone.

Roman Catholicism
Roman Catholicism Early Developments
Within 400 years after Jesus’ passion, Christianity developed from an illegal, persecuted, and underground religion into the official, only, and dominating faith of the Roman Empire.

Ah, finally early developments. But no, it wasn’t Roman Catholicism that was persecuted. It was called Christianity, and early on not even that. “Within 400 years?” Again, no, paganism lingered well into the fifth century. “Only?” Where were the Jews and Zoroastrians and pagans of the Middle East? “Jesus’ passion,” using non-emotive language, do you mean his execution? Blinders pinching a little too tight around the eyes of the Roman Catholic scribe who penned this nionsense?

Roman Catholicism Schisms, Sects
Catholicism experienced intermittent theological heresies and three major schisms – the Great Schism between east and west, the Great Western Schism of rival papacies, and the Protestant Reformation.

Yes it did. I would say ongoing rather than intermittent. I need to hear a bit more about these “rival papacies” (which were certainly to be reckoned with) to know why the writer would like to put them in this space, since early heresies have little in common with political schisms. And to include the Reformation, a fissure within western Christendom that affected the Catholic Church in both political and theological ways, in this category screams naivete.

Critiquing this sort of stuff is wearying. In addition to writing that can charitably be described as hasty pudding and most glommed from other internet sources, the authors did not avail themselves of fact-chekers or expert editors (that’s expensive) and permitted their errors and opinions to do what errors always do on the web: grow like mushrooms. I think BeliefNet does slightly better, and despite its reputation for slovenly scholarship, it is possible to red-flag a Wiki article on these subjects and alert unemployed professors everywhere to have their marking pencils handy.

Patheos on the other hand seems to have assigned the verisimilitude of articles to a range of denominational gatekeepers whose role is essentially to ensure that the articles reflect a kind of average piety toward their subject. Nothing too scholarly, nothing too critical, and thus nothing too right.

Yesterday we were treated to a series of fatuous articles about “Humanism,” with this tantalziing come-on from the editors

From a past infused with religious belief into a future where secularism and nontheistic morality can thrive, western nations everywhere are exploring Humanist alternatives to faith. How will Humanism interact with rising religious fundamentalisms? Where might Humanism be able to introduce new ways of dealing with the moral questions of our generation? Patheos investigates the future of Humanism as a vital tradition in its Future of Religion series

The writers chosen for this assignment seem to correspond to the website developer’s total misapprehension of what humanism is–two officials of the Center for Inquiry, one ex-official who now heads a group called American Atheists, another (a very nice chap, however) who runs a blog called “The Friendly Atheist,” and a perfectly vomitous piece by someone named Chris Highland that reads like the testimony of a spirit-struck pentecostal who was just shaken awake by the angel of Reason and Kindness.

If Patheos wanted to do something useful, it could have set about providing simple to read summaries of the world religions–and by all means, at some point in the future include humanism–because this isn’t. This is all about secularism, atheism, and the bits in between. High time to rescue the term humanism from the clutches of people the the Patheos-crowd are playing to, the ones who want sloppy souls everywhere to equate humanism of all stripes with unbelief. And shame on the contributors to this segment for not seeing through the plan. And shame on Patheos for encouragiung such confusion.

Meantime, do your job: summarize and forum away, but do the job responsibly, responsibly enough so that your child’s seventh grade teacher doesn’t fail her for coughing up this stew of errors when she’s called upon to produce an essay on Hinduism.

Do I have a top ten religion sites list? Of course.

Religion Facts
Beliefnet (with caution) (needs a new website)
The Secular Web (by far the best source for anything related to secularism)
Biblical History
Christianity (come away smiling)
Bad Reigion (just because there needs to be such a site)
Islam (consider the source, then enjoy it)
New Oxonian (for when you’re fed up with the other sites)

Of Patheos and the the Patheostrians who live by Gaul, the less said and written the better.

CFI Proves Idiom True!

The Fine Art of Contradiction

The Center for Inquiry’s Statement on the Ground Zero Controversy

CFI fully supports the free exercise of religion; protecting the rights of believers and nonbelievers is central to CFI’s mission. Accordingly, CFI endorses President Obama’s recent statement reminding the country that Muslim Americans enjoy the same rights as other Americans and should not be treated as second-class citizens. There should be no legal impediment to the placement of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero, just as there should be no legal impediment to the placement of a church, temple, or synagogue near Ground Zero.

Ground Zero Mosque, Winning Plan

Further, CFI laments the effort by some to turn the proposed Islamic center into a political issue. Government officials and candidates for office should not intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship. Such conduct violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Establishment Clause. Government officials should not be deciding who is a “moderate” Muslim any more than they should be deciding who is a “moderate” Christian or Jew.

A number of private individuals have protested the proposed Islamic center. The tone and substance of these protests covers a wide range. Some protesting the Islamic center have raised legitimate questions, but to the extent the objections to the Islamic center mistakenly equate all Muslims with Muslim extremists, CFI condemns them.
CFI maintains that an Islamic center, including a mosque, near Ground Zero, in and of itself, is no different than a church, temple, or synagogue. It is undeniable that the 9/11 terrorists were inspired by their understanding of Islam, and that currently there are far more Islamic terrorists in the world than terrorists of other faiths, but those facts are not relevant to the location of the Islamic center, absent evidence that terrorists are involved in this endeavor, and there is no such evidence.

CFI’s unequivocal support for the legal right of Muslims to place a community center near Ground Zero does not imply that CFI views the new center as an event to be celebrated. To the contrary, CFI is committed to the position that reason and science, not faith, are needed to address and resolve humanity’s problems. All religions share a fundamental flaw: they reflect a mistaken understanding of reality. On balance, CFI does not consider houses of worship to be beneficial to humanity, whether they are built at Ground Zero or elsewhere.

This statement supersedes any prior statement issued by CFI regarding the Ground Zero controversy.

Unofficial Translation

The Ground Zero Mosque (placeholder name) hubub is getting a lot of attention. CFI would like to get a lot of attention because frankly no one pays any attention to what we say anymore. This is the kind of issue we ought to say something about so, here we are.

A couple of days ago we said some silly things, or maybe said things that gave our readers the idea that we approved of religion.

So forget all that and let us try again. Number one, however: We do not like religion, or as we like to call it “theism.” Theism is evil, but that doesn’t mean you should not tolerate it. Just because your neighbor is a pervert doesn’t mean you should burn down his house, right? This is our core philosophy about such things. Violence doesn’t solve anything. Ridicule does.

As a free speech advocacy group, we support the right of anyone to say anything. We have even taken the lead in being offensive and insulting toward religion, just to make our point.

As a super-charged First Amendment Rights organization, we believe that everyone is entitled to practice their faith as they see fit. Or not to practice any faith. Commitment is the real issue. We also think the jury is out on Mormons,especially the sexual multitaskers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other annoying groups, but they’re not in the news right now, are they?

Some people think that because we spend most of our time ridiculing religion that we would oppose building the Ground Zero Mosque (placeholder name). They have another think coming. We are full of surprises and this is just one of them. Politicians should butt out and not try to politicize this. That’s for groups like ours. This isn’t about who loves America most. It’s about who’s right.

Basically we believe that a mosque is like a porn shop. You may not like what it sells but a guy’s got a right to make a living. Or it is like your evil neighbor’s house. You choose the best analogy.

Like we said before, Islam is just another religion. You can’t really draw any conclusions from the fact that there are maybe a zillion times more extremists in Islam than in any other religion. If there were a zillion more porn shops in Lincoln, Nebraska than Peoria, Illinois, what would you conclude? Exactly. That reminds us of a joke: How many altar boys does it take for a bishop to change a lightbulb?

Another thing we think is that Muslims need exercise. Not just driver’s-ed, weight- training with heavy explosives, running, and diving but maybe pilates, tae kwon do, twenty minutes on a non-exploding treadmill, maybe a few laps in a warm pool with a Michael Bublé track playing in the background. We think the Community Center attached to the Ground Zero Mosque (placeholder name) might be a good idea. Maybe a small side chapel, the way Catholics have their tabernacles or wtf nowadays, but all the rest of the space for exercise and International Menu Nights–focus on veg.

CFI looks forward to joining the residents of the Ground Zero Mosque at its groundbreaking along with people of faith, people of no faith, people with yellow teeth and people who are just passing by. Like all freedom-loving Americans, we celebrate our differences, along with people of colour and people of no colour.

We celebrate the fact that our Constitution gives us the right to paint our crappy house purple on a street of well-maintained Victorian clapboard whites. We believe we have the right to insult or not to insult and to be offended or not to be offended. We’re not too sure about carrying sidearms to public rallies. But we’re working on a position paper and you can bet it will be awesome.

The key thing is consistency.

The Necessity of Atheism, The Indispensability of Doubt

Sometimes old diseases require old cures. 1811. Shelley writes, in the essay that got him sent down from Oxford:

Lord Bacon says that atheism leaves to man reason, philosophy, natural piety, laws, reputation, and everything that can serve to conduct him to virtue; but superstition destroys all these, and erects itself into a tyranny over the understandings of men: hence atheism never disturbs the government, but renders man more clear- sighted, since he sees nothing beyond the boundaries of the present life. — Bacon’s Moral Essays.

…Thelogy mde man first fear and adore the elements themselves, the gross and material objects of nature; he next paid homage to the agents controlling the elements, lower genies, heroes or men gifted with great qualities. By force of reflection he sought to simplify things by submitting all nature to a single agent, spirit, or universal soul, which, gave movement to nature and all its branches. Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict him until his knowledge of nature chases these phantoms which he has always so adored.

If we wish to explain our ideas of the Divinity we shall be obliged to admit that, by the word God, man has never been able to designate but the most hidden, the most distant and the most unknown cause of the effects which he saw; he has made use of his word only when the play of natural and known causes ceased to be visible to him; as soon as he lost the thread of these causes, or when his mind could no longer follow the chain, he cut the difficulty and ended his researches by calling God the last of the causes, that is to say, that which is beyond all causes that he knew; thus he but assigned a vague denomination to an unknown cause, at which his laziness or the limits of his knowledge forced him to stop. Every time we say that God is the author of some phenomenon, that signifies that we are ignorant of how such a phenomenon was able to operate by the aid of forces or causes that we know in nature. It is thus that the generality of mankind, whose lot is ignorance, attributes to the Divinity, not only the unusual effects which strike them, but moreover the most simple events, of which the causes are the most simple to understand by whomever is able to study them. In a word, man has always respected unknown causes, surprising effects that his ignorance kept him from unraveling. It was on this debris of nature that man raised the imaginary colossus of the Divinity.

If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction. In proportion as man taught himself, his strength and his resources augmented with his knowledge; science, the arts, industry, furnished him assistance; experience reassured him or procured for him means of resistance to the efforts of many causes which ceased to alarm as soon as they became understood. In a word, his terrors dissipated in the same proportion as his mind became enlightened. The educated man ceases to be superstitious.

And we talk about “new” atheism? What we need to stop pretending is that there is anything new about atheism and anything worth repeating. Anyone persuaded by the force of Shelley’s 1811 arguments will be persuaded by anything written in 1789, 1869, 2008.

It’s all the same.

Which is to say, there is nothing to add to the atheist case against God. Like the Baltimore Catechism used to say, “God always is, always was, and always remains the same.” How dull–especially for him–except so do the arguments against his being.

My advice to my fellow sceptics and unbelievers: Ignore the believers. Anyone who believes anything without a reason for doing so, as W.K. Clifford noted more than a century ago, deserves to have his ships sunk at sea. Especially the ones he strongly suspected weren’t seaworthy to begin with.

But I write for a different reason. I write to say that even if you don’t believe atheism is “necessary,” dear believer, how can you deny that doubt is indispensable?

I trace my own dilemma to one of Bultmann’s students, Gerhard Ebeling. In a nice little book called The Problem of Historicity in the Church and Its Proclamation (1967) (hideous title, typically German), Ebeling wondered how any faith–by which he meant Christian–could be authentic (ah! the sixties!) if the believer has not encountered doubt.

I was not fooled back then. For a lot of the hermeneutical indolents of the era, doubt was just another name for the devil You encountered it, you said “Go ‘way,” and then you embraced faith (or more precisely, the Christ event, which was more like embracing a beam of light), and stayed Christian–whatever that meant.

Essentially what it meant was to embrace everything doubt imposed on your belief that did not cause you to sacrifice your identity. No miracles. No resurrection, No sin, really. No guilt–especially. No supernatural salvation. A discounted Christianity without the sacrifice of the cross, the pain of good works, or the affront of conscience. The kind of thing anyone could get behind in 1967. Far out.

The difference between Shelley and Ebeling is not so great, except while the believer will reject out of hand Shelley’s undergraduate confidence that belief is absurd–so great his faith in Hume–Ebeling actually calls believers to a test that few are willing to perform. Doubt what is most important. Doubt God.

The religious significance of doubt is enormous. Unfortunately for Christians it is epitomied in two events that argue against its veracity.

Early Christians doubted that Jesus would come again. Paul (?) is clear on this point in the earliest of his letters, where he asserts that he will live, and the present generation will live to see it happen. It didn’t. The fundamental disproof of the second coming, a formative event in early Christian history, is actually enhrined in its literature.

The second is more problematical. Some early Christians doubted that Jesus had been crucified, or more exactly that he had been crucified and raised to see a new day.

The resurrection stories of the gospels offer contradictory evidence and (cumulatively) imply less that his resurrection happened than that it probably didn’t. The literary defenses of a community soon supplanted sober report about what “really” happned. It reaches a climax in the gospel of John, the story of Thomas, who grotesquely places his fingers in the wounds of the crucified and risen lord.

Christianity skewered itself on this standard of proof, because it could not be verified, could not be duplicated, and created in the person of Thomas the paradigm of every doubting Christian from his day to this.

Alas, we are either in Thomas’s position or the position of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” There, an escaped serial killer is mowing down a family of errant travlers in the American south, last of all the Grandmother who tries to talk the killer out of his deed by reciting scripture and telling him that he is one of God’s own, a “good man.” The conversation turns to Jesus:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.

Oh, religion is hard. But doubt must be taken seriously. If Shelley and his successors seem too self-assured, too pompus, take into account Ebeling’s view that anyone who believes without doubting hasn’t really begun to believe anthing.

“I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known.

Pedantic Multiculturalism

There is a post just up from the very good writer Susan Jacoby. In it she claims,

I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. And I find myself in a lonely place in relation to many liberals, political and religious, because I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of ‘tolerance,’ religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

When it comes to Susan’s “lonely place,” as my students often say to me, I feel her.

We both realize that most religious liberals know that they live in a secular world, do not confront their daily affairs, social or business, as though the rewards and outcomes are governed by an imaginary clock wound up by a God before time began.

Jacoby and I might also agree–though I am not sure–that there is such a thing as religious wisdom, that religion has made its fair share of contributions to ethics, not all of them in the domain of rule-based, reason-blinding commandments, and that religion has sometimes fueled the human imagination through art, poetry, music, human passion, human (dare I say it) logic. By dint of some (not all) of its theological metaphors–freedom and liberation come to mind–religions have also inspired weak men to stand against tyranny and oppressed women to stand against brutal men.

And though more famous in the minds of its critics, like Diderot, for instigating fear and priestcraft, religion has also been a source of consolation for tens of millions of ordinary souls, and like it or not, still is.

When it has not done this constructively, by producing its own class of intellectuals, scholars, skeptics, moral counselors and dissidents, it has by its very nature been an important touchstone for ideas opposed to it and destructive of it–by the sheer force of its motivating idea that there is something beyond the individual (explained by religion as God, by secularists as society, by humanists as the dignity of Humankind) that “calls forth” other ideas like virtue, grace, sanctity and purpose. I am not saying that these things are “called forth” in the same way or to the same effect or that all religions (or its Others) do this with efficiency.

In fact religion accomplishes its ends in an ancient and outmoded way that many people, myself included, regard as inferior to the non-religious modality. This is not a curiosity or accident: It is chronology. Religion is to science as a sundial is to the atomic clock. They are both fit for a purpose, but not exactly the same purpose. I am not defending the advantages of sundials (all those cloudy days–what a mess). But most of us can order our lives with the benefit of hall clock or a wristwatch without making the leap from the mechanical to the the atomic. A little ambiguity is always a healthy state to be in, give or take five minutes, a snooze alarm, a second drink before calling it a night.

But not ambiguities that involve centuries–millennia–of changes in human knowledge. Not discordant visions that require us to think (as the Romans thought) that “what is old is true,” and what is new inferior and (often enough) illegal. The Roman church was the providential heir of the Roman empire in its love of the past, tradition, and authority. Most historians now scoff at the idea of a “fall” of the Empire before the moral sovereignty of the kingdom of Christ. The Church did not transform the empire, it created itself in its image, a grim enough parody which the historian Gibbon believed was largely possible because of its intolerance for other points of view. The enforcement of orthodoxy has never been compatible with the virtue of tolerance.

A key difference I would have with very religious people is that they embrace a spiritual view of the world that is at odds with every other compartment of their rational life. They know that pet cats die and do not rise, but believe, often with the grotesque literalism of a child’s fantasy, that they will live forever. They know that hard work, education, and perseverance often pay off, but believe that prayers for health and wealth–and the destruction of enemies–are answered.


Some religious people live in a between-time in which reason itself is considered a liability to God’s saving power. And before we decide that I am talking about Muslims crouching in the backlands of Sindh, I am also talking about the Tea Party fundamentalists with their Let go and Let God view of the economy. I am talking about Jews who convince themselves that the preservation of the Jewish state is based on secular and political realities rather than a biblical mandate. I am talking about Christian parents who send their children to the equivalent of New Testament madrasahs to keep them out of the clutches of the public education system (itself nothing to brag about), and politicians who play the dumbth card with voters whom they count on to be passionate, distractable, underinformed, and…religious.

A very religious view of the world is not only a mixed blessing but an unnatural vision of reality that is based on metaphysical exceptionalism: pigs can’t fly, but Jesus did. Enemies prosper because we are evil (or at least not good enough). Education is useful, just insofar as it doesn’t interfere with faith and belief. What this kind of thinking gets you in Oklahoma and South Waziristan is a rationalized defense of ignorance which some religious people will deplore as being a feature of “other people’s” religion, but often not of their own.

When, as seems to be happening in our unredeemed world, religion gets painted into a corner by the acts of its most perfect adherents–the ones who take the premises of a specific revealed faith seriously–the argument of the imperfect, the moderates, the modernists, usually runs that perfection is aberration. “We used to do these things–stone adulteresses, sell daughters into slavery, punish heretics, beat our women into submissive ignorance by using truncheons, fists and battery acid (note how many of these expressions of frustration are directed at women) but we don’t do that any more. At least not the ‘best’ of us.” Ask Jacoby’s protagonist Ayaan Hirsi Ali what the worst do.


Because religion encourages feelings of exceptionalism, it is easy enough for Protestant and Catholic Christians and Jews to say that this long complaint really only applies to Islam, and not even to all Muslims.

But that is too facile. In the Catholic Church, not known for shy and retiring women, in and out of veils, there is an equally insidious slavery to the “culture of life” that regards pregnancy as a biological verdict imposed by a wonderfully mysterious but oddly inattentive God who regards abortion as murder and performs the equivalent of spriritual stonings every day in rejecting the poor, underinformed, pubescently curious, raped and molested daughters of Eve thought to be under his care. All of that, and he doesn’t pay the rent when the boyfriend leaves, and doesn’t want pro-choice Catholic politicians mocking his edicts by receiving communion. It is true of course: a zealous mullah and a zealous priest wear different tunics, but the intolerance that makes their lives happy have the same source.

So, when we hear pleas for religious tolerance based on the idea that the principle of tolerance is applicable to all religions equally, what kind of principle are we invoking? Where does it come from? Does it arise from God, the Father, whose intolerance for disobedience, homosexuality, and childlessness is well documented, or does it come from a process that involves rejecting this God, his pomps and works in the same way baptismal vows used to ask godparents, on behalf of their speechless wards, to reject the pomps and seductions of Satan. Is tolerance rooted, in other words, in something that has religion written all over it or in something else, something that has religion scratched out?

Does it come from the important recognition that common ancestry is no explanation of diversity when it comes to religion, or from the notion that sprang up at the end of the nineteenth century (not coincidentally the era of anthropological inquiry into recently “discovered” religions) that–really–religions are different ways of saying the same thing. This interfaith prayerwheel approach (that often uses Asian religion as the handle on the cylinder) takes us eventually to “religious inclusivism,” and allegedly a step beyond the old norms of religion based exclusivism (competing orthodoxies) and the namby-pambyism of religious pluralism (the mere recognition that faiths make similar demands on adherents and have to learn to cope with each other.)

So tolerance as religious protectionists use the term is nothing more than a didactic principle created from misreading nineteenth century social scientists. And it is a cozy principle at that, because the belief that all religions are saying the same thing leaves unanswered the question whether–just perhaps–one religion is saying it better than others and when the wheel spins again–just perhaps–all will be one, under Trinity, Allah, karma, or Divine Consciousness.

But tolerance is not a religious value in historical terms. It can’t be. It is the slow-won secular and political solution to the recognition that religions cannot be trusted to get along, that at base they are as likely to cause war and destruction as peace and harmony. The religious adherents, many but not all Islamic, who claim the “right” of toleration, often conflated with the word respect, and want to forbid insult to “religion,” often equated to the word Islam, are not really asking for toleration and are not really using the word insult or defamation in a consistent way.

They are asking that Islam be granted special and protected status, immunized from satire, lampoon, critical commentary, and more commonplace and spirited forms of evaluation. This “request” is not the effect of multiculturalism; it is the negation of certain core principles of multiculturalism–especially the post modern critique of special discourses. Islam has nothing at all to gain from a literal application of postmodern ideas to its value system. No religion does.

Jacoby’s resonant comments about “protectionism” as an outcropping of the multicultural bias of the last decade or two is a welcome pillar in the argument against the illicit use of the western view of tolerance to justify beliefs and behaviors that could no more have generated such a value than teach a turnip to fart. But what precisely is the connection between multiculturalism and protectionism?

Both in Islam and Christianity, toleration has been a dispensation given by an assured majority to an insecure minority to go on doing whatever religious things they were doing. Cyrus granted it to the Jews. The Romans did, too, but with crossed fingers behind their back. Constantine gave it to the Christians (and was then remembered as Christian himself). Henry IV granted it to French protestants after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when the citizenry was sickened at how inhospitable denominationalism was becoming. The British Parliament granted it after years of struggle to Presbyterians and Methodists, and finally to Catholics, which they had been once upon a time. Muslims from Damascus to Cairo made it a conditional gift to the ahl al kitab–submissive Christians and Jews–in their midst. Chastened by their European history, the fathers of the American Constitution took toleration one step further: separation of church and state, a solution which took the amazing step of saying that toleration is an ineffective control over something as pugnacious as religion. Only disregard will do.

Does toleration spring from multicultural influences or from other sources? However tempting to blame that vaporous nothing-really-matters- does-it?-ideology for all the sins committed against the rational mind inhabiting a fact-based universe, I think the current trend has a much longer history. It’s true of course that many Muslim intellectuals have read their Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida and Levinas.

I am also pretty sure that the swill generated by the worst “Postmodern” thinkers (yes, I think there are good ones: Richard Rorty is not to be doubted) is not the source of Islamic invocations of tolerance, which after all is a very specific value rather than a very vague one.

Above all, there is a semantic chasm between “tolerated behavior”– practices and ideas which while obnoxious to us may be tolerated as benign in social terms–and practices and ideas whose status is considered so irrefragably true by some that they are regarded as immune to critique by others, the basis of the belief that any comment about a religion that does not correspond to its own doctrinal self-understanding is an insult.

This latter kind of attitude is not so much postmodern as post-critical, keeping in mind postmodernism’s status as a critique of modernism.

Our current dilemma is the conflict between “religious” persons who are anchored to fewer and thinner doctrines (how many Catholics, I wonder, know what in Catholic doctrine, specifically, the practice of abortion contravenes?) and religious persons who take their doctrine lite, with a grain of salt, or with the right of line-item veto.

The western religious story following the reformation gave us the latter kind of religion. I once wrote, in the Introduction to Ibn Warraq’s Why I am not a Muslim, that the secularizing effect of religious reform is something the Protestants did not foresee and that the Muslims, by virtue of its increasing isolation under the Ottomans, could not have begun to imagine. The Muslims had had their renaissance in the twelfth century when Europe was plunged in darkness. It was the reformation they missed, or lacked a motive for.

But once a faith loses its doctrinal anchors–biblical authority, resurrections, miracles, virgin births, afterlife (to name just a few), it is hard to say that the faith of a Presbyterian is better than the faith of a rosary-praying Roman Catholic. Bigger ideas are at stake as the erosion of contingent doctrines progresses, ideas like God, revelation, sin, and salvation.

That’s where secularism and agnosticism came from. It is an outpouring of judgment, almost automatic in force, against the absurd notion that the doctrines discredited in one faith can still be valid in the other. It is also a judgment against the once-popular belief that different religions are merely different ways to a true center, a grand synthesis–as though the reassembly of the smashed icons into a grand scheme would give us a World Religion. Skepticism towards that “theory” has only intensified since the death of ecumenism and the serious illness of the project once called “interfaith dialogue.”

To a rather large extent, the collapse of religious denominationalism and pluralism and the near-collapse of attempts at religious synthesis and inclusivism is where Susan Jacoby’s atheism comes from–an atheism that is informed, self-critical, and culturally sensitive to religious origins.

A thoughtful atheist (I prefer the term unbeliever) is simply someone who knows that history does not change its mind, and that having made up its mind about Marduk, Zeus, Vishnu and Yahweh, it will be very hard to restore them to their thrones. This realization is made harder because we live in a world still populated by people who wish to think that their private gods really are immortal, and that the biblical and Quranic god has not been toppled. Whether or not they exist, they have their armies. But that is a jejune point: no army was ever assembled in the name of a god who existed.

“Multiculturalism” in its raw form is not controversial. It is the simplest description of a world that has outgrown isolation, discovery, colonialism, and cultural shrinkage through migration and economic change. But in its pedantic form, multiculturalism can become a world without goals, visions, criteria for excellence, differences of status, intellect, degree, conduct.

Religious inclusivism and protectionism often occupies that kind of world and often seeks its protective mediocrity, its pride of ignorance, its pushover-parent tolerance of bad behaviour. Many ordinary people are simply baffled by the over-intellectualized defenses of religious violence on the analogy of a good kid gone wrong. They want to know what caused the wrongness, and whether there is nothing in tradition, belief, scripture or practice that might more easily explain the behavior than the theory of anomaly applied by religion scholars.

Pedantic multiculturalism is the view that religion is entitled to special status because of its attempt to express universal truth. But rather like the case for God, no one is quite sure what a universal truth looks like, much less that the world religions have it in a cage. Is is plumed or scaled, blue or fiery red, does it fly or crawl? The critic of religion should not be afraid to say the cage is empty and should not be required to say it is full for fear of defaming the gatekeepers..

Tolerance is the effect of almost a millennium of religious warfare between Christians and Muslims and Jews, and hundreds of years of bloody territorial struggle between biblical inerrantists and papists. Contrary to parochial histories, no one won those wars; religion survived in a denuded form, more vigorous in a newly isolated Islamic world than in post-Christendom (the christian states after the Reformation).

In the west, trust, authority, and religious certainty were casualties of the conflict, though no one seemed to admit it, and the theologians would have done almost anything not to come to Nietzsche’s God is dead verdict on philosophy and morality. And Nietzsche, the first Unorthodox Man, is also sometimes called the first postmodernist.

Even though many postmodernists deny wanting to be called anything–humanists (Heidegger), secularists (Sartre), postmodernist (Rorty and Ricouer), what they were basically asserting is that the era of labels–specific univocal identity– had passed. It had probably passed long before anyone noticed.

Most fundamentalist Christians, orthodox Jews and radicalized Muslim youth do not know it has passed either. I am still waiting to read an article that confirms my belief that contemporary religious violence is the apocalyptic last chapter in the battle for an absent God fought by the defenders of the empty cage.

There is no protection available from the outcome of this struggle. Because while a part of the drama is being played out with real guns and in real marketplaces, its real location is cultural and to a large extent psychological.

We need to pause to consider, however, how far down the road to inconsequence religions have come since the glory days, not that long ago, when they could defend themselves, raise their own legitimate armies, decide theological truth by counting the number of enemy dead.

That some religions now require United Nations resolutions to protect themselves from ridicule is interesting enough, but so is the logic behind the demand: “Religious violence is caused by the defamation of religion” intones the UNHRC Resolution “Against the Defamation of Religion.” –Interesting because the obverse is not discussed: Religious ridicule(defamation being in the mind of the beholder) is the response of critical onlookers to religiously motivated violence. Nor is it acknowledged that to extend this special brand of toleration, based on a special form of pedantic multiculturalism actually negates the normal understanding of toleration and protection, which is based on the social reality of benign and harmless practices that may, in doctrinal or other terms, be repugnant to a majority.

I have written sympathetically from time to time of my days in Beirut and Pakistan where occasional outbreaks of violence won me, for some reason (mainly the intelligence and sensitivity of students who will form the backbone of a new Islam) assurances that what had just happened in Karachi or Lahore or the south of Lebanon was not “true Islam.” Exceptionalism. Subtext: These episodes, however frequent, widespread, popular in appeal, are extrinsic to the phenomenon we call Islam.

That is what we heard after 9-11, though doubtless in order to avoid attacks on Muslims rather than as an expression of deeply felt conviction. That is what we are still hearing: that women sentenced to death for adultery, denied education, forced to remain indoors, and terrorized by the patriarchy that is still essentially Islam–that this is just what “some Muslims” do, think, believe. It is not what the sons and daughters of Muslim intellectuals, aristocrats, sufis think, perhaps, and of course we in the west are greatly ignorant of the incredible ethnic, regional, caste, and linguistic differences among Muslims. Most Americans think they have a complete knowledge of the religion if they can pronounce Shi’a and Sunni, having no idea, incidentally, what the differences between the two are.

What western critics need to do is to learn more about Islam, since Islam is now a western religion as well as a Middle East and South Asian one–a world faith in the most comprehensive sense of the term. What Muslims need to do is to understand the genesis of the notion of tolerance does not come from the assumption that “religious truth” deserves protected speech status. True, even Americans are grossly ignorant about the rights and limits attached to free speech. A vast majority believe that the only reason Christianity was not enshrined as the national faith is because no one foresaw the day when it would be necesary to spell it out.

But the ignorance of Christians and Muslims is not an excuse to grant to any religion prerogatives, assumptions and protections that do not form part of the classical democratic tradition. The wall of separation between church and state is a uniquely American. liberal solution to an issue that still burned in Jefferson’s America, one that looked on from afar to the still smoldering religious wars of Europe. What they knew in common was that religious hatred made governance impossible–rather as political campaigning does today.

But the solution was not to build a wall around religion and try to keep it in place. it was to build a wall between the state and the church and require religion, at least notionally, to stay on one side of it. As realists, they probably knew it wouldn’t work–and the fact that much of modern American democracy is shaped by First Amendment “issues” is a grim tribute to their ineffective wisdom.

The kind of wall pedantic multiculturalism wants to erect is a fortress, one that rings itself around a beleaguered faith in such a way as to suggest that everything inside it is unassailable and sacred and everything outside it is corrupting and deceitful. That is the kind of multicultural game playing that both Ms Jacoby and can agree to deplore. I can tolerate all shades of religious opinion as long as they do not advocate harming me or my neighbor: “For it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Said Jefferson sagely. But I want his opinion out in the open, not behind a barrier that might grant his illusions legitimacy.

Deficiently Humanistic?

This from Ed Jones, concerning the recent post on Religion. He cites Schubert Ogden, once one of my intellectual heroes, from The Reality of God, 1967: 40-41:

The characteristic deficiency of all nonthestic moral theories is that they leave the final depth of morality itself utterly unilluminated. Although they may well focus our moral action and the immanent standards by which it is governed, they fail to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots.

Often enough, this failure is not lacking in a certain irony. Proponents of nonthestic moral theories typically pride themselves on their right to give a fully rational account of man’s moral experience. Nothing in this experience, they contend, is to be left merely at the level of unexamined belief or tradition. but must be raised to the level of complete self-consciousness. Ironically, however, this demand for rationality is not extended to the basic confidence that all our moral experience necessarily presupposes. Hence, for all their vaunted “Humanism” such theories are, in truth, deficiently humanistic. While they may cast a bright light on the foreground of morality, they leave what Whitehead calls its “background” wholly obscure. They allow the original faith in which all our action is finally based to remain a merely incompleteness, quasi-animal kind of faith.

The basic point Ogden makes here, it seems to me, is unarguable. The demand for a totally rational morality must either be grounded in some theory of the human person–which takes us into the vaporous realm of metaphysics–or in some pragmatic view of consequences for the person and society in the absence of moral conditions.

If for example we are speaking of “law” in a secular and civil context, it is pretty easy to conclude that it is grounded in the latter of these conditions (“If men were angels,” Hamilton famously said, “no government would be necessary.”) The coercive and restraining power of law is therefore based on consequences imagined to arise if law did not exist. But this makes it virtually clear that law does not arise from a view of human action as innately (if that word means anything any longer) virtuous or placid. It arises from the idea that human action is brutish and mean. But hearken: Law has a problematic relationship to morality, and most theologians and philosophers have thought that its role is not to make a man moral but to make him pay his taxes or get him out of the ditch.

But by the same token, religion has never regarded humanity as innately virtuous either. Quite the reverse. A virtuous creature does not need saving from original sin, does not need the counsel and prods of the church, does not need commandments or pastoral care, does not need the promise of heaven or the threat of hell.

Ogden does not of course take such symbols literally: his God is much too “real” (meaning much too misunderstood) for that. But it has to be acknowledged that religion–in the broadest sense–but the book faiths in particular–virtually invented the language of legalistic morality and penal atonement. Its main difference from more mundane law is that the laws of religion are forecast in relation to a personified divine being, a sovereign king and judge, who can be personally offended by the violation of his rules and who has established specific ways of coping with transgressions. In theology, mankind is caught between heaven and earth; the best he can hope for is to be free from sin. In secular law, he is caught between the state and his own instincts; the most he can hope for is to stay out of trouble. There is no virtue and no morality in either scenario, though in traditional Christianity, the rewards for being good are infinitely greater.

Thus when Ogden says a secular morality “fails to render at all intelligible the underlying confidence and its transcendent ground in which our moral activity, as our life generally, actually has its roots,” he is trading in obscurity. It is the denuded theological doublespeak of an era that rewarded vacuity. Especially since this transcendent ground appears to be a not terribly clever circumlocution for God. Moreover, why should this transcendent ground be given any consideration in moral decision making if it is in no sense personal, cannot be offended (or pleased, or pacified), has no stake in the outcome of our decisions and actions, and could do nothing about it if it did?

Secular morality–Ogden is right–is greatly deficient because its instruments are not mathematically precise, its premises are negotiable and its outcomes approximate. Given its evolution as a rebellion against theological certainty, it could be nothing else. It is true that the absolute “standard”–or ground if you prefer–has been sacrificed to modern consciousness of real rather than transcendental ends and means.

But secular morality is not humanistically deficient, anymore than a religious morality is theologically perfect. It’s merely human. And its theological deficiency is nothing to apologize for.