Pedantic Multiculturalism

There is a post just upĀ 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.