Skeptifying Belief, by Van Harvey

Van A. Harvey is an emeritus professor of religious studies at Stanford University. Twice a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author of A Handbook of Theological Terms, The Historian and the Believer, and the award-winning Feuer­bach and the Interpretation of Religion, as well as many scholarly articles and reviews. This paper originated at the conference, “Scripture and Skepticism” (2007) at the University of California, Davis, under the auspices of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the UCD Department of Religious Studies.

The Historian and the Dog

The two great intellectual revolutions in modern Western culture were the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the awakening of the historical consciousness in the nineteenth century. The themes of the first are familiar to us all: the notion of natural rights, the emphasis on reason rather than faith, freedom of the press, and the separation of church and state. The themes of the second, however, are not as easy to specify, though no less revolutionary:

  • Humankind is immersed in history like a fish in water.
  • Thoughtforms of ancient cultures were radically different from our own.
  • Most important, the recovery of the past requires the work of disciplined, critical, historical reasoning.

The awakening of the historical consciousness gave rise in the nineteenth century to a new discipline that soon took institutional form in the university: departments of history. The study of history became a profession with its own learned societies, journals, and organs of expression, together with prizes and hierarchies of prestige. As an intellectual discipline, history had its own subject matter, categories, and procedures for the identification and adjudication of issues.

Driving the practitioners of this new intellectual discipline was an almost Promethean “will to truth.” The aim of the new historian was, as August Wilhelm Schlegel once wrote in his review of the Brothers Grimm’s Old German Meister Songs, to find out “whether or not something actually happened; whether it happened in the way it is told or in some other way.” This formulation has been criticized by postmodernists, but it should not be forgotten how revolutionary it was. Only when this “will to truth” was consistently and radically followed were we able to separate myth, legend, and actual occurrence, and to realize how so much of what we had previously accepted as fact was, in truth, fiction. We discovered that so many long-trusted witnesses were actually credulous spinners of tales.

It was inevitable that the methods of critical historical inquiry would be applied to the Jewish and Christian Scrip­tures and that there should emerge what was shorthandedly called “the historical-critical method.” This was not so much a single method but a series of questions that could only be answered by using critical historical thinking.

  • When, by whom, and for what purposes were the texts written?
  • What sources did the authors use? What do the texts tell us about the self-understanding of the community that preserved them?
  • To what extent are the historical narratives in the texts reliable and constitute historical knowledge?

Just raising these questions threatened, naturally, those Jews and Christians who believed the Bible to be divinely in­spired and, therefore, historically inerrant. And, since the answers to those questions contradicted traditional answers, the fundamentalists in these religions attacked what they called “the higher criticism.” The Roman Catholic Church es­tablished a Biblical Commission to assure that no Roman Cath­olic scholar would advance any historical conclusion incompatible with church doctrine. But it was not long before liberal Protestant and even some Roman Catholic scholars saw that it was futile to resist the new biblical scholarship, and so they appropriated it, with some even arguing that it placed genuine Christian faith on a sounder historical footing. Lay conservative Christians clung to the traditional view of inspired Scrip­tures, but historical-critical studies of the New Testa­ment became the standard components in the curriculum of the most prestigious theological seminaries and university-based departments of religion. This more or less remained the situation until the past half-century. But there has suddenly emerged a new set of challenges to the critical historical inquiry of religious texts.

Strauss: Myth is the essence of the New Testament

These challenges come not from fundamentalists and evangelicals but from academics and intellectuals of various sorts. Partly under the influence of new philosophical and hermeneutic theories loosely grouped under the unimaginative rubric of “postmodernism,” there has been a backlash against the historical-critical method

It is not easy to generalize about this brand of postmodernism, because it is woven from many intellectual strands that are not always compatible—some are philosophically sophisticated and some are not. Among the sophisticated is the very influential interpretation, since modified, of science by Thomas Kuhn. He argued that science does not deal with facts “out there” to be interpreted, but that facts are only identified within some conceptual framework, some paradigm.

There were other philosophers of science who argued that there can be no representation of facts without some observation language, and no observation language is theory-free. There is, so to speak, no “given” that can be described neutrally and objectively. Along with these philosophical movements have emerged new hermeneutical theories. These theories tend to argue that there is no one “best” interpretation of a text and, consequent­ly, any reading of a religious text depends on the standpoint of the interpreter. The framework of assumptions and conceptions employed by a given interpreter is referred to as a “hermeneutics.” There is, it is claimed, a difference between a “hermeneutics of recollection” and a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a difference between a sympathetic interpretation that seeks to retrieve religious meaning and a hostile interpretation that aims to debunk it.

This, in turn, has sometimes been formulated as follows: the interpretation of someone who believes in the truth of a given religious text will be different from someone who is a skeptic, and, since there are no objective grounds for preferring one interpretation over the other, a hermeneutics of belief is as legitimate as one of unbelief.

These various philosophies and hermeneutical theories have now emboldened religious conservatives and apologists to claim that their interpretations are as intellectually legitimate as those of the historical critic. Everyone has his or her own interpretations, the argument goes. The critical historian presupposes that the supernatural does not ingress in history and that miracle is impossible, whereas the religious believer not only believes this intervention is possible but that it happens in given cases. The conflict between them, then, is not so much a confrontation between naïve religious belief and objective scholarship; rather, it is a hermeneutical conflict. The historian approaches his or her subject matter with the presuppositions of a nonbeliever; the religious person reads it through the “eyes of faith.”

Hegel: "spiritual" father to left-wing biblical criticism

This point of view seems plausible to many laypeople, and, since few of them read biblical scholarship or grasp the structure of historical inquiry, they become hostile toward biblical criticism. Perhaps it was once possible to dismiss this public ignorance of critical historical inquiry, but the events of recent times show that this is no longer the case.

Public ignorance of critical scholarship and the rejection of critical historical inquiry in so many circles now profoundly affects our culture and politics. Many argue that the refusal to submit the Qur’an to critical historical inquiry has been disastrous for Islam. But one might also argue that it is equally catastrophic that the West, which invented historical criticism and employed it for a century, is now confronted by a widespread ignorance and rejection of one of its most impressive intellectual accomplishments.

In what follows, I will not take up all the various versions of postmodernism, or what I label the “everyone has their presuppositions” gambit. Ultimately, the answer to all of these arguments lies in a proper understanding of the nature of critical historical reasoning. But since I could scarcely hope to accomplish that task in this brief essay, I shall concentrate on advancing two related arguments. First, the widely referred-to distinction between a hermeneutics of recollection and a hermeneutics of suspicion is irrelevant to the practice of critical historical inquiry and cannot be used to justify what is called a “hermeneutics of belief.” Second, although the historical critical method does practice methodological skepticism, this skepticism is not necessarily rooted in hostility to religion but is inherent in the logic of critical historical inquiry itself.

The consequences of scriptural illiteracy

The distinction between two types of hermeneutics—one friendly toward religion, the other hostile—was first made by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his 1970 book Freud on Philo­sophy: An Essay on Interpretation. He called the first “the hermeneutics of recollection” and the second “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” The hermeneutics of recollection names a type of interpretation that is basically sympathetic to religion because it assumes that the religious consciousness is in touch with something real. The best contemporary practitioners of this type of interpretation, Ricoeur thinks, are the phenomenologists of religion, who claim that it is only possible to understand religion if one attempts to “get inside” the religious consciousness and apprehend what it apprehends, albeit, he writes, “in a neutralized mode.” The phenomenologist argues that interpreters of religion must take the religious consciousness and its object—the sacred—with the utmost seriousness; indeed, they must be willing to accept the possibility not only that there is a message imbedded in the symbolic utterances of religion but that this message might even have relevance for the interpreters themselves.

To use the language of Protestant theology, religious interpreters must be capable of living in the expectancy of a new “word” and thus achieving a type of faith, one that has passed through the fires of criticism—a second naïveté, to use Ricoeur’s language.

Practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion, on the other hand, regard religion as illusion. Their skepticism about religion is grounded in a theory regarding human nature and behavior that they think explains religion’s origins and persistence. They regard the religious consciousness as a false consciousness; the object of interpretation, then, is to expose this falsity. In order to do this, they rely on some underlying psychological or sociological theory that they think not only explains the origin of the religious illusion but provides the key for decoding the symbolism contained within it. Thus Freud’s theory of childhood dependence on parental figures, or Durkheim’s theory of the collective unconscious guides their interpretative work, explains how the manifest meaning of a religion is really a function of some latent meaning. The aim of these workers is not to understand religious expressions but to demystify them.

It is worth analyzing more carefully this distinction between two types of hermeneutics. When we do, I think it will become clear why it cannot legitimately be used by religious apologists to claim that their faith-based interpretation of scriptures is simply an instance of the hermeneutics of recollection, while the historical critic’s methodological doubt is a manifestation of unbelief and suspicion.

But before considering those issues, it is important to note that Ricoeur’s distinction hardly covers the range of religious studies. Many types of religious inquiries do not fit into either of his categories. They spring neither from an a priori sympathy nor from hostility toward religion, and they are concerned with subject matter other than what Ricoeur calls “the religious consciousness.” Religious scholars might want to know how a given doctrine or belief developed over time. Or they might want to know the status of women in Gnostic communities. Or they may be interested in the concept of heresy. In inquiries such as these, the nature of the religious consciousness and its object might never arise.

But, even if we accepted Ricoeur’s dichotomy as exhaustive, we would have to insist that being sympathetic to the religious consciousness is not the same thing as believing in the religious object of that consciousness. We can see this at once if we consider the method of the phenomenologist of religion, which Ricoeur thinks best embodies the hermeneutics of recollection.

Method­ologically, phenomenologists “bracket” or suspend their own beliefs and presuppositions in order to “get inside” the believer’s consciousness. Even if it were the case, as Ricoeur claims, that phenomenologists listen to what the religious believer says in the hope of hearing an existentially relevant “word,” listening in­volves a twofold possibility: that there is something to be heard, but also that there may only be silence. Listening implies openness, which is to say, listening is not yet hearing.

Religious belief, however, is neither listening nor openness. Belief is just the word we use to describe for having already reached closure, for having already heard and accepted. Moreover, religious belief has content. It does not consist of believing in a word in general, but of believing in particular words. The Muslim hears the words associated with Qur’an, while the Christian’s words have to do with Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection. Insofar as they are believers, neither can be said to be mere listeners—or phenomenologists in Ricoeur’s sense of the term. A hermeneutics of recollection is not a hermeneutics of belief.

When we understand that religious interpreters’ beliefs are quite specific, we can also understand why a certain type of religious believer is not only hostile toward biblical criticism but makes critical historical reasoning impossible. This is quite clear in the case of the fundamentalist but also, as we shall see, in the case of the more sophisticated believer who takes certain narratives to be true on faith. Christian fundamentalists make critical historical inquiry impossible, be­cause they claim to know in advance what any such historical inquiry will yield. They foreclose all the questions for which critical historians seek an answer: What are the various strands of authorship in the books traditionally associated with Moses? How many of the Epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by him? Was there an oral tradition underlying the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? Did the earliest belief in the resurrection of Jesus make any reference to an empty tomb?

Of course most Christians are not fundamentalists, but there is, nevertheless, a very large percentage of them whose faith is bound up with the confidence that most of the narratives about Jesus are true, excluding perhaps some of the less-believable miracle stories. They believe that he claimed to be divine, that his preaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount, that he was crucified, raised again, and ascended into heaven. Insofar as these beliefs are held on faith, they are subject to the same criticism one might make of fundamentalism—namely, that they foreclose historical inquiry.

Behold, the Lamb of God

We tend to think that this confidence in the truth of the narratives of the New Testament apart from any historical inquiry is naive, but Alvin Plantinga, one of the most sophisticated analytic philosophers in the United States, who is known for his work on warrants and the logic of possible worlds, has argued in his lengthy book Warranted Christian Belief that it is not. Plantinga first maintains that epistemological foundationalism—that is, the position that all that we can properly call “knowledge” ultimately rests on certain noninferential truths—is incoherent. (This position is, incidentally, also widely held in contemporary philosophy.) He then argues that it is just as rational to believe in a sensus divinitatis that provides an immediate and noninferential awareness of the truth of theism. Moreover, just as the sensus divinitatis guarantees the knowledge of God, so the Holy Spirit testifies to the Christian that the great things of the Gospel found in the Script­ures are true.

The extraordinary implication of this view, as Patrick J. Roche, one of Plantinga’s critics, has pointed out, is that the ordinary Christian who has no knowledge of biblical languages, textual criticism, theology, or even of history can never­theless come to know by appealing to the Holy Spirit that these Gospel events are indeed true; furthermore, his or her knowledge need not trace back (by way of testimony, for example) to knowledge on the part of someone who does have this specialized training.

There is, however, a more widespread challenge to historical criticism inspired by postmodernism that does not depend on an appeal to the Holy Spirit. It is what I have called the “presuppositions” gambit, which goes something like this: every historian has a standpoint that rests on certain presuppositions. Christian historians simply have different presuppositions than those of unbelievers. They believe in the possibility of supernatural intervention, whereas the historical-critical method rests on the presupposition of doubt regarding this possibility. This doubt is equivalent to unbelief and suspicion. It determines who the historian will accept as a credible witness and what the historian will count as evidence.

The claim that “every historian has his or her presuppositions” seems initially plausible to educated laypersons, but, when we unpack that generalization, it becomes clear that it cannot be used to legitimize what the religious apologist claims it does. When historical relativists make this claim, they usually mean that every historian’s judgments reflect certain basic general assumptions, say, about human nature or factors shaping historical causation.

But, because of the generality of these assumptions, they are reflected in the historian’s work whether they are writing about the American Revolution or the rise of the papacy. The historian’s assumptions apply across the board of history, so to speak. A Marxist’s interpretation of the Protestant Reformation, for example, will differ from that of, say, a Freudian.

But, when Christian apologists eager to defend the uniqueness of the Christian perspective use the term presupposition, they generally refer to something specific, like supernatural intervention in history. In the former case, the force of the word presupposition is quite different from that when it is used by the historical relativist. In this case, the Christian is not using the term to refer to a set of general assumptions that apply across the board of history but, rather, to exempt one narrow stretch of history from all those general assumptions that historians of various stripes use in their historical inquiries. The religious apologist is using the term to justify the suspension of all those assumptions we normally use when interpreting our experience and those of others. The point is that the alleged sacred events are so unique that no normal presuppositions apply.

It is important to distinguish between these two uses of presupposition, because only one of them permits rational assessment of historical claims. Marxists and Freudians may disagree in their interpretation of the causes of the Protestant Reform­ation, but they can still rationally discuss whether Luther did, in fact, draw up the Ninety-five Theses, or whether he had the childhood experiences that Erik Erikson claims he had. They will argue over the relevant evidence, but, if one of them claims that an angel dictated the Ninety-five Theses, the argument will come to a standstill. In fact, even if two historians have the same religious presupposition—say, that divine intervention in history is a possibility—they will still have to pore laboriously over the evidence in order to decide whether any given event did, in fact, happen. In most cases, the presuppositions of historians are broad enough not to weigh the scales in favor of any particular factual argument. But, if we identify presuppositions with certain specific beliefs arrived at on faith about particular events, then there are no general principles to which one can appeal when differences of opinion arise.

But any sophisticated answer to the presuppositions gambit must stem, I believe, from an understanding of the aim and methods of critical historical inquiry itself. As the philosopher A.O. Lovejoy wrote:

Though the inquiries of the historiographer, especially if they relate to events remote in time, are often more difficult, and sometimes at a lower level of probability, than the inquiries of courts, they have the same implicit logical structure, which is simply the structure of all inquiry about the not-now-presented; and if they are historical inquiries, and not criticism or evaluation, their objective is the same—to know whether, by the canons of empirical probability, certain events or sequences of events, happened at certain past times, and what, within the existential limits of those times, the characters of those events were.

Plantinga: analytic apologetics?

The Christian apologist, of course, will argue that it is just this appeal to “empirical probability” that is at issue, because the events in the New Testament are admittedly empirically improbable. They are, in the nature of the case, unique and, therefore, require faith.

The critical historian could probably surrender the language of “empirical probability” if that seems overly restrictive, but what the critical historian cannot surrender is the notion that the inquiries of historians, although they relate to events more remote in time, have the same logical structure as all inquiries regarding the not-now-presented—which is to say they resemble the same sort of inquiries that take place in our law courts, newspapers, and investigative panels of all sorts. We think historically when as parents we try to ascertain who scribbled all over the bedroom walls, or when as journalists we try to ascertain the origins of the decision to attack Iraq, or when as detectives we attempt to solve a crime. Historical thinking is an ingredient in all of our thinking.

To acknowledge this, however, is to acknowledge that the judgments we make and the arguments we use to support them solicit the assent of minds like our own that share our same general understanding of reality. For the most part, we make no use of technical terms except those that have become a part of our knowledge. Our causal explanations are pragmatic and usually unscientific. Our arguments and the warrants we use in coming to our conclusions are grounded in the best present knowledge we possess—a knowledge informed by the intellectual disciplines of our educational system. As many modern philosophers have shown, we get most of our beliefs and what we call “knowledge” from our culture, and it is this fiduciary framework that influences our concepts of necessity, possibility, and improbability.

The sciences are a part, but not the only part, of this cultural heritage and background. We presuppose the physics of ballistics when we engage in arguments about the velocity and range of rifles used in the Battle of Gettysburg. We presuppose biology when, as jurors in a rape trial, we decide that the DNA of the defendant is incompatible with the evidence brought forward by the prosecution.

We presuppose astronomy when we evaluate a passage in the Hebrew Bible reporting that the sun stood still. And we presuppose physiology when we assess a medieval narrative about a saint who picked up his head after his execution and marched into a cathedral singing the Te Deum. It is against this background of present knowledge that we reject stories of snakes talking, the claim that the world is only six thousand years old, and the notion that Muhammad’s camel leapt from Jerusalem to Mecca in four giant steps.

What seems to be ignored by the religious apologists who use the presuppositions gambit, especially those in the scholarly world, is that these apologists employ ordinary reasoning grounded in present knowledge when they are serving on juries, reading newspapers, writing histories, and, especially, assessing the scriptures of other religions as the critical historian does. The reasons for this are clear—in all these areas, they are soliciting the assent of minds like their own that share the same general understanding of reality. It is only when interpreting their own scriptures that they suspend those criteria that they use in their ordinary thinking and reasoning. But, we must ask, on what grounds is this suspension consistent and justified?

It is this same present knowledge that justifies our methodological doubt in relation to both witnesses and narratives. As the great historian Marc Bloch once pointed out in The His­torian’s Craft, it was not long ago that three-fourths of all reports by alleged eyewitness were accepted as fact. If someone said that an animal spoke or that blood rained from heaven, the only question was not whether it happened but what significance it had. Not even the steadiest minds of our predecessors, Bloch argues, escaped this credulity.

If Montaigne reads in his beloved ancients this or that nonsense about a land whose people were born without heads or about the miraculous strength of the little fish known as the remora, he set them down among his serious arguments without raising an eyebrow. For all his ingenuity in dismantling the machinery of a false rumor, he was far more suspicious of prevailing ideas than of so-called attested facts. In this way . . . old man Hearsay ruled over the physical as well as the human world. Perhaps even more over the physical world than the human.

In short, methodological doubt is not some a priori presupposition but, as Bloch puts it, a practice that has been arrived at “by the patient labor of an experiment performed upon man [with] himself as a witness. . . . We have acquired the right of disbelief, because we understand, better than in the past, when and why we ought to disbelieve.”

Indeed, it is just this right to disbelieve that R.G. Collingwood marks as the Copernican revolution in historiography. Previously, it was assumed that the historian had the responsibility to compile and synthesize the testimony of witnesses. The historian was regarded as a believer and the person believed was the authority or witness. But this was “scissors and paste,” not critical history. “In so far as an historian accepts the testimony of an authority and treats it as historical truth,” Collingwood wrote in The Idea of History (1946), “he obviously forfeits the name of historian; but we have no other name by which to call him.”

It is just because the critical historian makes his judgments against the background of present knowledge that the concept of miracle has all but vanished from the work of professional historians. The reason does not lie in some philosophical presupposition that miracles are impossible; rather, it lies in the nature of historical argument and the grounding of most of our warrants in present knowledge. Critical historians confronted with an alleged miracle as an explanation for an event or even as a description of an event have, first of all, no way of deciding whether the event is a miracle or not. They have no way of judging whether some alleged supernatural reality—a jinni, angel, or deity—is the cause of the event. They have no way of judging what would constitute evidence for attributing an event to this or that supernatural cause, and evidence is crucial for the critical historian. It is evidence that bears on whether such an event can be said to have occurred, and it is evidence that bears on what causes, if any, explain that event. At best, all historians can say is that such an event was anomalous. Reflective historians say this not because they are unbelievers, but because they are critical historians. They would hold with Collingwood that “History has this in common with every other science: that the historian is not allowed to claim any single piece of knowledge, except where he can justify his claim by exhibiting to himself in the first place, and secondly to any one else who is both able and willing to follow his demonstration, the grounds upon which it is based.”

Critical historical thinking in general, and its application to religious scriptures in particular, is one of the great intellectual achievements of Western civilization. It has its heroes stretching from Benedict de Spinoza through Julius Well­hausen and Albert Schweitzer to Rudolf Bultmann and Gerd Lüdemann. It is not a hermeneutics of suspicion rooted in hostility to religion. Indeed, it takes as its motto that scriptural injunction that “ye shall know the truth and it will make you free.”

But coming to know the truth is no easy matter, especially when the objects of one’s inquiry are treasured religious beliefs. As Friedrich Nietzsche, the anti-Christian thinker who nevertheless acknowledged his debt to Christianity, observed in The Antichrist: “At every step one has to wrestle for truth; one has to surrender for it almost everything to which the heart, to which our love, our trust in life, cling otherwise. That requires greatness of soul: the service of truth is the hardest service. What does it mean, after all, to have integrity in matters of the spirit? That one is severe against one’s heart . . . that one makes of every Yes and No a matter of conscience.”

Further Reading

Bloch, Marc. The Historian’s Craft. Trans. by Peter Putnam. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954.
Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946.
Harvey, Van. The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996. See especially chapter 7.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. “Present Standpoints and Past History.” In The Philosophy of History in Our Time, edited by Hans Meyerhoff, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Trans. by Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

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.