Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Religious absolutism

Reposted from January 2015

Some years I recall a fellow Oxford academic speculating about why Christianity and Islam, among world religions, were the ones used to justify the persecution of religious dissent. Perhaps, he suggested, it was because they were absolutist religions: they claimed an exclusive possession of the truth.

It wasn't clear how he imagined Hinduism and Buddhism worked; I fancy he was as ignorant about them as I was, and am. But it must have been a long time ago, because this conversation clearly predated the emergence, at least into the Western media, of militant Hinduism in India, and the persecution of Christians and Muslims by militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Burma.

So, so much for that idea. But the idea of religious absolutism has been wheeled out again in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Some forms of some religions are incompatible with Western democracies, we hear, but most are fine, and the difference can be expressed by the idea of religious absolutism. Absolutist religions: bad. Non-absolutist religions: good, or, at least, ok.

It's not very clear what absolutism means, but I'll give two options a try. One is to do with conceptions of religious truth. It is sometimes said that Hinduism regards all religions as paths to the same end, and in that sense true. This idea pops up in books about Yoga - usually towards the end... If you can see how all religions are really one, then you really have mastered meditation, because the idea is incoherent. The view 'all religions are one' is itself a religious claim, and one that very few people accept. It is something the great world religions have in common, but only as something they all reject. Here is one religious view, incompatible with its rivals: so what? It tells us nothing about the other religions, and it isn't a view which is particularly suited to dealing with the other religions on a practical level, since it is incompatible with them.

The same is true of more modest claims. Something politicians are likely to say might be: 'All [or most] religions help their believers to live moral and spiritually rewarding lives, to a roughly equal extent'. (The last bit may just be implied, and left unsaid.) This is the kind of thing someone would say who rejects, or has simply forgotten, the idea that a religion's concrete teaching makes a difference. Since serious-minded members of the different religions think that their concrete teachings do make a difference, this isn't something any of them can accept. But more fundamentally, it is itself a theological claim, which must submit to inquiry just like all the other theological claims. Has it been revealed by some deity? Can it be deduced philosophically? Is it the conclusion of anthropological research? I think most of the people who say something like this do so for no better reason than that it sounds nice and feels right.

People who make that kind of claim like to feel terribly superior to ordinary religious believers, and imagine themselves looking down on the different religions from an Olympian height. But they aren't. They are just another group of people making theological claims, though in their case they have neither numbers, nor a long historical tradition, nor profound philosophical thinking, to back them up. And what is more, their claim is just as 'absolutist' as any other religious claim you care to mention, such as that none come to the Father except through the Son, or that Allah is God and Mohammed is His Prophet. The claim that the truth of the teachings of the world religions is unimportant is simply a denial of claims that most of them make. This eccentric religious idea is as incompatible with the great religions as they are with each other: indeed, more so, since it would seem that there is less overlap of attitude or theological principle between this liberal religious conception and the major religions, than they share amongst themselves.

A liberal interlocutor might at this point want to slide into the next of the two interpretations of the phrase 'religious absolutism'. The fact is, he might say, some versions of some religions are tolerant and some are not: that's what we mean, and that's what is important for practical politics. The Western democracies must find a way to suppress versions of Islam, and indeed any other religion, which say that non-believers must be put to the sword, since obviously groups of people with that view are not going to integrate well into a multi-cultural society.

That might seem fair enough, but there is something which the liberals are still trying not to admit. This is that their attitude to these radical religious groups is based on theological principles. They are not being neutral between religions, they are not rising above the religious debate, they are getting stuck right in with a substantive theological view, which they don't want to make explicit because they don't want to be obliged to give it any theological justification. What is it? It is the claim that the radicals are wrong. If the radicals are making a theological claim about an obligation to slay blasphemers (or whatever it might be), the denial of this claim is itself, just as much, a theological claim.

In short, the liberal political response is a matter of theological principle. And you know what? It is an intolerant one. They aren't going to tolerate radical Islam, for example, or the Hindus who terrorise dalit converts to Christianity, or the Buddhists who burn down churches.

The liberals are, of course, correct: there is no genuine obligation to slay people who draw pictures of Mohammed, nor is there any genuine theological justification for stopping dalits being baptised or for burning down churches. I believe these things, however, because I can appeal to a highly articulated theological system from which these facts follow. The liberals have nothing much to appeal to; they aren't, for example, all atheists, and those who are have no intellectual justification for their atheism (because there is none).

The response of the Western political elite to the rise of religious extremism has been to insist more than ever on the importance of the system they have created: a seething cauldron of religious pluralism, under the lid of liberal political institutions backed by armed police. With varying degrees of self-consciousness, they and their predecessors welcomed and facilitated the emergence this system, to destroy the political relevance of Christianity: to reduce it to being just one religion among many. But it is only Christianity which can give a coherent answer to the question: Why should we forbid female circumcision, child prostitution, and a terroristic response to depictions of Mohammed, while tolerating most other manifestations of religious belief?

The liberals wouldn't like them, they didn't go quietly.
The martyrs Thomas Percy, John Beche, and Adrian Forescue.

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  1. Surely only Catholicism makes this absolute claim with truth

    1. Only if you believe its claims are true, if you accept its authorities as trustworthy. But is this not a matter of faith, which can never be absolute knowledge, though it may be better than that?
      Anyone who encounters people of other religions - Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists - will meet people who are deeply prayerful and close to God (so far as anyone can tell). If we believe that Christ is the only way to the Father, can we not say that he is at work in other religions drawing people to God through them? And does this not relativise the absolutist claims of Christianity?

    2. He who is not for me is against me.

    3. Whoever is not against us is for us - Mark 9: 40.

  2. No one has to be a Catholic, but if you are then you have accepted that it is the One and only True Church instituted by Christ, the Son of the Living God, for the Salvation of all Mankind.

    Now having accepted this position, you must also accept that by definition, all other religions are wrong. They may contain aspects of Catholicism as for instance do the heresies of Lutheranism, or the Catholic/Judeo/pagan heresy of Islam, or they may be intuitive attempts to understand reality as I believe is Buddhism - but they are wrong.

    I have encountered many nice Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and one or two Buddhists. That they were agreeable or pleasant at least in work/social situations was good. Whether they were close to Christ, the only way to Salvation, in most cases I doubt, but then who am I to judge. That sort of judgement is for Christ alone and in a sense is none of our business.

    As people accepting the Catholic Faith our job is to follow it, proclaim it, defend it, and above all to teach it, clearly, I stress clearly, and with rational logic and good example.

    That applies to laity, but so much more to clergy and bishops.

  3. This is an interesting post, but by the end I found myself asking where the meat was. I am not necessarily committed to liberalism as an ideology, but, with all due respect to Dr Shaw, I feel that it deserves a better refutation than this.

    Take the claim that the liberal attitude to "absolutist" religions is based on value judgements (or "theological principles", if one prefers the term). Indeed it is. But that seems to me to be an obvious truism. Naturally, liberals make value judgements against religions which are illiberal (or, at least, illiberal in their public manifestations). The surprising thing would be if they didn't!

    Similarly, I am surprised by the claim that the proposition that "the radicals are wrong" is "something which the liberals are still trying not to admit". That seems to me clearly false. The internet is currently filled with liberals who have no problem asserting, clearly and forcefully, that murdering people for drawing cartoons is wrong. I started to wonder at this point if Dr Shaw wasn't in fact confusing mainstream liberals with some sort of radical academic postmodernists who really might attempt to refrain from any value judgements whatsoever.

    It's no more than a truism that liberals make value judgements (Mill's harm principle, anyone?). The distinguishing feature of liberalism is not that it is absolutely and wholly value-free (which I doubt is even possible in the real world, as opposed to the strange subculture of academic philosophy). It is that it seeks to make public value judgements that are as modest and uncoercive as possible. Now, liberals may or may not be wise to do this - that is not the point. The point is that this is the true point of contrast with radical Islamism, and indeed with integrist Catholicism. It is true, as an abstract proposition, that (say) Nick Clegg, Ruhollah Khomeini and Marcel Lefebvre are all alike insofar as they are/were all committed to moral (or theological) positions. But I submit that that is the least interesting and useful observation that one could possibly make about them.

    1. The liberals' problem is that the basis of the liberal state is not value judgments about substantive ways of life, but a theory of rationality which is supposed to be uncontroversial. This is standard liberal theory, not some post-modern thing. Have a look at John Rawls, for example. It is the liberals who admit that they have a substantive view of what ways of life are better than others who are on the margins ('perfectionist liberals').

      I talking about the debate at the academic level. But if the academics think there is no justification for something, then the politicians are in trouble.

      In this case the usual liberal view would be that the Islamists are violating the basic principles of society necessary to the free pursuit of different ways of life, basic principles based on rationality. That seems fine until you realise that if the Islamists were *correct*, then this would not be the case. The liberals can only dismiss the Islamists as, essentially, irrational, because they have smuggled in the assumption that they are theologically mistaken. But they have no theological arguments to that effect: and would be horrified to think that they had any theological principles at all.

      Perhaps I should made this clearer, but look at my posts on liberalism by searching the blog for 'Eich'.

  4. Thank you for the reply, Dr Shaw. Oddly enough, I'd agree with you in relation to the liberal model of rationality (Rawls has struck me over the years as being increasingly unsatisfactory). I have a feeling that there is a larger issue here about what "liberalism" is, as I was using the term in a somewhat rough-hewn political sense. Thanks for the tip on "Eich".