on religion

In the past two days, we’ve seen two pieces in the New York Times on religion. One by columnist Nick Kristof argues that we are seeing detente in the religion/atheism debates, moving away from the acrimonious, all-or-nothing approach from recent years and towards a softer, more diffuse, and less specific vision of spiritualism. The second is a straight news item reporting that voters in Switzerland voted to amend their constitution in order to prohibit the construction of minarets on mosques. The article hypothesizes that this recent ban is an indication of Switzerland’s becoming less tolerant and more skeptical of Muslim immigrants.

Looking at these two news stories, most people would notice contradictions. Which one is it? Is religious debate becoming more acrimonious, or are religious attitudes moderating? But if we look further, we notice that the Kristof piece and the news bulletin aren’t contradictory; rather, they are both indicative of the common trends in religious debate in the western world. Unfortunately, this trend is unambiguously bad for us.

First, the Kristof piece. I usually like his stuff, not necessarily because he ever comes up with something original to say, but because he puts the spotlight on issues that other media outlets tend to ignore. But this piece strikes me as the worst column Kristof has written in years. He criticizes “religious intolerance” and “irrelgious intolerance” with equal disdain, pointing to well-known atheist advocates Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as well as the fundamentalist authors of the Left Behind novels as bomb-throwers who led an increasingly-acrimonious public debate about the existence of God starting several years ago. In contrast, Kristof praises the mushy-mouthed new group of ‘spiritualists’ (like Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong) for moderating the debate focusing on positive aspects of belief.

This approach strikes me as entirely wrong. As a good friend pointed out to me, Wright’s argument (which Kristof quotes favorably) makes no sense. After documenting the moral growth of the character of God from Old Testament to New Testament and current perceptions, Wright says, “To the extent that ‘god’ grows, that is evidence — maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence — of higher purpose,” and the ultimate existence of a benevolent higher being. All due respect to Mr. Wright and Mr. Kristof, but that’s not true. The character of Harry Potter grows during the course of J. K. Rowling’s novels, but that isn’t evidence of Harry’s existence in the real world. It’s just evidence of good writing. Furthermore, shouldn’t God’s growth be a mark against the whole idea of God as a perfect, benevolent being? I mean, certainly mere human beings need to grow out of their Terrible Twos, but should we expect the same of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God?

The reason that Kristof and Wright and many other mushy-mouthed liberal theists fall into such silly arguments is that they don’t seem to take the concept of truth all that seriously. That’s how Kristof can endorse this silliness from Armstrong’s “The Case for God”:

Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage.

Comfort might be a nice side benefit to belief, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the accuracy of underlying beliefs. Most reasonable people could agree that it’s good for grieving humans to find comfort. But why give religion a pass on the specific truth claims it puts forward, any more than we give unicorns or the Tooth Fairy a pass? [Hat tip to Chris].

The trend that Kristof praises, and that I so evidently despise, is one away from issues of ultimate truth and towards a wishy-washy liberal ‘spiritualism’. I agree with Kristof that this is a trend, but I can’t agree with him that it is positive. Truth matters. The conviction of belief matters. It is important to engage with these ultimate issues with ardor.

But neither am I happy to read the second news item from the Times, which reports that Swiss voters have recently banned the construction of new minarets in the country. It certainly seems like the 57.5% of Swiss that voted for the ban had the conviction of their beliefs and weren’t ready to opt for the mushy middle of spiritualism. But this action goes far beyond the realm of debate and actually impinges on religious practice in ways that I find completely unacceptable. Forget the silly notions that rightist Swiss leaders put forward during the campaign: disallowing minarets will do nothing to slow the growth of radical Islam, but it will piss off a large number of law-abiding, Westernized Muslims currently living in peace in the country. But more importantly, this law goes completely against the principle that people have the right to organize their lives as they see fit unless they are somehow harming others. If you think minarets are damaging, then I can’t see why steeples wouldn’t be, too.

Take together, these pieces show a disturbing trend. In the realm of actual belief, people are moving away from examining the actual validity of truth claims and towards a weak, colorless, and utterly-irrational spiritualism. In the realm of government action and regulation, however, it seems like we are becoming less tolerant and more willing to impose silly majoritarian preferences for visions of the good life.

This is dangerous. At the same time that we have increasingly unclear ideas about what to believe, we have a growing willingness to force other people to conform to our unexamined, unclear beliefs. Kristof would clearly favor unclear belief and no demand to conform. Others might want strict belief and strict practice. But I fall on the opposite spectrum of what we currently have. I’d favor robust debate about truth with a tolerant, small-L liberal vision of personal privacy and freedom. I don’t know why I have these preferences, but that’s a topic for another blog post.


2 Responses to “on religion”

  1. 1 Dave December 1, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    The Minaret is simply an outdated mode of communication. It’s similar to the old tower from which news and bulletins and the like was read in olden days. The minaret is simply the tower from which the call to prayer is announced in the Muslim world. There are hundreds and probably thousands of Mosques across the world with no minaret attached. Have all of these Muslims not been praying and observing their religion properly unawares for all of this time? I don’t think they knew this.

    The prohibition is not against Mosques. It is against the actual tower only.

    There are many mosques which have no minaret. There is a famous mosque in Kabul with no minaret. The Muslims who prey there seem to be participating in their religion with very little affects of being minus a minaret. The Third Holiest Mosque in all of Islam called the Dome of the Rock in English is “minaret-less.” It hasn’t stopped this Mosque from attaining regal status in Islamic lore.

    Also, you make no mention of the fact that many Muslim countries place restrictions or outright bans on the building of and improvement to religious buildings of non-Muslim groups. Was this lack of knowledge or convenient, yet conspicuous, absence of information for your readers.


    • 2 JSC5 December 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm

      >> “The Minaret is simply an outdated mode of communication.”

      No it’s not. Of the few existing minarets in Switzerland, none actually practice the daily call to prayer. Minarets *can* be used for communication, but they can also just be architectural expressions.

      Furthermore, suppose that minarets are nothing more than an “outdated mode of communication”. Is the next logical step to ban it? I mean, do we go around banning The Pony Express, 8-track tape players, or CB radios? That’s a pretty retarded view of the purpose of government. Things that truly are outdated disappear of their own accord — why bother prohibiting them constitutionally?

      >> “There are hundreds and probably thousands of Mosques across the world with no minaret attached.”

      Ok. So what? There are plenty of churches without steeples. Does that mean it’s hunky-dory to ban steeples? Of course not. Certainly some Muslims are fine with their mosques not having a minaret. Just as certainly, other Muslims want the minaret. Who are you to go around telling them what is important and what is not in their own religion?

      >> “Also, you make no mention of the fact that many Muslim countries place restrictions or outright bans on the building of and improvement to religious buildings of non-Muslim groups.”

      True. I also make no mention of the fact that the diameter of the Earth at the equator is 12,756.1 kilometers. That’s not because I don’t know it, but rather because it’s simply not germane. But if I must refute your point, I’d say that just because other people do stupid things doesn’t give you license to follow suit. Maybe you get a kick out of tit-for-tat schoolyard silliness, but I’d hope that public policy would be based on something a little more rational.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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