The Talking Cure

As I mentioned last night, there’s a discussion underway about interreligious dialogue at Kevin Kim’s place. The thread began with Kevin’s link to an article about Karen Armstrong’s call for worldwide interreligious harmony. I’ve been taking fire for my flint-hearted remarks, and would like to comment further here.

The central point is that dialogue amongst religious groups (not really “dialogue”, once more than two parties are involved, but let’s not be pedantic) will only promote harmonious relations if the parties involved are interested in the kind of result such talks might bring: compromise, concessions of various sorts, declarations of mutual respect, and so on. But the religious disputes that cause the most problems in the world arise from groups on whom these sentiments exert little pull. The fundamentalists, the radicals, the zealots and the fanatics will not even be at the table. It is all very well for the Episcopalians and the Congregationalists to agree, over tea and biscuits, to keep out of each other’s way, or even to pull together in some fashion to spackle over some of their ideological differences; meanwhile, however, you can rest assured that, given the opportunity, there would be a jihadist pulling up outside with a delivery van full of explosives.

A commenter at Kevin’s place, one Mark Teuting, sums it up very nicely:

Believing that one’s religion is the only path to salvation – that nonbelievers are damned – is no way to build a harmonious World o’ Religious Coexistence…because only one religion is taken seriously. And believing that proselytizing nonbelievers is a necessary activity (which follows from the first premise) is insulting to other faith communities, however well-intentioned it may be.

And that, my friends, is why religious harmony is truly impossible – even a guy who seems to support the idea has to criticize some religious people. Humans being humans, we will disagree. Those who want to minimize disagreement have never come up with an adequate response to the people who – wait for it – disagree.


Multiculturalist post-modernist: All viewpoints are equally valid.

Me: You’re wrong. Laughably so.

Multiculturalist: But…

Me: By your own beliefs you must accept the validity of my viewpoint. Luckily (for me), my belief system has no such constraints. Idiot.


Pacifist: Oh please, international thug, stop raping and pillaging your neighbor.

International thug: No.

Pacifist: Um, couldn’t we talk some more?

International thug: No.


Religious pluralist: Let us just acknowledge that there are many paths to God. There are no right and wrong answers.

Religious guy: No.

Religious pluralist: But you’re wrong! There are no right or wrong answers! Oops.

I was criticized by one of the commenters for describing religious belief systems as constellations of ‘memes’. The term seems to irritate some people, who are quick to point out some of the obvious literal differences between genes and memes. But nobody has ever said that memes are perfectly isomporphic to genes; the term ‘meme’ exists only to point out some useful metaphoric similiarities between the two. Like genes, ideas can make copies of themselves; in the case of genes the vehicles are bodies, and in the case of memes, they are minds. And just as a body is in a sense constituted by its genome, so is a mind, in a sense, made up of the ideas it comprises.

Some ideas are simply contagious, like a good joke or catchy melody, while others contain within themselves the explicit idea that copies of themselves ought to be made — and religious systems that emphasize proselytization and conversion of unbelievers are excellent examples. Indeed, they can act as viruses of the mind, in that a mind unable to defend itself against infection by such a system of ideas may become little more than a machine for their propagation. This is another useful aspect of the ‘meme’ concept: it makes note of the fact that ideas can take on a life of their own, jumping from host to host like parasites. Some memes, like the one that tells jihadists that as martyrs to the Islamic memeplex they will be rewarded in Paradise, can even be fatal to the minds they infect.

A further objection was that it is wrong to criticize religion, when the real problem is radicalization, which in turn has political origins. But to focus once again on Islam — which is surely the religion that is causing the most trouble in the world at the moment — this attitude overlooks the fact that many of the economic and political problems affecting Islamic societies can in turn be seen as due to the social, political, and religious structure of Islam itself. The great scholar of Islamic history Bernard Lewis, among others, has made this case on many occasions, for example here. It is also the case that the religion itself provides in such cases a toxic distraction from productive work toward positive change; the young radicals who immolate themselves in martyrdom to Allah might, one imagines, expend their lives rather more productively, and have a better chance of ameliorating their political predicament, were they not in thrall to these virulent religious hallucinations.

It was also suggested that new religions will always arise to fill the vacuum left behind by old ones: that man is simply inherently religious. I disagree; I think it is a matter of education and social context, and as proof of this one need only look to the great many people — predominantly better-educated and more prosperous than most of the world’s population — who live peaceful, generous and civilized lives without any religious beliefs whatsoever. There are entire nations in northern Europe where this is the case.

I will concede this, though: the tolerance, inclusiveness, and reduced birth-rate that accompany such a worldview seems already to be putting these secular societies at a competitive and demographic disadvantage within their own borders, illustrating the robust inter-group competitive advantage that has kept religion going all these years. It indeed appears to be — just as one might predict from the viewpoint of religion as an evolutionary adaptation — that as cultures wean themselves from religion, they become less able to compete with those that haven’t. In order, then, for secularism not to be a recipe for cultural suicide, it becomes necessary for secular societies to take a good hard look at their admirably well-intentioned policies of multicultural tolerance and inclusivity; such an attitude may be a fatal weakness, and indeed it has often been acknowledged as exactly that by strategists of global jihad. The freedom and openness of secular Western democracies may simply not be able to avoid extinction in a Darwinian landscape that includes such potent mind-viruses as fundamentalist Islam. At the very least, they have some important adaptations of their own to make: we can start, perhaps, by learning to be less tolerant of intolerance.

So: interreligious dialogue? Sure, why not, go right ahead. Have fun. Don’t kid yourselves, though: the people we really need to worry about aren’t even going to be at the table. They never are.

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  1. Sufi Guy says

    I would hardly call Bernard Lewis a “great scholar”, and certainly not a great scholar of Islam. His area of specialty is quite narrow, yet he has no problem pontificating on matters well outside of his expertise. The article you linked to, in particular, is one of the most hyperbolic, overly generalized pieces of literature ever to published on the subject of Islam. And given that Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” is essentially a plagiarized version of Lewis’ article, I think it can be said it is also one of the most harmful. His “scholarship” is little more than self-congratulation and self-affirmation of a preconceived set of notions and a preformulated set of policies having to do with the Middle East.

    As I mentioned on Kevin’s Walk, the mere absence of membership in an organized religion does not mean one is free of religion. Often the more obstinate the atheist, the more apparent the parallels with religious thought. Different brands of secularism have their own dogmas (I give some examples in my latest post on Kevin’s Walk). As John Gray put it, trying to repress religion is not unlike trying to suppress the sexual impulse; it simply crops up elsewhere, often in a grotesque form.

    Posted November 22, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Sufi Guy, and welcome, I think — though frankly you seem rather angry, and more interested in ad hominem assaults on Bernard Lewis and a certain sort of psychologically malformed atheist, than in any of the points I’ve been trying to make.

    I must say I think you are very much in the minority in your bitter dismissal of Bernard Lewis’s expertise; he is broadly, and generally uncontroversially, regarded as one of the world’s foremost historians of the Mideast — not just here in the West, but by many Muslims as well. For you to wave off his seventy years of acclaimed scholarship as “little more than self-congratulation” undercuts your own authority, I am afraid, far more than his. I am sure we all, present company included, do some pontificating on matters outside our expertise — that’s half the fun of blogging, after all — but to cite as an example Bernard Lewis’s expressing an opinion about Islamic history seems a bit thick, to put it mildly.

    As for your second paragraph, I am sure that what you say is in many cases true. I have no doubt that there are atheists out there, particularly those who have been through a painful and wrenching apostasy, who have simply redirected all their old religiosity into their new model of the world. As you suggest, the religious habit is still there, undiminished, and must be forcibly “repressed”.

    There are others, of course, who have never been religious at all, and who would probably never give religion the least attention were it not constantly waved in their faces.

    Posted November 23, 2008 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I do want to say, though, Sufi Guy, that I think your remarks over at Kevin’s about a religious instinct are interesting, and a promising topic for further discussion.

    Posted November 23, 2008 at 2:01 am | Permalink
  4. Peter Lupu says

    Some points to note:

    a) Mark Teuting’s dialogs exhibit the well-known arguments that relativism is self-defeating. Consider the example about moral relativism:

    (1) All moral truths are relative to one’s beliefs, culture, etc.
    (2) If proposition (1) is true, then it too must also be relative…and so on. Therefore, it does not state an objective statement, but merely a statement that is true from some perspective.

    b) Tolerance is an attitude or if you wish a second-order belief. It is the attitude that there are several important values that must be adjudicated within a society and truth is one of them. Therefore, sometimes it is important to avoid imposing “my truth” on a society because it might hinder other values. Someone who holds a tolerant attitude toward contrary beliefs does not thereby give up their own beliefs nor do they need to adopt a self-defeating attitude such as the one exemplified by the moral relativist I illustrated above. Rather they wisely recognize that the marketplace of beliefs incorporates many other useful values and the imposition of one set of beliefs over others is liable to hinder other values and thereby harm society. This view of tolerance is not unlike the scientific methodology of self-correction. While truth is indeed the ultimate goal of inquiry, it is recognized that truth does not come easily labeled as such and, therefore, every theory or hypothesis is always subject to challenge. This methodology is guided by the recognition that even if truth is the ultimate goal of inquiry, at any given time all theories and hypotheses are part of our process of inquiry and, therefore, are not to be taken as final truth. Inquiry is subject to many constraints and therefore every one of its products must be subject to continuous challenges posed by these constraints. This method worked very well within science; we just have to learn how to extend it to other areas such as religion, morality, and so on.

    c) The fact that zealots of all kind exist and that some of them are not interested in dialog but rather aim to eliminate all other beliefs either by force or by conversion does not diminish the value of a tolerant attitude. Violent zealots must be met with violence. Tolerance is an attitude or a second-order belief in the existence of multiple values the existence of which enhances a society. Such an attitude does not extend to those who do not recognize the present right of this or that society to exist in the first place AND take violent steps to eliminate it. These people cannot be tolerated: they must be met with all the force our society can muster and be themselves eliminated physically and intellectually.

    d) A dialog among people of different beliefs that sincerely adopt a tolerant attitude of the kind described above contributes to an eventual intellectual elimination of violent zealots (such as radical Muslim fascism of the kind exhibited by Bin-Ladenistas and others) as well as provides a moral grounding for the war against them. In fact, it is the only way to insure that this war is going to be eventually won by civilization rather than by Islamic fascism.

    e) I do not know Islam very well and do not presume to derive any general conclusions about Islam as such. But one thing is clear: if Islam is not what the Bin-Ladenistas say it is, then it is up to the Muslim community of the world to take a stand and exorcise Bin-Ladenistas from their own community. By so doing, they will exorcise them from the world-community and undermine any religious legitimacy to the Bin-Ladenistas assault upon civilized society. But it does not seem like the religious community within the Muslim world is willing to do that in a clear voice and robust action. Why?

    Is it because they really believe, although do not wish to say so loudly, that Bin-Ladenistas do have legitimate claims about what is the heart of Islam?
    Is it because they think that while Bin-Ladenistas are wrong about Islam as such, they do benefit the Muslim world’s relative political and social position in the world?
    Is it because they simply refuse to admit that their religion gave rise to such a cancer?
    Is it simply because they are afraid to become a target?


    Posted November 24, 2008 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter, and thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Regarding a), it seems to me that 2) is correct only if 1) is itself a member of the set of truths that 1) describes. But a proposition about moral propositions is not necessarily itself a moral proposition; I think it might just be a statement about how human beings actually arrive at moral evaluations, and what such evaluations can possibly be based on.

    Regarding b), a difficulty arises when we must find criteria for the adjudication itself. How are we to adjudicate between competing methods of adjudication?

    As for c), I quite agree.

    But as for d), it is clear, I think, that “intellectual elimination” has no direct effect on the thing we wish to see eliminated; I do agree, though, that it strengthens the resolve of those who must do the actual eliminating.

    And while e) is enough for a long thread of its own, my own sense is that amongst the suggestions you make, the first and fourth (with particular emphasis on the first) are the most likely factors. There is also the natural group-solidarity that religious communities feel when threatened (whether physically, culturally, or intellectually) from without. If the non-Muslim world is becoming unsympathetic toward Islam generally (as it is), then it is natural to expect Muslims to feel inclined to circle the wagons. As the old doggerel goes:

    Me and my brother,
    We fight with each other;
    But woe betide
    The guy from outside.
    Posted November 24, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  6. Peter Lupu says


    “Regarding b), a difficulty arises when we must find criteria for the adjudication itself. How are we to adjudicate between competing methods of adjudication?”

    I know that this question arises. But insofar as the need and coherence of a tolerant attitude, this question is secondary. The prior issue is to recognize that tolerance is indeed an attitude of the sort I have described; that there are important values other than truth; that the pursuit of truth is a process and therefore we are not in its possessing while pursuing; and that it is sometimes more important to accommodate contrary beliefs particularly regarding subjects about which there is no consensus simply because such an attitude enhances other social values and may even contribute to the eventual discovery of deeper truths. History shows that intolerance typically leads to ignorance, devaluation of truth, and regress in the human condition.

    A very important question, of course, is what are the appropriate limits to the kind of tolerant attitude I propose?


    Posted November 24, 2008 at 7:18 pm | Permalink