Are religions ideas really insulated from scrutiny in our culture?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do you agree with this? David A. Hollinger of University of California, Berkeley asks whether faith-based politics are given enough scrutiny in American politics. Hollinger writes:

By "giving religious ideas a 'pass' " I refer to the convention of maintaining a discreet silence when one hears a religious idea expressed, no matter how silly it may seem. This convention, which is deeply rooted in the assumption that religion is a private matter, shields religious ideas from the same kind of scrutiny to which we commonly subject ideas about the economy, gender, race, literature, science, art, and virtually everything else...

...Skeptics are expected to refrain from asking the faithful to clarify the epistemic status of the Bible, and from inquiring about the evidentiary basis for the doctrine of the atonement. Arguments within faith communities are allowed (Methodists can challenge one another on whether Paul’s letter to the Romans means that same-sex relationships are contrary to God’s will, Catholics can dispute one another’s opinions about Vatican II, and committed Christians generally can argue over the relevance of the Bible to today’s evolutionary science), but the greater the intellectual distance between the potential critic and the person whose beliefs are at issue, the less socially acceptable it is for the critic to speak candidly.

...When religious ideas are offered as justifications for public policy, those ideas should be subject to the full heat of critical debate. As Harry Truman said in another context, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” What would happen if religious ideas were subjected to such a debate? I want to conclude with some speculations. A robust, critical discussion of religious ideas might encourage popular faiths more consistent with modern standards of plausibility, more conscious of the historicity of all faiths, and more resistant to the manipulation of politicians belonging to any party.

The learned elites of the United States have been too reluctant to honestly engage the American public on the religious grounds that continue to be important in this society, which is by far the most religious in the industrialized North Atlantic West.

A forthright, public debate about religious ideas might reveal that the most important religious divide in the United States today is not between secularists and believers, but between two rather differently constituted parties:

1) a broad dispersion of secularists and classically liberal Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims and 2) a variety of fundamentalist and evangelical believers whose understanding of scripture, divinity, and science remain oblivious to the critical spirit of the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the salient solidarities are not communities of faith and of unbelief, but of people adhering to modern structures of cognitive plausibility and of people rejecting those structures.

(The above text is excerpted from "Civic Patriotism and the Critical Discussion of Religious Ideas" by David A. Hollinger. Published by Center for American Progress, 2008.)

What do you think? I have my likes and dislikes about his ideas- I'm wondering if anyone else will key in on the same ones.

I'm not sure where David Hollinger thinks there is a "discreet silence" being kept regarding religious ideas when the truth of Christian claims and the reliability of Christian scriptures are constantly being debated in the media. (Hitchens and Dawkins are like rock stars.) Plus, he is a professor at Berkeley, a place where people usually have no problem expressing their skepticism of traditional beliefs.

I also don't know why skeptics should refrain from asking the faithful to clarify certain points of belief. I think that is only natural and should be welcomed. If someone does not elaborate on a religious idea because they think it is silly, I would interpret that as simply being respectful.  At some point everyone finds something silly in another belief system (and sometimes even in their own!); it only seems polite to not make a public spectacle out of it. Let's not agonized over points of disagreements at the expense of enjoying each others' company.

I would take Hollinger's idea a step further:  I feel that the Christian conservatives are not prepared for skeptical dialogue.  Because it is  too easy to turn inward and be exclusive, it simply doesn't happen enough. To illustrate my point, the authors I mentioned above, Hitchens and Dawkins, are almost unknown in Christian circles.  Then one day the young people encounter the New Atheists and learn they have not been prepared. Oh, they know more than enough about conservative politics but they discover that being a staunch political conservative has done nothing to help them defend their faith in the public arena. So I agree with Hollinger that more skepticism is a good thing.

David A. Holling (of University of California, Berkeley) argues that rigorous scrutiny of faith-based politics might reveal that the real division in the United States is not between secularists and believers, but between the following two parties:

"1) a broad dispersion of secularists and classically liberal Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims and 2) a variety of fundamentalist and evangelical believers whose understanding of scripture, divinity, and science remain oblivious to the critical spirit of the Enlightenment."

This is where I disagree with Holling.  His characterization of religious groups in America is too simplistic.  He has conveniently made fundamentalist and evangelical Christians the great anti-intellectual obstacle that impedes progress in America, while the rest of us all work easily together.  Evangelical Christianity is too diverse in both politics and in their views on spirituality. In fact over the past 10 years international NGOs have seen increased interest and support from evangelical Christians, an area typically dominated by the political left.  He suggests that "fundamentalist and evangelical believers" have the monopoly on being "oblivious to the critical spirit of the Enlightenment." Most would agree that there are Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim groups that fall in this category too.  Though it is fair to point out that Jewish and Muslim groups of this kind will still identify with the left out of a mistrust of the religious right's political influence.

There is the sentiment in the United States that if Christianity is properly understood one will feel obligated to throw their lot in with the Republican Party.  Partly for this reason the Republican Party is highly identified with evangelical Christianity.  Perhaps this is what Holling is talking about in the first place; that social conservatism seems to alienate just about every other religious belief, regardless of how conservative they might actually be. Still, those reactionaries actually opposed to scientific and enlightenment thought are way too few to affect policy on a national level.  I believe it is the case that faith based politics has an appeal to a wider spectrum of belief, including nominal church goers and "paleo-conservatives" (i.e those who might even be skeptics yet value the place of traditional institutions).

I believe we will actually see greater skepticism of faith-based politics come from traditionalist Christians in the coming years (at least on certain issues), but that's too much to go into here.


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I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. - Socrates, Memorabilia
What we maintain is that in none of the problems of life can men afford to lose sight of the storehouse bequeathed to them by the ancients. In the complexus of everything which differentiates man from the brute creation, the voice of antiquity must be heard...

-H. Browne, quoted in "Classics and Citizenship" The Classical Quarterly, 1920