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Religion, Essentialism, and Violence

Cherry picking on the left

There has been a contentious theme circulating around the Left-wing blogosphere for quite a while now, sharpened by the atrocities of ISIS and the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. The theme usually begins with the accusation that Islam as a religion is soft on violence, a consequence of its vehement rejection of Enlightenment values. The argument continues: while Islam may not be unique among monotheisms in its endorsement of violent struggle against heretics, infidels, and Western liberal-democratic hegemony, the idea of jihad reveals that it is uniquely serious about it.

This in turn generates the response that the above sentiment is sheer Islamophobia, bigotry pure and simple. It foists upon Muslims an accountability for terrorism not demanded of any Jew, Christian, or Secularist, and furthermore rests upon a profound misunderstanding of Islam as a faith. This antithesis quickly degenerates into heated and unfocused argument. “The Koran legitimates violent jihad against the non-Muslim world!” “You are taking the passages out of context: jihad is primarily an internal struggle, and Islam has a just-war tradition, one rejected by Islamists, who violate the spirit of Islam.” And so on, ad infinitum. The party of the first part accuses the party of the second part with “cherry picking” doctrines to salve their guilty or false consciences. The party of the second part rebuts that critics of Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant religion are theologically naïve, confusing a political conflict with a religious one, and themselves “cherry pick” in accord with their own political ideology. And so on.

That the Left is having an internal argument with itself on this score is, on the whole, a good thing. For far too long those on the Left have barricaded themselves into fortified ideological camps, bound together by an unflinching orthodoxy. Now that the Right seems to have embraced internecine warfare based on a “narcissism of small differences” just when the Left seems to have given it up, it would be good for the Left to abjure groupthink and watch as the Right implodes.

Dialectic and immanent critique is healthy. But I also think that this dialectic has been fueled by oversimplification. A quick glance at the tiffs in Salon or Slate bear this out. One observes a skirmish between the “new atheist” party of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins against the party of “liberal religionists” like Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong, with a dash of Chomsky thrown in for seasoning. Something is being ignored here — not a “middle ground,” but the question of just what constitutes the core “essence” of a religion, as opposed to the often malignant intentions and actions of its adherents.

In this argument, both the critics and the defenders of Islam as a religion come across as essentialists, whether they admit it or not. Essentialism is the doctrine that there is a precise set of necessary and sufficient conditions forming the criteria for the meaning of a property and membership in a certain class of entities. It is a philosophical doctrine that has been roundly and, I think, effectively criticized, most notably by Wittgenstein (“Family Resemblances”) and Dewey (concepts as pragmatic tools that help us cope rather than eternal verities safeguarded by a “spectator theory of knowledge”). But essentialism does not die quickly, and still bedevils many a debate.

Consider, for a moment, the remarks made by President Obama at a summit on terrorism this past February, prompted by renewed violence by Al Qaeda and ISIS: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” Put aside, for a moment, the fact that a “war” with any entity other than another sovereign state might be an incoherent idea (an incoherence that in the “war on terror” has led to massive violence against noncombatants abroad, as well as a grotesque erosion of liberty and democracy at home). What Obama means in his first assertion is clear and praiseworthy: we are not opposing Islam as such, only quasi-sovereign entities, ISIS and Al Qaeda, which have launched unprovoked, unjustified, and murderous attacks on the citizens of Iraq, Sudan, and Syria, among others. Also, Obama’s sentiments in his second assertion are clear and praiseworthy: terrorist groups have “perverted” Islam by selectively misinterpreting the idea of jihad to rationalize their unjust, indiscriminate, and limitless violence.

And yet… isn’t this “cherry picking”?

It is indeed “cherry picking,” but then again, some kind of “cherry picking” is unavoidable if one rejects essentialism about a religious tradition — about any tradition, really.

Those who would reject, for example, the endorsement of illegitimate violence by Christians — whether the Crusades, the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the enthusiastic acceptance of slavery, the Northern Irish “troubles” of the ’70s and ’80s, religion-based “ethnic cleansing” in what once was Yugoslavia — have ample grounds to do so. The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is paradigmatic: “blessed are the peacemakers”; “turn the other cheek”; “love your enemies” and so on. Christians have taken this perfectionist injunction seriously in deed as well as thought. Christians were in the vanguard of the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements, and have not hesitated to call unjust violence by its name in the scourge of war. This constitutes Christianity at its best.

But it does not constitute Christianity in its essence in the philosophically dubious sense. It is not the whole story. The Crusades, the pogroms, slavery, and so on, are also part of Christianity. If one accepts a non-essentialist account of “the Christian tradition,” one can only understand Christianity by grasping it historically, and its history includes not only St. Francis, but Francisco Franco, not only Dorothy Day but Father Coughlin, not only John XXIII but Savonarola. Calling Islamists “perverters of Islam” is a bit like calling the Westboro Baptist Church “perverters of Christianity”: certainly not wrong, but ignorant of the ways in which the parties of hatred can draw upon the traditions of Christianity to support their agendas.

This is true even of Buddhism, a religious tradition that, on the face of it, is more staunchly committed to the practice of nonviolence (ahimsa) than any other. But the history of Buddhism is not untainted by violence: perhaps the clearest example is that of Sri Lanka, where Hindu Tamils have suffered longtime persecution, often involving physical violence, by the Theravada majority. This seems ludicrous — an affront to the most basic elements of Buddhist tradition. And yet, those who defended these atrocious policies could cite chapter and verse, particularly those that stressed the importance of preserving the integrity of the sangha, to support their actions. Traditions are big. If you are smart and clever enough, you can “cherry pick” to your heart’s content whatever strand of the traditions you wish to reinforce.

This is not to say that that all episodes of “cherry picking” are created equal. Far from it. There is every reason to endorse those elements in tradition that prima facie abjure violence, that respect human individuality and plurality, that honor freedom and equality, and reflect what Kurt Vonnegut held to be the most important human virtue, Common Decency. But these desiderata cannot be read off and justified by appealing to the essence of a faith tradition. They can only be defended by the common practices of the giving and taking of reasons, by immanent critique, by rational persuasion in a common space devoted to a form of inquiry, devoted to examining a form of life, transforming and extending it in a way which makes better sense, which is more faithful to its true potential.

In taking this tack, one is advancing a pragmatist view of tradition — a non-traditionalist version of tradition, however oxymoronic that might sound. While they do not themselves describe themselves as pragmatists, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Alasdair MacIntyre have made a convincing case that traditions are dynamic embodiments of an argument constituted, in part, about what that tradition is. When traditions oppose themselves to immanent critique, when they oppose themselves to “reason,” they become, in MacIntyre’s view, “Burkean,” and “when a tradition becomes Burkean it is always dying or dead” (in “Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life, and Tradition” from After Virtue). Traditions thrive when driven by inquiry, by operating in what Wilfred Sellars called “the logical space of reasons,” of both internal dialogue and dialogue with other traditions, effecting what Gadamer called “the fusion of horizons.” The unity of tradition is a narrative unity, a story not only told but always in the process of the telling.

This re-construal of tradition, however, poses distinctive, difficult problems to religious believers. If inquiry inevitably draws upon tradition, tradition needs inquiry either to drive it forward or, if the tradition proves moribund, shut it down. The important thing is expressed in Charles Sanders Peirce’s prime directive: “Do not block the path of inquiry.” It is that, rather than non-conformity to a religion’s “essence,” that condemns the apostles of violence and hatred, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or Secularist. It is, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, a steadfast refusal to think, a peculiarly modern and postmodern species of evil.

Rigid dogmatism is almost always the last refuge of the violent; a commitment to inquiry, dialogue, and civil conversation precludes any reflexive recourse to violence, whether physical or verbal. Whether this runs against the grain of specifically religious tradition shall be the topic of my next post.

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Michael Quirk

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