Monday, March 31, 2008

An exchange over tolerance

[This exchange was had about two years ago or so--PSR]


This poster was hanging in the office hallway of the CSC at Washington University in St. Louis. I don’t know if it is still hanging there. If it is, it should be taken down immediately. The message of that poster is one of relativism and is, therefore, irreconcilable with the Catholic Faith (and basic common sense). The director of the CSC has told me that he regards relativism as one of the two greatest threats to the Church. Now, he may not understand the message of this poster to be that of relativism, but it is. Let me explain why.

The poster exhorts the reader to "make a difference by accepting the faith of others." Underneath this exhortation is a list of what the geniuses behind this poster consider to be "faiths". This list includes Islam, Buddhism, Secular Philosophies, Pagan and Earth-Based religions, and (my personal favorite) Zoroastrianism as well as others, including, of course, Christianity. Setting aside the problem of calling philosophy a faith (this is a huge, disastrous error all by itself), I note that to accept all these "faiths" requires one to believe that none can be objectively true. For example, if one is a believing Christian, then one believes that Christ is God. A believing Muslim flatly denies this. Moreover, he regards the belief in Christ’s divinity to be a monstrous heresy. Similarly, the believing Christian regards the denial of Christ’s divinity to be a monstrous heresy (The violent history of the Arian Controversy demonstrates this). The only way the Christian and the Muslim can accept eachother’s faiths is for both of them to say that my belief is true for me and yours is true for you. This applies to the other "faiths" as well. For instance, a Kantian Philosopher must say that the categorical imperative is true for himself only if he is ever to accept the "faith" of a Nietzschean, but, this, of course, would make the whole idea of the categorical imperative completely and utterly meaningless.

In short, if we are to obey the command of this poster, then there is onephilosophy or "faith" that we must above all accept. But we must not only accept this philosophy, we must also scrupulously practice it, namely the philosophy or "faith" of subjectivism. According to subjectivism, all beliefs are only true for the believer, and all beliefs are equally true in their own subjective ways. In other words, whatever floats your boat. In other words, out and out relativism. Here is an example of how this cashes out. You’re a Catholic. You believe that pre-marital sex is a grave sin. Your friend’s faith is one of the secular philosophies, namely the Playboy Philosophy according to which pre-marital sex with lots of women is not sinful but a very great good and the definition of bliss. And so you accept pre-marital sex as sinful for yourself while you accept his promiscuity as what makes him happy (as he proceeds to make damaged goods of all your sisters and, perhaps, even your girlfriend--perhaps, even your wife).

The upshot of this is simply that all beliefs and philosophies are nothing more than private opinions. If people believe that their deeply held beliefs are simply opinions, they will be humble about them and keep them in the private sphere. Truths are worth defending to the death, sure, but private opinions are not. This is the ultimate philosophy behind this poster. We all have different opinions but they are just that, opinions. Nothing worth fighting over. So, keep your opinions private, don’t let them intrude upon the public sphere, and then we will have one peaceful, tranquil community.

Now this simply does not work for many reasons. Chief among these reasons is that if everything is a private opinion, then the only thing capable of determining our laws is simple, unprincipled might, and that is why we have a police force. Our one tranquil community is not created so much by an enlightened tolerance but by a very well-armed police force. Nevertheless, our enlightened tolerance, which is nothing more than a subjectivism as shown above, does help the police inasmuch as it gives them a largely quiescent public to patrol. Things become more difficult when a group refuses to join in the deal and submit to this relativism as is currently the case in Germany.

Germany is now having a huge problem with a Muslim Population that refuses to assimilate to its secular nihilism. The daughters of Muslim families are being kept out of public schools, imprisoned in very small apartments, forced into marriages, and being ruthlessly beaten by their husbands who are firmly convinced that their faith is objectively true and that it gives them the authority to beat their wives at will. German society has tolerated this for years under the name of multiculturism (not more than five minutes ago I mentioned to my Uncle in Augsburg the epidemic of wife beating among Muslims in Germany. His response was almost a caricature of the multicultural complacency: Andere Religionen, andere Sitten--i.e, different religions, different morality), but more and more voices are decrying this multiculturism, and these voices belong not so much to the socially conservative religious right but to the secular, progressive left. It’s fine and dandy to accept all faiths and beliefs and philosophies when no one really takes them seriously. It is another thing entirely to accept a faith that its adherents think is objectively true and think should be held by everyone. These Muslims don’t want to accept the Christian Faith, Buddhism, or any other faith besides Islam, and they definitely refuse to accept the faith of any secular philosophy. And the leftist progressives don’t want to accept the faith of forced marriages and wife beating. Far from accepting the faith of these Muslims, the leftist progressives (well, some of them, at least) are calling for government control of the teaching of Islam. Here in this country not even a right wing, xenophobic bigot like Patrick J. Buchanan is calling for such a draconian infringement of the freedom of religion. He does not need to, yet.

Response by my dear friend, Dave P.:

Paul, I think you are mistaking the poster’s intent. You write that this poster exhorts its viewer to accept others’ faiths. It does no such thing. It invites the viewer simply to "make a difference by accepting everyone’s elses." You conclude that this is the same thing as asking us to accept these faiths as expressions of reality. Again, it is not. The poster only asks us to accept other peoples’ RIGHT to live according to the dictates of different faiths. Do you accept that? If not, then there’s no use in
arguing the point further. If you do, then, I guess that’s that as well. In any case, it doesn’t seem to warrant all of the venom you spilled over it.

You continue by writing: "In short, if we are to obey the command of this poster, then there is one philosophy or "faith" that we must above all accept. But we must not only accept this philosophy, we must also scrupulously practice it, namely the philosophy or "faith" of subjectivism." Again, I don’t see where the poster says this at all. If you as a Catholic want to categorically deny the validity of other faiths, you are welcome to do that. To you, subjectively, your faith may be the only expression of truth. I can certainly allow you that belief. I may try to dislodge you from this view through pointed argument, but I’m certainly not going to deny your right to hold this belief. That’s accepting your difference (again, what the poster’s asking of us).

What seems to set you off is the fact that the poster addresses different suites of religious beliefs. Let’s substitute for a moment philosophic ideas for religious beliefs (you do well to point out that philosophy differs from religion). I can’t believe that you would rant over a person’s right to act the Nietzschean versus acting the Kantian or the Marxist or the Comptean, etc. You’d simply say, well, I don’t agree with this or that position, and I’ll argue with you all night about why I think so, if you’d like. But I doubt you’d feel that something’s desperately wrong with the world because we hold opposing philosophical views. You’ll accept it. This isn’t relativism at all. One of those views may actually be true - or all may be completely wrong. Likely there’s some tincture of right dissolved in a whole lot of wrong. The same holds true for the different suite of religious beliefs. This isn’t relativism. We don’t, again, have to believe that any of those other beliefs are true. But, hell, people have lived and lived well according to religious beliefs that time has proven totally devoid of truth - accept perhaps in some metaphoric sense (take the ancient Greeks or Egyptians for example).

Now, the problem, which you rightly raise, is what happens when and if someone attempts to suppress another’s right to hold different religious beliefs. The minute someone comes down the pike and screams, "No, all of you others must accept my belief. I’m going to get control of political power and use armed force to suppress you," then we have a problem. The poster is trying to short-circuit this potentiality. In a democratic society we live by certain rules. Our forefathers in their wisdom recognized that wrangling over religious beliefs had for millenia steered polities into cul de sacs resolved only, or mostly, by resort to violence. They had seen their own stolid England fall to swords the century before over one’s right to dissent from the established Church. So they decided to allow absolute freedom of religious thought. Period. This extended, implicitly, to all manner of other beliefs given that the expression of those beliefs did not infringe on another’s right to hold his or her belief. In short, if my faith "A" involves picking up a knife and slashing to death anyone holding faith "B", this obviously does not fly in this society. Maybe in India. But not here. You have broken the rules and you will be judged and punished accordingly. These are our rules, yes relative to our society and to large portions of the West - not written in stone tablets by God - but they seem to work pretty well. They at least make utilitarian sense and have allowed generations to live a more or less irenic social existence on this continent.

All of this said, I take exception to some of your arguments:

You write: "In other words, whatever floats your boat. In other words, out and out relativism. Here is an example of how this cashes out. You’re a Catholic. You believe that pre-marital sex is a grave sin. Your friend’s faith is one of the secular philosophies, namely the Playboy Philosophy according to which pre-marital sex with lots of women is not sinful but a very great good and the definition of bliss. And so you accept pre-marital sex as sinful for yourself while you accept his promiscuity as what makes him happy (as he proceeds to make damaged goods of all your sisters and, perhaps, even your girlfriend--perhaps, even your wife)."

According to my argument, you are free to believe that pre-marital sex is sinful both for you AND for your friend (the poster is not suggesting you do otherwise). You do not accept his promiscuity because it makes him happy. Rather, you try in the strongest possible terms to point out how his promiscuity, in your eyes, actually makes him unhappy. This is not relativism. You hold absolute beliefs. He, for his part, holds beliefs that may also be absolute but which are likely ill-defined (if he’s like other philistines I’ve met). He just wants pleasure, he’s an unthinking hedonist. He either accepts your argument and changes or, more likely, shrugs his shoulders and later that night unzips his pants on yet another (un)willing conquest. So what do you want to do? Do you want to deny his RIGHT to behave as he will, put laws on the books that deprive him of his freedoms, perhaps even excise him as a social disease? Is that what you really want? And if so, what if down the road the Playboy decides he doesn’t want any prudish Catholics sniffing around any more spoiling everyone’s fun, gains power in his turn and has you and your correligionists paraded off to the tower?

Again you write: "The upshot of this is simply that all beliefs and philosophies are nothing more than private opinions. If people believe that their deeply held beliefs are simply opinions, they will be humble about them and keep them in the private sphere. Truths are worth defending to the death, sure, but private opinions are not. This is the ultimate philosophy behind this poster. We all have different opinions but they are just that, opinions. Nothing worth fighting over. So, keep your opinions private, don’t let them intrude upon the public sphere, and then we will have one peaceful, tranquil community."

All beliefs and philosophies ARE in the end opinions. They are, however, not necessarily private because we often share them with many other people. And people do believe at times that (some of) their opinions are not opinions at all but rather Truths - even Truths worth dying for (remember the folks who flew the airplanes into the NY towers?). Fine. But if, like a pro-life assassin, you get caught shooting abortion clinicians, you will end up behind bars or even in the electric chair. You’ve broken the rules. Now, you may not care. You and others of your kidney may call your death a matyrdom and someone may even write a song of praise about you or put up a plaque of commemoration. But according to the rules of our society, those who deprive others of their right under our laws to hold different believes (which are placed on the books after informed deliberation), will be in turn deprived of their civil rights. Period. These rules seem sensible to me. Not to a fanatic, likely (at least not after the fanatic gains his end - fanatics love the democratic "live and let live" philosophy while their hatching their plots), but to most of us with democratic sensibilities. You don’t have to keep your opinions to yourself - stand up on your soap box all day if you’d like. Just don’t pull out a gun. And yes, under such a social contract we will live in one peaceful, relatively tranquil community. Thank God.

Let’s continue. You write: "Now this simply does not work for many reasons. Chief among these reasons is that if everything is a private opinion, then the only thing capable of determining our laws is simple, unprincipled might, and that is why we have a police force. Our one tranquil community is not created so much by an enlightened tolerance but by a very well armed police force. Nevertheless, our enlightened tolerance, which is nothing more than a subjectivism as shown above, does help the police inasmuch as it gives them a largely quiescent public to patrol. Things become more difficult when a group refuses to join in on the deal and submit to this relativism as is currently the case in Germany."

Again, I don’t see how this is true. Most of the opinions we hold, again, are not "private" opinions at all but opinions shared by many, many others. Not in all things, naturally, but for the BIG ticket items there’s often a vast consensus. This is an essential phenomenon because it makes us behave (in more than one sense) as a community. Few men, I’d submit, can live without some commonality of belief/opinion - again, a good thing, because it’s just this commonality of belief that holds civil society together. One important opinion that most of us living in democratic America hold is the right for others to believe what they will so long as their actions do not infringe on the civil rights of others (what I’ve been talking about). Our laws are in the end upheld largely by this consensus, and not, as you suggest, by any police force. If the day comes when this consensus no longer holds, there will not exist enough policemen to contain the violence of the masses in revolt. A brief glimpse into the history of revolutions will make this more than apparent.

I hope this hasn’t been too much of a rant, Paul. I just strongly disagree with your views on this matter.

Best regards, my friend.

Dave

My Response:

Dear David,

I will start this by acknowledging our agreement that there is a difference between philosophy and religion. I trust that you would further agree that this difference is in kind and not in degree. Now, I would formulate the difference as that between philosophy and supernatural revelation only because the term religion focuses the mind on organization whereas "supernatural revelation" is a knowledge claim and, as such, is more readily comparable and contrastable with philosophy.

In short, philosophy is what can be known by natural reason alone, and supernatural revelation tells us what cannot be known by philosophy. It is a very great error to conflate the two and leads to one of two disasters. To say that supernatural revelation is nothing more than a philosophy is to deny transcendence of the natural order and, therewith, to deny by categorical legerdemain any voice at all to the claims of supernatural revelation at the very outset. One winds up trapped in his own reason. The Philosophes of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment did not know this nightmare since they were sponging of the cultural capital bequeathed to them by the Middle Ages, but Nietzsche and Kafka did know this nightmare and articulated it very well. Or, if you reverse the subject with the predicate and assert that philosophy is a supernatural revelation, then one denies the objectivity of reason and, therewith, the testability of any claim. Everything then becomes matter of blind faith and communication is impossible except between two inspired prophets who by the whim of God (or the gods) happen to preach the same revelation.

The poster, I contend, makes the latter part of this error. By putting "secular philosophies" under the rubric of faith, the poster is in effect saying everything is a matter of faith and, therefore, nothing is testable by reason. Thus, you are left with only this choice, accept the differences or don’t. Since refusal to accept will only lead to endless debates that are a priori unresolvable and, hence, to rancorous divisions that could very well cause bloody civil war or, worse, anarchy, acceptance is better for the sake of peace and tranquility. Post-Modern plurality is inexorablefate. Accept it because denial only causes endless strife.

Now, here is where your critique kicks in, David Paul. You contend that I err in my understanding the poster’s "accept" as "accept" simply. The real meaning of the poster’s "accept" according to you is: "accept the right of others to live according to the dictates of their different faiths." If one just accepts this meaning, then all my objections collapse. The poster on your reading of it does not require one to accept the content of any philosophy or faith; it simply exhorts one to acknowledge a basic right. The poster is simply a re-formulation of Voltaire’s famous dictum: "I may not agree with anything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

But this reading ignores that this dictum is itself a certain belief, namely one that holds that all human speech, however dimwitted, makes some contribution to the pursuit of the truth. Therefore, no speech should be suppressed. This is a particular belief, and as a particular belief why the deuce does it have pride of place among the other beliefs listed on this poster? Your reading of the poster basically is this: It does not require anyone to accept the content of any belief, except one, namely the belief of Voltairian Liberalism.

What if I don’t believe that freedom of speech is worth dying for? What if I do not believe that the Nazis had the right to march in Skokie because I am just not convinced that the Nazis could ever make a contribution to the pursuit of truth? This is my very sincere belief, and it is at complete loggerheads with that belief that is supposed to save that poster from utter nonsense. Your belief cannot tolerate mine without undermining itself and vice versa. Tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance, and intolerance simply does not tolerate.

Of course, you can always change the purpose of the Voltairian principle from the pursuit of the truth to the maintainance of societal tranquility, but that would in no way make it any less of a "faith". Why should the faith that holds for the sake of public peace, we must let every crackpot have his say, trump the faith that says for the sake of communal concord we should kill everyone who disagrees with us?

Because, Paulie (I can hear you say), there is a consensus for the former and not the latter, and we have such a consensus not because of any particular belief but because history has shown conclusively that the attempt to erect a monolithic culture by means of coercive Gleichschaltung leads not to tranquility but to lots and lots of strife and bloodshed. In this age of pluralism, there is simply not just one group strong enough to force its beliefs on all others, and if one group tries to play king of the hill, perpetual war will result. It requires no particular belief to realize this, merely the desire for a life that is not nasty, brutish, and short.

Thus, the foundation of this tolerant society is nothing less banal than the Hobbesian fear of violent death. But many beliefs, especially many well-known religious ones, teach and train believers not to fear any death. For the Hobbesian system to work, these beliefs must be watered down. The citizenry must believe more or less that nothing transcends the security that the state provides.

You may argue that no, citizens can have beliefs that override the fear of violent death, but they must be prepared to pay the legal price if they act on these beliefs. This argument works only in a society where the likes of Paul Hill and Eric Rudolph are still very rare. The mass of men in this country still lead lives of quiet resignation. But let’s say the anti-abortion crowd radicalizes on a massive scale. Right wing religious whackos all home school their kids and inculcate in them the belief that Roe v. Wade is a valid casus belli. Do you think the state will wait until this legion of zealots act on their beliefs?

Your argument for liberal tolerance ultimately ignores the inseparability of belief and action, which is one of the many errors of Protestantism. Europe is still Catholic enough to realize this is a fatal error at least with regard to radicalized Islam. This is why France has banned Islamic symbols from the schools and why there are calls in Germany for the state to regulate the content of Islamic education. I don’t know what is being done in Britian, but the British government would be mad to tolerate the faith of Jihad. Dangerous beliefs lead to dangerous actions. The idea that all beliefs should be tolerated is a perilous na├»vete.

Love,

Paul

[Note bene: Dave did reply to my response, but I have since lost it. I will post it if and when I finally find it.--PSR]

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