Weaponized Relativism

Thinking critically about thinking about religion is fraught with misdirections. I’ve been reflecting on a post that Steven wrote last week highlighting the way that individuals are able to combine a ‘default cultural relativism’ with a ‘high level of dogmatism.’ He does an excellent job of outlining how a student has combined contradictory arguments:

(a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

How to account for this contradictory logic and its bloody repetitions? And it is, to be sure, a repetition. Talal Asad has identified this logic at work in the doctrine of secularism–especially in the discourse on “Islamic terrorism” and its supposed existential threat to the West: (a) The Qur’an is posited to be absolutely binding upon Muslims. (b) Christians and Jews may come to various interpretations of the Bible. Asad states that “On the one hand, the religious text is held to be determinate, fixed in its sense, and having the power to bring about particular beliefs [and subsequently actions]–rendering readers passive. On the other hand, the religious reader is taken to be actively engaged in constructing the meaning of texts in accordance with changing social circumstances–so the texts are passive.” Perhaps Steven’s student has been watching too much Bill Maher. The six-day creationist is absolutely passive in his or her relation to the Bible, and yet, somehow, they seem to keep finding ways to apply the Bible to all these new scenarios. It seems that the brave atheist has found an enemy internal to the West against which to deploy the orientalist logic.

We should not be suprised that there are enemies both internal and external. The brave atheist will be disappointed to hear this, but at the end of the day they are just being a good Christian. However, what if the literal six-day creationist and the brave atheist come together in the same room? God knows they love a good debate that goes back and forth for hours. I remember countless youth group lessons devoted to training for these opportunities.

These debating sites are not just in college dorm rooms or online forums. They also include the U.S. Senate chamber, the Palace of Westminster, and CNN roundtables. In those rooms the debate over contradictions no longer matters. Relativism is fine–nay encouraged–as long as we are safely dealing with the internal thoughts and intentions of subjects of the Western political project. We can amicably disagree over matters of religion because we have isolated a secular plane upon which we translate our private motivations into common cause. ‘Separation of church and state!’ Believe anything you want privately, but in public you must believe in the secular. Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, the mandate is clear: abandon our bold binary and present a unified front against the Axis of Evil. Those others have not attained to the height of human culture: privatized relativism. Better bomb them until they do.

On “religious claims”

Common wisdom holds that there is a special class of claims known as “religious claims.” These claims are characterized by an inability to be rigorously proven or disproven. While people are free to embrace such claims in the privacy of their own homes, their fundamentally non-rational (or supra-rational) nature renders them unfit for inclusion in the realm of public debate. In the public sphere, this common wisdom teaches us, we must limit ourselves to debatable, disprovable claims.

Such an attitude does not necessarily imply any disrespect or disdain for religious claims. While some reject them as completely unacceptable, others profoundly respect such claims insofar as they edify and enrich the lives of those who hold them or insofar as they produce moral results that can be publicly agreed to be desirable and admirable.

Nothing could be more familiar than this class of “religious claims.” Strangely, however, there seems to be no way of distinguishing between religious or non-religious claims from the content of the claim itself. Aristotle makes claims about something like a monotheistic God, and we do not construe his claim as religious. Aquinas makes the exact same argument, and it does seem to be religious. A statement like “Christ is risen” seems to be a purely religious claim, and yet one can imagine a historian concluding that the only way to explain the behavior of early Christians is to assume that they deeply believed Christ had somehow risen from the dead and that the most probable way to account for this belief is that something of the kind did in fact happen, even if we can’t understand how. Indeed, many Christians insist that their claims about Christ’s resurrection should be understood in just such a historical way!

Hence I conclude that the decision as to what constitutes a “religious claim” is ultimately a political decision as to what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds for a determinate sphere of discourse. The final arbiter of this distinction, insofar as it enforces its material consequences in the distribution of resources and privileges, is the state. This means that paradoxically, it is the secular state that produces “religious claims” as religious in the relevant sense. They may produce such claims as a way of justifying the granting of particular privileges or legal exemptions, or they may produce such claims as a way of disqualifying someone’s demands as inappropriate and illegitimate — but in either case, it is the state that is producing the distinction.

This is strange, insofar as one of the supposedly distinctive qualities of “religious claims” is that they are tied to determinate institutions that are designated as “religious.” Indeed, in American jurisprudence, membership in a recognized (or at least recognizable) religious institution or group is a necessary condition of demanding special privileges related to religion — there is no religion of one. Yet if we view the state as the arbiter of the secular and the religious, then we could say that secular claims, as well, depend on adherence to a determinate institution, namely, the state.

In this view, the state is structurally similar to a church, albeit an especially capacious and permissive church that tolerates and even encourages the existence of certain smaller churches. Or from another perspective, we might view the secular state in its relationship to “religious” groups as similar to the relationship between Islamic rulers and non-Islamic groups — some of which are granted special privileges (if they conform to certain core doctrines such as monotheism) and some of which are penalized (if they are polytheistic).

In the case of the secular state, the official qualification is tolerance, namely, a willingness to live alongside other religious groups without resorting to violence — and above all, to submit to the rule of the secular state as the guarantor of this milieu of mutual tolerance. For many secular thinkers, this qualification does not apply to Islam insofar as Islam seems to them to presuppose the right of Muslims to rule over others. This exclusion is of course ironic given that Islamic rule was one of the clearest pre-modern examples of a conditionally pluralistic religious regime such as we see in secularism.

But I think there may be something deeper than mere irony at work here. Perhaps secularists are right to see Islam as a special problem, insofar as the confrontation between secularism and Islam is fundamentally a confrontation over whether the distinction at the root of secularism — that between “religious claims” and “secular claims” — is an “exportable,” universal basis for political order or whether it is, on the contrary, a solution to problems particular to the early-modern Christian milieu that we should not expect to work in other areas with different historical legacies.

It should be clear that I take the latter view. This does not mean, of course, that I prefer “religious rule” in the West, nor that I “support” ISIS (whatever that is supposed to actually mean), nor that I want to move to Iran, etc. Like many people, I am most comfortable in the religious milieu to which I am accustomed — namely, under the church of secularism. In the American context, I doubt that a better or more stable solution to the “religion problem” is likely to arise in the foreseeable future, even though our current regime has many negative effects on individual liberty (for children raised in religious settings) and public discourse. And indeed, I think that it is precisely the artificial distinction on which secularism relies that produces certain religious groups as oppositional to secularism and thus as “oppressive,” “totalitarian,” etc. Often this is unintentional “blowback,” but there are surely times when such convenient enemies are actively cultivated through propaganda and demonization. Every church needs its heretics and infidels, after all.

Some thoughts on secularity-without-secularism and non-philosophy more generally (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Rather than offering an overall perspective on A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature in this post, I wanted to highlight several moments that I found particularly insightful to think and wrestle with.

1. The most viscerally powerful moment for me in the book was the image it offered for the possibility of what a generic secular might look like. Anthony recounts a dual act of solidarity that occurred between the Muslim Community and the Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. The first was the act of solidarity by Egyptian Muslims who, in the wake of a suicide bombing against the Coptic community, encircled a Coptic Christian Church to provide the worshippers a human shield that would allow them to safely celebrate Christmas. The second image is likewise an encircling of protection. During the Tahir square occupations, a number of protestors carried out their religious duty and prayed during the calls for prayer, and in so doing, left themselves vulnerable to police harassment and brutality. This time it was the Coptic Christians who encircled the Muslims, constructing a human shield and allowing prayer to continue free of harassment and intimidation. Continue reading “Some thoughts on secularity-without-secularism and non-philosophy more generally (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)”

The Power of Ambiguity: Agrama’s Questioning Secularism

Rarely has a book excited me lately as much as Hussein Ali Agrama’s recent Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt  (University of Chicago Press, 2012) did. It helped me to clarify some of my own thinking regarding the “generic secular” in relation to his discussion of secularism, non-secularism, post-secularism and asecularism. The last of this series he seems to valorize as something that appeared to me to be something akin to a temporary autonomous zone. The book aims to investigate the nature of secular power through the use of social theory, philosophy, and anthropology (and I note that the ethnography of the book was exciting to read) and a focus on the realm of law as found in modern Egypt. Agrama writes, “That secular power increasingly enables state sovereign capacity is a key argument of this book. It points to the possibility that secular power brings together two things typically thought to be opposed: a growing space of normative critique and contestation, and the increasing assertion of state sovereignty within social life (31).” Continue reading “The Power of Ambiguity: Agrama’s Questioning Secularism

Loving your enemies

In my discussions about religion with secular liberals, a certain dynamic has become disturbingly familiar. Again and again, they will listen patiently to me talk about a liberation, feminist, or even just plain liberal theological perspective and then authoritatively declare, “That will never catch on.” A reading of the Bible that goes against long-standing tradition? “Too much of a stretch” — and, for some of them, even potentially dishonest.

What is so frustrating about this is that there are actual communities of actual human beings who live out the doctrines I’m talking about. Continue reading “Loving your enemies”

Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

Like many of our readers I’ve watched the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold with a mixture of hopeful expectation and anxious trepidation. It has been a long time since something called a revolution has actually been one. Still, I am one of those on the Left who celebrate every act of resistance, regardless of its subsequent failure, because they serve to remind all of us that the state we are in is always contingent. That there are fissures and cracks dotting the seemingly monolithic entity that is Empire. And so with the same expectation I have watched and tried to understand. I don’t think that I do completely understand, as I’m sure most of us feel, but I felt the need to write down some thoughts on the matter especially since the other big theology blogs yet again remain silent in the face of massive political and social unrest. Preferring instead to continue their usual self-flagellation about their chosen career path or posting links to lectures by yet another conservative theologian espousing a sophisticated form of apologetics. Continue reading “Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt”

Adrian Johnston talk: “On Deep History and the Brain”

Adrian Johnston gave a talk at the University of Guelph last Friday and I thought the audio might be of interest to some here. The talk is entitled “On Deep History and the Brain” and in it Adrian draws upon Daniel Smail’s book “On Deep History and the Brain”  to critique a certain side of Lacan that denies any inquiry into that which lies beyond the epistemic limitations of our symbolic structures (e.g. Lacan’s ontology of ‘parle-être’, “In the beginning was the Word,” “The Word is the murder of the Thing,” etc.). Adrian links this impetus to bracket the pre-linguistic to a Judeo-Christian “short chronology/sacred history.” In its place, Adrian endorses a “deep history” as the necessary condition for a secularized materialism. I’ll let the audio explain what exactly this entails.

The Q&A might also be of interest to some, as Adrian talks a bit about his interest in revitalizing Hegel’s philosophy of nature, his preference for the Zizekian approach of adopting the form of Christianity in order to displace its basis rather than smuggling Judeo-Christian content into an atheistic outlook, and shares some objections he has to certain tenets of Speculative Realism.

The abstract is here (pdf), the talk here, and the Q&A here.

Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation

This week, my philosophy of religion course is reading Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, whose preface anticipates his arguments in Conflict of the Faculties in favor of viewing the “philosopy faculty” (something like the “college of arts and sciences”) as superior to the other faculties (basically professional schools). In specific, he claims that although the philosophical theory of “pure religion” seems narrower than historical religions, it nonetheless has the right to judge and assess them insofar as it is higher and more universal than them. Kant does wind up claiming that Christianity is uniquely in line with the ideal “religion of reason,” but that claim of Christian superiority is undercut insofar as it is Kant qua philosopher who is entitled to make that judgment.

It seems to me that this move on the part of Kant can shed some light on the place of biblical studies in the university. Biblical studies did historically make claims for Christian superiority just as Kant does, and postcolonial critics have pointed out the ways that critical biblical studies wound up underwriting imperialism, etc. Such things don’t happen as much anymore (at least not openly — for that we need to look to theologians like Milbank), but biblical studies does still claim the authority of the Bible and arguably does so in the interests of the liberal state. It does this by claiming biblical authority only to deactivate it.

Broadly speaking, biblical studies sets itself up as a new magisterium regulating the use of the Bible. And ultimately, it turns out that all possible uses of the Bible in contemporary life are somehow wrong, as indeed all previous historical attempts to use the Bible have been.

Continue reading “Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation”