How Not to Fight Religious Fundamentalism: Andrew Sullivan on Faith

by | Nov 16, 2006

A friend of mine recently recommended that I read an Andrew Sullivan article in the Oct 9th issue of Time magazine entitled When Not Seeing is Believing. He found it to be a good article showing that Time was now coming around and taking strong steps towards combating religious fundamentalism. Unfortunately, after reading it, all […]

A friend of mine recently recommended that I read an Andrew Sullivan article in the Oct 9th issue of Time magazine entitled When Not Seeing is Believing. He found it to be a good article showing that Time was now coming around and taking strong steps towards combating religious fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, after reading it, all I see is the same worn-out subjectivism and skepticism that has driven people towards religion, indeed in some ways it’s worse than the standard fare because by operating under the mealy-mouthed guise of a moderate, Sullivan actually manages to combine the worst elements of the subjectivist and the (religious) intrinsicist. For anyone interested, here are a few of the thoughts that I prepared for discussion with my friend.

As a quick background we should note that Sullivan’s topic broaches two of the central questions in philosophy (with emphasis on the second): What is the Good? and How does one know it?

Historically (leaving aside Aristotle, Rand and a few others), there are two predominant schools of thought proposing answers to these questions. The subjectivist school answers by saying “the Good is whatever you or society feel is Good”, and that “you know it because you feel it”. When pressed, however, the adherents of this view, sensing the emptiness of these answers, often lapse into skepticism holding that there is no real way to know anything, that there can be no absolutes or certainty — so don’t judge or be surprised by anything anyone else might think, do or claim.

Now these are hardly satisfactory answers, and after viewing the hippies, drug addicts, and sundry other practitioners of this view, a person searching for answers often moves on. And unfortunately, his only current alternative is the religious type, who answers: there are definite and absolute answers to the question: the Good is an eternal form/deity who resides in another dimension and one knows him by direct revelation and faith. (And if you personally haven’t yet had such contact, you can listen to and follow those who have.)

This is the false choice the average person is faced with and one which, in my opinion, Sullivan strongly reinforces.

With that intro, let’s look at a few of his statements and arguments.

First here is a portion of his presentation of the intrinsicist view, beginning with a description of Ahmadinejad and then looking at typical protestants:

So let me submit that he is smiling and serene not because he is crazy. He is smiling gently because for him, the most perplexing and troubling questions we all face every day have already been answered. He has placed his trust in the arms of God. Just because it isn’t the God that many of us believe in does not detract from the sincerity or power of his faith. It is a faith that is real, all too real–gripping billions across the Muslim world in a new wave of fervor and fanaticism. All worries are past him, all anxiety, all stress. “Peoples, driven by their divine nature, intrinsically seek good, virtue, perfection and beauty,” Ahmadinejad said at the U.N. “Relying on our peoples, we can take giant steps towards reform and pave the road for human perfection. Whether we like it or not, justice, peace and virtue will sooner or later prevail in the world with the will of Almighty God.”

Human perfection. Whether we like it or not. Justice, peace and virtue. That concept of the beneficent, omnipotent will of God and the need to always submit to it, whether we like it or not, is not new. It has been present in varying degrees throughout history in all three great monotheisms Judaism, Christianity and Islam from their very origins. And with it has come the utter certainty of those who say they have seen the face of God or have surrendered themselves to his power or have achieved the complete spiritual repose promised by the Books of all three faiths: the Torah, the Gospels, the Koran. That is where the smile comes from.

In Protestant Christianity, especially in the U.S., the loudest voices are the most certain and uncompromising. Many megachurches, which preach absolute adherence to inerrant Scripture, are thriving, while more moderate denominations are on the decline. That sense of certainty has even entered democratic politics in the U.S. We have, after all, a proudly born-again President. And religious certainty surely cannot be disentangled from George W. Bush’s utter conviction that he has made no mistakes in Iraq. “My faith frees me,” the President once wrote. “Frees me to make the decisions that others might not like. Frees me to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next.” In every messy context, the President seeks succor in a simple certainty–good vs. evil, terror vs. freedom–without sensing that wars are also won in the folds of uncertainty and guile, of doubt and tactical adjustment that are alien to the fundamentalist psyche.

Having set this up, how does Sullivan answer it? Does he say that knowledge can’t be gained this way, that truly these people are neither efficacious nor happy, since they, by their own choices and methods have divorced themselves from reality? That the more seriously, i.e. consistently, that a man or society puts these views in practice the less successful and the more authoritarian it becomes? Does he point out that ultimately Ahmadinejad’s smile comes not from any self-made success in this world, but solely due to the West’s appeasement, submission and sanction, without which he would be a literal nothing? No, he presents the one alternative that is actually worse, he tries to convince us that any sophisticated person knows that knowledge is impossible, that nobody can truly know anything, that faith is appropriate but must be practiced with “humility”. This is a recipe for completely crippling not only our minds but our very motivation to live, and sets up the would-be follower of this advice for slavery (after all who is he to question his leaders … since obviously he can’t truly know anything … so all he can do is remain “humble” and obey).

But all those alternative forms come back to the same root. Those kinds of faith recognize one thing, first of all, about the nature of God and humankind, and it is this: If God really is God, then God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding. Not entirely. We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never grasp, something we can never know–because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T. There will always be something that eludes us. If there weren’t, it would not be God.

In that type of faith, doubt is not a threat. If we have never doubted, how can we say we have really believed? True belief is not about blind submission. It is about open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt. Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it. And it forces us, even while believing, to recognize our fundamental duty with respect to God’s truth: humility. We do not know. Which is why we believe.

A couple other points emerge from the above paragraphs. First, Sullivan’s attempt to present a “moderate” view is simple inconsistency (as it always is). The thesis that “If God is really God then he surpasses our understanding” is the proper conception of God. Throwing in the moderating phrase “Not entirely” is completely empty. Either we can understand God or we can’t, there are only two alternatives and “Not entirely” is not among them. But with such overtly crude techniques Sullivan tries to maintain that we can have our religious cake and eat it too.

Second, in the above Sullivan pulls out the modern skeptic’s tool, i.e. Kant’s incomprehensible and self-contradictory categories to prove to us that we can’t know God (or anything else of any importance). Nothing new here, and certainly nothing to dissuade a person genuinely looking for answers to reject the religious answer. (In fact Kant has largely succeeded in his avowed goal of resurrecting religion and faith.)

In attacking the intrinsicist view, Sullivan rightly points out that there can be no rational argumentation with a truly religious person, since he gets his views by faith and this cannot be questioned. So what does Sullivan counsel as a solution? Continue with faith, just use it in moderation! (Seriously, I’m not making this up):

There is, however, a way out. And it will come from the only place it can come from–the minds and souls of people of faith. It will come from the much derided moderate Muslims, tolerant Jews and humble Christians. The alternative to the secular-fundamentalist death spiral is something called spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt. Fundamentalism is not the only valid form of faith, and to say it is, is the great lie of our time.

There is also the faith that is once born and never experiences a catharsis or “born-again” conversion. There is the faith that treats the Bible as a moral fable as well as history and tries to live its truths in the light of contemporary knowledge, history, science and insight. There is a faith that draws important distinctions between core beliefs and less vital ones–that picks and chooses between doctrines under the guidance of individual conscience.

And though the word “science” makes a cameo in the above, Sullivan isn’t arguing for a rejection of faith (which would require championing reason), but merely that we moderate our faith with its brother: whim. So use faith, except when you don’t feel like it. Again, not exactly a resounding refutation of the fundamentalists’ method or content.

Given this, let’s now turn to Sullivan’s guidance on the question of what we should do if we aren’t to follow fundamentalist edicts?

In this sense, our religion, our moral life, is simply what we do. A Christian is not a Christian simply because she agrees to conform her life to some set of external principles or dogmas, or because at a particular moment in her life, she experienced a rupture and changed herself entirely. She is a Christian primarily because she acts like one. She loves and forgives; she listens and prays; she contemplates and befriends; her faith and her life fuse into an unself-conscious unity that affirms a tradition of moral life and yet also makes it her own. In that nonfundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important than theory, love is more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle.

The answer is that there is no answer except to do “what we do” A better example of begging the question one will rarely find in print. (In fact we can level the charge of begging the question to the thesis of the whole article, since Sullivan never answers any of the salient questions: how do we decide when to use science, when to rely on the Gospels, when to listen to religious authorities, when to consult our feelings, etc. But I suppose that’s the consequence of “humbly” asserting that we can’t know anything.)

Sullivan’s whole approach amounts to ignoring or denying the need for ethical guidance — and thereby eliminates the whole field of morality – once again offering the reader the false alternative of dogmatic edicts or nothing (and I mean literally nothing).

So to summarize, Sullivan doesn’t like that religionists claim (absolute) knowledge, but rather than challenging the method by which they claim to obtain it (i.e. rejecting revelation and faith), he instead affirms the method while discarding knowledge in its entirety. And then based on this, he advises us to be “humble”. As I said before, the alternative he presents is, in many respects, actually worse than that of the fundamentalist, as his view offers absolutely nothing positive for which to reject the mysticism of religion, it explicitly rejects knowledge, and then as a coup de grace, it asserts that somehow an inconsistent practice of one’s principles is better than a consistent one.

Fittingly the bankruptcy of Sullivan’s position comes out in highest relief at the end of his piece, where we learn that his grandmother, qua expert “hail maryier” and achiever of obliviousness, is the best example he can offer of what we should strive to emulate. Nothing more can or need be said.

Amit Ghate is a guest writer to the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and Capitalism Magazine and regularly blogs at Thrutch. He is a full-time trader who often speculates and shorts.

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