"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Clash of Cultures–Is There Room for Rational Debate?

Carlos Fraenkel has written in interesting opinion piece in the New York Times (9.3.12 In Praise of the Clash of Cultures) about the importance of cross-cultural debate on religion based on rational argumentation.

The great Muslim thinker al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) in his intellectual autobiography “The Deliverance from Error,” [speaks of breaking]  the “bonds of taqlîd” — the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization rather than from rational deliberation.

In his own case, al-Ghazâlî writes, the bonds of taqlîd broke when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. He explains taqlîd as the authority of “parents and teachers,” which we can restate more generally as all things other than rational argument that influence what we think and do: from media, fashion and marketing to political rhetoric and religious ideology.

The problem according to Fraenkel is that non-rational conclusions about religion lead to equally non-rational associations and convictions.  If Muslims, Catholics, or Jews acknowledged the social and cultural dimensions of their beliefs, there would be less dissent and more reasonable debate.  That is, since everyone is conditioned in different ways, differences of opinion and faith will always occur, and rational debate – the one common denominator for all points of view – will encourage respect for and learning from others’ religions:

If we take taqlîd to be a fact about human psychology and agree that it is an undesirable state to be in — at least when it comes to the core convictions that underlie our way of life and worldview — then we should particularly welcome debates across cultural boundaries. For if we engage someone who does not share the cultural narratives we were brought up in (historical, political, religious etc.), we cannot rely on their authority, but are compelled to argue for our views.

This approach is not new:

Consider a theological debate in the multicultural world of medieval Islam, described by the historian al-Humaydi (d. 1095):

At the [...] meeting there were present not only people of various [Islamic] sects but also unbelievers, Magians, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians, in short unbelievers of all kinds. Each group had its own leader, whose task it was to defend its views [...]. One of the unbelievers rose and said to the assembly: we are meeting here for a debate; its conditions are known to all. You, Muslims, are not allowed to argue from your books and prophetic traditions since we deny both. Everybody, therefore, has to limit himself to rational arguments [hujaj al-‘aql]. The whole assembly applauded these words.

For example, take the metaphysical proof for God’s existence, first formulated by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna in the11th century:

“Since an infinite regress of causes is impossible, Avicenna argues, things that depend on a cause for their existence must have something that exists through itself as their first cause. And this necessary existent is God. I had a counter-argument to that to which they in turn had a rejoinder. The discussion ended inconclusively.”

There are many examples of Christian debate as well.  The fundamentals of the faith that most take for granted now – the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, etc. – were argued and debated for two hundred years until consensus was finally reached at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Elements of doctrine were further argued and clarified by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, the first real logicians of the Church.  To this day, the Catholic Church objects to the proliferation of fundamentalist Protestant sects which have dispensed with reason and become totally immersed in an illogical, emotional faith.

Fraenkel argues that the time has come to revisit these rational disputations and in so doing put inter-faith dialogue on a common, non-contentious footing, the result of which will be a lessening of the current political tensions and animosities which currently exist.

While I think that Fraenkel is right in hoping for a more rational discourse on religion, I am afraid that there is only a slim chance of this happening in a world where religious zealotry and illogical passion rule.  He suggests, not unreasonably, that such inquiry start in high school; but ironically the very forces he is trying to combat – those that promote diversity and unproductive conflict – are responsible for our insistence on the separation of church and state and the prohibition concerning the teaching of religion in the schools.

While there maybe interfaith councils including Muslims and Jews, for example, intending to acknowledge the same Abrahamic roots of both religions and to therefore find more common ground than currently exists, these certainly take place far from the corridors of power and have little influence on Middle Eastern politics.

Similarly there are few meaningful dialogues between Catholics and Protestants both because of the bewildering diversity of Protestant churches, each with their own particular beliefs and because of the fundamental philosophical difference between the two – the means for achieving salvation are profoundly different for Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

Fraenkel argues that certain popular trends set back this return to logic and first principles:

Some advocates of multiculturalism ask us to celebrate, rather than just tolerate, diversity, as if our differences weren’t a reason for disagreement in the first place, but something good and beautiful — a multicultural “mosaic”! Others [like the French and their insistence on laïcité] argue that our moral, religious, and philosophical convictions shouldn’t leave the private sphere.

Perhaps because Fraenkel is an avowed atheist, he values rationality and logic over a more personal and emotional spiritual search and expression.  I share his views, but am far more realistic – or cynical – about resolving religious differences.  Not only are there fundamental differences in religious belief, but religion has always been mixed indistinguishably from politics, no less today than during the Crusades, during the power struggles between the Pope and English kings in the Renaissance, or Mohammed’s march across North Africa and the battle at Roncesvalles.  Religion and politics always mix in an extremely combustible mix.

I am a realist and believe that the clash of cultures is neither a good nor bad thing, but an inevitable element in the perennial cycle of history.  Cultures will always clash and one will always emerge dominant, at least for a time, until another takes its place.  Reason and rationality have often been the foundations of religion and culture (look only to the Age of Enlightenment and its influence on our new republic), but have never solved disputes.  Debate is good, but will always be reserved for the halls of academe.

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