Monday, September 27, 2010

Toleration

In an excellent post over at The Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella defends both religious toleration and the proposition that toleration has its limits.

I agree entirely, but for entirely different reasons. Vallicella defends religious toleration, because “the existence of these competing worldviews is a good and enriching thing in that it helps us clarify and refine and test our own views and practices and helps us progress toward truer and more life-enhancing systems of thought and practice.” What Vallicella describes, however, is not really religious toleration, but intellectual diversity, which may be a necessary precondition to intellectual honesty but not necessarily to religious integrity.

My argument for religious toleration is naggingly formal. Arguments in defense of Revealed Religion are forever circular, and thus can never be decided—by those inside or outside the circle.

Hillel Halkin makes this point brilliantly in his new Jewish Encounters biography of Yehuda Halevi. Halevi’s most famous book was The Kuzari (ca. 1140), a vindication of Judaism. While Christianity and Islam “make claims for a single savior or prophet that cannot be empirically justified and demand an act of faith on the part of the believer,” the book argues, according to Halkin, Judaism by contrast “is based not on faith but on historical experience.” God handed down his Torah in front of six hundred thousand Israelites who witnessed Mount Sinai’s smoking. Judaism is attested to, in short, by “many miracles,” and not just one.

But of course, as Halkin goes on to note, Halevi’s reasoning in The Kuzari is circular:

[W]e know, it says, that there were six hundred thousand Israelites at Mount Sinai because the Bible tells us so—and we know that the Bible is telling us the truth because six hundred thousand Israelites could not have been wrong!Halkin blocks the objection ingeniously, but the fact remains that there is no logical defense of Judaism’s superior truth that escapes the circle of its faith-accepted premises.

My view is that arguments across the circles are fruitless. There is no possible means of settling the religious dispute over first principles. Toleration, on my showing, would entail the unspoken agreement to put up with religious differences without ever undertaking the impossible mission of reconciling them, which—in the absence of any logical method for doing so—can only end in coercion or violence. Note, however, that toleration differs subtly from tolerance. The latter is an act of weakness, and seems much like indifference as a consequence. Toleration, though, is always from a position of power. Religious opinions that differ from the established view (from my own religious commitment, that is) are granted the freedom to express and spread themselves, because they are not a threat. They are not a threat precisely because their arguments, spilling out from within a different circle, cannot serenade me with any degree of persuasion. When they become a threat because they are backed by violence, then and only then have the limits of toleration been reached. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Daniel Huff are surely right that Islamists’ death threats should be a criminal offense.

My idea of toleration, then, is very close to Miriam Burstein’s third way between the positive and negative varieties: “in which everyone keeps their mouth shut while feeling rather grumpy.”

Within the circle of faith-accepted premises, Vallicella’s “good and enriching” arguments can occur. Perhaps they are the antidote to grumpiness. But you must first accept the premises to have your understanding of what follows from them “clarified and refined and tested.”

In short, religious argumentation (or theology, for that matter) is a lot like fiction. (That’s how Halkin blocks the objection to Halevi’s circular logic, in fact. The Kuzari is a work of fiction.) You must accept a donnée before you can be instructed or delighted or both at once. And this is the whole of what I have to say on the question of religious toleration.

23 comments:

Kevin said...

“Religious opinions that differ from the established view (from my own religious commitment, that is) are granted the freedom to express and spread themselves, because they are not a threat. They are not a threat precisely because their arguments, spilling out from within a different circle, cannot serenade me with any degree of persuasion.”

Hi Professor Myers:

To boldly announce that you are beyond persuasion strikes me as fanatical. Am I reading you correctly? No argument, outside your established, religious view, can in principle persuade you, “serenade” you? Hmm. Perhaps the world’s religions aren’t as insular as you suggest, aren’t self-contained circles. After all, religious folks are making statements about the world, and since we have the world in common, there is, at least in principle, an arbiter of sorts to whom we can appeal, if only gropingly, when incommensurable claims are made. Look at it another way. If religion X says God is Y and Y is true, then that’s a fact of reality. And if it’s a fact of reality, you ought to be interested in it, unless of course you’ve already decided in advance that you’re beyond persuasion.

Regards,
Kevin

Shelley said...

That "while feeling kind of grumpy" is so funny--and honest! The emotional toll of listening to ideas/beliefs that are upsetting for one reason or another is one of the "elephants in the room" that could use more open airing.

Hard to always be a grownup.

D. G. Myers said...

No argument, outside your established, religious view, can in principle persuade you, “serenade” you? Hmm.

No argument about the extra special superior validity of another religion, which depends upon the prior acceptance of the premise to such an argument, will persuade anyone who does not or cannot accept the validity of the premise.

Yes, that’s right.

After all, religious folks are making statements about the world, and since we have the world in common, there is, at least in principle, an arbiter of sorts to whom we can appeal, if only gropingly, when incommensurable claims are made.

Nope. Wrong. “The entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.” “Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, who died on the cross for man’s sins, and arose in three days.” “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” These are not statements about the “world in common,” or at least no world that I can appeal to.

D. G. Myers said...

In fact, the appeal to a “world in common” is almost always intolerant.

“Kosher butchering is cruel,” A. says.

“Irrelevant,” replies B. “It is mandated by the Torah.”

“It is cruel,” A. insists, “anyone who lives in the world, the world we hold in common, can be persuaded it is cruel. It ought to be outlawed.”

“I am not interested in the ‘world in common,’ ” B. says. “I am only interested in the Jewish world, where I have chosen to make my life and where I must keep kosher if I wish to continue living.”

“I am afraid that you have no choice,” A. concludes. “Kosher butchering is cruel, and for the sake of the greater world, the world we Jews and non-Jews hold in common, it must be outlawed.”

“Then the Jewish world must bend to the greater world?” B. asks.

“Right,” A. acknowledges.

“And how is that not religious coercion?” B. asks.

Kevin said...

"Nope. Wrong. “The entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.” “Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, who died on the cross for man’s sins, and arose in three days.” “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” These are not statements about the “world in common,” or at least no world that I can appeal to."

These are empirical claims, these are statements about the world, how it is, and is not.

For the sake of argument, suppose one of the statements is true. Let's say the first one: "The entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses" by Yahweh (presumably).

Because it's true, that's a fact of reality.

A statement of fact is true, not because of some shared commom assumption or intrepretive stance, but because that's the way the world really is.

Not your world.

Not my world.

Not their world.

But our world; that's what's meant by a world in common.

Regards,
Kevin

Kevin said...

"In fact, the appeal to a “world in common” is almost always intolerant."

For some, yes. But it needn't be that way. The will to power and combativeness is often very strong, but it can be softened through the exercise of moral virtues and good philosophical argument.

K

D. G. Myers said...

Kevin,

I despair of making myself understood if, after reading what I have written, you seek to refute me by asserting simply that The entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses is indeed an empirical claim after all, which can be proven or disproven.

My whole point—my only reason for writing, my one contribution to the debate over religious toleration—is that the “claim” is not empirical (and not a claim, for that matter). Treating it as if it is is one source of religious intolerance.

There is no possible “world in common” where the claim is true and where Christians and Muslims can remain Christians and Muslims.

—DGM

A. J. said...

"There is no possible “world in common” where the claim is true and where Christians and Muslims can remain Christians and Muslims."

But you ignore the problem of perception. A statement can be true for some because that is how they see the world. But a contrary statement is true for others because that is how they perceive. Bottom line--no one actually sees things as they are and so everyone is forever arguing with everyone else. Also, God can't force people to change how they see things because that would be destroying their world, a grave evil act. Nor can a just God judge people for the evil they cause because of their flawed way of seeing the world.

D. G. Myers said...

But you ignore the problem of perception.

You mean that I ignore the problem of relativism.

You bet.

A. J. said...

But people actually do perceive the world in fundamentally different ways. This does not imply relativism.

michael reidy said...

I agree with you there D.G.M. re religious 'facts'. Logical Positivism keeps mutating but it never gets any smarter.

PMH said...

There is no empirical fact of religion outside of the statement that "x number of people practice a certain religion in a certain verifiable way." Not one believed religious idea is empirical, although it might be argued that what is done in the world (or threatened) in the name of that religion can be empirically understood. As one of my professors once told me, "there is no reasoning in matters of belief," meaning, I suppose, what DGM is saying, that we cannot reason across religions, or from outside each religion's argument. Believers practice what I would call a hermenuetics of inclusion. This is perhaps another way of understanding the word "commitment."

Guy Pursey said...

Interesting post as was Valicella's, but I hope surely not all you have to say on this issue.

I think I follow what you say even if I can't bring myself to agree with it (yet). Take the example you give of kosher butchering above.

What if I were to say all butchering is wrong? This may not be a religious belief (as such) but but it is at least one of the considerations behind my choice to become a vegetarian.

B lives in a Jewish world of which kosher butchering is an integral part. What if A lives in a vegetarian world in which he considers animals worthy of rights to life that would ideally also grant to human beings?

What if instead of discussing kosher butchering, A and B had been discussing female circumcision instead? Or human sacrifice?

If I think something is cruel, don't I have a moral duty to try and do something about it? Not that I want to get sidetracked too much from the above questions, but isn't this duty at least some of what neo-conservatives felt about the war in Iraq?

Guy Pursey said...

Apologies for any grammatical aberrations above. I'm normally more careful. Long day.

Guy

Kevin said...

Hi Professor Myers, not all empirical claims can be proven or disproven. But that doesn’t change their status as empirical claims. “The entire biography of my great-grandmother that I now have is that which was given to Aaron” is an empirical claim. It’s a statement about a historical event, even though I don’t know if it’s true or not.

Lastly (and I really will bow out of the conversation because I don’t want to clutter up your comments section), when you write, “my one contribution to the debate over religious toleration … is that the ‘claim’ is not empirical (and not a claim, for that matter). Treating it as if it is is one source of religious tolerance.” Brute historical facts can’t be blamed when paltry, limited selves appeal to them cruelly.

Anyhow.

I summarize your position thusly: You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re outside the circle of insight. If you do, you’re inside. Because you either get it or you don’t, there’s no use in trying to persuade others. Since there’s no use in trying to persuade others, you and I can safely ignore each others’ arguments, which are really nothing more than porpoise squeaks. Because you speak in porpoise, I’m entitled to tune you out.

Isn’t this also a source of religious intolerance?

AJ, very quickly, perception / attitude / belief is not constitutive of the ontology of brute physical facts, like water is H20 or Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. These are facts whether you believe them or not. If you’d like to pick up the thread of this argument on your blog, I’d be happy to follow you there, or you can simply ping me offline.

That’s it from me!

Best,
Kevin

D. G. Myers said...

Guy,

I can’t speak to your example of female circumcision, and for the reasons set forth in my original post.

About kosher butchering and male circumcision I feel free to speak, however, since both are the objects of movements to outlaw them.

Both are also constitutive of Jewish identity. So the Jew who is told that kosher butchering and male circumcision are immoral is being told that Jewish identity is immoral.

The moralist claims to occupy a place outside belief systems, but what he is really seeking is to make his own belief system dominant, and to coerce non-believers to adhere to it. Forcible conversion, in other words.

Hence my plea for toleration, which declares such “persuasions” off limits.

—David

D. G. Myers said...

Kevin,

It is not intolerant to tune someone out. It may even be an act of charity.

—David

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

My objection to your assertions is somewhat different--I am not concerned about fanaticism, because I have seen no sign of incipient Orthodox Jewish Fundamentalism (although whether I could identify that phenomenon at all is questionable.) As noted at my site, my concern is the implication that in order to be tolerant one must be absolutely secure in one's convictions and not feel threatened by other ideas. Which would argue that a person not so situation has no duty to tolerance.

Perhaps I am misreading and what you intend by your statement is someone secure enough in themselves in their faith. So that for me, the ability (although not the likelihood) of change is a form of the security you imply in faith. So, what I mean to say is that it is a tenet of my faith to follow where the truth leads. (I did not say that I would always recognize that truth, please note.) As such, it means that I can readily and easily say, "I was wrong" about something and not be offended when a Muslim tells me that while Jesus was the Messiah, he didn't die on the cross, or when a Jew says that he wasn't the Messiah. Those data are irrelevant, given that neither party has empirical proof of the matter and my faith is solid. However, if someone were to convince me that Buddhist practice would enhance my own faith, I would not feel threatened by that possibility any more than I am by reading the Jewish Mystics or Rumi and other Sufi writers.

Perhaps that is the more expansive sense of what you meant by secure in faith, and perhaps I read it too narrowly.

Or, perhaps we simply disagree on the point.

shalom,

Steven

A. J. said...

"It is not intolerant to tune someone out. It may even be an act of charity."

This is never an act of charity to tune someone out. America tuned out the plight of Jews fleeing Europe in a ship in the 1940s. A morally competent individual always listens.

In any case, will you be writing for the new book review section of the WSJ?

D. G. Myers said...

[W]ill you be writing for the new book review section of the WSJ?

I await the call.

A. J. said...

I think that everyone who reads this blog and loves it should call the WSJ on your behalf. A fan campaign could perhaps make a difference?

D. G. Myers said...

Excellent point. Thirty readers can’t be wrong!

literatimom said...

I frequent this blog mainly for the literary analysis, but I couldn't resist this discussion on religious tolerance, especially since I'm posting this week on Universalism. I'm interested in Kevin's point, that toleration seems to preclude the possibility of learning from difference is key here. Would associationism be a more growth-centered approach than toleration, then? Or perhaps associationism requires a belief in Universalism.

In any case, I reference this post--and Kevin's comment--in my most recent post over at literatimom.blogspot.com. I look forward to any comments that you might have.