July 23, 2008

Religion and Rationality (A Note on Religious Criticism from Talal Asad)

But even if they have a religious origin, human rights are no longer based on religious reason. That alone, so it may be said, gives them a more rational foundation. Yet when people make such claims, it is not always clear what concept of rationality or religion they are employing. Nor do they always seem to recognize that the provision of epistemological foundations is itself a problematic enterprise (and one that, ironically, connects 'reason' to origin). Thus, Kantian philosophers have one concept of rationality, modern political liberals who stress pragmatic criteria have another, and psychiatrists yet a third. Philosophers and anthropologist have long been fascinated by the question of explaining apparently irrational beliefs in nonmodern cultures and premodern epochs. There is a vast literature on the subject.

Three features characterize this literature. First, natural science is usually invoked as a model for what counts as rational. But even this apparent agreement is deceptive. In fact, the debaters urge mutually incompatible concepts of rationality upon each other, partly because what is critical to the long-term succcess of the different natural sciences is itself the subject of continuing philosophical and historical debate.

Second, rationality is held to be the essence of an entire secular culture, and consequently the success of modern medicine and technology is considered the guarantee of truth shared by the culture as a whole. (This foundational claim is not to be confused with the sociological observation that science and technology are variously bound up with a range of social, economic, and political institutions.) The idea of an integrated cultural totality founded on the Truth of Science makes it difficult to understand how people come to have serious disagreements over the possibility or desirability of particular changes in a modern polity.

Third, great importance is attached to being able to assert that 'modern culture' is superior to 'non-modern cultures' as though the consequence of not being able to do so forcefully enough would lead to large scale defections from the former to the latter. Implicit in the well-advertised fear of 'relativism' is the extraordinary thought that the cultural life of human beings is the product of conscious criticism and objective choice. It is extraordinary because, although arguments are clearly important in different social situations, the reasons for a person's attachment to a given way of life cannot be reduced to an idealized model of scientific theory building.

Perhaps the feeling that secular arguments are rationally superior to religious ones is based on the belief that religious convictions are the more rigid. But there is no decisive evidence for thinking this. Religious traditions have undergone the most radical transformations over time. Divine texts may be unalterable, but the ingenuities of human interpretation are endless--quite apart from the fact that some of the conditions of human doubt and certainty are notoriously inaccessible to conscious argument. Fanatics come in all shapes and sizes among skeptics and believers alike--as do individuals of a tolerant disposition. As for the claim that among the religious, coercion replaces persuasive argument, it should not be forgotten that we owe the most terrible examples of coercion in modern times to secular totalitarian regimes--Nazism and Stalinism. The point that matters in the end, surely, is not the justification that is used (whether it be supernatural or worldly) but the behavior that is justified. On this point, it must be said that the ruthlessness of secular practice yields nothing to the ferocity of religious.


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