Saturday, July 16, 2016

I am a part of all that I have met...

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move.   ---Tennyson

Why do you think you're right? How could you know if you were wrong?
This week Donald Trump nominated for Vice-President of the United States the Indiana governor Mike Pence who proudly refers to himself first as a "Christian," then a "conservative," and, last, a Republican.  In France a mentally deranged terrorist murdered 84 people likely informed, inspired, and motivated by religious ideologies, or at the very least ideologies claiming religion as their basis.  Great Britain, in response to immigrant fears and socio-economic distress, appointed a new Prime Minister dedicated to being less "a part of all that" we have met.  Then, just yesterday, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once again suggested that religious tests be requisite to American identity and provide the criteria for admission to the country for visitors and immigrants. Today he "clarified" those remarks (which you can find easily enough in the "trending" column).

As a professor of religions, I take seriously people's convictions no matter what I think about their sources, interpretations, or actions. The history of religions is a history of differences that shape the character and behavior of individuals, groups, cultures, and nation states. To ignore those ideas, values, and calls to action is to fail to appreciate human complexity. Let's not make that mistake. If we are anything, we humans are not simple. We don't agree on much, which means that there's more than one view: simple ends _there_.
What Mr. Gingrich is suggesting is more than a little ironic given his own self-proclaimed religious values and public behaviors but no less despicable even if they were based on American separation of church and State. As the President so aptly pointed out, his ideas are thoroughly un-American to even the meanest sensibility. When Mr Obama says "we are better than that" I would suggest that he overstates the case. "We" Americans include these grotesque sensibilities and calls to action. "We" include not only our homegrown terrorist and criminal acts, some significant portion of "we" is about to nominate Trump for President. To Gingrich and the thousands supporting him (n.b., do check the comments on his remarks, just here on FB), there are solutions based unambiguously on their own religious claims (see the R-Party platform regarding same sex marriage, "religious freedom," guns, and comments regarding Islam) and subject Muslim Americans to citizenship tests based on religion.
How do we address our fellow human beings who each take their religions, along with their veridity, so seriously? Today in the NY Times there is "A Lesson for Newt Gingrich" about Shariah law in Islam. Fair enough, the author contends, Gingrich is not only monumentally ignorant but warrants our opprobrium. He fails even the meanest sensibility of understanding history or humanity. In the same Sunday Times, Professor Stanley Fish, who has in the past been a thinker with whom I have resonated on certain topics takes to task this past week's efforts of those professional historians voicing their own claims to authority as critics of Trumpism (which I think we can rightly associate with Gingrich's calls.) Professor Fish maintains that these professional academics (secular by definition) should not use their academic authority as any basis for furthering public opinion. Apparently, nothing about educational achievement matters in creating authoritative opinion. Are all opinions really of the same value? Are all sources of opinion reduced to individual conscience? There are really no truths greater than our personal views? And those with experienced understandings should not band together to influence others based on their claims to the authority of facts, of history, and its lessons? What makes us "right" and, perhaps more importantly, what gives us reason to think so? Clearly the religious have their claims but so do the secular academics.
The issue isn't merely that human beings, recognized to be flawed and of varying interpretations, reach different understandings that inform actions, it is the contrasting models of religious and secular "truth" that are just as important. We must accept as fact that millions of 21st century human beings understand a particular 7th century work, the Qu'ran (and its direct legacies) to be much more than an inspired opportunity to contemplate ethics, human relationships, that it contains incontrovertible God-spoken truths which humans interpret, and so provides (the sole) valid resource for discerning life's meaning. Of course, the same can be said of the Bible, the Veda, or any other religious who raise some particular content to the status of transcendent values and assigns the notion of immutable truths. Such claims are religious because they assert that more than human experience makes them so and something more than individual is truth. This is the root of the conflict that defines the modern incongruity between the religious and the secular. No one can refute another's experience. All we can do is claim that another's experience is not ours. What do we make of the methods, the ways we claim to _share_ experience? That is the task before us.
Religions always want to know how their claims are right in face of human interpretation while the secular humanist asks instead how can we know when those same claims are wrong in light of contrary evidence and reason. The humanist exacerbates the incongruity between religious truth and secular method by asserting that all of our sources and interpretations are by definition incomplete, provisional, and necessarily products of human imagination. Religions almost always reject the assumption that the primary resource is _flawed_ humanity. (n.b., the Buddhist sources too maintain that Buddhas are no longer flawed in their understandings or actions, and for all of Confucian claims to discounting the supernatural, the sage is largely regarded too as incontrovertible.) No one gets a pass here. 
There's no resolution to such different world views: people create values, they act in ways that change others' lives for better and worse, and so must distinguish what is acceptable from what is not if we are to be at all civil. The claim for authority in religious sources is always the most dangerous form of power. Who could dispute that? Someone will. But without creating some notion that some opinions are indeed better than others, we are left only with opinions reject the reach of facts, evidence, or reason. Call me old fashioned or worse, but _how_ we think comes _before_ what we think. And thinking is something we must _learn_ to do, much like all of that "what." Invariably we humans will not agree on those secular methods of learning anymore than we will dispose of our religions anytime soon.