Monday, February 23, 2009

Accusations of religious totalitarianism (by philosophical totalitarians)

Imagine for a moment a Muslim cleric or imam living in rural Iraq or Afghanistan. He takes seriously to heart all of the Koran, especially those passages which cause him to live a self-examined life. A large measure of the demands he sees from the Koran are to life a life of charitable acts and self-control. He believes all of it to be literally true, and the only true revelation from the Power that Created the Universe, whom he calls Allah. He strives in the public square to make a case for his religion as part of respectful dialogue with his friends of other religions and sects. He believes them all to be 100% mistaken.

What does the ELCA say about this guy? He's a terrorist.

Granted, this is not what every pastor or pew-sitter of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America believes. Hopefully, it's not what even a small fraction believe. But it is practically what was said in a podcast by the radio ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "Grace Matters". The episode is entitled, "The Dangers of Religious Totalitarianism". In the name of advancing respect for those of other faith traditions, the podcast took a hard tack on the topic of religious totalitarianism versus religious pluralism. Elements of totalitarianism was defined as believing other religions are wrong.
Host Peter Marty says:
"People of this or that persuasion convince themselves that they have the truth on various matters. They may stop listening to others of a different mind or faith, simply because they cannot fathom there's a way that anyone else could possibly have an angle on the truth.

This is why Islamic absolutists, or those Muslims with a totalitarian mindset, to use Eboo Patel's phrase, blow up the mosques of other sects within their own world of Islam. It's why certain Christian absolutists, or totalitarian minded Christians, have been known to blow up abortion clinics served by Christians of a different perspective than their own. "

I find Rev. Marty's position to be completely untenable. If I disagree with people, does my conviction of my rightness mean I have to go kill the erants? The number of cases in our everyday life where we know we have a unique angle on the truth, from observations in science to knowledge of a slippery spot on the floor, and we may see a need to "convert" others to our worldview, lest they slip on the floor. We may also have a conviction about human freedom, that people may walk where they may after you warn them, perhaps in the way a parent might need to teach a child an object lesson. But there can be no debate over whether there is a spot on the floor. Some questions are not open to existential debate. Asserting that a spot exists is not the same as shooting those who walk on the spot we'd identified.


Cassie said...

Hi Greg,

I work for an organization called the Interfaith Youth Core based out of Chicago ( - your blog popped up in my google alerts since Eboo Patel (mentioned in your quote from Rev. Marty) is the founder of IFYC.

I was moved by your response to Rev. Marty; I feel like he misunderstands what we at IFYC mean when we talk about religious totalitarians. Pluralists are those who - in spite of holding sometimes exclusive truth claims - want to work together with those who are different from them for a common good. Totalitarians are those who believe the only response to someone with different beliefs from them is isolation or annihilation. There are people of all faith backgrounds who might be described as totalitarians, but it is not because they believe they hold the truth; it is based instead on how they choose to live with those who hold a different truth from them.

If religious pluralism is only those in every belief system who are willing to concede that their perspective holds no more truth than the next perspective, interfaith work becomes only a watered down relativism. Further more, it actually ends up excluding the vast majority of deeply religious people who are not willing to compromise their faith for cooperation. This must be a false choice; if we truly want to build a world where people of deep and different convictions can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty, we must find a way to do so that speeks from our deepest convictions, rather than obliterating them.

Cassie Meyer
Director, Outreach Education & Training
Interfaith Youth Core
cassie (at) ifyc (dot) org

Greg M. Johnson said...

I must make it clear that the first few paragraphs of my blog post are my reaction to Rev Marty's editorializing, and is not anything said by Rev. Marty himself.

I'll also point out that I *thought* I was also bothered by Mr. Patel's words, but upon going back to listen more carefully, it was Rev. Marty's spin on them, one passage of which I quoted in my blog. Mr. Patel had very reasonable position upon a second hearing. :)

Thanks for your affirmation of how one can be a complete anti-relativist and still be committed towards working for the common good.