1. Tolerance Is Not Relativism
The simple unspoken reality is that all religions are not equally good. Some, in fact, are downright bad. The problem we have as Americans, however, is that our fundamental attachment to tolerance makes it very difficult for us to say so. It pains us to say “You are wrong. This religion is bad.” Ouch! As is always the case our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.
As a consequence, we typically confuse our absolute adherence to tolerance with relativism. But tolerance is diametrically opposed to relativism. American Tolerance is, thankfully, an inflexible absolutism regarding a single value: The conflict of ideas allows for the advancement of knowledge. And this in fact is the actual crux of our First Amendment. The State favors no religion which means all religions retain equal status only insofar as all, both good and bad, are allowed to enter into the arena of competing religious beliefs and ideas.
The relativist on the other hand presumes that all religions and all ideas are equally good. For the relativist there is no conflict. There is not arena of competing ideas. For the relativist contradiction is rejected. True and false, good and bad are identical. A genuine relativist, for example, would have to say the morality of the wife-burners of rural India is just as good a morality as any other morality. Not so the advocate of tolerance. For the advocate of tolerance that perverse morality would be allowed entry into the arena of ideas, but the utter intolerance of wife burning would lead swiftly to its rejection.
The principle of tolerance is not at all relativism because it allows us to say, “Your religion is wrong, perhaps even bad, but my absolute adherence to tolerance means I will not try to squelch your bad religion. I will however write and speak openly that it is wrong.” We who adhere to tolerance as an absolute value are of the reasonable view, I think, that all people are morally required to tolerate what each of us considers the foolishness of others because each of us requires others tolerate what they may consider our own foolishness. We are also required to argue vigorously against those with whom we disagree. This is an absolute principle, not at all relativistic, and a good absolute principle.
A fool tolerated, however, remains a fool despite our tolerance of his, or our own, foolishness. The only thing the adherent of absolute tolerance cannot tolerate, and must not tolerate, is intolerance, for intolerance is a rejection of our one absolute value: One Must be Tolerant. It is this strict adherence to tolerance that John Stuart Mill had in mind in his essay On Liberty. The marketplace of ideas certainly does not hold all ideas in equal esteem despite the freedom all should have to express them. In fact some ideas are just plain awful, despite the moral requirement that those who hold these awful ideas retain their right to express them.
In a word, we have an absolute right to have bad religions and say stupid things, but it is immoral for us not to allow others their right to have bad religions and say stupid things. So lots of bad religions and stupid things abound in America, and our tolerance of this makes none of it less bad or less stupid.
Paradoxically, our national adherence to the absolute value of tolerance is ultimately what gave rise to the now utterly intolerant PC culture that lurks with its iron fist throughout academia. Political correctness that began with an astute insight that the language of the dominant culture can oppress the speech of those marginalized by the dominant culture, has itself now become a weapon to marginalize and silence any who oppose them. As a consequence the contemporary PC culture of Academe rigidly refuses to tolerate any opposition to its own favored PC parochialisms. I however, intend here to attack this academic parochialism along with numerous others, by simply arguing that some religions are bad, some ideas are bad and yes some people are bad too, and no, they are not all Conservatives or George W. Bush, or even Republicans. Yes, we should tolerate bad religions and their religious ideas to the degree that they tolerate us who hold tolerance dear, but bad religions remain, nevertheless, bad. Third wave Feminism and its PC zealots are clearly members of a bad, downright exclusionary, religion.
The problem of course is by what criterion can a religion, be it P.C.ism or radical Islamism, be judged a bad religion? Certainly a radically exclusionary religion is not a tolerant religion, but neither is a radically tolerant religion necessarily a good religion. A pseudo-religion like scientology is open to any who want to pay to join. On the other hand very exclusionary religions like Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism are for all intents and purposes closed religions; yet, I intend to argue they are good religions. So there must be more than merely whether a religion is open to new members that determines its strength as an authentic religion.
For example, suicidal religions such as the Halle-Bopp-black-Nike wearing castrati of California, the Kool Aid drinking Christians of Jonestown and the Branch Davidians in Waco are clearly examples of pseudo-religions, as are some of our other contemporary extremist Christian, Jewish, Islamist, PC, or Right Wing religions. Bearers of bad fruit all.
2. Spirituality Is No Determinant of Religious Goodness
My late father, a World War II veteran who landed in Normandy, always responded to my religious skepticism with a nod and the simple retort: “Everyone prays like hell once the shooting starts.” With this I entirely agree. Sometimes, however he would resort to the old cliché: “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” With this, however, I am entirely unconvinced. The first statement about prayer refers to the near unavoidable spirituality, perhaps even mystical awakening people seem to experience when their lives become utterly terrifying. I have no doubt that many an agnostic is reborn a Christian with dirty drawers under an artillery bombardment. Nevertheless I am equally certain that it is not at all the case that every act of felt prayer or mystical awakening is an acceptance of God, Christian or otherwise. As Kierkegaard might have said, the infinite act of subjective will that initiates one’s leap of faith is no objective evidence of the existence of an objective god. The subjective experience of mystical enlightenment is an inner transformative experience not at all necessarily dependent on God. The sudden startling awareness of some variety of Grace may as well be experienced by the atheist as by the theist, by the Christian as by the Peyote Eater, by the Radical Islamist Terrorist as by the Buddhist Monk.
It is essential to recognize therefore, that likely all pseudo-religions and certainly all authentic religions are systems that help heighten the subjective experience of spirituality among their members. Mystics of all cults and religions experience some variety of this apparently mystical grace. All experience some subjective inexplicable sense of world inclusion and enlightenment. But certainly it is not the case that all cults and religions must accept a god. Buddhism, a religion that can legitimately be considered atheistic in that it entirely lacks any personal deity, is, nevertheless an extraordinarily spiritual religion. So, too, are the God-fearing pseudo-religions of radically hateful cults of killers. These are the theistic religions of death and self-sacrifice, whose rituals glorify suicide and murder and in so doing heighten the subjective experience of spirituality within its members by demanding vengeance and hatred as avenues of mystical enlightenment.
Spirituality then is the necessary condition of all religions, but certainly is not a sufficient condition of religious authenticity. As pointed out by Harvard neurobiologist Dean Hamer in The God Gene (2004), in the height of the 1960’s many an atheist found LSD and other drugs an avenue for decidedly spiritual experiences. Spirituality can as likely be experienced by the hunter facing his prey in nature as by the eco-extremist working ardently to frustrate that very same hunt. Walking in the woods with a camera or a rifle, entering a cathedral or a desert, fasting or gorging, practicing asceticism or bacchanalia, speaking in tongues or killing infidels, the sacred is uniquely personal in its spiritual connection with the individual who feels it. The spiritual experience is also utterly distinct from the acceptance or non acceptance, existence or non existence, of God.
The spiritual experience that a religion provides is not therefore to be confused with the authenticity of the religion that evokes that particular spiritual experience. Any religion that requires fasting, isolation, meditation, intense prayer or a myriad of other possible behaviors can evoke the experience of the spiritual. Man, as Hamer demonstrates, is likely genetically programmed, made, to be spiritual, but man is certainly not made to know definitively the name or even the existence of the ineffable mystery we each yearn to know more clearly and hope to grasp through mystical spirituality.
The mystical, spiritual, sense is certainly not then to be confused with the existence of God absolute. God is defined by each religion, and is not therefore extra-religious. God is a decidedly theological entity, and is accordingly described quite differently by different theological systems, and worshiped quite differently with the rituals demanded by different religions. I say this to make clear that I am not at all pretending to argue either on behalf of or against the existence of God. Spirituality may be heightened by any variety of religions or even no religion at all. Spirituality may be experienced by those of any variety of faiths in God or by those who adhere to bald faced atheism. Spirituality is a statement of human experience, perhaps merely an experience caused by human brain chemistry, and thus not at all evidence for or opposed to the existence of an extra-human God.
Spirituality therefore, provides no measure whatsoever of whether a religion is a good religion or a bad religion. All religions, from the most murderous to the most loving, from the bleakest pseudo-religion to the grandest authentic religion, all religions function to heighten the individual’s subjective experience of spirituality.
3. A Theological Criterion for Religious Adequacy
So, without spirituality to provide sufficient evidence of religious adequacy, the problem facing us in an age marked by the ideological bookends of religious terrorism on one extreme and religious relativism on the other, is how to determine when a religion has abandoned a coherent logos, and descended instead into the belligerent unreasonableness of a rigid extremism . How can we distinguish between a perversity of faith and an adequate religion? How do we distinguish between the religious pretenders and authentic religions? Though religious perversities are clearly spiritually charged faiths this by no means demonstrates that they are adequate or good religions. They are instead the pseudo-religions and junk ideologies of our age, just as various non-testable ad hoc assemblages of presumption are the pseudo-sciences of our age.
In past ages these religions pretenders also carried enormous sway over vast numbers of people. The great mystery religions, from the cults of Attis to Isis that were pervasive throughout Rome are ideal examples of pseudo-religions. These mystical, faithful cults survived for a time but their own incoherencies ultimately lead to their demise when they faced competing religions of greater theological coherency. Greek mythology itself also succumbed to very much the same sorts of incoherencies found in the Mystery Religions with the advent of philosophers like Plato, Pythagoras and Xenophanes, who demonstrated the contradictions and incoherencies inherent within these myths. In particular these philosophers demonstrated that no perfect god would or could metamorphose from a perfect form to imperfect form; no perfect god could demand the imperfection of Dionysian bacchanalia when the truths of number endure eternally; no perfect god would have the face of a horse if its worshippers were horses. My contention then is theological coherence is ultimately the factor that allows us to distinguish between religion and its pretenders.
Theology at its core is none other than the objective logical rigor of philosophy applied to the subjective spiritual experience of faith. Indeed the history of theology generally refers to the application of reason to Judeo-Christian-Muslim faiths, but reason is equally applicable to others faiths as well. We need not presume, then, that theology as it was originally defined by Christian philosophers from Augustine to Aquinas is the only legitimate definition possible. For the sake of the argument that follows we will expand the meaning of theology more broadly to the application of reason to any religious system of faith or spirituality. In fact, every religious system that demands some set of rituals for the sake of evoking faith or spirituality can be evaluated in terms of its inner theological coherence. The total human being is endowed with both gifts simultaneously: the gift of spirituality and the gift of reason. Any adequate religion, therefore, would seem required to have both faith and reason.
If one accepts the twin requirements of faith and reason as essential for any authentic religion then the analogy between pseudo-science and pseudo-religion becomes stronger. A pseudo-science is marked by its foundation on a set of arbitrary ad hoc presumptions that are entirely untestable, and yet accepted with axiomatic certainty. So it is not whether a pseudo-science can provide answers to questions about the empirical world that makes it a pseudo-science, it is the absolute inability of a pseudo-science to test its fundamental premises despite the answers it provides for empirical questions that makes it a pseudo-science. Analogously, pseudo-religions are marked by an incoherent set of ad hoc spiritual presumptions. For example where pseudo-religions depend on mindless subjective faith, authentic religions use reason to demonstrate the coherence of their religious principles. Neither an unreasonable pseudo-scientific presumption that the Bermuda Triangle just must be the work of extra-terrestrials nor the mindless pseudo-religious presumption that faith alone requires the murder of infidels is sufficient evidence for those quasi-axioms. Real scientific hypotheses can be found false and real religious principles can be found incoherent. In fact herein is the strength of the great religions. Once Catholicism, for example, determined Limbo was inconsistent with its fundamental principles of sin’s dependence on will, Limbo was rejected. The religion of Catholicism had to recognize a theological error, and they did recognize it, and they changed their religion to reflect their theological advancements. Not so with the pseudo-religion of Jonestown. Their theological incoherencies led to a mass suicide/murder. There was no way for theology to inform religion for the followers of Jim Jones’s pseudo-religion.
As astrology, psychoanalysis and creationism are pseudo-sciences, so too are scientology, new-age-eco-feminism and Heaven’s Gate pseudo-religions. But pop-religions have no corner on the pseudo-religion market. The great Western religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism have each spun off superb examples of extraordinarily obtuse pseudo-religions, and so too have the great American political ideologies of liberalism and conservatism spun off equally obtuse pseudo-religions. It is clear that many shaking shrieking Democrats and Republicans experience raw spirituality during their own party’s political revivals.
So how do we make the evaluation between good and bad religions, between authentic and inauthentic religions? In a word, it is a matter of asking if reason in the form of theology can inform one’s religion. If one’s religious practices are impervious to a coherent theology also embraced by that religion, or if one’s ritualistic spiritual practices are utterly devoid of theology, then one is a member of a pseudo-religion. Extremist Islam is by this standard quite clearly a pseudo-religion. Radical Islamism is a theologically vacuous wasteland of psychosis and fear, nothing at all like the noble religion from which it devolved. In the Middle Ages authentic Islam was home of some of the most sophisticated theologians in the history of human civilization. Avicenna and Averroes represented the pinnacle of rational theology which was ultimately transformed into the rational mysticism of Mullah Sadra in the 17th century. These brilliant Islamist theologians epitomized the work of all theologians by using reason, logos, to understand and analyze the god, Theos, of their faith. And for authentic Christians and Muslims alike that god is The God of Abraham. But eventually the intellectual sophistication, the logos, of many Islamic religious sects was superseded by anti-intellectual literalism that inevitably led to the extraordinarily rigid and perverse religious bellicosities that now under gird those perverse Islamic extremisms, pseudo-religions, that encourage suicide in the pursuit of unimaginable sexual rewards in a dubious after life.
In light of the relationship that exists between an authentic religion and theology I propose a three-part test to determine whether a religion is a pseudo-religion or an authentic religion. What follows is the promised test for religious adequacy: 1. Any religion lacking a guiding coherent theology is a pseudo-religion.
2. Any religion entirely self referential is pseudo-religion.
3. Any religion whose only fruit is adherence to itself is pseudo-religion.
In a word, the sundry “gods” of literalist extremists, be they Christians, Muslims, Feminists or Gun Owners is not God, but at best a perverse idolatry that praises fanciful mythologized characterizations of the Mystery that is the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. The idolater worships the symbol over the symbolized. The idolater adheres to ungrounded moralities that crush the tenuous voice of reason, reason, one of the two true gifts unique to of the human species: fide et ratio, faith and reason.
Literalist anti-theological religions are ideally illustrated by the radical Islamism of the Ayatollahs who issue fatwa’s against fellow Muslims, like Salman Rushdie, who refused to embrace the incoherent, fundamentally insipid, literalisms of far too many contemporary Muslims. Of course these same sorts of intentionally anti-theological literalisms can be found in our major American religions, political parties and academic institutions. We need merely remember Pat Robertson’s recent appeal to the wrath of his malignant idol to crush the people of Dover, Pennsylvania for replacing their creationist school board. We need merely remember the myriad examples of the intentional misuse of statistics by extremist third-wave feminists to promote their favored political aspirations in the name of their inflexible pseudo-religion. Each of these is also an example of a pseudo-religion that refers only to its own rituals to verify the “reasonableness” of its own rituals. “I am right because I am right.” These pseudo-religions are radically circular, utterly non-informative. They demand adherence, and in adherence the reward is spiritual experience. But if the only reward for strict adherence is the mystical experience of spiritual salvation, that same reward can be had vastly more easily with dopamine and serotonin pills. With regard to the third principle, what indeed is the fruit of the contemporary cult of third-wave feminism other than proselytizing for the recruitment of converts to this pseudo-religion of helplessness and vindictiveness? What indeed is the fruit of radical Islam other than the recruitment of more suicidal followers? And what indeed is the fruit of the hell-paranoid literalist Christian other than raising money to perpetuate their pathological fear of hell ad infinitum?
As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Why study theology?” That’s an easy question. “Why NOT study theology?” That’s the hard one. By extension, why use reason? That’s the easy one. To borrow from Kant, reason without spirituality is empty and spirituality without reason is blind. I, however, fear the murderous cruelty of blind passion far more than the boring blandness of empty reason. Yet brought together, faith and reason, brings genuine solace to the authentic human hunger for authentic religions.