Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Evolution of Religious Tolerance

The current furor over mocking portrayals of Mohammed reminds me of an excellent article written in the wake of 9/11 by Robert Wright, "Muslims and Modernity", in which he addresses the question of Islamic intolerance. He begins by noting there is nothing inherently violent or intolerant about Islam:
"Understanding contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, as distinguished from moderate strands of Islam, helps illuminate our predicament. But...this whole business of mining the Quran for incendiary quotes is essentially pointless. Religions evolve, and there is usually enough ambiguity in their founding scriptures to let them evolve in any direction. If Osama Bin Laden were a Christian, and he still wanted to destroy the World Trade Center, he would cite Jesus' rampage against the money-changers. If he didn't want to destroy the World Trade Center, he could stress the Sermon on the Mount."
Absolutely correct. What the Qu'ran says in this passage or that passage has nothing to do with today's conflicts with Islam. The medieval Crusaders, after all, used the words of Jesus to justify the holy wars: "I've come not to bring peace, but a sword".

So why hasn't Islam done what other faiths have largely done, that is, "use the leeway offered by scriptural ambiguity to evolve away from truculent intolerance"? This began in Europe, and the question becomes why.

Religious intolerance is more at home in honor-shame cultures than innocence-guilt cultures. After all (though this may sound pejorative), the code of honor-shame is largely about intolerance: not tolerating those who happen to offend you, regardless of perhaps their best intentions, irrespective of their actual innocence. So what propelled Europe out of its medieval and largely honor-shame outlook? Last night an email correspondent suggested to me that Protestantism may be at the root of western innocence-guilt. But what is at the root of Protestantism?

I believe that Europe was ripe for Protestantism in the same way it was ripe (as Wright suggests in this article) for industrialization. Europe industrialized before anywhere else -- despite the fact that places in the Far East and Mid-East had the capacity to industrialize much earlier than Europe -- because, paradoxically, it lacked an effective empire. As Wright explains:
"Because Europe was politically fragmented, there were lots of polities experimenting with forms of political and economic organization that would let them best their neighbors. The more experiments there are, the more likely you are to find a winning formula -— such as the combination of political and economic liberty that was proving its power in the Netherlands by the late 16th century and in Britain by the late 17th. The success of this formula gave nearby Christian nations little choice but to adopt it, and their Christianity evolved accordingly."
As a result, Christian Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan. And of course, "it's impossible to do business with people while slaughtering them, and it's pretty hard to do business with them while telling them that they'll burn in hell forever. Modern global capitalism has its faults, but religious intolerance isn't one of them." And I would say the honor-shame outlook in general just isn't compatible with developments in Europe at this time.

So perhaps the Protestant Reformation, and an increased focus on values of innocence and guilt, were the inevitable outcome of a politically fragmented society. Honor-shame values became ineffective, the code of a feudal past. As a by-product of this evolution, Protestants began introducing more cosmopolitan dimensions into their theology: Christ's death as a penal substitution (relating to God's justice) rather than as satisfaction (relating to God's honor). In more secular terms, this paved the way to a world in which people were expected to treat others in "just" terms more than "honorable" ones.

In short, the honor-shame code faded in the west because it didn't yield advantageous results between increasingly independent nations. A more tolerant morality evolved accordingly.


Blogger daviv52 said...

Very interesting but I think recent events has much more to do with the fact that non-Western people envy the West due to the success of its material civilization over the past 200 or so years. Ideology is a way of seeking to even the score (i.e I am as good as you are or even better because . . .) A generation ago communism was the most prominent ideology employed for that purpose. The failure of communism has led to a search for alternatives and Islam is being used as for that purpose in many parts of the world. For example, it is interesting how fundamentalist Islam has replaced "socialist" idealogies in many parts of the Middle East as the rallying cry for anti-Western propaganda(compare the official idealogy of Al-Fatah with that of Hamas.) However, unless the fundamentalists are able to duplicate the material success of Western civilization they will not succeed unless, of course, they succeed in their avowed aim of destoying Western civilization.


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