Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Islam and Pluralism

"The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."--W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

A recent email controversy with a friend about the possibility of whether moderate Muslims in Western countries will truly accept the pluralism of democratic societies has set me wondering about what exactly pluralism is and whence it comes.

Pluralism seems to be an Enlightenment ideal, most obviously informing such late-eighteenth-century documents as the Constitution or the Universal Declaration of the Rights of man. In part, pluralism surely arises from the conviction that--as the Declaration of Independence states--all men are created equal and therefore, as the Declaration goes on to imply, any given person does not have the right to impose his beliefs on others. Strictly speaking, however, the Declaration enumerates in what ways we are equal: in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Here the Declaration does not speak so much of religious or philosophical pluralism, and even where the Constitution does address this matter, it does so only by limiting the power of the Federal government in this area.

One wonders, however, if that is the entire story. We allow a variety of faiths to exist in our society because we do not believe that a believer in one has greater legal standing than a believer in another, but perhaps we allow this variety for another, less positive, reason. In fact, I wonder whether pluralism does not also (and paradoxically) stem from skepticism. Skepticism as a mainstream philosophy arises in the West during the Renaissance, and two well-known skeptics will illustrate the point very well. Both the French essayist Montaigne and the English essayist and statesman Francis Bacon were skeptics, in that they believed that human reason was a flawed thing that tended often to misprision and error. They believed that much of the what in the Middle Ages had been accepted as certain had to be subjected to careful scrutiny and that since it is difficult for man to know things, he may well know less than he traditionally thought he did.

Such skepticism, of course, is essential for scientific progress, and it is no coincidence that Bacon is seen as one of the great Renaissance prophets of science in Europe. Skepticism grew in influence over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; in England (at least) such writers as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume asserted that all knowledge comes to us through our senses, thereby practically denying Divine revelation as a means to knowledge. What skepticism gained for science, however, it began to lose for faith, and long before Matthew Arnold wrote "Dover Beach" in the early 1850s, the Sea of Faith had begun its "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."

In just such a climate--in which enlightened opinion was losing the medieval certainty about religion--the modern nation-state was born. This nation-state was populated, to be sure, by passionate believers, but while most of these believers were Christians, they included also some Christians of a rather unorthodox variety, such as Quakers, and others, like Deists, who were not strictly speaking Christians at all. It seems entirely plausible that the system of pluralism that marks the American founding or the birth of the modern European nation state rests upon a skeptical foundation--i.e., since it was difficult to be certain of fundamental truth, we shouldn't privilege one conviction over another, and so all faiths were welcome that (whatever their internal claims to certainty) at least respected this climate of pluralism based on a certain intellectual humility.

Islam, however, has never doubted itself. While it has tolerated the existence of other faiths, it has relegated them to a clearly second-place position, the philosophical basis for which is that Islam is the one right path and that others are wrong, though Islam agrees that as a matter of historical fact some groups still cling to these erroneous faiths. The Islam that seems to be projecting itself around the world seems not to be infected with the skeptical self-doubt that has infected Western thought and has produced a climate in which since Western man is uncertain about matters of faith he will accept all as equally certain (or uncertain). Into this scheme Islam does not readily fit, since it seems not fundamentally to question itself.

From this, what follows? First, the skepticism of the West is both a good thing and a bad thing. It allows a plurality of philosophical belief, but it does in the end privilege skepticism itself. To the effect that skepticism is more closely allied to science, materialism, and agnosticism, the West tends to privilege these positions over Christian belief, as witness Supreme Court rulings on what may and may not be taught in the public schools. And the certainty of Islam is likewise good and bad. It is good in the sense that it animates Muslim faith and bad because so much of the energy inherent in Islam manifests itself by destroying those who oppose it. If, however, the narrative of West has for the past several centuries been in large part a narrative of skepticism, then Islam, by definition, will have great difficulty fitting in and may in fact pose an existential threat.