November 18, 2006

pROTESTANTISM (via Mike Daley):

Going to Extremes: Between Relativism and Fundamentalism (Peter l. Berger, American Interest)

For reasons that may not be immediately obvious, relativism and fundamentalism as cultural forces are closely interlinked. This is not only because one can morph and, more often than may be appreciated does morph, into the other: In every relativist there is a fundamentalist about to be born, and in every fundamentalist there is a relativist waiting to be liberated. More basically, it is because both relativism and fundamentalism are products of the same process of modernization; indeed, both are intrinsically modern phenomena, and both pose a serious challenge to any modern society that intends to be civil. Relativism is bad for civility because it precludes the moral condemnation of virtually anything at all. Fundamentalism is bad for civility because it produces irresolvable conflict with those who do not share its beliefs. And both are bad for any hope of arriving at valid normative conclusions by means of rational discourse, the relativism because there is no will to such a discourse, and fundamentalism because there is no way to it. Consequently, it is important for both political and intellectual reasons to stake out a middle ground between the two extremes. What follows is an attempt, by means of a sociological analysis, to show how the two phenomena are related. 

“Pluralism” is a less than fortunate term. The “ism” suggests an ideological position (as was intended by the American philosopher, Horace Kallen, who coined it in the 1920s to celebrate ethnic and religious diversity). I use the term here as it is now commonly used, namely to describe not an ideology but an empirical fact. “Pluralization” is more factual-sounding, but it is also more awkward. It usually makes little sense to fight common usage, so let “pluralism” stand. However, here is a more precise definition of it: Pluralism is a situation in which different ethnic or religious groups co-exist under conditions of civic peace and interact with each other socially. The latter phrase is important: There are situations in which groups live side by side peacefully, but have nothing to do with one another—the traditional Indian caste system being a good example. Such barriers to interaction prevent “cognitive contamination” (a phrase I invented in an earlier fit of terminological enthusiasm), which happens when the beliefs and values of others undermine the taken-for-granted status of one’s own. 

There is no great mystery as to why modernity generates plurality. Modernity has led to massive urbanization, with highly diverse groups thrown into intense contact with each other. Unprecedented rates of international migration and travel have had similar consequences. Mass literacy has brought knowledge of other cultures and ways of life to numerous people. And of course, such knowledge has been greatly magnified by newer information technologies: telephone, radio, movies, television and now, exponentially, the computer revolution. Everyone now talks about globalization, and the phenomenon is real enough. But it only represents a vast amplification of the modernizing process that began with the great voyages of discovery and the printing press. The information technology of the globalization era has brought the dynamics of pluralizing modernity to all but the most remote corners of the world. 

Pluralism relativizes. It does so both institutionally and in the consciousness of individuals. This relativization is obviously enhanced when the state does not try to impose uniformity of beliefs and values by means of coercion. However, as the fate of modern totalitarian regimes illustrates, even when the state makes this attempt, it is very difficult to block out every form of cognitive contamination. There is now a veritable market of worldviews and moralities. Every functioning society requires a certain degree of normative consensus, lest it fall apart: no society can tolerate a pluralism of norms concerning intra-community violence—say, “I believe in my right to shoot anyone who takes my parking space.” But within these limits a wide diversity is possible. The American idiom contains the revealing phrase “religious preference”—a market term if ever there was one. But there are also moral, lifestyle, ethnic and even sexual preferences (and an accompanying cottage industry of counselors and therapists assisting consumers in selecting the preferences that are presumably right for them). 

The institutional consequences of pluralism are most clearly evident in the case of religion. Whether they like it or not, and no matter whether this accords with their theological self-understanding, all churches become voluntary associations in post-traditional societies. Their lay members become consumers of the services provided by the clergy and, in the process, become more assertive. American Catholic writers have described this process as “Protestantization.” The term is misleading if it refers to some doctrinal adumbration of Protestantism, but it accurately describes how the social organization of Catholicism has come to resemble the voluntary character of Protestant “denominations” in America. 

But the same move from taken-for-granted allegiance to freely chosen participation creates voluntary “denominations” in areas other than religion. People voluntarily adhere to this or that moral belief system (that is what the American “culture war” is about), this or that lifestyle (the cult of “wellness” has all the markings of a church), ethnic self-identification (Michael Novak shrewdly proposed years ago that ethnicity has become a matter of choice in America), and even sexual identity
 (thus many feminists have embraced the notion that gender—tellingly a term derived from the arbitrary realm of grammar—is a “social construction”). In this sense (and in this sense only)—to paraphrase Richard Nixon on Keynes—we are all Protestants now!

But pluralism also has profound consequences for individual life. As ever-wider areas of life lose their taken-for-granted norms, the individual must reflect upon and make choices among the alternatives that have become available. Indeed, modernization can be described as a gigantic shift in the human condition from one of fate to one of choice. In recent social philosophy this shift has been elegantly described by Arnold Gehlen in his two key categories of “de-institutionalization” and “subjectivization.” De-institutionalization refers to the process wherein traditional institutional programs for individual behavior are fragmented—where previously there was one taken-for-granted program for, say, raising children, there now are competing schools of childhood education. Subjectivization refers to the process wherein institutions lose their alleged objective status so that the individual is thrown back upon himself in constructing his own “patchwork” of meanings and norms.

The net effect of this transformation can be summed up as follows: Certainty becomes much harder to achieve. This means that even if the same traditional beliefs and values continue to be affirmed, the manner of affirmation has changed. Put simply, the what of belief may not change, but the how does. For many people, at least at an early stage of the process, this change is experienced as a great liberation—as indeed it is. But especially after a while, it may be experienced as a burden from which one wants to be freed. There ensues an often desperate quest for certainty, and where there is a demand, someone will proffer a supply. This is where the fundamentalists come in.

Then there is the issue of moral relativism, again a philosophical problem that cannot be developed here. It can be formulated with great erudition, but in the end it comes down to the philosopher saying to the cannibal: “You believe it is right to cook people and eat them. I don’t. Let us agree to disagree.” It seems to me that there is an important difference between this issue and the one about scientific objectivity. Science can never give us certainty, it only provides probabilities, and it must always be open to the possibility that its hypotheses may be falsified. But there are moral judgments that, even if one understands that they are contingent on one’s position in time and space, attain a high degree of certainty. Slavery and torture are good examples of this. I am not prepared to say that my moral condemnation of torture is a matter of taste or that it is a mere hypothesis. I am certain that torture is a totally unacceptable moral evil. And any argument to the effect that I would have a different view if, say, I lived as a magistrate in Tudor England will not move me from this conviction. Moral judgments come out of specific perceptions of the human condition formed in the course of specific historical developments, but this genesis does not explain away their validity. Einstein would not have come upon the theory of relativity if he had lived as a peasant in ancient Egypt, but this obvious observation does not invalidate the theory. Einstein’s scientific insights are not the same as his moral beliefs, but neither can be validated or invalidated by pointing out their social and historical context.

There are moral certainties that withstand relativization. There is the episode concerning General Napier who conquered the region of Sind for the British Raj in India. Upon establishing control over this area, he did what the British usually did in their empire—he left local customs pretty much as they were, except for a very few that he deemed totally unacceptable. Among these was suttee—the burning alive of widows. A delegation of Brahmin priests came to see him and said: “You cannot ban suttee. It is an ancient tradition of our people.” Napier replied: “We British also have our ancient traditions. When men burn a woman alive, we hang them. Let us each follow our traditions.” It seems that Napier was not plagued by moral relativism.

What's missing all too often in advocacy of pluralism and toleration is the recognition that protestantism has a predicate, that so long as all men feel themselves bound by the laws of God, it needn't matter over much how they worship Him. This is the deep truth in Ike's often humorously cited remark that, “[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is."

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2006 7:33 AM

"an often desperate quest for certainty"

But why should thesis go looking for antithesis?

Sure, there is a predicate - but is it not as 'relativistic' as your comment indicates. If it were, the sacrifices of the Aztecs or those to Molech could be such as God requires, instead of what we typically understand and experience as worship (whether Catholic or Protestant). Aside from Berger's ephemeral subjective 'certainty', there is no way to know which is acceptable. And that just isn't good enough.

BTW, the word Berger really wants when describing modern eclectic religion is "syncretism", not protestantism or even relativism. Dilution is not a positive process. Restoration is.

Posted by: ratbert at November 18, 2006 9:57 AM


It is posts like this that make all the seemingly useless hours spent on the internet worthwhile.


Posted by: Bruno at November 18, 2006 10:17 AM

Ike said that, eh? Damn clever, those Canadians.

Posted by: ghostcat at November 18, 2006 1:00 PM

Good article. We may sum it up thusly: rejection of the magisterium leads to anomie; anomie to ignorant fanaticism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 19, 2006 6:01 AM