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Monday, January 27, 2003

The varieties of religious war.

William James's most famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was published a century ago. Bernard Avishai calls it "perhaps our most poignant tribute to religious tolerance." But now, he adds, we're living through another era of religious war.

I think [James] would have concluded that there is a battle to be joined here, which he would not likely have avoided, but it is not about the superiority or threat of any religion. Rather, it is about the very definition of religion, or at least religion acceptable to democratic life. And the dividing line is not between one sacred book and another but between people who believe in sacred books and people who believe that it is the right to interpret books that is sacred.

In other words, asking religious questions is the genuinely spiritual — and democratically necessary — task. Insisting on answers, however, is profoundly dangerous. And, if demanding fidelity to one set of answers is the threat posed by religious extremism, there is another threat posed by the zealots of secularism:

Nevertheless, intelligent people in the West have allowed the word "religious" to be hijacked by precisely those rather hapless souls who believe they have answers. Worse, we have debased the word "secular" so that instead of it meaning a principled refusal to privilege particular religious forms, it seems to mean contempt for sublime questions themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that cults and sects thrive, merely on the strength of their willingness to ask them?

Avishai's column is the best statement of genuine religious humanism I've read in a long time.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 27 January 2003 at 12:22 PM

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