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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Alan Wolfe & With All Due Respect…

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/06 at 05:37 PM

Today in Slate, Alan Wolfe writes a classic “with all due respect” review of The Trouble With Diversity:

Michaels pictures himself as the tough guy willing to take on the hard issues of class while everyone else opts for warm and fuzzy bromides promising cultural and racial diversity. Indeed, he argues, so prevalent is this superficial desire to bring everyone together that Americans apply ideas of tolerance and acceptance to areas where they do not belong, especially the area of religion. “Only someone who doesn’t believe in any religion can take the view that all religions may plausibly be considered equal and that their differences can be appreciated,” Michaels writes.  (I am one of the people he has in mind here.) Like his colleague Stanley Fish, he insists that “if you believe that Jesus is the way and I don’t believe Jesus is the way, one of us must be wrong.” Believers, including nonbelievers, have no choice but to fight it out. Convincing each other is futile; converting each other is our only option.

With all due respect, Michaels has no idea what he is talking about.

Wolfe continues:

He writes about religion without distinguishing between religions. Hence, you would never know that some religions do indeed look for converts, while others actually place barriers in front of those who would join. Nor do all religions assign the same priority to belief as evangelical Christians do; observance, for some, is more important than belief, and so long as a society allows them to keep their strict observance, they can easily live together with others of different convictions. And even those who believe that Jesus is the way have come to accept that others can find God in other ways. Since Nostra Aetate (1965), the Vatican has worked assiduously to recognize the validity of Judaism to Jews, and the great bulk of American evangelicals, for all their talk of witnessing the faith, do not routinely tell their Hindu co-workers that they will burn in hell. In a world in which intermarriage is a fact of life and switching congregations hardly worthy of notice, religious diversity is an inescapable fact, not a logical impossibility.

With all due respect, I think Wolfe misses Michaels’ point here.  It’s not that believers should “fight it out,” but that their beliefs should have a normative force which flies in the face of religious diversity.  As he writes:

The point about the Ten Commandments, as Neuhaus reminds us, is that they are commandments: “They are not, as has been said, Ten Suggestions or Ten Significant Moral Insights, to be more or less appreciated according to one’s subjective disposition.” What it means to be a believer in the Ten Commandments is to believe that it is in fact wrong to do the things they enjoin against, and that anybody who does not believe in the Ten Commandments is mistaken, and that anyone who does not follow them is behaving wrongly. (186)

As Michaels demonstrates, once these beliefs have been subsumed by identity, confusion follows.  Beliefs anchored in incompatible worldviews shouldn’t partake of a live-and-let-live philosophy; when they do, you end with nonsensical notions like “people are prejudiced against fundamentalist Christians.” No, they aren’t.  Some people disagree with fundamentalist Christians, but that’s a disagreement; it is not, as some fundamentalists would have it, an irrational prejudice like racism.  When treated as such, it leads to the idea that some beliefs ought to be respected simply because people hold them.  If you want to see ID taught in high school biology classes and I don’t, you can claim I’m prejudiced against you, when in fact I merely disagree.  Confuse this fact too often, and you’ll have school boards in Kansas debating teaching Creationism again…

...wait, what?


Scott, aren’t you and WBM assuming the truth of a Kantian categorical imperative?  The argument here is that if I eat eggs, I think everyone should eat eggs, and unless I think everyone should eat eggs, I shouldn’t be eating eggs.  (But if everyone right now ate eggs, there’d be total global chaos, so I shouldn’t eat that egg, right?)

But religion doesn’t really work like that.  Yoruban religious ideas, for example, are all about “power” and effectiveness.  They’ll take someone else’s god if that god proves useful, and they’ll let someone take one of their gods if their god is useful to that someone.  But there’s no categorical imperative, because it’s recognized that not all gods are useful to all people at all times.

Or take the Hebrew God: Yhwh doesn’t say there are no other gods, He simply tells the Jews that *for them* there shouldn’t be other gods.  He’s making a deal: I’ll be useful to you if you give me all your love.  Thus, the Ten Commandments are not FOR all people.  They were a covenant between ONE god and ONE group of people.  They actually ONLY have meaning insofar as they don’t apply to other people (they gave the Jews a distinctiveness to set them apart from other semitic tribes—but here we’re back in identity territory).  This is different from, say, Hammurabi’s Code or Roman Law, which was articulated as applicable to all people.  But in a Deweyan anti-foundational social universe, we can say that beliefs neither are about identity nor are they true for all people.  Many beliefs are true for all people, but many others are tools, useful to one person at one time under one set of circumstances.  My daughter’s cat dies and I’m suddenly Mr. After-Life—and I might actually convince myself with the depth of my need to convince her! 

Now, WBM’s larger point about tolerance vs. debate is right on: all beliefs are up for debate—especially those one group or person seeks to impose on another group or person.  Which is why Sam Harris is an interesting writer right now for his willingness to say, “No, all religions—especially the tolerant ones—are wrong and dangerous.”

By on 10/04/06 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d agree with Luther.

It seems that Micheals is saying that religions that aren’t fully self-righteous are confusing their order of operations. Some religions, say, might want folks to be good first before all else when Michaels insists what they really ought to believe that thei religion is incompatible with all others.

So when some religious guy says “judge not, that you may not be judged” or “love thine enemies,” or that there is only one commandment, and that is to love your neighbor, Micheals would reply, dude, you got it all wrong. Christianity is all about having no other god before me. You just don’t get it.

Again, Micheals is right in the broad sense that too much kumbaya on the topic of differing religions is bad (See under Kansas). But that doesn’t mean he’s right about the nature of relious belief. It’s a bridge too far, and not at all necessary for the victory of his core point.

By the idiot on 10/04/06 at 11:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t read TTWD, but going by the bit Wolfe quotes, it seems to me that both Wolfe and Blissett miscontrue Michaels’ argument. “Only someone who doesn’t believe in any religion can take the view that all religions may plausibly be considered equal” seems obviously true to me, at least under the common-sense meaning of “believe”: if your religion is true, then any religion which believes things incompatible with your religion is at least partially false. It doesn’t follow that you’re obliged to spend all your time trying to convert those who believe in other religions. (And I don’t even know what “Convincing each other is futile; converting each other is our only option” means: what’s the difference between “convincing” and “converting”?)

To take one of Wolfe’s examples, it’s nice that the Catholic Church no longer believes that Jews will go to Hell unless they convert, but that doesn’t alter the fact that if Catholicism is correct, then Jews are wrong to believe that the Messiah has not yet come, as nearly all of them do. And of course it goes the other way too: if those Jews are right then Catholicism is wrong, even if Catholics can still get into heaven (as Judaism allows, if I’m not mistaken).

The second part of the quotation from Michaels, “and that their differences can be appreciated,” I’m not so sure about, but I think a case can be made for it. Usually we don’t “appreciate” the wrong beliefs of others (except in a condescending way, as in “what quaint beliefs those primitive people have"). Rather, we think that it’s good when people have true beliefs, and bad when people have false beliefs. This should be all the more true when these beliefs deal with ultimate questions, as religion does.

A couple of caveats: it’s true that two polytheistic religions need not be incompatible; but that has limited relevance to the U.S. It’s also true that some people (e. g. certain liberal theologians) “believe” in the tenets of their religion only as metaphors; and metaphors can’t logically contradict each other (I think). But that clearly isn’t the sort of belief Michaels is talking about.

By Adam Stephanides on 10/05/06 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But that clearly isn’t the sort of belief Michaels is talking about.

Michaels is certainly thinking about American politics in the book. But the arguments he makes are generally stated in general terms. Are we to take them as fully general arguments or not? That’s not at all clear.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems to me that Michaels and Wolfe may both be right, and that they may be talking past one another.  Maybe focusing on the distinction between ontology and epistemology will help…

If the issue is one of Truth, then religions make truth claims just like other fields (e.g. science).  Either Moroni gave the golden plates to Joseph Smith, or he didn’t.  Either Jesus was the Son of God, or the Christians--all the way back to Paul--screwed up.  Either there is no God but Allah, or Islam got it wrong.  Michaels and Kaufman rightly decry the fatuous sorts of “let’s agree to disagree” claims of some cultural relativists when it comes to religion.

And I would go even farther.  If I--a Christian--were to discuss with a Muslim the nature of the divine (One? or Three-in-One?), I would want my interlocutor to try to convince me of the falsehood of my belief and the veracity of his own.  To do otherwise is to show disrespect for me and the truth-claims of my religion.  Since the mutually exclusive claims cannot both be true, the sooner the error becomes apparent to both of us, the better off we both are.

As Kaufman (and Burstein, in her post above) have rightly pointed out, this leads to the important distinction between simple disagreement based on reason and irrational prejudice.  Since tolerance is upheld as the correct view towards others, it may be worth pointing out that one only needs tolerance when faced with views with which one disagrees.  If everyone agrees on something, then there is nothing that needs to be tolerated.

However, it is also worth pointing out that this is a double-edged sword.  So while I second the notion that Christians ought not to be crying “prejudice” anytime someone confronts their adherence to a questionable belief system.  But what about when someone confronts the practice of, say, homosexuals?
Just because someone has a moral objection to a homosexual lifestyle, does that mean they are irrationally prejudiced ("homophobic")?  Or does it simply mean they disagree with anothers’ beliefs and actions?  Such a viewpoint may be wrong, but the point about disagreement vs. prejudice holds in this example just as much as when the target is a fundamentalist Christian.

It seems to me that only if one doesn’t care about truth can the question of right or wrong be fudged.  Perhaps a strictly utilitarian view ("your belief works for you, but not for me") can provide some benefit for its adherents, but even granting utilitarianism, wouldn’t it be the case that true beliefs are more likely on the whole to be useful than false beliefs?  And in any case, aren’t polytheists/henotheists saying, at bottom, that their view of the universe (with multiple gods that may or may not have relevance to any individual) is True?

So much for ontology.  When it comes to epistemology, Wolfe is on much more solid ground, even if he is arguing against a position that Michaels doesn’t actually hold. For example, the nature of the game changes when when we start implementing legal and political decisions.  We in the U.S. have collectively decided that the government cannot mediate between the conflicting ideas of various religions without actually treating people differently.  Epistemology trumps ontology in this case.  Even within religions, it is quite often held that not all ideas have equal value, but all people do.  Thus the eradication of non-adherents is not an article of faith (usually).  And there is a long history of different religions working together to oppose the insidious influence of the “real enemy"--secularism.  Kaufman’s passing mention of Intelligent Design reminds me that quite often the work of the Christian ID proponents are incorporated into the work of Muslim apologists--especially in places like Turkey.

By on 10/09/06 at 02:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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