Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Gary Gutting has a post on religious intolerance at "The Stone"; Gutting is usually vague to the point of being almost vapid, but this is even worse than usual. When people try to make these kinds of arguments without being clear about what is supposed to be meant by 'tolerance' and 'intolerance', the result is inevitably going to be dubious at best. Without knowing precisely what one means, it's not clear what it means to say that there was achieved "a widespread attitude of religious toleration in Europe and the United States"; prejudices against religious groups are certainly common both places, as (to take one example) the history of Mormonism shows in spades, and continue up to the present day. If one means legal regimes of toleration (as Gutting occasionally seems to mean), they have a checkered history and are sometimes tolerant only by technicalities, and it's not really clear what this would have to do with a young man slitting a priest's throat in a European country, anyway. No doubt there's some meaning of 'tolerance' in which one can say that Gutting's claim is true -- the word can mean almost anything outside of active attempts to destroy -- but then the question would be, is this really the sense relevant to his comments about Islam? And it's impossible to say without knowing the sense.

Part of the reason this is worth noting is that there is not, contrary to popular conflations, an obvious relation between violence and most things called intolerance. A lot of things that get called by the name are intrinsically conflict-avoiding -- strong prejudices against external foreigners are one possible ground for isolationism, prejudices by a minority within a nation not uncommonly lead to enclave formation, and prejudices by a majority in power most commonly lead to 'slow strangling' of the outgroup by laws because the people holding the power don't usually need to resort to direct violence unless they are facing a rebellion. By plenty of standards, the Amish are highly intolerant of other religious groups, and nobody is worried about Amish violence. Stable Islamic governments that have actively attempted to limit non-Islamic religious movements have not historically been very violent, in the sense of initiating active physical force; it's much more efficient to tax the opposition out of existence or make it very difficult for them to earn a living. (That's one of the major reasons why modern England is Protestant rather than Catholic, and it took hardly more than a generation.) The violence in such cases is usually started by the people being taxed or restricted out of jobs, and has nothing to do with whether they are religiously intolerant or not. (Unstable governments, of course, tend to be violent toward any perceived threat, whatever it might be.)

Where we are confining ourselves to talking about violence, it is arguably, in any case, a mistake to think of these matters in terms of tolerance and intolerance at all; it ultimately does not clarify anything to discuss how tolerant or intolerant Islam is considered to be, because 'intolerance', like 'hate' or 'fear', tends not to do any explanatory work. It is usually used as a pseudo-explanation, a label for a result that happens to be put in causal terms, rather than something that is genuinely capable of being a cause of anything. It's like saying that war is caused by aggressiveness -- setting aside all the kinds of aggressiveness that don't result in war, usually what you're doing is simply classifying someone as aggressive because they are engaging in an act we classify as aggressive, without a hint of a real cause of the act itself anywhere in sight. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it's not a real explanation of anything -- just at best a description of what needs to be explained. More and more I am inclined to regard dragging in 'intolerance' as a concession of not understanding the situation, because it often doesn't contribute anything at all.

None of this, of course, is to say that one can't have an argument of the sort that Gutting's argument purports to be -- only that Gutting, like most people, is not doing any of the work, or critical thinking, required for it.

And, incidentally, on this:

As President Obama recently said, “Some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”

If there's anything that's certainly true about ISIS, it's that it is reforming religion to adapt to modernity. Within its means, it is using all the methods and tools of modernity it can, and it was built to reform the entire religion in light of them. Of course, what President Obama means (and what Gutting means by quoting him) is that some currents of Islam have not grown so wise (as he sees it) as to agree with his main preferences for how to live; that's what people in the First World always mean by 'modernity': adaptation to their own convenience and liking. This, of course, is merely conceptual gerrymandering. Totalitarianism is as modern as religious toleration and has as good an Enlightenment and secular pedigree; bombing people is as modern and secular a way of getting results as letting people run for office. Terrorist groups and aggressively oppressive regimes are adaptations to modernity. It's time for people to stop lying to themselves about this: this is modernity.

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